The Russian Hack of U.S. Election Systems is About Delegitimizing, Not Changing, the Result, and It Feeds Trump Vote-Rigging Claim

The headlines over the last few weeks are suggesting Russian “hacks” of U.S. election systems. But the kinds of election systems hacked are not the ones that would change election results (at least so far). Instead, I think the Russians are playing a different, also dangerous, game involving misinformation and disruption.

Let’s start with what we know.

We know that it is Russia behind the hacking.

Most people know about the Wikileaks revelations from the Podesta emails, with the goal of embarrassing the Clinton administration and potentially affecting the outcome of the election. Maybe if Trump were not the opponent, these leaks would have more of an effect.

But beyond that there have been numerous reports of Russian hackers going after U.S. election systems, such as going after the voter registration databases of Illinois and Arizona. There does not appear to be any evidence of hackers removing voters from the rolls, or adding fake voters to the rolls. The EAC and DHS have offered state and local officials tools to make sure that such systems are secured.

More importantly, very few vote counting systems used by state are connected the Internet, and election officials are taking lots of steps to make sure that there is no corruption of those systems. Most, but not all, votes are cast using ballots with a paper trail, which could be recounted in the event of a concern with hacking or an error in audits. (We should get rid of all electronic voting machines that don’t produce a paper trail). Andrew Appel spells out what we need to do to keep our system secure.

So if the Russians are not actually changing our election results, what might they be doing? The hacks and probing of election systems generate headlines which can undermine the public’s trust in the electoral process. As CNN noted, the hacks have already caused people to be suspicious about the election. And this feeds exactly into Donald Trump’s irresponsible statements that the vote will be rigged or stolen. In a close race, it is possible that Trump won’t concede and will instead create turmoil and threaten what we take for granted: the peaceful transition of political power between presidencies. 

In short, the Russian hacking of our elections should be seen for what it is: an attempt to manipulate and destabilize the U.S., with an unwitting assist from an irresponsible presidential candidate spewing unsupported claims about rigged elections.

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