How to Manage the Threat of Foreign Election Interference

October 15, 2020
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“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”

These remarks by Robert Mueller during a congressional hearing in July 2019 are notable for how well they reflect the conventional wisdom. Ever since the exposure of the Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections, there has been growing awareness in the West of the possible effects and dangers such meddling can pose to democracies. There are also growing worries that Russia will intervene again in the upcoming 2020 elections. William Evanina, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center director, echoed these concerns in a statement this summer. Much of the American public shares these fears of interference. A September 2020 survey by the Harris School of Public Policy found that 72 percent to 76 percent of the American public claim to be very or somewhat concerned by the possibility of foreign meddling of various kinds in the 2020 elections.



Fears of foreign meddling in elections are not misplaced. Partisan electoral interventions (i.e., attempts by foreign powers to intervene in an election in order to determine the identity of the winner) are a common form of interference that usually has significant effects on the targeted election results in the manner desired by the intervener. Such foreign interference can also frequently cause serious damage to the targeted country. While there is no way to stop or deter foreign powers from meddling in this manner, policymakers can significantly reduce the odds that such foreign interference will have an effect on the election results. To do so, democracies should increase the legal penalties for collusion, promote public education on this topic, ban the use of electronic voting or counting in elections, and prohibit campaign funding using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

The Nature of the Beast

Major world powers have been interfering in other countries’ elections for centuries. The methods used by Russia to intervene in 2016 were just a few among a wide variety of overt and covert methods frequently used for this purpose. Other common interference methods include the provision of money to the preferred side’s campaign, public threats or promises, training in advanced campaigning methods, an increase in foreign aid or other assistance before election day, or withdrawal of this aid.

According to my research, electoral interventions usually occur when a foreign power perceives its interests as being endangered by a significant candidate or party running for election, and another significant candidate running in that election agrees to collude with the foreign power. Without a domestic actor’s cooperation in providing information about the electorate’s preferences and the best ways to intervene in its favor, the foreign power’s chances of success become so low that it usually prefers to choose other options.

In many cases, such meddling can have major effects on the election results. In an analysis of my dataset on such meddling between 1946 to 2000, I have found that such interventions increase overall the vote share of the preferred candidate by 3 percent on average — enough, in many cases, to determine the result. The estimated effects of such meddling are the same both in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras as well as in new and established democracies. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, Russian meddling increased Trump’s overall vote share by about two percent — enough to give him his electoral college victory. My estimate is based mainly on analyzing the effects of the Russian hacks and leaks from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign, not the social media campaign on which many others have focused in this regard. Nevertheless, covert electoral interventions are usually less effective than overt ones. This is due to covert meddling often providing less resources in order to avoid inadvertent exposure and the use of indirect methods to influence voters.

The effects of such meddling do not end on election day. Covert electoral interventions, when they succeed in bringing to or keeping in power the assisted leader, seem to significantly increase the chances of the target nation suffering from a democratic breakdown. In a recent survey, Michael Tomz and Jessica Weeks found that when the American public became aware that an electoral intervention had occurred, it decreased support for democracy with respondents and made them significantly less interested in voting in the future. Similarly, survey experiments by Stephen Shulman and Stephen Bloom in Ukraine and Daniel Corstange and Nikolay Marinov in Lebanon found that such overt meddling increased political polarization in regard to the intervener — another effect quite harmful to democracy. Even if the target’s democratic regime escapes unscathed, the target can be harmed in other ways. For example, between 1970 and 2000, a successful overt electoral intervention significantly increased the number of domestic terrorist attacks in the target country.

Managing the Threat

Given these characteristics of electoral interventions, many of the policy options proposed for dealing with them are unlikely to be effective. Deterrence, for example, is not feasible. As noted, electoral interventions are frequently done in a covert manner, and unlike the case of the Russian intervention in 2016 — a covert operation that was exposed due to Russian operational failures — covert interveners are rarely caught red-handed during the election campaign or exposed in its immediate aftermath. Likewise, when successful, the new or retained leadership has no incentive to punish its foreign benefactor. Not surprisingly, no democracy is known to have successfully deterred an electoral intervention, and even attempts at post-meddling punishment are quite rare. For similar reasons, an international agreement to completely ban partisan electoral interventions is impractical and unenforceable.

Furthermore, electoral interventions by democracies frequently cause equal or similar inadvertent damage to the target of meddling by authoritarian powers. In the 1968 Guyanese election, to cite just one of many examples, the United States covertly aided the reelection campaign of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, an authoritarian-minded leader, in order to prevent a possible election victory by his main rival, Cheddi Jagan, whom Washington wrongly perceived was a diehard communist. The American success in keeping Burnham in power in Guyana through this electoral intervention played an important role in the subsequent collapse of the fledgling Guyanese democracy. Attempts by democratic countries observing an intervention in a third country by a hostile power to “fight fire with fire” by conducting a counter-intervention has often made matters worse regardless of the underlying motive for their intervention.

There is no known way to “meddle-proof” a democracy. The U.S. Founding Fathers, well aware of this possibility, spent much time and effort devising ways to secure the fledgling American republic from foreign interference. As noted by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68, one key reason for the creation of the Electoral College was to prevent “foreign powers” from trying to install “a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” The Electoral College failed in that task even in its original 1790s form. Thomas Jefferson thought that such interference could be prevented by limiting presidents to a single term, while John Adams, in contrast, preferred long presidential terms for this purpose. The 20th-century experiences of other countries that adopted, for unrelated reasons, these institutional options for their executives indicate that neither method would have worked. In Chile, during the early Cold War era, the president was limited to a six-year term with no possibility for immediate reelection. This didn’t stop the United States and the Soviet Union from intervening in its elections in 1964 and 1970. The same institutional architecture that makes representative democracy feasible also makes foreign meddling in elections possible.

What Democracies Should Do

Given the problems and limitations of these policy tools, the best way for democracies to deal with such electoral interventions is through target hardening. In other words, pursuing measures that reduce the chances that interveners will accomplish their immediate goal of placing or keeping the preferred candidate or party in office. These are the situations where short- and medium-term harm to the target is most likely. Five policies look especially promising in this regard.

First, the United States and other democracies should raise the legal penalties on any domestic actor knowingly collaborating with a meddling foreign power. The collusion of local citizens with a foreign power attempting to interfere with a domestic election needs to be designated as a standalone crime with a maximum penalty akin to that of spying (i.e., life in prison). Such a law can deter various private third parties from agreeing to cooperate in such an undertaking. For example, one key part of the Nazi intervention in the 1940 U.S. elections involved bribing an American newspaper editor to publish, four days before the elections, a captured Polish government document which supposedly showed President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a negative light. In a world where such outright collusion is punishable by life in prison, many unscrupulous locals would likely turn down such a proposal or even inform the local authorities, thus handicapping the foreign intervention or increasing its chances of exposure and failure.

Unfortunately, such a new law probably would not deter the would-be assisted leader or their key aides who might agree to cooperate in such meddling when politically desperate. They have good reason to believe that if the foreign assistance leads them to victory, they can use their power over domestic law enforcement to squelch any investigation focused on their own deeds.

Secondly, in order to discourage overt electoral interventions, democracies should develop comprehensive civic education programs on foreign interference. Any as-yet-unpersuaded citizens in Western democracies need to learn to treat such foreign meddling in their elections, even for their “own” side, as a deal-breaker over which no forgiveness is possible at the ballot box.

Overt electoral interventions are usually chosen based on the assumption that the target public will react to them favorably and change their votes in the preferred direction. When the intervener and their client expect a backlash against overt meddling, they usually choose covert interventions instead. By increasing the real and perceived chances of an overt intervention leading to backlash, such an educational program can help discourage interveners and their clients from such interference, pushing them to choose instead less effective covert meddling.

Third, if intelligence agencies are fortunate enough to discover highly credible evidence that a foreign covert intervention is happening in an upcoming election, they should inform the public about it immediately. In 2016, the U.S. intelligence community apparently found incontrovertible evidence that Russia was behind the wave of hacks and pre-election leaks sometime in the mid-summer, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not release a public statement in this regard until October. Furthermore, and most importantly, no concrete evidence for the occurrence of the Russian intervention was provided by the U.S. government until long after the election was fully concluded. The only concrete pre-election evidence for the Russian intervention was provided by private actors who were not widely known to the average American beforehand, such as Crowdstrike.

Electoral interventions are usually done covertly, when the exposure of the method used, or the foreign involvement, is expected to lead to a public backlash in the target country. Accordingly, the exposure of a covert intervention can in many cases eliminate most or all of its electoral benefits to the preferred side. Sunlight, in this case, is the best disinfectant.

However, in order to preempt any potential skepticism about such claims of many members of their public, the intelligence agencies in this situation should also provide concrete evidence for this accusation, enough that most open-minded citizens would be persuaded of its full accuracy. Intelligence agencies are understandably hesitant to release any information behind their intelligence assessments or statements to the public that can compromise any of their sources and methods — the main tools of their tradecraft. However as noted such interventions can have very negative effects on their targets. Given that fact, the benefits of a prompt release of credible information on the operation, which will in turn increase the chances of a major backlash in the ballot box that negates the effects of such interference, far outweigh any short-term costs from the reduced availability of reliable intelligence derived from the methods in question.

Fourth, decision-makers should preempt any attempts to digitize other traditional methods of electoral interventions, that could make them more effective or easier to carry out. On that front, countries should prohibit campaign contributions in the form of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The use of normally untraceable digital currencies can significantly reduce the number of secret meetings needed between the intervener and the client, or eliminate the need for a confidential middleman. That, in turn, can reduce the chances of detection and exposure. To preempt such digitization of covert campaign funding, democratic countries should also require parties and elected officials to divest from all such currencies.

Finally, democratic countries should reverse the growing trend toward electronic voting and counting and return to traditional, electronics-free methods. In the premodern era, foreign interference in elections with small electorates, such as colleges of cardinals choosing a new pope or select noblemen voting for their next monarch, sometimes involved direct changes to the vote tallies, with the foreign power outright bribing much of the electorate or the people in charge of counting their votes. The rise of modern national elections with mass electorates numbering in the hundreds of thousands or millions, and vote counting being done in thousands or tens of thousands of polling stations spread throughout the country, effectively stopped that particular method of interference.

However, electronic voting and counting, either through electronic machines or online, threatens to make this method feasible again. All forms of electronic voting are potentially open to hacking either due to a direct internet connection, as with online voting and some voting machines, or an indirect one through the need to upload to voting machines information taken from it. Many states nowadays have effectively unlimited computing capabilities. Likewise, many states have shown a willingness to spend large amounts of resources even on “regular” electoral interventions. Russia or another state may decide one day to try to affect an election by hacking the voting machines and directly changing the vote tallies. While there is no evidence that a country has changed vote tallies of another country’s elections in the past using digital tools, given this history they will likely try in the future.

In order to prevent such a scenario from occurring, democratic states should outlaw all forms of electronic voting or even vote counting, such as the scanning of paper ballots by a digital scanner. All voting should instead be done by paper ballots, either in person or by mail, and all counting of the ballots must be done by hand. The extra cost in hiring extra polling workers for the vote counting, or in a brief delay in getting the final results in an especially close election, is greatly outweighed by keeping this ancient interference option from ever coming back in a new, digital form.


Partisan electoral interventions are a common form of foreign interference that frequently determines the affected election’s results. They also have other negative effects on countries after the elections are held. Although the threat that electoral interventions pose to democracies is significant, it can be effectively managed and minimized. All of the potential five policies proposed here, from increasing the legal penalties for collusion to prohibiting campaign funding using cyptocurrenceis, are feasible. These reforms can be applied without requiring unprecedented levels of domestic or international consensus about the needed remedies, risking inadvertent harm, or modifying key aspects of modern democracy. Foreign meddling in an election is inevitable, but democracies can take steps to contain the damage and preserve the integrity of their institutions.



Dov H. Levin is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong is the author of a new book “Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral intervention” at Oxford University Press. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Hong Kong or of the Department of Politics and Public Administration.

Image: Flickr (Photo by Rochelle Hartman)