State and federal officials say they are well prepared for the possibility of a cyberattack on American election systems Nov. 6, but experts warn that even a false claim of interference by foreign actors on Election Day could undermine the public’s faith in the voting process.
The top cyber official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it’s a very real possibility that groups will announce they successfully hacked certain election results. That would require swift action from federal authorities to decisively refute any unsubstantiated declarations of election meddling, analysts say.
“I could absolutely envision a scenario where someone claims to have had access or claims to have hacked” an election, Christopher Krebs, the undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), told reporters last week.
Krebs said if such a claim were made, federal officials would contact the state and local officials running the election to see if they could verify it. If the allegation is shown to be false, he said federal officials would do their best to help spread the word.
“If they need independent verification, my teams are ready to go,” he said. “The FBI and the Department of Justice are ready to help out as well.”
Another cybersecurity official at DHS, Jeanette Manfra, said Tuesday that a hacker could undermine the legitimacy of a race just by misrepresenting the results posted on a state’s website.
“Are they actually manipulating the vote tally? No, but could you have then confusion or concern?” said Manfra, undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications at NPPD.
She said DHS will be in close contact with the media on Election Day to ensure accurate information is being shared and reported.
But widespread worries of a potential election hack could make false claims of meddling more effective than they otherwise might be, even if they’re rebuked by election officials, experts said.
“I think no matter what happens, I think there are going to be parties who are going to claim they’ve broken into systems and did something to monkey with the results in one shape or form,” said Paul Kurtz, CEO of the threat intelligence firm TruSTAR who served on the White House’s National Security and Homeland Security councils under former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has testified before the Senate on Russian disinformation campaigns, said a hacker only needs to get into a voter database and then publicly claim that they changed votes in order to raise concerns about the veracity of election results.
He said even if officials can disprove the claim with evidence, people who want to believe an election was hacked will probably do just that.
“That’s the crazy thing about influence,” Watts said. “You don’t actually have to change any votes, you don’t actually have to break into any systems. You just have to create the perception of it.”
Officials across all levels of government say they are significantly more prepared this time around to counter any election interference compared with 2016, when Russia was determined to have meddled in the election.
But fears of election interference were amplified Friday when the Justice Department unsealed its first charge against a Russian national tied to the midterm elections. About the same time, several U.S. agencies released a statement warning of ongoing influence campaigns from countries such as Russia, North Korea and Iran that are designed to sow distrust in the American political systems.
Kurtz said he didn’t believe a foreign actor like Russia would openly admit to interfering in U.S. elections since doing so would likely be met with severe penalties like sanctions.
“I don’t see a nation-state owning up to hacking the United States,” he said. “On the other hand, I can see more ambiguous statements about hacking to kind of create trouble when they have not hacked.”
Josh Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration who is now executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the 2018 midterms could give a cyber actor like Russia the chance to test using a false claim of a hack as a possible tool to influence elections. If it’s successful, he said, they could use it during the 2020 presidential election.
“The overarching goal would be to continue to make democracy seem vulnerable and leading us to cast doubt on the vibrancy of our own system,” Geltzer said.
To effectively counter an unsubstantiated claim of election interference, state and local officials would need to act quickly to prevent the spread of misinformation, experts said, adding that many states have systems in place that could be used to fact-check a fake interference claim, such as a paper trail for ballots cast on digital voting machines.
But states such as Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania rely on digital systems for voting, without a verified paper record for every ballot cast.
“Those states, they can’t even go back and count the ballots, to say ‘Hey look, we counted the ballots. We know what the total is. Here’s what it is,’ ” said Jake Braun, a DHS liaison in the Obama White House who’s now an organizer of the Def Con Voting Village. “It would have a devastating impact on voter confidence, and that’s with them changing not one vote.”