Election Cybersecurity: The Experts Corner

CCLP’s USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative publishes a weekly blog by Marie Harf, International Elections Analyst at the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative, on topics including:

  •  election cybersecurity and resources for campaigns and election workers,
  •  disinformation and misinformation in campaigns and elections, and
  •  lessons we can learn from attempts to disrupt elections in other democracies.

Harf’s most recent blog post is below. For more resources and insight into the state of elections in the US and abroad, be sure to check The Experts Corner each week.

International Election Round-up: New Threats and Challenges

By Marie Harf

June 16, 2021

As we head into a hot summer here in the United States, where both political parties are already gearing up for the 2022 midterms that are still a year and a half away, a number of other countries are holding consequential parliamentary and presidential elections over the coming months. The outcomes of these elections and the ways in which they are run are useful for us to study, both for how they might impact American policy going forward and also to spot new and evolving threats to electoral processes (a big part of our mission here at USC). In this vein, today I’m taking a look at current elections in three countries — Mexico, Israel, and Iran. Each one has a different set of issues, problems and lessons for us here in the United States.

Mexico

Just across our Southern border, last week Mexican voters went to the polls to elect all 500 members of their lower house of Congress and a number of state and local positions — totaling about 20,000 in all. Turnout appears to have been about 51 percent of an estimated 93.5 million eligible voters. But the biggest headlines coming out of these contests focused on the large amount of gruesome violence that marked this election, ranking it among the deadliest in recent memory.

By one security expert’s count, more than 90 politicians were killed during this election season. Election workers were murdered, and grenades and a severed head were thrown into polling stations, among many other atrocities. While organized crime gangs and drug traffickers have long propagated this kind of violence in Mexico, analysts believe these groups are gaining in strength and numbers and are increasingly trying to drive their influence deeper and deeper in the government. Among other reasons, these organizations want their friendly, preferred candidates to win these positions so their allies will control the security forces, allowing their criminal activity to continue and thrive. Many politicians also get campaign funding from cartels.

The sheer amount of violence associated with this election was shocking. It is difficult for Americans to fathom the fact that the simple act of running for office in the country directly to our south means putting your life at real risk in many places. And, of course, the corruption we have seen in Mexican politics and governance is one of the root causes leading Mexican citizens to try to immigrate to the United States, a political hot button issue here at home. That’s why the United States has an incentive to help Mexico root out corruption and build up its institutions of governance, one of the goals of Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Mexico last week.

Israel

Turning to the United States’ closest friend in the Middle East, Israel appears to be emerging from a politically tumultuous time with a new government and prime minister, as Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted this weekend by a diverse coalition. Israel has a somewhat complicated and fragmented political system, which requires delicate coalition-building as leaders attempt to cobble together governments. Netanyahu is under indictment and has been embattled for some time, including falling short in the fourth election in two years in March, which set up this most recent political development.

In concerning election-related news, harassment and intimidation of opposition supporters (both in-person and online) was much more aggressive and threatening than had been seen in recent memory. Rival leaders say they received numerous death threats, many of which included naming of their family members. Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, took the unique step of issuing a public warning in which the organization’s head called out a “serious rise and radicalization in violent and inciting discourse” and expressing concern that this could lead to violence.

This political incitement resulted in several incoming government leaders being assigned bodyguards or relocating to undisclosed locations. This online rhetoric mimics much of what we’ve dealt with here in the United States on social media. Israeli commentators are increasingly making comparisons between their and our poisonous current political discourse regarding election outcomes and expressing worry about the peaceful transition of power processes.

It remains to be seen whether this change in government will quell some of the political divisiveness in Israel over the coming months. Some analysts remain pessimistic, however, as many of the same political and social media forces driving Americans apart from one another are at play there as well.

Iran

In a very different kind of electoral process, Iranians this Friday will choose a new president to succeed Hassan Rouhani, one of the main leaders in Tehran who supported the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers. These elections are not considered “free and fair” for several reasons, including the requirement that candidates be approved by the tightly-controlled Guardian Council before they can appear on the ballot. This year, seven candidates were allowed to run, including one of the nuclear negotiators who is well-known to the West, Saeed Jalili; several former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary commanders; media leaders; and the presumed frontrunner, a cleric named Ebrahim Raisi.

Iranian voters appear most focused on the continued economic pressure that both Western sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic have put on Iran’s economy. Voter turnout has recently been quite low in Iran, with the 2020 parliamentary elections garnering about 42 percent turnout, the worst in the country’s history.

While the ultimate power in Iran is held by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the president does have a role to play in potentially pushing the clerical leadership and the country in certain directions. For example, many observers believe that the nuclear deal — a diplomatic effort I worked closely on at the State Department — would not have been possible without President Rouhani and his team finding ways to make it palatable to the more hardline factions of the Iranian government back home. The Western caricature of Iran that it is devoid of domestic politics is far from the reality, and their presidential elections often tell us something about where Iranian public opinion is at a given moment, despite the restrictions on who can run. And the outcome will almost certainly impact American interests and foreign policy vis-a-vis Tehran.

We have also seen new reports that Iran is increasingly meddling in the U.S. political process, which I and many others have written about recently. Strategic decisions about how aggressive Iran will be in the cyber realm are, again, traditionally reserved for the Supreme Leader and national security elements of the government — although the president has some ability to sway public and internal opinion. That’s why we will be closely watching these elections to see what signposts we might be able to glean from their outcome.