At this very moment, according to the U.S. intelligence community, Russia is interfering in the 2020 election in favor of Donald Trump. However, the Trump administration has obscured from the public and even from lawmakers the specific forms of interference Russia is executing, or intends to execute, as we approach Election Day. Our goal in this article is to assess—based on publicly available intelligence on Russia’s 2016 election interference, as well as on-the-record interviews of Obama administration officials who were serving in government in 2016, conducted by David Shimer and detailed in his book, Rigged: America, Russia, and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference—the cost-benefit analysis that Russia will undertake in deciding how far to push in attempting to disrupt and direct the 2020 election. Keeping in mind that one of the most effective ways to neutralize covert activity is to expose it, we hope that assessing Russia’s potential next moves will empower the electorate, lawmakers, and the media to prepare for a range of possible scenarios—and, in the process, to help maintain the integrity of our electoral process.
A preliminary point to underscore is that, based on the history of Soviet, Russian, and American intelligence, election interference takes one of two broad forms. The first is to affect “hearts and minds.” This involves perception management operations to shape the attitudes and opinions of voters, with the intention of encouraging them to vote for a specific candidate or to refrain from voting at all for another, while also sowing discord within the targeted democracy. This form of interference is more indirect and generally lends the foreign actor a degree of plausible deniability, and its effects on the election are more difficult to measure. The second form of election interference involves directly affecting the actual votes cast, and their tabulation. This form of interference is more direct, generally has less plausible deniability (i.e., can be easier to attribute), and, if detected, can be assessed in terms of its precise impact on the electoral outcome, even if its effect on the public’s trust in the outcome remains difficult to ascertain.
We know that, as in 2016, Russia is engaging in perception management operations this cycle. Earlier this month, for example, Facebook and Twitter took down a covert network of Russian accounts, while Microsoft announced that Russian military intelligence is working to steal (and potentially release) the emails of prominent American political figures. Russia has also been found to be the source of deceptively edited videos relating to the Black Lives Matter protest movement, geared toward polarizing the electorate on a key campaign issue. These lines of attack, which Russia has deployed before, are meant to influence the minds of U.S. voters and must be defended against vigorously.
While Russia’s perception management operations have been extensively documented by the media, the Special Counsel Report, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Russia’s ability and willingness to engage in direct vote tampering and voter suppression have been less well understood and analyzed in declassified forums. Nonetheless, the threat of such interference persists. On this front, we call attention to the U.S. intelligence community’s August 7, 2020 warning, which states that foreign countries may “seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results.” In simpler terms, Russia could attempt to manipulate not just public opinion, but the actual voter data and vote tallies of U.S. citizens.
If the past is prologue, this type of direct interference could take several forms. One option for Russia would be to try to ensure Trump’s victory. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security in 2016, recounted in Rigged that he worried Russia “could screw around with voter registration lists to a sufficient degree” to change the outcome of the election, by preventing Democrats in swing states like Florida from casting their ballots. For Johnson, this worst-case scenario consisted of “data being manipulated in a handful of key precincts in Miami-Dade, in Dayton, Ohio, in a key precinct in Michigan, a key precinct in Wisconsin, a key precinct in Pennsylvania.”
In fact, the possibility of a Russian cyberattack captivated the Obama White House during the summer and fall of 2016, as Russian military intelligence aggressively targeted U.S. election systems. “Every single day, we were getting reports that this system had been scanned, this system had been penetrated,” Michael Daniel, then the White House cybersecurity coordinator, recounted to Shimer. On Election Day 2016, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security were running secret crisis teams, bracing for a Russian strike against America’s electoral infrastructure. “[Russia] could have done things as far as voter registration rolls; they could have done things as far as tallies,” the then CIA director John Brennan said in an interview. The White House considered it “very possible,” added Amy Pope, then the deputy homeland security advisor, that there would be “actual interference with the voting record and voting systems” on Election Day.
Yet, all available evidence indicates that Russia did not take this step four years ago. To understand why Moscow refrained from such actions requires evaluating the cost-benefit analysis taken by both the United States and Russia in the 2016 political landscape. For the United States’ part, the Obama administration, based on interviews with its most senior members, concluded that retaliating against Russia for its (partially detected) perception management operations before the election ran the risk of provoking Russia into sabotaging America’s election systems on Election Day. Rather than take that chance, President Obama worked to secure those systems and to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin. On September 5, 2016, while attending a summit in China, Obama met with Putin and warned, “You fuck with us, and we’ll take you down,” as one of Obama’s senior advisors recounted in Rigged. Lisa Monaco, the then-homeland security advisor, further explained that Obama issued this threat in response to “what we were seeing in the state systems.”
Importantly, according to then DNI James Clapper, Putin anticipated that Hillary Clinton would win the election. Escalating toward vote tampering therefore could have backfired, since a Clinton administration presumably would have hit back—hard—with cyber, economic, or diplomatic penalties. By contrast, executing perception management operations brought Putin guaranteed benefits and fewer risks. (As Asha Rangappa, along with former CIA officers John Sipher and Alex Finley, have written, engaging in a polarizing disinformation campaign would have yielded returns even if Clinton had won.) Russia had executed influence operations against the United States before and would endure some costs for its sweeping 2016 operation; directly manipulating the vote would have marked a still further jump up the ladder of escalation between the two countries.
The risk-reward evaluation for both the United States and Russia has evolved dramatically since 2016, which is why we must consider whether Russia will take steps now that it opted against four years ago. The Russian tradition of election interference is to exploit pre-existing weaknesses, and for reasons entirely domestic in nature—from the coronavirus pandemic, to Trump’s allegations of a rigged election, to his attacks against the U.S. postal service—an unprecedented degree of doubt exists inside the United States over whether the coming election will proceed fairly. In this unstable environment, Russia could strike at the heart of American democracy—its elections—by sabotaging the voting process.
With this threat landscape in mind, we anticipate three possible forms of attack—none of which are mutually exclusive—of varying risk levels that Russia could deploy against the 2020 election.
Scenario 1: Changing Actual Votes to Help Trump Win
This scenario, described earlier by Brennan and Pope, would bring about the greatest risks for Russia, as it would be the electronic equivalent of stuffing ballot boxes. Were Putin to opt for this path, his hackers would attempt to manipulate the final vote tallies or voting record in Trump’s favor.
Three caveats are in order here. First, U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to emphasize that this type of cyberattack would be “extremely difficult” to execute. To try to change the outcome of an election, Russia would need to pinpoint “key precincts in key states,” Jeh Johnson explained in Rigged, where a small margin separated the two candidates. While recognizing the sophistication of Russian active measures, such an operation would require on-the-ground intelligence (likely via human sources) as to where direct alterations were both possible and would make a difference. Additionally, the federal government has been working to help states secure their election systems, and the decentralized nature of America’s election administration—which is managed by states and localities, not DHS and the FBI—would make it near impossible for Russia to manipulate voting systems at scale.
Second, the coronavirus pandemic will drastically increase the popularity of mail-in voting compared to any previous election cycle. Paper ballots provide a built-in defense against foreign hacking: Not only would they be very difficult to manipulate, even at a district level, but they also provide a physical trail which can be audited and recounted.
Third, as with Clinton, Russia risks significant blowback in the event of a Biden win. Currently, Biden is the only presidential candidate who has gone on record warning Russia that it will face major consequences for its election interference. Specifically, Biden has stated:
If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government. I will direct the U.S. Intelligence Community to report publicly and in a timely manner on any efforts by foreign governments that have interfered, or attempted to interfere, with U.S. elections. I will direct my administration to leverage all appropriate instruments of national power and make full use of my executive authority to impose substantial and lasting costs on state perpetrators. These costs could include financial-sector sanctions, asset freezes, cyber responses, and the exposure of corruption.
Depending on Putin’s risk tolerance, this robust warning could either give him pause, for fear of provoking a prospective Biden administration, or give him more reason to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf, in order to further reduce Biden’s chances of winning the presidency, taking office, and then imposing costs on Russia for its ongoing perception management operations. In contrast to Biden, Trump has shown a willingness to ignore Russian malfeasance, not just with regards to election interference, but also with regards to alleged bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, skirmishes with U.S. troops in Syria, and the attempted assassination of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Amid this unprecedented dynamic between the White House and the Kremlin, the ongoing efforts of DHS and DNI to conceal the extent of Russian election interference, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s misleading portrayal of China as the major threat actor in this space, Putin could feel even more confident that working to ensure Trump’s victory this time around would protect his own interests.
Scenario #2: Create Chaos at the Polls
Another option for Russia, which would align with its core objective of tearing down American democracy, would be to cause sufficient chaos at polling places to throw the outcome of the election into doubt and, were Trump to lose, to provide him with a basis for alleging that the contest was rigged against him.
This possibility dominated White House crisis planning four years ago. Inside the Situation Room, one frequently discussed scenario was that Russian hackers would scramble voter databases the day of the election. Americans would arrive at their polling places only to discover that their registration information was inaccurate or was missing entirely. “If that happened at scale, you could have a real problem. You would have chaos in the actual conduct of the vote,” Lisa Monaco said of this specific threat. As citizens struggled to vote, confusion would spread, as would rampant speculation about the source of this anonymous but detectable cyberattack. “What did seem very plausible,” added Avril Haines, the then-deputy national security advisor, “was that [Russia] could affect the votes of a small percentage of the population by, for example, changing the addresses of registrants to make it more challenging for them to vote and thereby undermine faith in the election process.”
This scenario would fall short of tampering with actual tallies: Rather than “stuffing ballots” electronically, it would have the effect of suppressing the vote among segments of the population, as well as creating doubt about the legitimacy of the outcome, regardless of who won. Depending on the specifics of the operation, this approach could also provide Russia with greater plausible deniability than Scenario #1. With so much controversy and litigation over the purging and integrity of voter rolls in states across the country, Russia would be better positioned to sow confusion about the true source of any discrepancies or sabotage. Further, since the purpose of this tactic would be to foment instability, Russia would have more flexibility in its execution than in Scenario #1. To generate disorder, Russia could sabotage election systems in any state, rather than only in swing states, and would need to manipulate only enough systems to cause chaos—a far lower and more achievable bar than attempting to alter the outcome of a presidential election directly.
Scenario #3: Sow Doubt During the Vote Count
The pandemic will present Russia with a new, third option: to undermine confidence in the vote count in the period between November 3 and when the results of the election are actually known. Experts say it could take days or even weeks for mail-in ballots to be recorded. In that window of time, the electorate will be on edge, wondering whether their ballots will be tallied fairly. Uncertainty has already taken hold nationwide. In one recent survey, just 31% of American voters said they felt “very confident” that mail-in ballots would be counted accurately. This unstable atmosphere—exacerbated by Trump’s months-long (and unsubstantiated) campaign against mail-in voting—will be fertile ground for Russian sabotage, in the form of perception management operations about voter fraud that feed into the president’s preferred narrative. Back in November 2016, Russian trolls spread disinformation about rigged election systems and imminent violence. A U.S. government bulletin issued earlier this month warned that this cycle, Russia “is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail… to undermine public trust in the electoral process.” Come November, Russia could turbocharge this ongoing information operation, potentially in conjunction with chaos generated via Scenario #2.
This scenario presents the least risk for Russia, given that it has yet to experience meaningful costs for its influence campaign against the 2020 election and that domestic authorities (including the president and attorney general) have been promoting this destabilizing line of messaging in tandem. Attorney General Barr has asserted—without evidence—that an election that relies on mail-in voting would not be secure, while DHS Secretary Wolf and DNI Ratcliffe have apparently suppressed intelligence regarding Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters. These actions, in their totality, may very well signal to Putin that the current administration would welcome Scenario #3, even in the event of a Biden victory, which would still provide Moscow and the Trump White House with a nearly three-month window to sow discord and instill a sense of illegitimacy in the outcome of the election.
Each of these scenarios, while unprecedented in American history, has roots in the global history of election interference. Russia has shown elsewhere that it is willing to escalate its election operations as voting unfolds. In the immediate postwar period, Moscow and its collaborators purged voter databases and falsified vote counts in elections across Eastern Europe. In 2014, Russian hackers sabotaged Ukraine’s election systems, and in Montenegro in 2016, Russian intelligence plotted an election night coup d’état. This cycle, Russia could apply this aspect of its election interference playbook to the United States.
In the few weeks left between now and Election Day, it is essential that America defend against both foreign efforts to manipulate voters and foreign efforts to manipulate actual voting systems. Unfortunately, in recent months lawmakers have failed to provide states with more money for election administration, and the president has failed to impose costs on Putin or even to warn him to stand down. Still, other domestic actors—including ordinary citizens—can help to shore up our defenses. To that end, we recommend the following:
- Secretaries of state across the country should be running a public service messaging campaign about the reliability of mail-in voting. The less doubt there is about the stability of our voting process, the less opportunity Russia will have to tarnish it.
- Similarly, secretaries of state, as well as the media, should be establishing right now that Election Day 2020 may turn into an Election Week or an Election Month. Logically speaking, a higher incidence of mail-in voting (and the resulting higher turnout generally) could mean that a “winner” will not be declared on election night. If voters anticipate and understand that a delay in reporting means our election system is working—not failing or collapsing—the days following November 3 will be far more stable.
- In this same vein, voters should be made aware that the deadline for resolving electoral disputes is December 8, 2020, and that the final meeting of the electoral college—which is constitutionally obligated to cast ballots for the selection of the President and Vice President—will take place on December 14, 2020.
- Citizens should vote early and, above all, VOTE. History teaches us that in pivotal and potentially contested elections, when there is overwhelming turnout for one candidate, it becomes far more difficult for the losing side or foreigners to sow doubt about the outcome.
- Finally, and most importantly, REMAIN CALM. More likely than not, if Russia does manipulate U.S. election systems or spread disinformation about rigged polling places, its objective will be to generate panic, fear, and instability. If voters resist alarm for fact-based analysis, and if our leaders act in an exemplary fashion, Russian attempts to sabotage our democratic processes will prove much less effective.
Our country’s elections have been targeted before: The Soviet Union interfered in the 1960, 1968, 1976, and 1984 elections, and Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Nevertheless, American democracy has persisted. This will remain the case in 2020 and thereafter, so long as we, as citizens, work to defend our democratic system, arm ourselves with facts, and prepare for the potential turbulence ahead.
Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images