Before the 2016 election, at least 21 U.S. states’ registration databases or websites were targeted by hackers and seven states were successfully “compromised,” although there’s no evidence that votes were altered. As U.S. intelligence agencies recently made clear, the risk to voting systems continues in 2018. Foreign actors could target registration records, electronic voting machines or vote tabulations. Because American elections are controlled by individual states that employ a wide array of voting systems, a localized breach is especially feasible. Amplifying the danger is that many Americans will react to vote manipulation somewhere in the United States with doubts about election results everywhere. Even if this interference does not actually change an election outcome, people may use any breach to cast doubt on outcomes they don’t want to believe. This havoc is precisely what Russia wants.
Even without a major breach of voting systems, U.S. politicians, including Roy Moore and Jill Stein, have proclaimed electoral fraud. President Trump still asserts there was massive fraud in 2016, and many believe him. In an August poll, 68 percent of Republicans agreed that “millions of illegal immigrants voted” in 2016 and 47 percent believed Trump won the popular vote.
One response to this foreign threat is to bolster election security, which has been lagging ahead of the 2018 election. But U.S. authorities also need to think about what would happen after the election if there’s a breach to voting systems. The experiences of Kenya in 2007 or Honduras in 2017 show how disputed elections can spiral into violence.
How can Americans respond to this possibility? Here are two key lessons from other countries, including U.S. allies in Europe that have years of experience countering Russian misinformation and attacks.