Election interference can refer to a wide range of actions taken to influence the outcome of an election. Democratic countries enact laws to prevent undue interference and preserve the integrity of their elections. While some types of election interference may be illegal, other types are regarded as only unethical or cynically viewed as common fixtures of campaigning. Some activities are prohibited in certain settings to prevent the possibility of election interference but may be allowed elsewhere. For example, passive electioneering laws prohibit people from wearing clothing or accessories in support of a candidate while at a polling place.
Election interference can take many forms. In its most explicit form, vote counts are directly manipulated by stuffing ballot boxes, rejecting eligible ballots, or compromising electronic voting systems. Party operatives may offer bribes to voters, spread disinformation about specific candidates or the election itself, or conspire with members of the opposition. Companies engage in election interference when they prevent employees from voting or pressuring them to vote a certain way. Government officials may abuse their positions to give themselves or their allies electoral advantages. Lawmakers may pass voting restrictions or purge voter rolls to make voting more difficult for communities unlikely to support them. Officials can influence the outcome of an election through tactics that change the character of an electorate, such as manipulating the census, closing polling stations, or gerrymandering, which involves designating voting districts in such a way as to favor a single political party. Some types of election interference involve violence, such as when the military instigates a coup or when an authoritarian leader has their political opponent arrested, imprisoned, or assassinated.
In addition to people acting on behalf of their preferred party, policy, or candidate within their own country, foreign nations have also sought to meddle in the democratic processes of other countries. To prevent the appearance of dual loyalties, most countries forbid political candidates from receiving financial support from foreign sources. In addition to helping a preferred candidate win an election, foreign countries may use election interference as a means of sowing chaos and undermining faith in their adversary's institutions. In the twenty-first century, foreign electoral intervention has increasingly become a focus of concern. The internet has enabled new and expanded forms of election interference as political operatives take advantage of vulnerable computer networks to access private data and use popular social media networks to spread disinformation and other propaganda.
Foreign governments have long sought to influence the outcomes of other countries' elections, making election interference a common phenomenon of modern democracies. During the 1796 U.S. presidential election, for example, French officials unsuccessfully tried to sway the vote toward their preferred candidate, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), through questionable tactics like leaking diplomatic letters to the press.
Foreign electoral interventions increased significantly after World War II (1939–1945). Following the conflict, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR; Soviet Union) emerged as dominant world powers, leading to the Cold War (1947–1991). Many countries gained independence from the European countries that had colonized them over the past centuries. As these countries pursued their own systems of government, the United States and the Soviet Union made a frequent habit of interfering in elections. Research indicates that the two countries involved themselves in more than 11 percent of national executive-level elections between 1946 and 2000. Experts suggest that the support provided by these foreign countries often had a substantial effect on the outcome. However, the full impact of any intervention on voters is difficult to measure.
During the Cold War, most foreign electoral intervention occurred under the auspices of promoting either Western-style capitalist democracy or Marxist-Leninist socialism. However, these interventions often sought to secure access to the country's markets, resources, and strategic position. For example, U.S. interference in Iranian politics in the early 1950s led to the overthrow of democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (1882–1967) and the subsequent installation of the authoritarian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980). The motivation behind the interventions appeared to align more with the United States' desire to maintain access to Iranian oil reserves.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation incorporated election interference into its foreign policy, particularly in its dealing with fellow former republics of the Soviet Union. Foreign election intervention also continued with other states, Iran and China in particular, emerging as variables. Democracy experts have also questioned the integrity of elections within the Russian Federation.
Election Interference in the Twenty-First Century
As global power has shifted in the twenty-first century, countries have asserted themselves by seeking to influence the elections of other countries. In 2017, for example, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (1954–) instructed ethnic Turks living in Germany to vote against German chancellor Angela Merkel (1954–) and the Christian Democratic Union Party. In response, Merkel vowed that Germany would not tolerate such interference and expressed her disapproval of Turkey's bids to join the European Union (EU). Such overt election interference differs significantly from the type of covert activities that began to occur online.
The ability of governments to influence elections evolved dramatically with the rise of the internet and social media. The increased connectivity of computer networks allowed hostile actors to breach vulnerable systems. Once hackers have gained access to these systems, they may copy confidential data, install malicious software, or manipulate the systems' operations. The rise of social media enables broader election influence, particularly as many social media sites allow users to share unverified information from unverified accounts.
Following the ascendancy of Russian leader Vladimir Putin (1952–) in 1999, the Russian government made increasing use of web brigades, state-sponsored groups that engage in online propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Often referred to as troll farms, these groups began by posting pro-Russian comments on websites and developed into large-scale operations that create and share misleading content through thousands of fake profiles, sometimes referred to as sock puppet accounts. The Chinese government engages in similar efforts through its Propaganda Department, which enlists internet commenters to post positive messages about China. These commenters are commonly referred to as the 50 Cent Army, a reference to the alleged amount of money they are paid for each comment. Similar groups operate in Israel, Turkey, and Vietnam.
In the 2010s, Russia began to use the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a multilevel trolling operation, to influence public opinion about Russia, particularly its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and to target foreign elections. A study by the Crime and Security Research Institute of Cardiff University found that, though most IRA activity focused on Ukraine in 2014, the agency quickly expanded its operations. By 2016, the agency was sending out hundreds of social media posts a year in Arabic, Bulgarian, English, Estonian, French, German, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian, seeking to influence political opinion throughout Europe and the United States.
Following the United Kingdom's 2016 Brexit referendum, in which a majority voted in favor of leaving the EU, investigators discovered that the IRA had targeted social media platforms with pro-Brexit, anti-EU messaging. IRA operatives used sock puppet accounts to pretend to be British voters angry about immigration, Muslims, and the EU. The campaign made wide use of bot accounts, which refer to profiles that appear to be people but are maintained by software that post and repost fake news stories and other disinformation. Investigators learned that more than 156,000 Russian-sponsored accounts were active and responsible for tens of thousands of messages. Russians also purchased ads on social media platforms, seeking to stoke further division among a highly polarized electorate. They used Russian-sponsored news services—including Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik—to push their agenda.
Russian operatives used similar tactics during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including an elaborate disinformation campaign that sought not only to damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton (1947–) and help Republican candidate Donald Trump (1946–) but encourage social division. Part of the Putin regime's animosity toward Clinton stemmed from her comments on Russia's elections during her tenure as U.S. secretary of state. Due to concerns about Russian meddling and possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, the U.S. Department of Justice appointed a special counsel in May 2017 to investigate. After a two-year probe, the U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller (1944–) and his team issued a report detailing their findings. The report revealed that Russia's IRA had infiltrated Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms, reaching millions of people with their propaganda. Facebook acknowledged the disinformation campaign reached as many as 126 million users during the 2016 election, and Twitter reported 1.4 million users may have seen IRA posts.
Mueller's investigators found that Russian-government hackers used phishing techniques to steal emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign manager, among others. The material was sporadically released through different sites and later was handed off to WikiLeaks for distribution. Hackers also targeted voter rolls as well as state and local election officials.
The use of social media to influence voters in Brexit and the U.S. presidential election caused alarm among citizens and lawmakers alike. Representatives from Facebook and other platforms were interviewed by members of the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress. Facebook vowed to make changes and increase transparency and, in early 2019, announced that it was removing 265 fake accounts for "coordinated inauthentic behavior." The platform asserted that the accounts originated in Israel and were targeting countries such as Angola, Nigeria, and Tunisia as well as Southeast Asia and Latin America with disinformation campaigns.
During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, intelligence agencies reported attempted interference likely conducted by Iran, Russia, and China. For example, federal law enforcement reported that Iranian operatives had obtained U.S. voter information and used that data as part of an email campaign to intimidate voters. The campaign involved posing as members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group. Working with tech companies, law enforcement successfully stopped that scheme and others from disrupting the election.
Under pressure following the widespread allegations of interference in 2016, U.S. agencies heavily increased their efforts to secure the elections from foreign interference. Several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, declared the 2020 elections the most secure in the country's history. Despite these assessments, Trump cast doubt on the election's integrity frequently, both during the campaign and after the election. His repeated claims resonated with his supporters despite a lack of evidence, ultimately leading to a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021 to dispute Biden's victory. Though the attempted insurrection was unsuccessful, Trump's attempt to interfere with the results of the election and undermine faith in the country's electoral process could have lasting effects.