(CNSNews.com) - Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) posed a "hypothetical" scenario on Wednesday, to describe how serious election interference could prove to be, even if actual vote tallies are not changed.
Doubt about the outcome could throw the country into chaos, he said.
Rubio asked Homeland security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson if his hypothetical could happen, and both said yes, as they appeared before the Senate intelligence committee in the midst of a spring snowstorm:
"Let's assume for a moment that the year is 2020 and there's a foreign leader who's tired of being lectured about democracy in their own country, and they decide they want to create chaos in the United States and create doubts about our legitimacy, so he or she orders an operation against our presidential election," Rubio said.
"And now, for the last five or six years, this foreign power has identified ways to penetrate election officials at the state and the county level across America."
Rubio asked: What if this hypothetical foreign power is able to spread "misinformation" like a virus over the Internet until many voters believe it. And what if the enemy perfects the art of “strategically leaking” fake news, which the mainstream media then picks up because "it fits perfectly into their red-versus-blue dynamic."
Rubio said in his hypothetical scenario, the goal of this foreign power is not to change election results. "It would be to create doubts about the validity of the election and then spread those doubts using social media -- and media driven by red-versus-blue conflict -- and ultimately call into question the legitimacy of a new president and potentially even trigger a constitutional crisis."
Rubio said in his hypothetical, the election could be undermined by a foreign power penetrating state and local voter databases in strategically located places, then using analytic data to identify specific voters, maybe change their addresses, change their party registrations, or even delete them from the voter rolls.
"And the result is that on Election Day, we start getting reports about thousands of voters in different parts of the country who can't vote, because when they show up, they're not registered, or they're told their voting place is somewhere else," Rubio said. Furious complaints start spreading online, he added.
Rubio also said, in his hypothetical, the foreign power has been able to mess with the system that posts unofficial election results: "And so that evening, these results start coming up and surprisingly, Candidate A is doing better than Candidate B, and people are surprised by the official results coming back, and it's a total reversal.
"So what happens is, you can imagine at that point Candidate A refuses to concede, there's this all-out fight going on in American society, and in the months to come, millions of people march on Washington to try to force the Electoral College not to certify. The reverse -- millions come out on the other side," Rubio said.
"Come January, we don't even know if we can swear in a president. The military doesn't know who the commander in chief is. We're in an all-out constitutional crisis, total chaos. For the first time in 200-something years, the American Republic is under duress from the inside out.”
Rubio said some state and local election officials "do not have this perspective," and he asked the current and former DHS secretaries, "How farfetched is this, given the capability of foreign adversaries?"
Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said "the first half" of Rubio's hypothetical "is not a hypothetical."
The second half -- messing with voter databases -- "was my biggest concern in the fall of 2016," when Russia did “probe” some state voter registration rolls. "And that's a very real threat, in my judgment," Johnson said.
Johnson said before the 2016 election, he "thought long and hard" about other possible points of failure in the election process, "and the thing that occurred to me was The Associated Press."
Johnson noted that the AP for many years has been relied upon to report state election results to the rest of the media, "and so I actually picked up the phone and called the CEO of The Associated Press to go over with him, to ensure that he had enough redundancies in their system if there was a failure on election night, and I was satisfied that they did." But Johnson said that is something else for the committee to focus on.
Johnson told Rubio, "I think your hypothetical is a very good one, and I think all American should be concerned about it."
"I agree," said current DHS Secretary Nielsen. She said any part of Rubio's hypothetical "can create that doubt, which in and of itself is perhaps what the adversary is trying to accomplish.”
She said DHS is looking at ways to protect voter databases, but it's up to states and localities to take DHS up on its offer to help them do that.
"Provisional ballots become very important for the reasons you've described," she added. And she said states should plan what they would do if numbers of voters show up at the polls but are not on the rolls, when they believe they should be.
Nielsen said DHS will be prepared to respond rapidly to anomalies in future elections.
"So, what I would suggest is that we all look at your -- what you would call a hypothetical, but as the secretary rightly points out, is probably closer to a very good possibility, and walk through each of those and make sure that we are providing the tools and resources we need to state and locals so that they can prevent, identify, track and then respond to any such issues,” Nielsen concluded.