What chaos could foreign hacking cause the U.S. on Election Day?

U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien, puts on a face mask at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stability at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien, puts on a face mask at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stability at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Among the possible ways a foreign country might interfere in the upcoming U.S. election, the one that worries the Trump administration’s national security adviser is what happens on Nov. 3.

“What if a foreign adversary hacks our secretary of states’ websites and changes the vote totals?” Robert O’Brien said. In some states, the secretary of state oversees elections. In Utah, the role falls to the lieutenant governor.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stability at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stability at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

If vote totals reported on Election Day or the day after turned out to be different than the actual count, the “divisiveness in the country is going to be great,” he said.

O’Brien was the keynote speaker Thursday at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stability. The center is the policy arm of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.

Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and former U.S. ambassador to China and Russia, also spoke at the forum.

O’Brien said it’s difficult for foreign countries to change election totals on voting machine tapes or paper ballots, but they could hack into state websites where results are posted.

For example, a state could go to Democrat Joe Biden by 10,000 votes on the web page, but when the actual votes are counted, it goes to President Donald Trump by 5,000 votes, or vice versa, he said.

“Can you imagine how people are going to take that?” he said, adding there would be calls for investigations and litigation.

Trump has already cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election process, especially in states moving to mail-in ballots. He also has not directly said he would accept the outcome if he were to lose next month, though O’Brien said he expects both Trump and Biden would live with the results.

O’Brien also cautioned voters to be careful with information about the election coming from foreign countries.

“If you see something come out of Ukraine about Vice President Biden’s family or if you see something coming out of another country about President Trump’s family, take those with a grain of salt,” he said.

Attempts to influence the election are coming from China, Russia and Iran, with China being the most active and pervasive, O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the U.S. has “laid down a strong marker” for foreign countries to stay out of the election or face significant consequences.

In his remarks, Huntsman said the United States is the world’s only superpower.

Former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch applauds a speaker at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stabilityat The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch applauds a speaker at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stabilityat The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

Russia and China, he said, are two “great powers” the U.S. is going to have to learn to deal with. Both countries are trying to expand their sphere of influence, he said.

“How do we deal with the rise of China? We don’t know because we’ve never done this before,” Huntsman said. “Will we maintain our confidence as a superpower?”

Huntsman also posed a question about how the U.S. would respond to Russia’s “provocations,” including election meddling, assassinations and disinformation.

“We don’t have an answer to this,” he said, adding the U.S. has placed hundreds of sanctions on Russian entities and individuals. “Have we changed their behavior? The answer is no.”

But, Huntsman said, when the U.S. can more perfectly practice its values, “no one can beat us because most people, even under authoritarian governments, aspire to liberty and freedom.”

Dennis Romboy

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