Consultant, Election Validation Project, Democracy Fund
James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, Stanford Law School; Codirector, Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project
Associate Fellow, Yale University; Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Author, Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference
National Political Correspondent, NPR
Panelists discuss threats to conducting a fair U.S. presidential election in November, including foreign interference, voter suppression, and the health risks of voting in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic.
LIASSON: Thank you very much. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting. This one is called "Protecting U.S. Elections," and with less than 100 days until Election Day, I would say this is not just timely, it's downright urgent. I'm Mara Liasson, the national political correspondent for National Public Radio. We have more than 500 people registered for this meeting. We can't see you, but presumably you can see us. And when we get to the Q&A period, we're going to do our best to get as many of your questions as possible. I want to introduce our panel. We have four distinguished panelists today.
First, Robert Knake, if you could just wave so they know who you are. He is the Whitney Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Jennifer Morrell is a Consultant at the Election Validation Project at the Democracy Fund and Nathan Persily, the James B. McClatchy, Professor of Law at Stanford, and he's the Codirector of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. And last but not least, is David Shimer. He's an Associate Fellow at Yale, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, but more importantly, he's the author of Rigged, which is a book with the subtitle, America, Russia and 100 years of Covert Election Interference. So that's quite an anniversary that we're celebrating today.
So I want to start off by just saying that election security is not just an actual problem, it's an election year issue. You've got a big debate over what is the biggest threat to our elections. From the Democrats, they feel foreign interferences. You hear the president and the Republicans talk about mail fraud as the biggest problems. But overhanging the whole election is the question of whether our elections will be free and fair, and whether the outcome will be considered legitimate. So I want to start by asking each one of our panelists kind of what could go wrong question and I know there's thousands of things that could go wrong. But we are going to talk about things that can be done and solutions and things that are going right. But to start I just like to ask each of you. What are your top three worst nightmares? Jennifer, you want to start?
MORRELL: You bet. You're right, there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and I think what is important for everybody listening and watching this to remember is no election's ever perfect. Certainly the security issues are still at the top of priorities in terms of cybersecurity, ransomware, spearfishing, all of those things. I think, for me, the biggest concern I have is one, we have individuals playing partisan games with the health of voters and casting doubt on the integrity of the election. And so this sort of general lack of understanding about how elections work, just generally speaking, even among people who think they're knowledgeable about the process, really creates this opportunity for the spread of misinformation, whether that's around how ballots are processed, how and when elections are certified, and some of the different components that go in there, and so I think that's going to happen have a big impact on the way things look in November. And one more thing just in addition to that, we will definitely see a delay of results and I think we'll probably explore that more in this conversation today. But the fear is that that could lead to claims of an illegitimate election or challenges to the outcome of the election that we might not really be prepared to face and deal with. And, you know, just last but not least, I know, this has been repeated many times over the last few months, but there's still this concern among election officials about where they're going to find an adequate number of polling locations. And poll workers to staff those—
LIASSON: Right in a pandemic. Yeah, independent of huge problem, right, because we've got as many as 75 percent of the electorate using mail-in ballots this year, and of course, in New York State, they're still counting from the June 9 primary as of today. So Nate, what are your three worst nightmares?
PERSILY: Well, Jen covered quite a few of them. So let me just amplify some of those and give a little detail. So, I am concerned about how we are shifting the way that Americans vote. Tens of millions of Americans are going to vote in such a short period of time. And so the shift to mail balloting is something that I don't think we've quite come to grips with that an election where if it's 70 percent of Americans who vote by mail is a different type of election than one in which we have election night results. That what we hear are the things that I'm afraid of, which is that we will have hundreds of thousands of people who will not receive their mail ballots, we will have one to two million people who cast their mail ballots and then those ballots are not counted, okay.
And then we will have the problem that Jen Morrell mentioned before, which is that we will have this period after the election in which we don't know the results and then whether it's foreign adversaries or even the domestic political operatives will try to fill that information void with allegations of fraud and malfeasance. And I don't think we're prepared for that. I mean, as polarized as the discussion was in 2016, let alone during Bush versus Gore when we had a razor thin margin on election. The level of polarization and distrust right now is that real all-time high, and we are sort of fertile ground for these kinds of rumors and destabilizing messages to come forward. And so those are the things that I'm worried about. I would say on the poll or on the polling place side that I'm also concerned as a Jen Morrell is about the lack of poll workers and polling places, but also the lack of suitable facilities to conduct elections during the pandemic and to make sure that these facilities will be able to have longer lines and ensure social distancing and that they're designed in a way and they'll be accessible for all voters.
LIASSON: Robert, what are you worried about?
KNAKE: Well, let me pick it up that I mean, I've got a very kind of specific concern. During the two pieces I've written for CFR in the last year: one was on election interference, and the other was on the U.S. Postal Service and modernizing it. I'm actually very worried that we will see the U.S. Postal Service as a whole disrupted prior to the election. We are seeing many signs coming out of the Trump administration that has had a target on the back of the Postal Service for the entire administration, in part due to a feud with Jeff Bezos and his contract with Amazon and the Postal Service over package delivery rates. The president has really focused on getting rid of the Post Office and he's appointed a postmaster general who is focused on making it run like a business what that has meant is that in the last few weeks, we've seen a massive disruption to the Postal Service operations. We've seen slower packages, slower movement of First Class mail, we may not have the Postal Service that we have now, by the time the election comes around. I think that is one of the biggest risks that's not getting talked about.
LIASSON: Well, I haven't heard much about that. So you're saying not only is the president arguing that mail-in balloting is inherently subject to fraud, you're saying when Election Day comes around, he will say it's not even possible to mail in your ballot because the Postal Service is dysfunctional. Because I made it that way. Is that what you're saying?
KNAKE: That is precisely what I'm saying, yes.
LIASSON: Wow. Okay. That's a whole other level that I haven't even wrapped my brain around. Okay. We'll get back to that. David?
SHIMER: Sure. I think I can perhaps add the most in terms of the question of how foreigners or foreign adversaries will seek to interfere in the election and undermine the election and in that regard, I think there are three sort of specific concerns on my mind. The first two have to do with the two ways to manipulate an election. The first way is to manipulate voters to mold public opinion. That's what in 2016 Russia did with its own emails and with propaganda across social media, but something that the very long history of these operations shows is that those tactics are always evolving. We're already seeing reports of new ways that Russia is seeking to infest our information environment. And so I'm watching to see how Russia does that and whether Russia finds new and perhaps more effective ways to do that between now and November.
The second way is to actually target the voting process itself to sabotage voting. Something that I get into in my book is that Russia, based on the intelligence in the White House in '16, had the ability to alter the voter data and even vote tallies of U.S. citizens. That was the GRU and that concern persists, and Russia has shown a willingness in countries like Ukraine and Montenegro to escalate its operations as voting unfolding to either sabotage the voting process or cast doubt on the voting process with propaganda. And so I think we're right for that sort of interference because of all of the doubt that already exists around the voting process for reasons that are entirely domestic in nature.
And the third thing I'm watching out for, as it's been mentioned, is what Russia or others seek to do after the election in order to undermine the result or undermine confidence in the result. Russia had plans to continue interfering in our politics to undermine Hillary Clinton had she won the election four years ago. There's no reason to believe that if, for example, Joe Biden were to win, foreign adversaries would stop seeking to undermine confidence in our democracy, in our elections. And I would expect that in the chaos that will inevitably be the aftermath of voting day this cycle, there will be efforts and opportunities to strike at the heart of the competence in our process of succession.
LIASSON: Well, for the purposes of this discussion, we're going to put aside the kinds of propaganda about candidates like Hillary Clinton, who's running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. That's one kind of foreign interference. But we will talk about foreign interference in terms of telling people that Election Day is Wednesday, or something like that. But I have a follow up question to that. Has Russia's goals do you think changed from 2016 to today? Obviously, they still want to undermine confidence in our democracy. But in 2016, that plus electing Trump became kind of one in the same goal. Is that still the case? Or do they have a different goal now?
SHIMER: So I think this is I think their goal remains the same as part of a global strategy of supporting authoritarian-minded and divisive candidates in order to degrade, disrupt, and discredit democratic systems. And in order to divide democracies, both internally and from one another. Donald Trump is a means to achieving that end, he has been but he's by no means the only way to do so. And I think that Russia will continue to find new ways to undermine and get at the heart of whether our democracy actually works, and that is the objective here to corrupt democracy from within. So I think Donald Trump is a part of that story. But I something that I think often about is that Russia's operation in '16, started in 2014, before Donald Trump was even a candidate for president. So this is not just about Donald Trump, it will not end with Donald Trump. It has to do with what Russia wants for American democracy, which is to tear it down, corrupt it, and ultimately transform it into a more authoritarian-minded version of itself.
LIASSON: And in terms of the other actors who have interfered, China and Iran, what is their agenda?
SHIMER: So I'm skeptical of fear mongering around Chinese and Iranian interference in the election. I think that it makes when you only view this story as a story that started in 2016. That makes logical sense, because that's the starting line. But in fact, the starting line is many decades earlier. And this has been a story of Soviet primarily, but also CIA interference in elections abroad. China and Iran have not been in on the game in any meaningful way. So may they imitate specific tactics of Russia? Sure. Will they be the pioneer here in seeking to direct our elections and undermine our democracy? I don't think that really lines up with either their foreign policies writ large or with their own history. So I'm primarily watching to see whether Russia will break new ground and also whether other countries will try to play catch up. But I don't think that we're going to see this as China, the story here, I do not expect will be Chinese interference in the 2020 election.
LIASSON: Nate, you have some thoughts about China the other day.
PERSILY: I think that the story with China is that they are pursuing their national interests. And if you look at the disinformation campaigns, or the social media propaganda campaigns over the last six months, right, a lot of what they're trying to do is help out their image principally with respect to the pandemic and so that some of its not some of it’s covert but most a lot of it's over and sort of very typical propaganda activities that you see in other domains. And then you know, you see a combination of covert and overt work when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwan. But I agree with David as to what their likely sort of impulse would be with this election. I will also say that while we're focusing a lot on, we tend to try to fight the last war here. And that sort of Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns, I don't think is going to be, you know, the story in this election, because in some ways, there is so much disinformation that's in the natural ecosystem right now that the foreign-sponsored amount of it is really a small area.
LIASSON: The Russians were doing great on our own. Yeah.
PERSILY: Yeah. It's really as it's a pretty fertile ground here. But David is onto something when he talks about the systems and so while I actually think that the voting machines themselves, we focus a lot on them, and I was on a National Academy panel that that was on the security of voting technology. The voting machines themselves I think, are pretty good that we thought we fear about but one of the problems with the adaptation that we're making in the, in the, as a consequence of COVID is that we are rushing into the marketplace all kinds of other electronic systems that are going to be dealing with mail balloting and dealing with other you know, the electronic poll books is something that we've been. So there's a lot more technology that's actually being used besides the voting machines. And those are the systems that we really need to harden against foreign interference.
LIASSON: Well, let's talk about that. Let's talk about what systems are the most vulnerable and are most, you know, open to attack. We already heard about the postal system, which I guess is getting more vulnerable by the day as it gets kind of disintegrated from above. But what are the weakest points in terms of balance securities? Is it the voter registration rolls, which create their own kind of chaos? Is it actual ballot counting? What is it?
PERSILY: Well, I will just start with sort of thinking about what is different about this election, which is that everyone is at home, they're not getting paper thrust in their face. Whether it's voter registration, people coming to their door asking registered voters, people standing for Walmart getting signatures right so a lot more is happening online. So the security of the online voter registration systems is really quite important. I will say DHS has been pretty dedicated to this issue and there they have that on their radar screen same is true with electronic poll books and the firms. What has—and you're going to get Jen Morrell's ideas on this—what I don't think we've quite come to grips with is all this new equipment that is related to the mail process and how you could, if you are a strategic actor, screw with that and have downstream effects in terms of the night the time when people might get their balance, whether the barcodes on the envelopes are correct, all of that. These are very solvable problems if you have a few months, but there are a lot of jurisdictions that are buying this equipment right now and I'm worried they're not going to have time to test it.
LIASSON: Oh yeah. Jennifer, where are we, in terms of Nate just said voting machines are pretty good. What has improved since 2016, and where are we still really vulnerable? And what would we need to do between now and November?
MORRELL: Sure. And he's absolutely right. I think the focus that had been on voting machines has shifted just a little bit. There's been since 2016 this enormous emphasis within the election community on cybersecurity and vulnerability assessments and training from the state all the way down to the local municipal clerk on how to both change their behavior in terms of the way they interact with, you know, with the internet and with all things cyber, and sort of rethinking that. So I think that's played a really big role in that I do agree that the voter registration system, although not as talked about as much, is probably a weak link. There certainly are, again, tremendous efforts across all the states to really secure that network. I think the best thing that voters can do is regularly check that to make sure their registration information is correct and up to date. I, you know, that's where we all do we all need to encourage everyone to do that.
LIASSON: Who regularly checks their voter registration status, like—
MORRELL: No one.
LIASSON: Zero percent of Americans, yeah.
MORRELL: But I think if we're going to be successful in November, it's on each of us ourselves, and to encourage our friends and family to all have a plan. And that means know where you're going to vote, know how you're going to vote, and make sure you are checking all those things that. You're right, we don't do that. There's been a larger emphasis now on post-election audits as a way to sort of validate the way the voting equipment tallies or tabulates ballots. So I that's added to the strengthening that system. As far as those other components that Nate talked about there is this ecosystem, both in terms of mail ballot production, whether that's equipment and the election office or that's contracted out, as well as larger jurisdictions that are buying new equipment to sort and do things like that. I think there's less vulnerability there. Best practices still, certainly not to have any of those components connected to the internet. But I don't think it's as big of a concern as that key part, which is the voter registration system.
LIASSON: When you talk about voter registrations being tampered with, that means people go to vote, and they're told, sorry, you're not registered. And that could happen in inner-city areas in certain precincts. Tremendous numbers of people are disenfranchised on Election Day when they go to vote. Is that what you're talking about?
MORRELL: I am and they still would be allowed to vote a provisional ballot—
LIASSON: Well provisionally, yeah.
MORRELL: —it would slow things down, it would create chaos. Same for ballots being mailed out if somebody wanted to, you know, go in and like change addresses or things like that, it certainly would create a lot of chaos. I feel like the election community's pretty resilient, and they would deal with that. But I'll tell you what, they've got a lot that's being thrown at them right now. And so that it certainly would have an effect.
LIASSON: Yeah. Robert, I want to pick up on this idea of the post office being purposely undermined. I mean, President Trump has not repeated the exact words he said in 2016, which is "I can, I only accept the outcome of the election if I win," but he has refused to say whether he would accept it or not saying "I don't want to give you a yes or no answer." What I'm wondering is how, how important is it that both candidates say right now that they'll accept the results?
KNAKE: Well, I mean, I think it's critical. There was a study that was done by independent group, nonpartisan group, of national security professionals that looked at what might happen between Election Day and Inauguration Day if Donald Trump lost and I think their conclusion was pretty stark, it was Donald Trump doesn't need to win in his mind, he only needs to cast doubt as to whether or not he lost. I think—
LIASSON: That means the election has to be close enough for him to do that.
KNAKE: Exactly. Or he needs to be able to cast doubt on the outcome if there is a larger gap by saying that votes were fraudulent, votes weren't counted, that many of his voters weren't able to vote for various reasons. And so, I think there's any number of ways that we could see Russia primarily but possibly other actors, create disruptions that would cast into doubt on the outcome of the election. And it could be the direct interference in the ability to vote, the ability to register to vote. But it could also be something on a larger scale. We know that Russia has now twice carried out what I would call trial runs in Ukraine to take down the power grid. We know from the DNI, the Director of National Intelligence, that Russia has that capability in the United States, that their inner power network and could cause at least localized, and at least temporary, disruptions. If some disruption like that happens on Election Day, and traffic lights are out, and voters can't get to the poll, if there is widespread fear, if there is any kind of disruption on a societal level caused by that, that might give him the excuse to say "I didn't in-fact, lose this election because people didn't really get to vote. We're going to have to reschedule this for a later time."
LIASSON: Well, well, I really wanted to move on to solutions, but the dystopian "what could go wrong" is so compelling, I want to stay on that for a second. David, do you think that disrupting the electrical grid is a better move for Russia? Are they actually able to go into the registration rolls or the balance systems and screw things up that way?
SHIMER: I think what—
LIASSON: What do you think are Russia's kind of best moves to do? Yeah.
SHIMER: So I think what Russia has done abroad is the best indication of what Russia could do here. In Ukraine. Russia has not only done trial rounds of hitting power grids, they've also, for example, placed a virus in Ukraine's election commission that would have caused Ukraine to announce the wrong election results. And this virus was detected, and they ended up not announcing those results, but Russian state media still did. And the idea was that once those results were announced, they would then announce the actual results, but everyone would be confused. So and that's not really—
LIASSON: Have to do that in 10 different states as opposed to one country.
SHIMER: Exactly. So you could do it in different states. You can just create confusion and chaos that way, you can go after power grids, you could go after voter databases. There, there are many different things that you can do. The idea, the overall objective is just to make the population believe "wait, our voting process wasn't fair" and the Russian tradition is to take advantage of pre-existing weaknesses. And we are so vulnerable to sabotage of our voting process, because there's so much doubt as a result of the pandemic, as a result of the president alleging that the vote will be rigged, that we'll even have a fair election regardless of what Russia does, which from the Russian perspective is an extraordinary opportunity to really just strike at the heart of the world's leading democracy and showing the world this process of succession isn't viable, it's penetrable, it's manipulable.
And that in some ways, it's a very unique opportunity which, from Moscow's perspective, might be irresistible. It could be power grids, it could be databases, it could be just falsifying results in a really surface-level way. But certainly Russia has those capabilities one way or another. The question is whether they'll execute upon them and one key point here is that there's no longer a deterrent at the presidential level as there was, at least in some regards four years ago, I don't think anyone believes that there would be retaliation by the White House for Russia to do something like we're talking about, which makes the reasons to do it all the more and the reasons not to significantly minimized.
LIASSON: So in the in the few minutes we have left before Q&A, I want you guys to outline kind of this simple top three things we should be doing now, what the federal, what parts of the federal government are actually trying to do this. I know, we don't have any kind of leadership from the White House on this. They don't consider it a real problem. And what state governments and local governments need to do. What's, what's the simple, you know, bullet point solution to this right now? Jennifer?
MORRELL: Sure. So, they're already doing it, that's the great thing. So you've got you heard system mentioned they're doing a lot of information sharing, coordinating with other federal partners, putting out best practices these days.
LIASSON: When you say they, who's they? Because it's not the White House. Okay.
MORRELL: Yeah no, no, this is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, they're a sub-sector of DHS. So that's happening. You've got state organizations like the National Association of Secretaries of State, state election directors, really focusing on trusted information and communicating with voters and really coordinating best practices among states. As David mentioned, you know, for better or worse, we have 50 states with 10,000 jurisdictions all doing things slightly differently. So they are trying to focus on sharing those best practices, lessons learned from the primaries. I think the trickiest part, and it's not sexy, it's not cybersecurity, it's not hardening structures. All of those things are happening.
Contingency planning, you know, identifying these potential breaches and things, all of those things are happening in most jurisdictions, plans to combat fraud and all of this. What's challenging is figuring out how to communicate all of that to voters and to people like all of you, in a way that's understandable, in a way that builds trust. I mean, there are layers and layers and layers of security and protocols and things like that, that are being done in these election offices every day. How do you share that with the public in a way that helps them feel confident about what you're doing, despite the fact that there might be a slower than normal reporting, despite the fact that we might see some lines because of spacing due to COVID on Election Day? How do we communicate that and election administrators are great at what they do, they're great at project management, they're great at all of these sort of contingency planning. We struggle a little bit in communications. That's not until recently been at the top of that list of things that have been focused on and now suddenly we have to be experts in that. So figuring out how to share that message, I think what the public is, is probably the one of the biggest priorities we could focus on.
LIASSON: Nate, what do you think is doable? What needs to be done and what's doable? Given that I that I'm assuming you wouldn't expect the federal government to give you to give states and localities much more money to do this with or leadership?
PERSILY: Right. Well, there's a question as to whether we're going to get some other added money from the CARES Act. You know, what we'll hopefully we will, I'll let me just build on what Jen Morrell said, which is that, like, I think there's a role for Facebook, Google, and Twitter to play here in amplifying the voices of local election officials to provide accurate information on what is actually happening. And so these are companies that could, if they wanted to, put at the top of people's feeds this kind of accurate information for the 45 days before the election.
LIASSON: Is there any indication that they want to?
PERSILY: Yeah, there are. They're going to do some of that. Facebook is already got its Voter Information Center that it's going to be rolling out, and Google find something called the Voting Information Project, which is with Democracy Works and that those are important systems, but they want to, but what I'm saying is that they beyond that what they need to do is literally force feed people information from trusted sources, because there’s going to be so many untrusted sources that are going to be coming out. But based also on what we said before, we need that we need to understand the plans of the battleground states in particular. Pennsylvania has to be clear very soon, about what it is going to be doing in this election. Because right now, there there's real cause for concern, I think, in some of the big cities and how they're going to handle mail balloting online. And we all have a responsibility to make clear that this is going to be a different election, right? And that we need to prepare now for the likelihood that we won't know the winner on election night.
LIASSON: That's a big problem. Yeah, I mean, like I said, we're still counting ballots in New York State from the June 9 primary. So yeah, okay. Robert, like, yeah, what do we do about that?
KNAKE: So I mean, I would say that my two priorities would be one, I'd like to see Vice President Biden come out with a much stronger statement of deterrence, something a little bit more along the lines of "if you interfere this election, which I'm going to win anyway, there will be hell to pay." And try and get that message out very publicly, but also get that message out, privately to the Russians. I think that that is extremely important. The other thing that I think is important—
LIASSON: You mean like it's an act of war?
KNAKE: Yeah, I mean, get to the point of Russia understanding that the consequences will be severe. And then I think the second point begin building now, the coalition internationally, that would to help support making those consequences severe for Russians. I think the most important thing that Vice President Biden could do on this front would be to put out a very clear statement that his administration will ban U.S. intelligence community from engaging in covert election interference abroad and probably to commit to having some kind of reckoning with past election interference, not only during the Cold War, but now in order to get support from our democratic allies around the world who right now I think have a sense of turnabout is fair play. We now live in a world in which if Paraguay wanted to, they could interfere in this election, is no longer in our interest to think that this is a tool that we can use and others can't. It's a tool that we've got to get put back into Pandora's Box.
LIASSON: Yep. David?
SHIMER: So, so I agree with that completely. In terms of what else I think could be done between now and November, I think it's about managing the problem of foreign interference. I don't think there should be any illusion that there's a way to solve the problem. If our if adversaries like Russia decide they want to proceed aggressively, they'll proceed aggressively. But to mitigate the effectiveness of that, I think there can be an effort not only by folks like Vice President Biden, but I wish also by Republican lawmakers to depoliticize this issue, to communicate to the country that this isn't an attack against a political party, it's an attack against our democracy. And there should be some sense of pride in in seeking to hold a stable election, that that's the point of having a democracy and if the people don't care that their democracy is under assault, then that's a huge part of the problem.
And I think some sort of effort there to make this a national motivating issue has been completely lacking and maybe could be somewhat helpful. I think that as was mentioned, by Nate, I think with social media companies, as well as with journalists, I think there could be a bit more transparency and responsibility than happened four years ago. Not to cast blame or throw stones, I think things were very, felt very new four years ago that aren't now. And I think if a foreign network identified say, so online if documents are dumped, and we don't know who released them, make that more of a focus of the story than the gossip within those messages there. There's a role to play here in communicators of information.
And the last thing that I would say is some sort of, I mean, it really does fall on the people in a really profound way in the history of foreign operations to interfere in elections. When the people don't care, those operations succeed. When people are engaged in searching for facts and deciding not to be gullible and staying calm, when the unexpected or the unthinkable happens, these operations are much less worth doing. And so I think that if people have in their minds the awareness that there will be unknowns, there will be new hurdles, but to just stay the course to vote and to wait and be patient, it would be much harder for Russia to sow the kind of chaos that it perhaps will try to.
LIASSON: What's that like big, big responsibility falls on Biden, on the Democrats, because as much as you might hope, it doesn't sound like they're going to be Republican leaders who stand up and say what you want them to say. I mean, we had Bill Barr just the other day say he thinks that mail fraud is a huge problem, you know, mail, mail ballot fraud. Let's turn open this up to Q&A. So at this point, I would like to invite members to join the conversation with questions. And this part, this whole thing has been on the record, but so are your questions, and we're going to be able to hear you but not see you. So we're ready for the first question.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) We will take our first question from Joseph Nye.
Q: In 2018, there was widespread expectation of Russian involvement in the congressional elections, and it didn't occur. Some people attribute that to the new defensive-offense doctrine of Cyber Command. Some people around Cyber Command have said that they basically intervened and stopped a number of Russian actions before they could be effective. What's the lessons of 2018? Is this just advertising for Cyber Command's new doctrine called persistent engagement? Or was there a real effect? And if there was a real effect, can we expect any of it to carry over into 2020?
LIASSON: David, what do you think about that? And also did the Russians just care a little bit less about congressional elections than they do about a presidential? I don't know.
SHIMER: Well, I do think that's important. I think we should definitely separate congressional elections from presidential ones. For example, when the CIA interfered in Chile's elections in 1969 and '70. Sixty-nine was a congressional race, the interference was extremely limited. And '70, it was a presidential race. It was much more expansive as it was in the previous presidential race. So I would not say it's a completely equal comparison. But I do think there are lessons to draw, one of which is that I hope that the government, the federal government, will take offensive steps in deterring Russian aggression, were Russia to seek to proceed more aggressively in interfering in the election. I think there are real, there are questions about whether federal agencies can proceed with doing so regardless of the attitude of the executive himself. And I think that that's a question that I don't know the answer to.
But I think a lesson from '16 as well is that using countermeasures before a vote rather than after a vote can have a positive effect. And I hope that that were to be the case this time around. I also think a lesson of '18 is that I saw a lot of statements about no successful Russian interference. And I read those as meaning that no systems were manipulated. But there was still propaganda being circulated. And something that I think is very important to remember is that there are again, two ways to interfere in an election by a foreign adversary, manipulating people and manipulating systems. And so I think we need to keep both of those threats at the forefront of our minds from now until November because there's no way to know which Russia will proceed with more aggressively in which Russia might decide not to. I think there's a credible case that's been mentioned that spreading disinformation is maybe less appealing this time as compared to manipulating systems. So whereas four years ago, it was it was the flip. So I think keeping both of those objective, both of those methods in mind, helps us have a fuller picture of what Russia could do.
PERSILY: One thing there, which is just that, you know, we're in an environment right now with roughly 45 percent of Americans say that they will not, they don't trust the system. And you know, depending on how this election goes you'll have different parties that may grow and may be different. The structure of that group may be different. I do think we should expect more of the type of Russian disinformation that is trying to foster division and lessen confidence in the election, the kind of candidates. Now to be clear, most of the social media presence that Russia had in 2016, was also just, you know, fostering division and the like. But I think that that this time because of the unique way that we are voting and all the crisis surrounding corona that you will see a lot more messaging about delegitimizing the democracy itself.
LIASSON: Right and I think the numbers on the people who believe the election will not be legitimate are very high in both parties. Is that correct?
PERSILY: Yeah, it depends how you ask the question. It's actually kind of interesting. Lynn Vavreck, I think published in the New York Times recently that Democrats are much more concerned about exclusion, right. And, of course, Republicans are more concerned about things like mail.
LIASSON: Right. You know, but high numbers of people in both parties think the election might not be legitimate. That means Russia has already succeeded before Election Day.
PERSILY: Well, it's not just the Russia. I mean, this is the problem, right, which is that the sources of our alienation and division are not mostly foreign—
LIASSON: Sure. And you can say Donald Trump has succeeded, yes.
PERSILY: Concern about lack of confidence in U.S. elections has actually been growing over time, and it's a feature of our polarization.
LIASSON: Okay, next question.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from David Sanger.
LIASSON: Hi, David.
Q: Hi. Thanks very much. It's been a great conversation. I wanted to go back to the registration system discussion we had. Because it seemed to be the common area where many of you had your concerns. And I think I heard two different concerns. The first is, of course, the Russians got into the registration system, so we don't have any evidence that they did anything with them in 2016. And then the second is that we're now more dependent on an accurate registration system, because we're going to be sending out so many of these mail-in ballots, and therefore that leaves lots of opportunity to, you know, change whether or not you've indication of whether or not you're still in the district, whether you moved, have the delivery problems that go with it, and so forth. So it's wondering if one of you could sort of pick those apart, and just sort of break down where you think the vulnerability within the registration system is, and then whether or not at this point, we're so late in the game because a lot of registration will close in mid-September or there abouts. Is it really too late to put in the systems that might make a big difference?
MORRELL: I can take a stab at that. I'm probably not going to give you the answer you want because I actually think our registration systems are more secure now than they ever have been. So while we acknowledge that there are vulnerabilities, and part of that is in most of those are statewide systems compared to voter vote tabulating systems, which you've got to if you're going to affect those, you've got 10,000 systems, right that you've got to target. But you now, you know, have full you sort of state focus on those systems, robust backups, mitigation plans, if there wasn't something like a ransomware attack of how to quickly bring that back up back up into full production. Much, much better vulnerability assessments, out different detection systems that have been put in play across all 50 states. I mean, I just feel like they're in terms of resources and securing and monitoring, we've done a lot better job at that.
You also have more states now participating in things like ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, sharing sort of data and information and sort of really monitoring that voter registration database a little bit better. I think the thing that we're lacking that we won't have in place in time for November, and maybe not until the next presidential is, we do need a better way to audit that system doing regular like robust audits, looking for any anomalies like we discussed before, and that's a really good thing is it's a very dynamic system. It's always being updated and changed. So I think it's not as big of an issue in my view of vulnerability. It shouldn't be dismissed. But I think everyone should feel confident it's a secure or more secure than I think it has been in my time I'm working in elections.
LIASSON: Just a quick follow up. How many of the battleground states now have a paper ballot backup program?
MORRELL: Yeah, most that's something. Thanks for bringing that up, Mara. I was thinking about when we were talking about the vulnerabilities is it thanks to some of this money that's coming in most have changed from a paperless sort of DRE system to a having a paper, auditable paper trail that they can go back to.
LIASSON: Okay, next question.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Laurie Garrett.
LIASSON: My goodness. Hi, Laurie. She needs to unmute.
STAFF: Dr. Garrett, if you could, please accept the unmute now button.
Q: Sorry about that. Hi, Mara.
LIASSON: Hi, Laurie.
Q: This question is for Robert. Because Alan Dershowitz, while he was still serving as a legal consultant to the White House, wrote an essay addressing specifically what Robert raised. He said, it is possible, although unlikely, that voting by mail will be unrealistic if the pandemic were to get so much worse, that it endanger the lives of postal workers. So it is not too early to ask this question: what does the Constitution provide in the event that an emergency precludes any election before the end of the term of a president? And he went on to give his answer. What do you say to Alan Dershowitz?
KNAKE: Well, I mean, I think I probably should have raised the pandemic as a very real threat to postal workers in my original answer. Some of the disruptions that we're seeing, at least on a local level, have been due to outbreaks within postal facilities and workers getting sick, facilities getting shut down. So there's definitely a danger from the pandemic itself and from the pandemic being used as an excuse to shut down postal operations around the election. So I think that's incredibly dangerous. I mean, I think, for my answer, and I am not a lawyer, I think the election must go on. I don't think we have ever in our history disrupted the election process, including the 1918 pandemic. I don't think we should do that. Now. I remember after 9/11, there were calls at least within New York City to say, we can't have an election, it's not time to have a new mayor, stay the course. And that was tamped down I think hopefully we'll be in a similar situation on a national scale now and we will move forward with an election.
LIASSON: But does the president have the power to literally stop mailing ballots officially? Not just mess with the Postal Service and make it super incompetent, but literally shut it down for the purposes of the election?
KNAKE: I think that that is an open question within the post office has a series of emergency authorities that they can invoke, that have been invoked in the past. If you remember when the anthrax attacks were happening, postal operations were halted in some areas for a time. So the neither rain nor sleet nor snow mantra of the Postal Service isn't actually hammered into law even if it is hammered into granite. And so it is, I think possible for the Postmaster General to suspend operations due to COVID or other circumstances.
LIASSON: They need to add sleet, snow, and COVID. But they didn't do that. Right.
PERSILY: Can I just weigh in on the legal framework here, which is that the president can't set aside an election, the election date is set by Congress. Now the only ones you can you can change that. Beyond that each state legislature, though, is empowered by the Constitution to determine the manner of choosing electors and so there is the possibility that you could have state-specific efforts that would be related to changing you know, the selection of electors like the college.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Meena Bose.
Q: Hi, Meena Bose from Hofstra University. I wanted to pick up on the comment about social media playing a role in this election. And I think it's very important and helpful to have Facebook, Twitter, other forms of media communicate that we won't know election results on November 3, the processes that boards of elections are undertaking right now. But it seems to me that county boards of elections do not typically have a communication staff, that that's not what they do. And as these points have been raised, and they're all so important, I wonder if there needs to be some and maybe this is taking place already, but some sort of partnership with gubernatorial offices, and perhaps the National Governors Association working with the boards of elections right, to communicate this message, are focused so much right now, at the end of July is what happens with schools in August and September. But it seems to me that the very next issue has to be kind of communicating a clear message about what to expect on Election Day.
MORRELL: So there's been this great collaboration within the community both from election administrators, academic organizations, nonprofit organizations to really help those local offices think about both print material things to put on their website, social media. So I think there is some of that. I think, you know, Nate, I'm sure got some thoughts around the Facebook. But I'll just add, one thing that I've seen more locals talk about is figuring out how to build a network of sort of local agencies and influencers that can help kind of amplify those messages of what to expect. So I think it's a partnership between groups like Facebook, between these other organizations that are trying to fill in the gaps in the communication infrastructure for local organizations. And again, all of us sort of helping to amplify those, the good messages.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Seth Johnston.
Q: Hi, Seth Johnston from Georgetown University. Thanks for the timely and informative conversation. I'd like to follow up on our friend Joe Nye's question about historical lessons. And his question was about the lessons of the 2018 election in the United States. And both Robert and my fellow Marshall Scholar David mentioned the Ukraine recently. I wonder if there are other recent historical examples that could teach us either pitfalls, or potential successes, to try to emulate. For example, the recently published report from the U.K. about Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, what does that teach? And likewise, for a potentially positive example, my understanding is that the 2017 election in France is often cited as one where some successful measures were put in place at the counter foreign interference. So what other what are their historical lessons from that recent past.
LIASSON: Yeah, where, where have people successfully fended off this kind of problem?
SHIMER: Sure. So I can talk about--
PERSILY: France or David, why don't you start?
SHIMER: Okay. Yeah, I would just say I guess I'd say three things. The first is that maybe this isn't as recent, but in general, there has been rampant interference in democracies and elections all over the world for many decades. And something that history instructs is that many of those democracies like Italy or France or Japan, who have had their elections under siege for decades, remain functioning democracies today. So I think some sort of hands up what can we do about this? It's all doomed is not actually reflective of how these operations have unfolded and what their consequences have been. I think that in terms of the UK-Russia report, I think that offers lessons and what not to do, which is not to find facts and let rumor fester. I think that the best weapons democracies have or one of them is to play as much catch up as is possible and seeking to understand the scope and sweep of an interference operation as soon as the election took place or thereafter.
We did do that with the Mueller investigation, with congressional investigations, and trying to get as good of a handle as we possibly could. I think the UK didn't do that. And I think now there's a lot of confusion within the British government as well as the British polity about to what degree Russia even meddled in the Brexit referendum, for example, whereas I think in France, as you said, that's a lesson in what to do, which is a lesson in my opinion of gullibility, which is when the Russian-linked hackers released emails stolen from the Macron campaign, the country didn't descend into some sort of chaotic mosh pit of, let's cover this breaking news on you know, their equivalent of CNN and whatnot. They said we just saw America get played a couple months ago. We don't want to get played journalists, politicians, and citizens alike all we're a bit more mindful of that recent history and there are also things specific, differentiated society it like a, like a media blackout that made that more possible. But the point being that a lot of this falls on individual actors and determining how far and how wide are we going to let this sort of infection go? And are we going to take responsibility for defending the sovereignty of our own democracies?
LIASSON: Nate, you talked earlier about political polarization has any country that's as polarized as ours has been able to successfully defend itself against that kind of interference?
PERSILY: Well, it's hard to find one. I think that's one of the things that makes us different than France and the Scandinavian countries. We one of the things that the French did in their election is that they had someone embedded at Facebook. I mean, they had someone, someone in the government who is who was able to work with them. Who would that be in the U.S. right now, who would actually be the kind of nonpartisan representative of government that's going to be sort of involved in, you know, other social media companies. And if you look at the way like the Finnish and the Scandinavian countries that have operated here right, they have national offices that are responsible for election protection and responsible for these kinds of issues and push out messages on behalf of the government. And so, you know, we don't have a robust public broadcasting system here comparable to, you know, European countries. No offense to any NPR reporter—
LIASSON: Yeah, I don't take it personally.
PERSILY: You know and so if you have, you know, a trusted news source that can then counteract these messages, that's a very different position than what we have here, where we have incredible polarization that prevents us from having unified response.
LIASSON: Do you think that there's a difference between President Trump and the federal government here? Maybe with the exception of the guy he just installed his head at the post office?
PERSILY: Well, you know, it's not just President Trump, but it's the fact that we our view of the First Amendment here precludes all kinds of federal intervention that is much easier in other countries and so it's not just him but though he's a symptom. But it's the fact that there's no I mean, whether you're looking at the Census Bureau or the Federal Reserve or CDC right now you have polarization on what we're historically seen as non-partisan expert institutions. And so all the more so when you're talking about literally monitoring politics.
LIASSON: Next question.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Lauren Leader.
LIASSON: Hi, Laura.
Q: Hi, Mara, nice to see you. Thank you for this amazing, if not totally terrifying conversation. I wanted to loop back to voter education and voter engagement. Sorry, Lauren Leader, CEO of All In Together. I want to talk about voter education. You touched on it a little bit. This may be one of the most difficult voter education elections certainly of my lifetime. Every state has different rules on early voting, mail-in, etc. It feels like it goes so far beyond just getting people to register to vote this year that they there's such a vast array of information voters need in order to even just get to the polls, cast a ballot, however they do it. So what are your thoughts about what you think are the most important things—you could summarize in a couple key bullets—most important things that voters need to know, in terms of protecting their own right to vote in this very complex, potentially compromised election. You mentioned, for instance, provisional ballots. That seems like it's one small thing, but others that you would suggest are critical for the average voter to understand, but how to protect their own right to vote.
MORRELL: Yeah, I mean, I think all the mechanics behind the scenes are great if you if you're interested in that can help build trust, but I think when we're talking about what voters really need to know, understanding what your options are in your jurisdiction. If I need to vote a mail ballot, what does that look like? Do I need to fill out an application? If I do, what is the deadline to request that? What is the deadline to return that ballot? If I need to vote in person, that probably is going to look different this election than it has in elections past because of this change that's occurred in availability of locations. So knowing and understanding, what are the options for in person voting? Where would that be early voting Election Day? What are the hours? Where do I go? I think those are just the three most critical things. What are my options? What am I going to choose of those two options by mail or in person? And then understanding the dates and deadlines and times and things like that are around those?
LIASSON: Is that Robert, is that a start? Is there anything else? Yeah.
KNAKE: I mean, I really think that you hit on it. The most essential thing is probably what do you need to get that mail ballot? When do you need to register it, ask for it, and when do you need to get it back?
MORRELL: Yeah, and also understanding how to return it. We talked a lot about the importance of the postal system, which they are absolutely critical to this, especially getting ballots out. A lot of jurisdictions are trying to deploy mail ballot drop boxes to get them back. So again, as a voter kind of knowing, is it prepaid? Do I, can I, only return via USPS or is there an option to deliver that in person to an election officer, into an official drop box?
STAFF: We will take our next question from Jeff Shafer.
Q: Jeff Schaffer National Committee on American Foreign Policy. You've talked a lot about the technological complexities we're going to face in this COVID world to pull this off. Whether we come halfway close to getting a fair election out of it really depends on the functioning of the army of election officials who are going to have to administer this and solve the problems. And I'm wondering if anybody's willing to generalize, if you look across the country, are these people we can trust to be committed to a fair election? Are they people who are going to call the shots one way or another depending on who they want to see win?
LIASSON: That's a really good question. A lot of them are older and scared of COVID. So maybe you want to take that?
PERSILY: Well, yeah, I want to, Jenn Morrell did actually run elections for Arapahoe County, I want to defer to her, but to give her validation here, I will simply say that while we tend to think that election administration is incredibly partisan and polarized because we pay attention to it at the national level, the farther down the hierarchy you go, it becomes a lot less polarized and much more management-oriented. And so that so don't assume that the national conversation is actually infecting what's happening at the local level. For the most part, these are folks who, whose main motivation is they don't want their face on the, you know, on the front page of the next day, being like the person who administered the election in Palm Beach County in 2000. I'll defer to Jen here.
MORRELL: Thanks, Nate. I think one of the things that always touched me every time I ran an election is both the election administrators behind the scenes as well as that army of poll workers all have to raise their hand and take an oath, that they will administer the election fairly in accordance with the Constitution. And they take that very, very seriously. It's a really touching thing to administer that oath. And I've done that multiple times over 10 years that I ran elections. I think if you talk to election administrators, and you ask them what would be like the number one thing that would help make their job better in running elections, it would be to decouple election administration from politics. You know, politics should be left on the campaign trail, it really has no place in election administration. And yet, it often influences some of those decisions. So the folks like Nate said, down on the ground running them, they would like to get as far away from politics as they can. So they can just focus on good processes. And getting this done. I will say, that's one of the challenges. These offices are understaffed, and not just understaffed, but really don't have the people with the skills that we need for the technology that they're expected to use today. So that's, that's a whole other area. Once we get through November, we really need to think about how we can invest in both the people and technology if this is important to us.
LIASSON: That's a remarkably positive way to end this discussion. There weren't a whole lot of positive stories, but that is one that the people on the ground are actually trying to do their job in a nonpartisan way. And they're the frontlines of democracy in this case in November. So thank you very much for joining our virtual meeting. And I want to thank all of our distinguished panelists, the audio and the transcript of today's meeting will be posted on the CFR website. I'm assuming that happens pretty quickly. And thank you so much for joining us today.