Domestic and Foreign Interference
Concern about foreign involvement in American elections dates back to the nation’s founding. The authors of the Constitution provided several safeguards against foreign interference, including prohibitions against a foreign-born, naturalized citizen becoming president and against any federal official receiving gifts from foreign governments.
Recent decades have shown how interference can take many other forms, and foreign governments will often leverage domestic organizations to achieve their goals. Before the 1984 election, for example, the Soviet Union, which had a long history of seeking to interfere in our elections, took covert actions in an effort to prevent the reelection of President Ronald Reagan, including trying to infiltrate both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee.
The fall of the Soviet Union did not end the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in our politics. In 2016, Russia made a two-pronged attack, hacking into the voting systems in all 50 states (although there is no evidence that they did anything once they had hacked in) and spreading disinformation across social media.
Also in 2016, candidate Donald Trump, at a July news conference, urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. An indictment filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller two years later claimed that the first attempts to hack into Clinton’s emails occurred on or around the same day that Trump issued his invitation. Sometimes, foreign interference may look a lot like domestic interference.
Whether this was coincidence or an indication of collaboration between Trump and Russia is among the many uncertainties that continues to fuel suspicion that Trump’s fealty to the Constitution, democratic norms and even federal law is readily swayed by the influence of foreign autocrats. And nowhere is this more apparent, and alarming, than his approach to Russia and Putin. We don’t have enough information to confirm that Trump collaborated with Russia but we do know that many of Trump’s actions as a candidate, as the president and since he left the White House, are consistent with Russian objectives, none more so than his claims of a stolen election.
Well before the 2020 election, election security experts had expressed concern about Russian efforts to undermine American democracy. As Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) explained at a cybersecurity summit in 2019, “If we keep telling voters that elections are screwed up then they’re going to start believing us and stop voting. Having American citizens occupied with that narrative is what foreign autocracies want. They want Americans to lose faith that their vote counts.”
The claims repeated by Trump and other Republican leaders inspired the January 6 attack on the Capitol and encouraged the introduction of new mechanisms to limit the casting and counting of ballots. Considered together, those actions, including tampering with mail delivery, falsifying states’ slates of electors, and limiting the independence of election oversight, all constitute an attack on American democracy and reveal vulnerabilities in the electoral system that previously had not warranted much, if any, concern.
The coronavirus pandemic began during the 2020 primary season and prompted nationwide anxiety about the health risks of voting in person. Under pressure from Democrats and voting rights groups, 34 states made it easier to vote in the general election. Most of the changes promoted voting by mail and eased the rules governing the completion and tabulation of absentee ballots in order to reduce the number of people coming to the polls and putting themselves and election workers at risk of infection.
This shift away from in-person voting prompted President Trump to assert that increased mail-in voting would prevent Republicans from ever getting “elected in this country again.”
When Trump’s appointee as Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, took office in June 2020, critics feared that the changes he proposed and implemented would slow the delivery of an unprecedented volume of mailed ballots. Those changes included removing mailboxes, canceling delivery runs, and closing down sorting centers. Trump opposed providing additional funds to the Postal Service because, he said, if the Democrats “don’t get the money, that means they can’t have universal mail-in voting.”
Amid substantial backlash, including several lawsuits and a congressional inquiry, both Trump and DeJoy reversed course in August. In September, two months before the election, a federal court ordered USPS to implement several actions, including prioritizing delivery of election mail and pre-approving overtime for postal workers in the week before the election. And in October, the USPS inspector general conducted unannounced visits to more than 1800 sites in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In the week before the November 3 election, inspectors conducted another 83 announced site visits.
In March 2021, the inspector general issued a mostly favorable report based on its findings, noting in particular that the Postal Service had effectively “prioritized processing of Election Mail during the 2020 general election, significantly improving timeliness over the 2018 mid-term election even with significantly increased volumes of Election Mail in the mailstream.
Falsifying electoral votes
President Trump and his supporters took two significant actions related to electoral votes in hopes of reversing his defeat. The first was what now appears to be a coordinated effort by high-ranking Trump campaign officials to encourage falsification of documents in order to create alternate slates of electors supportive of Trump. The effort targeted seven states, including four of the swing states essential to Joe Biden’s victory: Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Dismissed at the time by most observers as wishful thinking, attorneys general in Michigan and New Mexico have requested that federal prosecutors investigate this action.
The second action focused on the role of the vice president in the process of certifying the electoral votes. Trump and his team argued that Vice President Mike Pence, who under the Constitution presides at the joint session of Congress where Electoral College results are tallied and affirmed, could reject votes for Biden in favor of the alternate slates of electors in the seven states. Pence announced that he did not believe he had such authority on January 6, 2021, just before the joint session was to begin and while a crowd of Trump supporters marched toward the Capitol. Several hundred forcibly entered the building, some chanting “Hang Mike Pence”. Once the Capitol was breached, the proceedings were suspended, the House and Senate chambers were evacuated and members were rushed underground to secure locations.
As with the investigation around the creation of alternate slates of electors, details emerging from the House investigation into the January 6 insurrection suggests that the attack on the Capitol may also have been coordinated by members of Trump’s inner circle.
Reducing the independence of election overseers
In what would make it easier for an eventual power grab, Republicans in control of several state governments are pushing for state election law changes that would diminish independent oversight in favor of more partisan control of elections. They have succeeded in doing so in at least eight states, according to an analysis by ABC News. Coupled with public calls in several of those states to decertify the 2020 presidential election results, these efforts, even when unsuccessful, further contribute to the erosion of trust in American democracy.