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Electoral Cyber-Shenanigans: Considering the Possibilities

With the US midterm elections tomorrow, Americans must consider whether and how Russian interests might again use cyber tools against us.  It is by now widely accepted that Russian interests worked to influence the outcome of the 2016 American election, whether with or without help from the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump.  

Russian operatives in 2016 appear to have relied chiefly on information warfare, using leaks, bots, and “fake news” to inflame passions and influence voters’ preferences.  While there is no evidence they tampered with the tabulation of votes, U.S. authorities report that Russian operatives or their affiliates probed American voting systems, and might have found ways to modify vote tabulation in the future.  Meanwhile, earlier this year, law-enforcement authorities accused Russia of preparing cyber-attacks on American critical infrastructure, including the power grid.

So what might Americans expect tomorrow?  

The first scenario is probably the most obvious:  Relying on previously compromised electronic voting machines – the kind that leave no reviewable paper trail and remain in use in many states – Russian interests imperceptibly pad the vote counts, helping ensure that both houses of Congress stay in Republican hands.  

Evidence of foreign interference might seep out over time, but such evidence would only sow partisan divisions and undermine the election’s legitimacy – outcomes consistent with the Putin government’s objectives. Some Democrats would raise alarm bells if Republicans eke out a victory, but a narrow GOP upset would not be terribly suspicious – Republicans always had at least a small chance of retaining the House, and a better-than-even chance of keeping the Senate.  

A second scenario would achieve similar objectives more flamboyantly:  Using code already installed in the computer systems that run American infrastructure, Russia shuts down power, transportation, communications, and other systems in major cities on Election Day, generating widespread chaos.  The electoral effect here, too, would likely favor Republicans.

The Democratic coalition includes more of the urban voters who rely on mass transit and who would be most affected by citywide blackouts.  Likewise, failures in the telecommunications network could disproportionately impact dense urban precincts that tend to collect Democratic votes.  Crippled infrastructure could double, triple, or quadruple their commuting times, making it impossible for them to vote along the way. Of course, a cyber attack on American infrastructure would quickly be identified as such, and blamed on a foreign government.  One could understand if Putin felt empowered to take that risk, just as he felt empowered to attack Ukraine, first using cyberweapons and then using troops.

A third scenario is perhaps the most worrisome:  Russian interests interfere with vote counts to favor the Democrats, not subtly but ostentatiously.  In this scenario, Democrats win races by margins so large that only the most partisan observers would deem the results legitimate.  This approach might seem nonsensical. But it could, in fact, serve Russia’s ends better than either of the other scenarios.

Some would claim that the “blue tsunami” had arrived and insist the results were sound.  But most would doubt this. Confusion would spread about what had happened, and why. Some would point fingers at the Democratic Party, or other foreign interests, such as China. There would likely be calls for federal officials to investigate the results, and to hold off on seating the victors until such inquiries had concluded.  And whoever won, any serious congressional investigation of the 2016 election would be unlikely in this scenario, either because the GOP retained control or because, given the circumstances of the 2018 election, the new Democratic majority found sustained attention to foreign interference politically untenable.

These are only three of many possible scenarios.  In a perfect world, we could rest assured that none of them would come to pass.  Every registered voter who wished to vote would do so, and every such vote would be tabulated properly.  We know, however – from the 2016 U.S. election, but also from a growing collection of elections and referenda abroad – that this perfect world is a fiction. We live in an age of electoral cyber-shenanigans.  We ignore them at our peril.

Russ Hanser is a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP, where he focuses on communications law, privacy, and cybersecurity.  He is also a mid-career Master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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