How we protect our elections depends on whether we're talking 'influence' or 'interference'

How we protect our elections depends on whether we're talking 'influence' or 'interference'
© Greg Nash

Words mean things. Except when they don’t. The indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officers brought two words to the forefront—interference and influence. The special counsel investigation and Congress have wrangled as to whether Russia interfered in our election. Or was it influenced?

The nuance might seem like a distinction without a difference. But it matters. The same way it matters whether it’s a robbery or a burglary. You can burgle a house. You can’t rob a house. Robbery is an offense against a person. As a detective who made many arrests for robbery and burglary, I would have been bounced out of the prosecuting attorney’s office if I had charged a suspect with robbing a house.


Which is why the indiscriminate mixing of terms confuses the issue. On one hand, the American public doesn’t care about the exact words. They don’t want it to happen again. A victim doesn’t care if she uses “robbery” or “burglary” in the legal sense in describing events to police – she wants the culprit brought to justice. It’s not up to the public to define terms. That is the responsibility of government, where using the right term can help determine how the crime is investigated, prosecuted, and prevented from happening again.


The Russian social media campaign targeting the 2016 election and other issues like energy policy are about influence, changing Americans’ perceptions. Attempts to hack directly into the computers that run our elections - that is interference.

On July 18, FBI Director Christopher Wray was interviewed by Lester Holt at the Aspen Security Forum. Director Wray appeared to mix terms: “My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”

Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE’s remarks at the same event would seem to add to the confusion. At one point, he defined the term “malign foreign influence operations,” saying it “refers to actions undertaken by a foreign government, often covertly, to influence people’s opinions and advance the foreign nation’s strategic objectives.” But elsewhere in the same speech, he lists five types of influence, and the first is “trying to hack voter registration databases and vote-tallying systems.”

What’s more, the FBI established the Foreign Influence Task Force in 2017; in announcing it, Wray said: “I take any effort to interfere with our election system by Russia or any other nation state or non-nation state seriously, because it strikes right at the heart of who we are as a country.”

I would argue the avenues of influence differ greatly than the avenues of interference.

Addressing influence operations is about policy. Interference, on the other hand, relies on our ability to create a resilient and defensible infrastructure to ward off cyberattacks.

It doesn’t help when a major manufacturer of voting machines, Election Systems & Software, admitted that it had installed remote connection software on election management system workstations.

Rosenstein put a finer point on it. He noted during his speech at Aspen, “In 2016, foreign cyber intruders targeted election-related networks in as many as 21 states. There is no evidence that any foreign government ever succeeded in changing votes, but the risk is real. Moreover, even the possibility that manipulation may occur can cause citizens to question the integrity of elections.”

The real issue is trust. Influence operations seek to divide the country, but interference undermines trust in the system. Both words are politically charged and should be used with precision and care. According to both the FBI and DOJ, Russia did not change a single vote that was cast. But the attempt sows doubt, which can erode trust.

The question remains what we can do to counter both types of operation. 

Countering influence campaigns by indicting Russian intelligence officers is one way, but it might only complicate getting to the truth. Andrew McCarthy, former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted the irony when he said: “Make no mistake: This is nakedly politicized law enforcement. There is absolutely no chance any of the Russian officials charged will ever see the inside of an American courtroom.”

A better approach comes from someone who died in 1941, before there was the internet and social media. Justice Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, may have had the perfect solution: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Countering attempts at interference is another thing.

From an infrastructure perspective, the newly constituted Election Infrastructure Information Sharing Analysis Center (EI-ISAC) is the best resource for counties and states. Building better defenses should always be in style, and more attention needs to be paid to our porous voting system.

The EI-ISAC was created by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in January of 2017 after being designated as a critical infrastructure subsector. It will still take a lot of time and effort to overcome the legacy flaws inherent in the original designs. According to the Center for American Progress study on election security in all fifty states, forty-one states are using database software that is more than a decade old “…leaving them susceptible to modern-day cyberattacks.”

Any county elections official who hasn’t joined the EI-ISAC (all fifty states are members) should run, not walk, to their nearest web browser and sign up here.

Just like bridges, tunnels and roadways, our entire information technology (IT) infrastructure, including voting, needs a major facelift. Ensuring trust for the 2018 midterm elections will go a long way in preventing influence and interference by our adversaries.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.