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Politics | How significant is foreign interference in U.S. elections?
by Kyle Ziemnick
Posted 10/29/20, 06:29 pm

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman, seemed to confirm Democrats’ worst fears on Oct. 21 when he announced Russia and Iran had tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Since special counsel Robert Mueller investigated potential ties between the Russian government and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, many have questioned the integrity of the election process. But does foreign interference actually mean Americans’ votes will not matter?

Ratcliffe’s revelation did not indicate that Russia or Iran were actively attacking the process of mail-in or in-person balloting. Instead, the two countries had collected voter information through hacks, and Iran in particular had sent emails to registered voters with faulty information. Ratcliffe said Iran’s goal was to ruin Trump’s campaign, although the same day, Americans had reported emails threatening them if they didn’t vote for Trump.

“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” said Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security.

Russia, of course, has experience with election interference. On Oct. 19, the Justice Department charged six Russian intelligence officers with hacking the French presidential election, the 2018 Winter Olympics, and a plethora of American businesses. Their goal did not seem to be a complete overthrow or control over any of those events or entities. Rather, Russian intelligence believes doubt—in any institution—gives it an advantage.

“No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small tactical advantages as fits of spite,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Demers said.

No American officials have yet seen any attempts to attack election systems directly. Russia, Iran, and other U.S. rivals seem content to focus on misinformation and confusion. This fits a pattern that has affected many countries for hundreds of years.

In 1796, the French ambassador to the United States released diplomatic notes to American publications to sway the U.S. public toward electing Thomas Jefferson rather than John Adams. The United States itself has launched its own efforts to change the outcomes of elections in countries around the world, especially in the Middle East and Central and South America. But it usually falls short of overtly editing the results of an election or tampering with ballot boxes.

Researcher Dov Levin, who wrote a book on election interference, told Slate that active attacks on the actual voting process are “very rare, though not completely unheard-of.”

Russia’s 2016 interference attempts consisted largely of information campaigns on social media, much like the ones the U.S. government revealed last week. Although it is frustrating to have misinformation and foreign actors at work online, the greatest danger remains psychological. Americans “should be confident that a vote cast for their candidate will be counted for that candidate,” Demers said.


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Kyle Ziemnick

Kyle is a WORLD Digital news reporter. He is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Kyle resides in Purcellville, Va. Follow him on Twitter @kylezim25.

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