The political campaign industry needs to be better prepared for Russian attempts to influence the 2018 midterm elections. That was the message from election security experts during C&E’s CampaignTech East conference this week in DC.
Lawmakers from Washington, DC to state capitals across the country are still grappling with exactly what Russia did to interfere in the 2016 campaign. But practitioners need to understand the lessons from that interference now, said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.
“We can expect Russia to do exactly what it’s done before,” said Jankowicz, who studies Russian disinformation. “The tools are still available to them. There are no real blockages to them to getting on Twitter and Facebook and posing as Americans.”
She added: “Russian disinformation, influence overall, is not about promoting Russia. It’s about promoting as much chaos as possible in Western democracies.”
In the United States last cycle, Russian hackers compromised at least 7 state election systems. In total, some 21 states may have been targeted.
Meanwhile, Russian hackers also targeted the emails of Democratic officials involved with voter protection and even high-level campaign officials on the Clinton campaign. Consultants need to be prepared for similar behavior and possibly new tactics.
“The challenge with election cyber security is that there is no finish line,” said David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a non-partisan research group. “The bad guys are going to continue to get better as you get better.”
Practitioners and officials need to adopt tools like two-factor authentication and other best practices to enhance their own cyber and election security this cycle.
In addition to the cybersecurity precautions, there’s the push for increased regulation of online platforms where voters are served ads.
“There needs to be a strong enforcer,” said Ann Ravel, former chair of the FEC. “The Russians are not going to place ads that need little disclaimers. They’re going to do something else.”
And beyond the real world hacking danger, Russian election interference poses an existential threat, according to Becker.
“When you’re trying to get voters out to vote, as campaigns are, voters have this in the back of their head that their votes might not matter because there’s a general hack going on, without a defined definition of what that is,” Becker said.
“It’s going to be really important for campaigns to think about, how do we address this? Because the single best antidote to any of this interference is participation. That’s already a challenge in a midterm environment where we’re swimming upstream.”