Can the US election get hacked?

Top Four Cybersecurity Threats

Several national security agencies have already confirmed foreign efforts to influence the US elections. Here are the top cybersecurity risks and their likelihood of success.

The Big Three

According to a statement released by William Evanina, the director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the three most significant foreign actors are Russia, China, and Iran. While Russia still seems to back a Trump presidency, both China and Iran are reportedly lobbying for a Biden victory. As one senior official categorizes it, while "there will be more in the future that want to toy with us, those are the big three."

In terms of their goals, the Russians are mostly interested in stoking the current divisiveness that has come to characterize the US political landscape and believes that a second Trump term will accomplish just that. The Chinese and Iranians, on the other hand, are focused on curbing Trump's aggressive sanctions and rhetorical campaigns aimed at limiting their influence abroad.

Most recently, for example, the Trump administration has given TikTok, a popular Chinese social media platform, until mid-September to divest their US operations or face a complete ban, prompting their CEO to jump ship just 100 days into his role. Similarly, Trump has antagonized the Iranians by reneging on the so-called Iran Deal, promoting local attempts at regime change, assassinating General Soleimani, and consolidating regional anti-Iranian sentiments through the likes of the recent Israeli-UAE peace agreement.

Attack Vectors

  1. At the moment, the most common attacks are simple vulnerability scans that search for weaknesses in existing election infrastructure. While these scans have reportedly been "mostly unsuccessful," protecting against them is our first line of cyber-defense. Federal and local security agencies are therefore working with the relevant election officials to train them to spot, report, and respond to scans of this type.

  2. While President Trump has emphasized the potential for malicious actors to manipulate paper ballots and mail-in votes, Chris Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), reported that low-tech processes are the most secure solutions that we currently have. In the event of any irregularities, the existence of a physical trail makes it far easier to audit these systems and ensure that any mistakes are accurately corrected.

  3. More problematic, however, are the systems that are connected to the internet, like voter registration databases and election night reporting. Ransomware attacks targeting state and city election computers remains a significant threat, with foreign actors specifically targeting under-funded and vulnerable systems. And so, as we often find with cybersecurity threats, those counties which are least prepared are also the most heavily targeted. The silver lining in all of this is that since elections are run on the local (rather than federal) level, hackers would need to compromise numerous unique systems in order to effect substantial damage. In this sense, our lack of federal coordination may ironically work to our advantage.

  4. Disinformation is still a concern, but the DHS reports substantial success working with social media firms to prevent the sorts of organized disinformation campaigns that operated in 2016. At the same time, the pandemic has helped increase the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 elections, with CISA officials urging voters to remain vigilant regarding the election information they consume and to be prepared for delayed election results.


While organized foreign cyber campaigns directed at compromising the 2020 US elections are ongoing, the CISA, NSA and other national defense agencies estimate that the risk is significantly lower than in 2016. Importantly, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen noted that it would be "extraordinarily difficult" for hackers to change actual vote tallies, and that the more likely threats stem from misinformation efforts and pandemic-related complications. With that being said, will these assessments ultimately prove to be roughly accurate or tragically short-sighted? Only time will tell.

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