By Richard L. Hasen
The latest murky revelations from U.S. intelligence officials that Russian government operatives are probing state voter registration databases as they did in 2016 raises the question: is this all they’ve got? Why aren’t the Russians doing a better job interfering in the 2020 elections to benefit Trump? The answer is either comforting or terrifying, but the risk of a terrifying answer suggests the prudent course is a full court press to get as many people voting before election day as possible.
U.S. government officials concluded that in 2016 the Russians engaged in three types of operations aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential elections and helping Donald Trump win election over Hillary Clinton: the hack and leak of Democratic Party emails, a big part of which Wikileaks released just after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged embarrassing Trump; a social media campaign aimed at passing along disinformation and stirring up social discord, especially aimed at depressing African-American turnout through messages that Hillary Clinton did not care about black lives; and the sniffing or probing of state voter registration databases across the country, which apparently was aimed not at changing votes but as creating the perception of vast interference in the election.
So far the 2020 version of Russian interference looks like a pale substitute of 2016. The Hunter Biden story based upon information supposedly on a Biden laptop has mostly fizzled, except among right-wing media and Trump’s most ardent supporters. It certainly has not broken through in an election where most Americans are focused on the more than 200,000 dead because of the coronavirus. Social media companies have gotten better at detecting coordinated inauthentic behavior, as when Russian agents pose as black activists. Even the Russian attempt to hire legitimate journalists to divide the American left seems to have gone nowhere. And now comes revelations that the Russians appear to be doing the same thing they did in 2020 in relation to voter registration databases. Then, as now, officials say there is little danger that these agents could change any vote totals.
So one possible conclusion of all of this is that there’s not much to worry about. Just like Trump cannot reconjure the “magic” of his 2016 rallies and chants to “lock up” his political opponent, the Russians perhaps lost their mojo and we can worry less about all of this foreign interference. That would be comforting.
But there is room for much greater concern. As I explained in my book Election Meltdown, one of my greatest fears about election interference is that there could be a Russian cyberattack on the power grid, as the Russians did at one point in Ukraine, aimed at knocking the power out in a Democratic city like Detroit in a swing state like Michigan. I have urged election officials to have a plan B for dealing with such a problem, but states have not done so and throwing the matter to the courts—especially now with the courts so bitterly divided along party lines on voting rights and voter suppression—would be a disaster.
So this reporting from the New York Times about the Russian interference has me concerned:
A hacking group believed to be operating at the behest of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the F.S.B. — the successor agency to the Soviet-era K.G.B. — has infiltrated multiple state and local computer networks in recent weeks, according to officials and researchers. The group, known to private researchers as Energetic Bear or Dragonfly, has hacked into American nuclear, water and power plants and airports before. While it has stopped short of shutting them down, the group is considered to be among Russia’s most formidable.
The Russian hackers were able to get inside some election administrators’ systems and had access to voting information. What alarmed officials was the targets, the timing — the attacks began two months ago — and the adversary, which is known for burrowing inside the supply chain of critical infrastructure that Russia may want to take down in the future. The officials fear that Russia could change, delete or freeze voter data, making it harder for voters to cast ballots, invalidating mail-in ballots or creating enough uncertainty to undermine election results.
Back in 2016, President Obama used the “red phone” to warn Vladimir Putin against interference in our elections. Interference such as knocking out our power, particularly during an election, should be considered an act of war. As I argued in Election Meltdown, not only can we not count on Trump to do the same as Obama; he’s actually encouraged election interference. That’s why these latest revelations are potentially terrifying; the worst could be yet to come.
So what can we do about it? For one thing, we can take solace in the fact that American intelligence officials have been able to release this information despite President Trump not wanting any blame put on Russia. It’s true that at Wednesday’s briefing, DNI Radcliffe put more emphasis on Iran’s activities rather than Russia’s and made the odd claim that Iran was seeking to hurt Trump’s reelection chances by sending threatening emails to Democrats in the name of the Proud Boys. But officials then spoke to the Times and other news organizations to get the word out. I know that federal officials have been working diligently with state and local election agencies to fight these cyberattacks.
The average person cannot do much to bolster those efforts, but there is something that can be done in most parts of the United States: vote early. The more voters that vote now, the less a disruption on Election Day will matter. Banking those votes helps to assure for less pressure to vote on election day if there are attempts at disruptions. It makes it easier to come up with potential solutions.
I’m not panicking about Russian interference; they may just be out of gas. But we’ve got to be prudent, and recognize that with all the threats to voting rights and our election system that we’ve already seen, it’s not over yet. Far, far from it.