Cybersecurity has become an increasingly salient topic in the realm of national defense. The reliance on technology for military, intelligence, and domestic infrastructure has made the disruptive potential of cyber-attacks for national security greater than ever. Elections are uniquely at risk. The aftermath of 2016 highlighted the importance of cybersecurity in election integrity. Almost four-fifths of states in 2016 claim to have been victims of foreign interference, with most pointing to the Russian government as the source. This threat of election-related cybersecurity is intertwined with national security interests, the U.S. response to cyber-attacks in 2016, and the implications for future election cyberattacks.
There is a vigorous public debate in the U.S. about how to ensure election integrity. Some issues, such as voter identification or campaign finance, divide along ideological lines about how to regulate politics and elections. Laws regarding foreign participation in American politics primarily concern national sovereignty. Safeguarding American government from foreign influence is a major theme in the U.S. Constitution – from its eligibility requirements for federal office, to restrictions against receiving “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title” from a foreign state. A country’s ability to independently manage its internal affairs is, by definition, tied to its sovereignty.
There are two major ways foreign influence can damage national security: by unduly influencing a certain political party or individual in a disadvantageous way for the target country, or by undermining the target country’s political process. In the former case, influencing election outcomes directly impacts who leads the government, and thus policymaking. A foreign government may seek to encourage shifts in foreign policy, national security strategy, or other areas in a way favorable to its interests. Altering those policies could damage the national security interests of the target country, since the foreign power is attempting to achieve a policy outcome that is optimal for itself, but not for the target country.
Even if foreign intervention does not secure policy changes, it can still damage the electoral process. The very fact of outside intervention, depending on how visible and widespread it is, introduces uncertainty into the minds of voters and other political actors regarding the validity of electoral outcomes. This has long-term ramifications for a government’s political legitimacy, which can lead to deterioration of the rule of law, a breakdown in governing institutions, or even resistance from those who perceive themselves to be disenfranchised.