How Important Is Protecting Our Elections From Russian Interference?

I’m going to kick this thread off with a quote from a Fox News interview with Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday warned the United States is ill-prepared to prevent Russian interference in the upcoming midterms, as it was in the 2016 general election.

“I don’t know that I would say we are better prepared, because the Russians will adapt as well,” Tillerson said in an exclusive interview with Fox News in Bogota, Colombia. “The point is, if it’s their intention to interfere, they are going to find ways to do that. We can take steps we can take but this is something that, once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”

What the heck. We’re not prepared, but Tillerson almost seems to be implying it doesn’t matter because it wouldn’t make a difference. Ugh. Anyway, election security is one of my biggest concerns this year. By “election security,” I don’t only mean preventing vote tallies actually being changed, but I also mean manipulation voters through information warfare, which can mean things like stealing emails from a politicians and releasing selected sections or altering the email to cause political damage. Interference can mean using foreign money or even blackmail, not only to politicians, but key figures in the society (e.g., journalists, business people, etc.) getting them to influence an election. This is a huge deal.

This is really big deal. Do you guys agree with me on this?

40 thoughts on “How Important Is Protecting Our Elections From Russian Interference?

  1. National Security Leaders Testifying at Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing Today

    Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence (DNI):

    As far as I know Trump administration has done little or nothing to respond. They have not enforced sanctions law that Congress signed last year, either. It’s one of several elephants in the room.

    Russia (and maybe others) in an (information/hyper) war against the Western democracies, and our POTUS is not only not leading the fight against this, but he’s actually helping Russia.


  2. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the security and reliability of the mechanisms for voting are not a big deal. If you take the voter I.D. arguments at face value, for instance, the legitimacy of the vote is the issue on both sides.

    However (and I say this reluctantly), I don’t think protecting people’s decisions from the influences of outside sources is as big a deal as you do, and in fact lean toward not preventing this influence, at least not directly. Yes, I know you disagree, and if you think about my positions on most similar issues, you’ll know why I feel the way I do. We can hash it out if you want, but we’re going to get to a point where I’m repeatedly making my same argument and you’re repeatedly making yours, so I’m cautioning you ahead of time that I can only take so much of this and will likely disengage, eventually.

    I respond here with a disagreement not because I think either of us will convince the other, but because I think it’s important that someone say something reasonable for the opposting point of view. I’m probably not that person, but I’m game. 🙂

  3. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the security and reliability of the mechanisms for voting are not a big deal.

    I hope you’re right, but I’m not as certain. If you pick ten random people and ask them if this is a big deal, I’d say 8-10 would say yes. But what if you ask them to rate the level of importance/threat on a scale of 1-10–with a military attack on the country being a 10? Where do you think people would place an attack on our elections? (Where would you rank it? I would rank it around 8-10 range.)

    However (and I say this reluctantly), I don’t think protecting people’s decisions from the influences of outside sources is as big a deal as you do…

    That’s probably the crux of our disagreement. If I didn’t think interference was a big deal, then information security wouldn’t be a big deal for me. For example, if we were living in a pre-internet world, I wouldn’t be nearly as concerned with information warfare from foreign entities. More specifically, the difference comes down to the confidence in your ability–and people’s ability in general–to sift through and filter information–separating accurate from false information, and being able to derive meaning from that information. You’re way more confident than I am–and I suspect this is where we should probably focus the discussion. That is, if we’re going to proceed, we should probably focus on providing arguments to our level of confidence about this matter.

    I just want to make one clarification, though. This isn’t just about information that citizens use to discuss. This can also be something like tampering with election machinery in such a way that there are serious questions about the accuracy of the results. Would you agree that this is a really bad thing we should protect against?

    …and in fact lean toward not preventing this influence, at least not directly.

    Let me propose a comparable situation–namely, advertising and maybe TV advertising specifically. Should we allow false advertising and smear campaigns, etc.?

  4. Things we could be doing to protect our elections:

    Mitchell, I would think you would have any objections to these suggestions–and that you’d support, if not strongly support, most or all of them. Yes?



    Thread on dealing with an attack. One key point: It’s almost impossible to prevent attack, from a determined state actor, so be sure to have plan to respond after a successful attack.

  5. where do you think people would place an attack on our elections?

    Man, I wish I had an answer for this. Since I’ve worked at multiple polling places on election day, I’ve seen too many examples of how voters’ wishes might not be reflected in the final tallies. One hopes that a few votes here and there as anomolies won’t make that much of a difference, but a malicious actor knowing enough about the process at least in a local election could certainly do some damage. We put a lot of trust in a lot of people who don’t necessarily deserve it when we put those ballots in boxes or when we click the buttons on electronic voting tablets. Yikes.

    More specifically, the difference comes down to the confidence in your ability–and people’s ability in general–to sift through and filter information–separating accurate from false information, and being able to derive meaning from that information.

    I guess so. If you simply believe we’re incapable of achieving this ability, we have no grounds for discussion, because if you’re right, then your proposed measures are not only needed but merely a first step.

    I think we’re able. But then I spent sixteen years in a classroom believing in our being able. There’s really no room for cynicism on that side of the chalkboard. If the product of my work leads you and others to be cynical, I certainly can’t blame you. I just don’t agree. The problem isn’t the product but the process.

    On the other hand, the product of my work seems to have been the 2016 election, which makes me cynical to the point of fury and despair about my own process and product. I’m having an identity crisis here. But as I gaze into the abyss, I’m not willing yet to call it a lost cause. Yet.

  6. You think I would have objections or I would not? I haven’t clicked that yet because I’ve had enough of news comment for today. Will look later when the sun is shining and I am not wishing I don’t care.

  7. Man, I wish I had an answer for this. Since I’ve worked at multiple polling places on election day, I’ve seen too many examples of how voters’ wishes might not be reflected in the final tallies….

    I don’t see how what you said after the first sentence connects to it. Or does it?

    If you simply believe we’re incapable of achieving this ability…

    I’m not saying people are incapable. I’m saying that I’m less confident that people can and will do this well–and that they will need more assistance from institutions, tools, etc. My sense is that you’re more confident in your ability and others’ to do this independently of any external assistance. I believe individuals need more help than you do. Ultimately, I don’t see this as a failing on the part of the individual, or the schools. Even the smartest individual has a limited amount of time and energy they can devote to informing themselves. Things like family, work, etc. can suck a lot of that time and energy–and rightfully so.

    Do you think that if you were to agree with my position, it would be a failing of the individual and educational system? If so, that’s another area where we disagree.

    You think I would have objections or I would not?

    You would not. By the way, the clip is only 24 seconds.

  8. If many Americans believed that Russian interference in our elections is a major threat, I would think there would be a larger outcry to things like the above. This isn’t new. (Or maybe not enough people are aware of this–that the information is needle in a haystack?)

  9. Here’s a quote from a Foreign Policy article that paints out a scenario I described a few posts above:

    Under a nightmare scenario, outside hacking could combine with partisan efforts to spread fear about the U.S. voting system to create disarray. The U.S. intelligence community has formally found that Russian hackers apparently tried to gain access to state electoral registries. The Russians probably did not want to secretly bias voting so much as to create a controversy over whether manipulation had happened, as they had previously attempted in Ukraine. If outside actors succeeded in this kind of attack in the future, it could serve as a massive force multiplier for partisan disagreement, leading, even in an optimistic scenario, to years of political chaos. As a group of experts has concluded: “Simply put, the attacker might not care who wins; the losing side’s belief that the election was stolen from them may be equally, if not more, valuable.”

    If America is not to find its democracy systematically dismantled, it needs to strengthen its structures of shared knowledge and trust in democracy as a matter of urgent priority. This most obviously involves strengthening voting systems and registries (which are now run through a mishmash of badly secured systems at the local and state level) against attack. Strengthening the census, rebuilding confidence in voting, and re-establishing knowledge structures that help partisans work in harness are usually thought of as exercises in civics. They now have crucial implications for national security, too.

    Edit (2/16/2018)

    Just thought of another twist to the nightmare scenario above. Let’s say, going forward from today, Trump and the GOP do very little to protect our elections. And let’s say we learn that the Russians tampered with the election machines. (The Russians may actively building and promulgate this narrative.) Finally, let’s say that more Republicans win than it was expected. Add all of this together, and I could see a significant number of Democrats who question some of the Republican victories. Indeed, I can imagine the Russians emphasizing, in their narratives, tampering with machines in the most closely contested races. (I could see China, North Korea, Iran, or other adversaries to the U.S. considering ways they could assist in these efforts or others that can lead to chaos.) A possible result of this is a significant number of angry Democrats who question the legitimacy of those electoral victories. That is, they don’t see the winners as legitimate. If that happens, I think we would be moving to the point where we could see violence in the streets.

  10. Yet another twist in the nightmare scenario I describe in the previous post

    Some remarks by David Gergen, in the clip below, triggered another possible variation:

    Gergen mentioned the possibility that people will question the legitimacy of the elections if many Democrats win. This made me think of something the Russians (or any other hostile actor) could do. If Democrats win big, find as many electoral races that are close and raise questions in people’s minds that tampering occurred and had a significant influence. Again, tampering–actual changes in vote counts–need not happen for this to be effective. And imagine if the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans actually make these claims after the election.

  11. Alarm Bells

    Both are raising alarms about the fact that Trump is doing next to nothing about protecting our elections and pushing back against Russia. Recommended.

    From the New York Times: Whatever Trump is Hiding is Hurting Us All Now

    From The Atlantic: America is Under Attack and the President Doesn’t Care

    Edit (2/20/2018)

    From WaPo: Trump’s conduct is inexplicable, unless he’s in Putin’s pocket, op-ed by Jeniffer Rubin (who is a Never Trump conservative)

    From WaPo: Trump is ignoring the worst attack on America since 9/11, op-ed from Max Boot

  12. This is Terrible Article from the Left

    The gist of the piece is the claim that questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s (and maybe even other Republicans’) electoral victory is not only valid, but something that we should do. To me, this is wrong and irresponsible. Why? Answer: We’ll never be able to answer this question definitively, so pursuing this question will only lead to division and chaos. This is the nightmare scenario that I talk about in the thread on protecting our elections. In fact, if I were Russia (or an enemy of the U.S.) I would try to find ways to push this idea into the mainstream. If enough Americans question the legitimacy of Trump, we would be moving toward the destruction of our democracy.

  13. On the Companies That Provide Election Equipment

    Edit: Another article about Russian interference on the state level (2/27/2018)

    From NBC: Reply

  14. Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Sounds the Alarm

    “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Mr. Coats said as he cautioned of cyberthreats. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

    1. Bakos is a former CIA analyst.


      This is bad. It’s so hard not to think this is intentional by Trump administration and even GOP. They seem to want Russia to interfere again.

    2. Paul Ryan acknowledges Russia has and is attempting to undermine our democracy, and Trump and the White House, as far I know, has not really provided direction on protecting the upcoming elections. If the GOP cares about oversight so much, this is an area I would think they would look into.

      1. He’s not doing anything–and almost certainly won’t do anything–to protect the elections. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans won’t do anything about this.


        Former Director of CIA and NSA:

        Here’s the video:


        1. There’s a lot of good information in the following clip. For one thing, reporter provides a persuasive rebuttal to Sanders’s explanation above. But there’s more.

    3. NSA and Cyber Command to coordinate actions to counter Russian election interference in 2018 amid absence of White House guidance from Ellen Nakashima, WaPo

      The agencies are working within their own authorities, but “the lack of presidential guidance to address this as a national problem impedes the ability” to carry out a more robust and effective effort — one that aligns resources and results, said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

      (Emphasis added.)

      Gross negligence on the part of Trump if this is true.

  15. Tangent: I’m hearing a lot of weird uses of “point blank” lately, from media pundits, political commentors, and athletes. Any idea what’s going on here? What do they actually mean, and how did the meaning shift from “so close to a target that a projectile will travel in a straight line to the mark” to what seems to be (and please correct me if I’m wrong) something like “full stop” or “period” or “end of sentence?”

    1. I haven’t really noticed the second usage, but it sounds like both meanings could overlap, especially on a medium like twitter.

      1. Right, but until the link below, that’s the only one I recall seeing.

        Looking at the link, I think the definition could be changing. Have you seen that usage outside of twitter? My guess is that this is something the medium is shaping. It seems like something that would work well on twitter.

  16. Yes; as I said, I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, from media people, athletes, and political pundits. It’s weird.

  17. This is a largely a he saidi/she said article. I don’t know who to believe. Republicans say that they’ve fully funded a federal grant that assist states with securing elections, that states having entirely spent the money, and they’re not requesting any, so there is no need to budget more money for the program. Democrats counter by saying that we’re under attack from Russia and the states need more money; they haven’t used all of the existing monies because some states have just received it, and if there were more money they would request it.

    The optics don’t look good for Republicans. At the same time, it’s possible that more funding wouldn’t help. I hope there’s reporting from states to try to shed light on this–i.e., What do the states think about their need for more funding?

    1. This is a he said/she said article, but I don’t trust the Trump and the White House, so I’m siding with the bi-partisan group that pushed for this.

  18. I’m putting this here because of the remark that air gaps are supposed to make election equipment more secure.

    Easily hacking into utility control rooms is also (obviously) not good.


  19. This feels like laying the groundwork to attack legitimacy of midterm elections if Democrats win big.

    If your a U.S. adversary, and you want to widen divisions one way to do that would be to leave enough evidence to suggest that electoral tampering occurred to help Democrats. This would make sense if the Republican president, congressional GOP and conservative media would take the ball and run with this narrative. That is one nightmare scenario.

    Important to note that the Trump White House is not providing any direction or push to protect the elections.


    I didn’t read this yet, but putting it here for future reference.

  20. I didn’t read/watch this, but I’ve been hearing about interference in different parts of the country. Trump really hasn’t taken leadership on addressing this, and GOP refused to extend funds to states to shore up election systems. There’s room to believe Trump and GOP failing to protect election, almost inviting Russia or others to interfere.

    I didn’t read this either, but hopefully will get to it later.

  21. I have not really heard take a leadership role on this issue–speaking out against this, urging Congress to upgrade and protect election equipment, etc.

  22. 11/19/2019

  23. Review of a new book, by David Shimer, RIGGED: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference.

    In keeping with the goals of Soviet premiers and intelligence chiefs long before, Putin wanted to subvert threatening candidates, promote friendlier ones and deepen America’s divides to discredit U.S. democracy. The difference was not the strategy the Russians used, but the power and efficacy of the tools at their disposal.

    During the Cold War, “the Kremlin lacked the means to shape public discourse, target voters on a personal basis, or reach the American population at scale.” By the 21st century, Russia’s means had caught up with its intentions. Through hacking, trolling and manipulation of social media, Putin disrupted the workings of the world’s most powerful democracy. “Newer democracies were once more vulnerable to covert electoral interference than their more established counterparts,” Shimer writes. “The internet has leveled the playing field. All democracies are exposed.”

    The book seems critical of handling the 2016 electoral interference, using comments from people in the Obama administration. I think on some level its fair, but there’s also something else to consider, too:

    U.S. officials had witnessed Putin’s election interference in Eastern Europe, but they never imagined it could take place here. “You would think previously: ‘Oh, this only happens in third world countries,’ ” Jeh Johnson, who served as secretary of homeland security in President Barack Obama’s second term, admits to Shimer. Or they didn’t recognize the tools Russia was deploying. Social media information warfare was “very poorly understood” even through Election Day, former national security adviser Susan Rice explains, while Blinken confesses that “we just didn’t understand” how digital platforms were being manipulated.

    (emphasis added)

    How many people in understood the way new technologies and media raised the threat–and in to what degree? I oon’t feel like it was a big number–and I don’t recall any articles about this during or before the election. (Mitt Romney is credited for identifying Russia as the biggest global threat in 2012. Had he pointed specifically to new media technologies as one of the main reasons for this–or maybe money laundering–I would be really impressed.)

    I want to comment on the next passage:

    Just as vital was Russia’s assessment of Washington’s potential response. “Putin aimed to push as far as he could without provoking much pushback,” Shimer writes. “And in Obama, he saw a leader elected to wind down wars, not start them, wary of stumbling into great-power conflict, and largely dismissive of Russia.”

    Obama has been criticized for this approach, but it’s actually one I agree with–particularly wariness of stumbling into a great-power conflict–or more specifically a long war, especially against a much weaker adversary–at least in terms of economics and conventional military. I think of great nations that ruined themselves by getting into unnecessary, long wars or conflicts. With Russia and in Syria (or the Middle East, in general), I sided with Obama’s instincts, as it didn’t seem like vital U.S. interests were at stake–or at least it wasn’t so vital as to risk getting bogged down in long term conflict (like in Afghanistan).

    But what I think Obama (and I) didn’t understand is the game-changing impact of new media/technology–the way this turbo-charged older information warfare, particularly from the Kremlin.

    But his reluctance to respond forcefully ahead of time flowed in part from the fear that Russian hackers could tinker with voting machinery or even manipulate vote totals. By August 2016, “the U.S. intelligence community had reported that Russian hackers could edit actual vote tallies, according to four of Obama’s senior advisers,” Shimer reports. “This revelation was a game changer. America’s electoral infrastructure was penetrable.” (You’d hope that such officials would speak out now, and not anonymously, with another presidential contest looming.)

    (emphasis added)

    Whoa! That is crazy. Just this fact–if it gets wide circulation–could undermine the trust of the election results. This is the kind of thing I worry Trump and Republicans will use if they lose.

    For Obama officials, the worst-case scenario involved hackers editing voter registration data before the election, erasing voter data after the fact or even altering vote totals. Johnson feared that the Russians might manipulate voter data “in a handful of key precincts in Miami-Dade, in Dayton, Ohio, in a key precinct in Michigan, a key precinct in Wisconsin, a key precinct in Pennsylvania.” In the chaos that followed, Obama officials worried, Trump could claim to have been cheated out of victory.


    During the Cold War, both sides struggled to influence the minds of voters, but today, Shimer warns, “billions of people have uploaded their psyches onto the internet, exposing them to targeted manipulation.”


    “The degree to which Putin believes he succeeded will instruct his policy making,” Shimer writes. Favorable results encourage the interfering party to keep going. And this time, the man in the Oval Office is solicitous of Russia’s president and unconcerned, even welcoming, about foreign influence. “I don’t think the Russians are particularly frightened about what might happen to them if they try this again,” a former National Security Council official in the Trump White House tells Shimer.

    Senate Republicans could have removed Trump (and I’d like to think Pence would not welcome interference). Our system allowed them to protect the elections from an illiberal leader like Trump. They can actually still push back to protect the integrity of the elections and they could remove Trump if they wanted. To my mind, this makes them the biggest villains in all this.

  24. Interesting thread.

    If these AI faces are fake, I don’t think I’ll be able to trust photos (of people):

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *