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In case anyone needed another reminder, foreign adversaries have tried and are continuing to try to influence American voters. Russia has been the primary culprit, with numerous investigations concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a preference for then-candidate, now-president Donald Trump. U.S. Intelligence officials have warned that Russia is continuing those efforts in 2020.
Officials have also been warning in recent months that Iran and China are getting into this dangerous game, with a preference for Democrat Joe Biden over Trump. On Oct. 21, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Christopher Wray held a press conference announcing that both Iran and Russia have obtained U.S. voter registration data (much of it publicly accessible), which can be used to target people with misinformation.
“To that end, we have already seen Iran sending ‘spoofed’ emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” Ratcliffe said in his remarks. A spoofed email is one where the sender’s address is forged, and has been created to make it seem like an email is coming from someone who didn’t send it.
Frankly, we have some skepticism about the emphasis Ratcliffe placed on Iran relative to Russia given his willingness to politicize his role and Trump’s longstanding inability to clearly acknowledge and confront Russian meddling.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.
Well, the Iranians very quickly said they didn’t do it either. We shouldn’t believe either of these foreign adversaries.
Domestic political preferences shouldn’t matter when acknowledging this threat. This isn’t something to take seriously only when your preferred candidate or political party is potentially a target. The real goal and real danger of these attacks is overall confusion and a loss of confidence in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system. Americans cannot, must not, reward these adversaries by buying into that notion.
Instead, when officials explain how different foreign actors are seeking to influence the American public, and explain the methods being used to try to do so, Americans need to pay attention and understand that false information is being spread to try to influence their votes. They need to be aware and on guard for these attempts, and keep them in perspective. The fact that they are happening cannot be allowed to undermine basic trust in our electoral process or results.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” Ratcliffe said. “Even if the adversaries pursue further attempts to intimidate or attempt to undermine border confidence, know that our election systems are resilient and you can be confident your votes are secure.”
The U.S. Senate’s intelligence committee, of which both Maine’s senators are members, has produced multiple report volumes on a bipartisan basis laying out Russian interference in the 2016 election. Committee leadership from both parties has been clear that the threats of foreign election interference are ongoing.
“To the American people and the media, we reiterate the need to be skeptical of sensationalist, last-minute claims about election infrastructure,” Republican acting committee chair Marco Rubio and Democratic ranking member Mark Warner said in a joint statement following the announcement from Ratcliffe and Wray. “State, local, and federal officials, and partners in social media and tech, should be proud of joint efforts to shut down Iranian and Russian efforts.”
There are, without question, ways to better secure U.S. elections from foreign interference. Unfortunately, the Trump administration and some Republicans in Congress have stymied bipartisan efforts to do so, like a proposal from Warner and Maine Sen. Susan Collins that would require campaigns to report foreign assistance. But these setbacks do not mean that U.S. elections are without safeguards.
“When we see indications of foreign interference or federal election crimes, we are going to aggressively investigate and work with our partners to take appropriate action,” Wray said at the press conference. “You should be confident that your vote counts. Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
“We are not going to let our guard down,” Wray said.
The American people shouldn’t, either.