Russian Intelligence Poses a Continuing Threat to American Elections

What’s the top issue voters should care about? The economy? Immigration? Health care? These are all issues to rightly care about, but none of them should be their top priority. The one thing all voters should agree upon is that their votes should count evenly and fairly. Without secure elections, there’s no way to promote economic growth, regulate immigration or reform health care.

Consider this nightmare scenario: The day after the 2020 elections, as the last votes are still being counted and recounted, the head of Russia’s secret police and spy agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), casually mentions on Russian TV that his hackers have managed to change the official vote tally in at least one American state. Maybe he gives a region, too: the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic or the South. 

Maybe it’s a swing state. Most states will probably hire outside contractors to look for signs of illegal entry to state election systems. Maybe they don’t find anything. But just because you didn’t find any evidence, says the FSB, doesn’t mean we weren’t there. We’re just good enough that we came and left without a trace.

Now there’s a scramble. If the Russians changed votes in one state, there’s no reason to assume they didn’t change votes in lots of states. They were probably smart enough to target battleground states — all they’d have to do is read The New York Times to know which states would decide the election.

Now what? Do state election agencies certify the results, knowing they might be certifying a Russian attack? When the members of the Electoral College meet in the state capitals, do competing groups of electors representing different candidates show up? Will the vice president validate the results? 

If this hypothetical seems outlandish, it shouldn’t. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s new, bipartisan report on Russian election interference makes clear how realistic — how real — this threat is. “The Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level,” they reported. “Some of these vulnerabilities [from the 2016 interference] still remain.”

Unlike the ham-fisted Russian military intelligence (GRU) hackers, the FSB doesn’t barrel through computer systems setting off alarms and leaving a trail of debris. We know this thanks to the GRU itself, which unintentionally gave away the FSB’s previous hack of the DNC in 2016. If not for the GRU’s clumsiness, the FSB hack may still have been secret.

Furthermore, they don’t even have to do it. They can just say they did it and watch America descend into chaos. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, they were prepared to do this in 2016: “The … 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment also highlighted preparations related to voter fraud, noting that Russian diplomats ‘were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results’ and that pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night.”

The 2016 election was already fraught: For the fourth time ever and the second time in 20 years, the winner of the popular vote didn’t become president. Instead, the Electoral College was decided by less than 100,000 votes in three key swing states — states that the Russian disinformation and propaganda efforts targeted. Three years ago, the Russian government decided not to bluff that they had changed vote totals in Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, but they could have caused infinitely more damage if they had. 

The price we may have to pay for another botched election may be even greater. Health care, the economy and immigration will always be important. But first, let’s try to avoid another existential national crisis. There are numerous bills in Congress to secure our elections against foreign attack. Congress should at least put them to a vote.

Stanley A. Twardy, Jr., a former United States Attorney for Connecticut, is a partner at the Day Pitney law firm and a legal advisor to Republicans for the Rule of Law.

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