Ahead of the 2020 election, Stanford experts urge a concerted, national response to confront foreign interference

Stanford scholars outline a detailed strategy for how to protect the integrity of American elections – including recommendations such as requiring a paper trail of every vote cast and publishing information about a campaign’s connections with foreign nationals.

Scholars from Stanford University put forward a comprehensive strategy for what needs to be done to protect the integrity and independence of U.S. elections, with a keen focus on the upcoming presidential campaign in 2020.

The "Securing American Elections" report image

The “Securing American Elections” report is comprised of eight chapters that identify ongoing issues and recommendations that add up to more than 45 actionable measures. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The report draws on findings that emerged from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, as well as other independent research about vulnerabilities in the American election system. Securing American Elections: Prescriptions for Enhancing the Integrity and Independence of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and Beyond offers over 45 specific policy recommendations to help the nation’s lawmakers and technology sector leaders deter potential threats from foreign and domestic actors seeking to illegally disrupt the American electoral process.

As the Mueller inquiry made clear, the scale and scope of Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election was unprecedented, said Michael McFaul, editor and co-author of the Securing American Elections report. But what was not in Mueller’s mandate was to provide recommendations for how to deter meddling in future elections – which is where the Securing American Elections report comes in, said McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and is now director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford.

“We know more than ever before about what happened in the 2016 election. Now we need to pivot to what needs to be done to prevent it in the future – from concrete legislative acts as well as steps that online platforms can take even without legislation,” said McFaul, who is also the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor in International Studies in the department of political science and a senior fellow at FSI and the Hoover Institution.

Authors of the Securing American Elections report include scholars affiliated with the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, a newly launched hub at FSI to bring researchers from across disciplines together to address the threats cyber technologies pose to security and governance worldwide.

The center will be co-directed by Dan Boneh, the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the School of Engineering and head of the Applied Cryptography Group and Nathaniel Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. Stanford scholars also include Eileen Donahoe, former Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Andrew Grotto, a former senior director for cybersecurity policy at the White House in both the Obama and Trump administrations and Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook.

The report’s publication coincides with the launch of the new center, which convenes at an all-day event on June 6. The event, which will discuss recommendations detailed in the Securing American Elections report, will be livestreamed here.

Policy recommendations

According to the Securing American Elections report, it should be expected that additional domestic and foreign actors will join Russia in future attempts to use social media and cyber technologies to interfere with U.S. elections.

“There is no greater nightmare than a computer being hacked on election day that distorts votes,” McFaul said. “So, we have in the report several different recommendations about how to prevent that from happening – including at the top of the list, a paper trail for every ballot that’s cast.”

The report is comprised of eight chapters that identify ongoing issues and recommendations that add up to more than 45 actionable measures. Chapters, and example recommendations, include:

  • Increasing the security of the U.S. election infrastructure through a combination of independent code inspections and test attacks by teams who would attempt everything real hackers would try, such as exploiting technological or procedural flaws in the system’s security system.
  • Enhancing transparency about foreign involvement in U.S. elections by banning the use of foreign consultants and foreign companies in U.S. political campaigns and publishing information about connections with foreign nationals and governments. That way voters can make their own informed decisions about the appropriateness of these contacts, McFaul said.
  • Confronting efforts at election manipulation from foreign media organizations by labeling content produced by government-aligned media to provide consumers with more information about where the information originates.
  • Combating organized disinformation campaigns from state-aligned actors by creating standardized guidelines for labeling content affiliated with disinformation campaign producers and limiting online targeting capabilities for political advertising.
  • Regulating online political advertising by foreign governments and nationals by explicitly prohibiting foreign governments and individuals from purchasing online advertisements that target the American electorate.
  • Establishing international norms and agreements to prevent election interference by appointing a designated U.S. government representative on election interference.
  • Deterring foreign governments from election interference by signaling a clear and credible commitment to respond to election interference. To date, the U.S. has not developed or executed a coherent strategy to prevent foreign adversaries from intervening in American elections, the report’s authors said.

U.S. elections must be free and fair, the report authors conclude. American voters must choose their leaders alone – without interference from actors seeking to undermine democracy.

“Achieving this requires a coordinated response,” Persily said. “You can’t just have engineers deal with this problem and you can’t just have politicians. You need a concerted response with people from across disciplines tackling the issue. You need the computer scientists, technologists, lawyers, economists, political scientists and ethicists,” said Persily, who is also a co-author on the Securing American Elections report.

The Securing American Elections report is the first white paper published by the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.

The following scholars have co-authored chapters in the Securing American Elections report: Allison Berke, Larry Diamond, Eileen Donahoe, Andrew Grotto, Herb Lin, Toomas Ilves, Bronte Kass, Zachary Krowitz, Michael McFaul, Megan Metzger, Chris Painter, Nate Persily, Sergey Sanovich and Alex Stamos.