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Why countries interfere in elections

An expert explains the history of world powers’ interventions in elections.

Russian president Vladimir Putin in December 2016.
Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

What Russiaor any other foreign power — might do to disrupt the 2020 US election has loomed over the entire race.

Russia and other actors are using social media to sow discord. US intelligence officials announced in October that Russia (and Iran) had gained access to voter registration data. And the New York Times reported last month that Russia has plans to interfere in the last few days of the election or just after November 3, primarily to help Trump.

How big Russia’s impact will be is impossible to know right now, though it did have an impact on the outcome in 2016, says Dov Levin, an expert on foreign election interference and author of Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral Interventions.

Russia and the US have a long history of intervening in each other’s politics, going back and forth dozens and dozens of times since the end of World War II. And foreign attempts to meddle in US elections have occurred since its founding, though that time the blame went to the French.

But whatever the time period, foreign actors rarely just meddle for meddling’s sake. Levin argues that a country’s leaders have to believe that one side’s victory in a particular foreign election would be untenable for their interests — and they need to know that the opponent might be interested in getting their assistance. When those conditions exist, hello foreign interference.

I called up Levin to talk more about why countries decide to intervene in other countries’ elections, how he sees Russian and other foreign interference playing out in 2020, and what kinds of interference we may see more of in the future. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

There’s been such a focus in the United States on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and potential meddling in the 2020 election. But from your book, it sounds like foreign election interference was a pretty common occurrence around the world throughout history.

Dov Levin

Yes, this is a pretty common form of interference that has been going on since national-level elections in the 18th century, and even beforehand, in pre-modern elections for pope or for king, which existed in some countries. And I find that this has been a pretty common phenomenon, using various secret or covert, or public and overt, messaging ever since.

Many major world powers have used that method. Between 1946 and 2000, the United States and the Soviet Union or Russia have intervened in one out of every nine national-level executive elections using this method.

Jen Kirby

In your book, you lay out two conditions that have to be present for a foreign power to interfere in an election. Can you explain them?

Dov Levin

The first one is the great power sees one of the candidates or parties in the target country as a threat to some of its key interests, and the foreign power expects it would be really hard to move the target in this regard. So that is one condition.

The other is that there is another local candidate or party in the target country that is willing to accept such assistance — and it’s usually because they are in deep political trouble. They are willing to bear the cost of such interference, which is, when it is secret, the possibility of exposure and delegitimization. When interference is in public, it’s the possibility of a big backlash, or in the longer term, some voters not being happy that their candidate or party is getting assistance from a foreign power, and, as a result, not voting for them in the next election.

So usually the local actor, when they are willing to accept or ask for such interference, [is] in deep political trouble and this request or agreement to accept such foreign interference on their behalf is, in football terms, a “Hail Mary.” They’re in deep political trouble, and this is meant to save them, so to speak.

Jen Kirby

Your thesis would seem to fit with what we know about Russia’s interference activities in 2016, and the Trump’s campaign’s receptiveness to getting help from Russia. Last week, intelligence officials cited both Iran and Russia as engaging in election interference. Russia, of course, looms large. I’m wondering if, based on your thesis, you think Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus is different in 2020 than it might have been in 2016?

Dov Levin

We do not know yet the thinking of Russia while it’s intervening, and we cannot be 100 percent sure in this regard.

But it seems that it’s a very similar calculus. That is, you know, they are very worried that Democrats will come to power in the 2020 elections, and that they will have a very hardline policy towards Russia, given anger among the Democrats about Russia’s behavior in 2016, Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, its behavior in other countries, like poisoning people, and things like that.

So they are clearly pretty worried of the possibility that [Vice President Joe] Biden and the Democratic Party would come to power and push back against various Russian behaviors and shenanigans around the world.

And while we naturally don’t have any evidence yet of any ties in 2020, we have, as you could see from the Mueller report, and other sources, pretty strong circumstantial evidence that someone in the Trump campaign in 2016 was coordinating with Russia either directly or through WikiLeaks.

Again, we don’t have conclusive evidence that Russia is intervening in 2020. But assuming [the suspected Russian influence operation that involved setting up a fake progressive digital news outlet called] Peacedata and things like that are for this purpose, the calculus seems to be pretty similar to what was in 2016: a very deep Russian fear of the possibility of the Democratic presidential candidate coming to power and pushing back against Russia for its behavior, both towards the United States and elsewhere in the world.

Jen Kirby

We do know that Russia wanted to hurt Hillary Clinton and preferred Trump in 2016. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Russia is denigrating Biden in 2020. But baked into that is this idea that Russia really just wants to foment chaos and undermine democracy, and Trump also advances that goal. We see this very specifically with online propaganda. How do you see that idea — that Russia wants to generate chaos — as fitting into this framework?

Dov Levin

I would separate electoral activities and non-electoral activities. Clearly, from what we know about some of their non-electoral activities — those that are not related to any election — some of them are meant to cause chaos in various ways and disrupt and damage. So about non-electoral activities, I would completely agree with this view of Russian behavior. However, when it comes to their electoral activities, the whole Russian intervention in 2016, all of those leaks that were given to WikiLeaks — the idea that that was only done to sow chaos, I see that as the wrong interpretation.

From the point of view of Russia — and I’m giving here the general logic of most interveners in this regard — sowing chaos in an election is not the productive message because it can make their situation worse.

If all they want to do, to quote the Joker, is “see the world burn” — you know, see the United States “burn,” so to speak — then doing that in an election is the wrong way, because you antagonize the side that is suffering from it and incentivize them to harm you even more.

If they’re intervening in elections, it is usually because they don’t want one of the sides to be elected. And only if they see that particular side as so bad from their perspective that they don’t care too much about antagonizing them further will they be willing to do that during the election period.

So I think that the interpretation that Russia intervened in 2016 just to sow chaos and that they didn’t really care who would win is mistaken. They clearly funded activities that were in an organized campaign to lead Hillary Clinton to lose in 2016. They had a pretty clear agenda. They tailored stuff pretty clearly in a way that would help Trump the most.

For example, some of these leaks literally came out a few hours after domestic scandals Trump was involved in like, for example, one of their big leaks [of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails] came out hours after the famous Access Hollywood tape.

Those are activities which are not just meant to sow chaos. They clearly are meant to achieve an agenda — in that particular case, to reduce the damage Trump was suffering that day from that Access Hollywood tape. So from the way Russia acted in 2016, and from the overall behavior of such interveners, I think it is very unlikely that they were doing it in 2016 just to sow chaos. If they wanted to sow chaos, they didn’t need to act in such a purposeful way.

Jen Kirby

I agree that they were intervening on the side of Trump in 2016. But take 2020: The Department of Homeland Security has warned that Russia is amplifying misinformation about voting problems, including claims about mail-in voter fraud. This obviously echoes Trump’s rhetoric, so it’s certainly bolstering his position. But that could also potentially create doubt about the election results. That doesn’t necessarily benefit one particular candidate — it undermines the system as a whole.

Dov Levin

We don’t know exactly what Russia’s strategy is when it comes to 2020. It will take us time to know for sure what it is exactly doing in 2020.

But I would say that some of the negative effects on democracy are, from Russia’s point of view, a useful side effect. They have one major goal, which is to help Trump get reelected. If it harms American democracy in some way — which, by the way, I find in other research that such interference, on average, does in many cases — that’s from their point of view a great side effect. Vladimir Putin is not going to cry, and is not going to in any way feel bad about it, so to speak. But that is not their main goal.

And again, it takes time to see how these activities play out in retrospect. There’s a lot of what you could call, in military terms, the “fog of battle.” But from what we know, from 2016, a lot of the stuff was designed very purposefully to help Donald Trump. And my guess is that when we do have a post-2020 estimate of what exactly Russia did, we will see that most of it was stuff that was meant to help Trump in various ways.

Jen Kirby

You say that one of the reasons Russia wouldn’t intervene unless they think one side is so bad it thinks it’s worth the risk, antagonizing them. In 2016, that was Hillary Clinton. But I wonder if Russian interference would have become such a huge part of the public discourse if Clinton had won — for example, it seems unlikely we would have had the full Mueller investigation.

It seems if Russia reprised what it did in 2016 in 2020, the consequences would be even more profound if there is a Democratic administration. Do you think this affects Russia’s calculus at all this year, that they’ve realized they might have pushed the envelope too far already?

Dov Levin

I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about the Russian intervention in 2016. The Russian intervention in 2016 was meant to be secret. In other words, Russia wanted to keep all of the activities — or more accurately, the hand behind those activities — completely a secret from the American public and the rest of the world.

If it was up to Vladimir Putin, all of those leaks by WikiLeaks, we’d all have been speculating in the following four years, where could they have come from? Was it some kind of disgruntled employee in the DNC? Was it some Trump campaign mole in the Clinton campaign? And Putin would be, you know, like one of those James Bond villains with their cat, watching people speculating where it came from, and no one would notice Russia. You know what I mean?

Jen Kirby

I do, but I have a lot of trouble believing that. They were kind of sloppy. How could Russia have believed that we — or at least US intelligence agencies — would not have figured that out?

Dov Levin

Most covert interference is usually not caught. In my data, only a handful of covert electoral interventions were actually exposed before the election — you know, clear evidence was found that a foreign power was involved, and then literally caught red-handed, so to speak. Such exposure was relatively rare.

The reason why I think Russia was exposed in this regard was simply that the [military intelligence agency] GRU is not — or the Russian intelligence agencies are not — as good as they used to be. They used to be very good at hiding their tracks, but in the last few years, it has become evident that they became very sloppy.

You know, there’s another report that multiple secret agents of the GRU had forged passports with consecutive numbers. It was more like one of those, you know, parodies of James Bond rather than any effective spies.

So, I would say that the reason why it was exposed both in 2016, and to a certain extent in 2020, is simply that the GRU is not as good as it used to be. They did not maintain operational secrecy in 2016. That’s why they were caught. In 2020, they seem to have tried to put even more effort into keeping it secret, but they have, nevertheless, seemed to have been exposed in various ways.

This is not because Vladimir Putin thought that he would be exposed and was wanting everyone to know that he was behind it, but simply because his intelligence agency is not as good as the KGB was during the Cold War. And the United States government, and its intelligence agencies, clearly, have been able to penetrate it in some ways and detect its activities.

Jen Kirby

That makes sense, but even some of its other activities — like outreach from people with links to the Russian government to the Trump campaign — just seemed destined to get discovered.

Dov Levin

I would just add, as you mentioned, that, if not for the intervention itself being exposed, the chances that there would have been so much digging that we would have detected other stuff would have been very unlikely as well.

Jen Kirby

Yes, that’s a good point. As you mentioned in your book, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, and the US have intervened in one out of every nine national-level elections between 1946 and 2000. That obviously peaked during the Cold War. But after the Cold War, I think it’s fair to say that the US and Russia weren’t exactly on equal footing. It seems much more risky for Russia to meddle in the US, than for the US to meddle in Russia. So I’m curious about that calculation — what are the risks for powers when they’re not on equal footing with their intervention target?

Dov Levin

From the point of view of Russia, I would guess that one of the reasons it chose to work covertly was to reduce, a bit, the risks involved. If it isn’t exposed, it is less risky. If you don’t know where it’s coming from, you cannot do something in retaliation.

The second reason is that retaliation in response to such meddling, when it’s known, is relatively rare. Russia’s gamble was probably that they would get away with it.

As I mentioned, in most cases, this type of covert election interference is not detected. And if they would have been detected, they would not be likely to be very severely punished. This probably would have been Vladimir Putin’s calculus.

Jen Kirby

Why is punishment so rare?

Dov Levin

Because of two major reasons. One reason is basically that if the side that was being assisted wins, they have no incentive to punish the side that aided them. Why should they bite the hand that just gave them an election victory? I find in my book that in many cases, such interventions are effective and bring to power the assisted side.

And if they lost, again, in many cases, this is done covertly. So if a foreign power leaked incriminating documents, but you don’t know that a foreign power was behind it, you won’t punish them. And in the few cases where it is known [who meddled], the winning party decides to let bygones be bygones and try to open a new page. That is why it usually doesn’t happen.

Jen Kirby

Given this long history of election meddling between the US and Russia, I’m curious if you found that Russia relied on a similar “playbook” in past interventions as they did in 2016. Does Russia revisit the same sort of strategies over and over again, or do they tailor it based on the political climate, the candidate, or political interests?

Dov Levin

I would divide the answer into two parts. What they did in 2016, and what they probably did in 2020, follows tools and techniques that they have used in many countries in the past, including beforehand in the United States and outside of the United States. There’s nothing new about the strategies.

However, when it comes to what they chose, you know, why they chose this method and not that method — that was very well-tailored to the political climate.

Particularly in the United States, in my opinion, that’s one reason why they chose in 2016 to look for emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign and to leak them. Clearly they believed that such supposed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton would be especially effective.

Jen Kirby

So they figure out what will be the most effective to damage a candidate, and then tailor their methods from there.

Dov Levin

Foreign powers, when they intervene in elections — both Russia and the United States — they tend to tailor very carefully their interventions to the needs of their “client,” or the side that they are assisting, to give them the the maximum assistance they believe is possible, given the circumstances and their capability.

Jen Kirby

In your research, did you come across a tool or method for election interference that tended to be the most effective in swaying an electoral outcome?

Dov Levin

I actually tried to investigate that in my book. I found some preliminary evidence that the size of the intervention matters. If it’s very large, and you’re using multiple methods at the same time, basically throwing the kitchen sink, so to speak, at this particular country, it is more likely to work.

I found also that when it’s done overtly, or in public, it is usually much more effective than covertly, increasing the vote share of the preferred side by 3 percent on average more than a covert operation. As for specific methods, giving money or various dirty tricks like what Russia did in 2016, I could not find conclusive evidence that there is any particular method that is more effective than others.

Jen Kirby

Why is overt intervention more effective?

Dov Levin

I basically argue that overt would usually be more effective because of the way in which it is closely coordinating with the local actor, and the fact that in an overt intervention, a country is able to bring more of its power to bear.

Think about an election as a contest in competitive promise-making. One candidate says, “If you vote for me, you will get a chicken in every pot.” The other candidate says, “No no no, if you vote for me, you’ll get two chickens in every pot.” And basically a great power, because it usually has a resource advantage over any of the other two candidates, it can basically outbid the two sides. The foreign power comes in and says, “If you vote for this guy, all of you get two chickens in every pot, a brand new stove, and a brand new car.”

In other words, a great power can use its resource advantages in order to move the needle by communicating with the voters directly, and bringing all of its resource advantage to bear.

With covert operations, in contrast, you’re trying to intervene ineffectively. You are giving money to the preferred side. But then, they’ll run more ads that hopefully people will watch, or you are hacking and leaking documents that you hope some people will read.

In those cases where there’s a possibility of a backlash, they do it in secret. They only intervene overtly when they know that there will not be a backlash, and it’s likely to be effective.

Jen Kirby

What do you think is the future of foreign meddling?

Dov Levin

Well, I see two directions. One direction is an attempt to “digitize” more traditional intervention techniques and make them more usable in cyberspace. What was done in 2016, when it comes to those leaks and hacks, was basically taking an analog technique and making it digitalized.

I expect other methods of interference would also become digitized. For example, it is possible that, in the future, when a foreign power wants to give campaign funding on the side, they will use cryptocurrencies for this purpose. It makes it much easier to transfer it without anyone in the target country detecting it, and it also reduces the number of meetings needed for this purpose.

Usually for [illicit] campaign funding you need to meet up in some hotel room in secret and give the money in a suitcase or something like that. That’s literally how it was done in some cases, like in one of those crime movies.

Cryptocurrencies make it easier to transfer the money without detection and with less meetings. All you would need to do is be a foreign agent, come into the country with a USB with some cryptocurrency on it, buy a brand-new laptop in a local store, go to your local Starbucks, connect the USB drive with the cryptocurrency on it to your new laptop, log on to the Starbucks wifi, and transfer the money.

So that could be one possible future intervention. Another “digitization” of these interference techniques — not just fake news and then leaks and hacks — would be the return of a very ancient interference technique that existed in the pre-modern world. That would be directly changing the vote tallies.

Before the modern era, for example, if you are, say, the Holy Roman Empire and you wanted to determine who would be the next pope, in some cases, you literally bribed the cardinal in charge of counting the votes, and in that way determined who would be the next pope.

That stopped being possible when we started to have elections with millions of people and thousands of ballot places around the country. But with digital election machines becoming increasingly common, it’s possible that one day a foreign power may try to hack into a voting machine or a central computer in charge of tallying the votes coming all across the country, and literally change the vote count directly.