“Democracies are vulnerable to measures that ‘flood’ public debate and disrupt shared decentralized understandings of actors and coalitions, in ways that autocracies are not.”
In this week’s New Yorker, Jane Mayer covers a new body of research by scholars concluding that “in the 2016 election, Putin’s meddling was decisive.” As Mayer’s piece illustrates, the winner-take-all method of electing the president makes states where the presidential contest is closest into the most vulnerable targets of all for foreign manipulation. These same vulnerable states are also the most critical to victory in our current electoral model, given that the winner-take-all system is in use by 48 out of 50 states. The Russian social media attacks on candidates and disinformation campaigns, micro-targeting voters in order to sabotage outcomes in these critical states, were largely successful, according to the new research summarized by Mayer.
If every vote counted equally in every state, foreign adversaries would have a significantly more difficult time making an impact. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but we would not run the same risk of interference in only two to three states potentially altering an election.
We face a clear and present danger. But we don’t need a Jack Ryan to save us— we need the protection of a national popular vote that matters.
Professor Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights expert and professor at the University of Kentucky, had this to say about the Electoral College: it creates a highly exploitable vulnerability in our presidential elections that could alter the results; under the U.S. Electoral College system and its current political demographics, "eight to 10 states will typically 'decide' a presidential election."
The reach of Russian interference, consisting of highly targeted social media disinformation campaigns in the United States, poses a national security threat and a threat to democracy in general. There is even strong evidence, uncovered by journalist Casey Michel that Russia has been backing the Texas secessionist movement for years through covert operations, including during the 2016 election.
The 2016 presidential election brought the issue of Russian meddling to the fore, as the Russians brazenly exploited social media in efforts designed to exacerbate partisan divisions and the political polarization in the American public.
The implications of our Electoral College system and of the winner-take-all method of apportioning states electors from each state, make the consequences of hacking elections, even on a small scale, potentially disastrous. They could in fact tip national presidential elections in whatever way the Russians decide. Senior Trump administration officials informed the public on August 2nd that Russia plans to interfere in this year’s midterm elections in November, as well as in the 2020 presidential election.
Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), the Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said, “a change in a national election doesn't require penetration into 50 states ... arguably, you could pick two or three states, and two or three jurisdictions, and alter an election."
Professor Douglas agreed, "the unique nature of the Electoral College, with the effect of making only a few states matter, means that it is presumably easier for a foreign actor to target just those states."
If we were to change the system to a National Popular Vote, the effects of hacking by foreign governments would likely have little effect. It would be very difficult for any actors, even with the backing of a nation state, to subvert an election in which every vote mattered.
By design, the Electoral College was intended to protect presidential elections from foreign attack. "Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College could shield the United States ‘from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,’” write Matthew Olsen and Benjamin Haas in Politico. Times have changed! Unlike the original electoral college, electors in 48 states are now awarded to the candidate who wins the plurality of votes cast in that state. The closest states are therefore the most valued by the campaigns. They are also the most vulnerable to interference, exactly what Hamilton most feared. Olsen and Haas continue, “In the social media age, the Electoral College system provides ripe microtargeting grounds for foreign actors who intend to sabotage presidential elections via information and disinformation campaigns, as well as by hacking our voting infrastructure.” Is there an answer to this unintended consequence?” What’s the answer then?
According to Olsen and Haas, counting every vote equally: “What if the national popular vote determined the president instead of the Electoral College? No voter would be more electorally powerful than another. It would be more difficult for a foreign entity to sway many millions of voters scattered across the country than concentrated groups of tens of thousands of voters in just a few states.”
At the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, participants have found, “The vulnerabilities in America's voting systems are staggering,’ a group representing hackers warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday -- just over a month before the midterm elections.”
Writes CNN, “A voting tabulation machine the group says is used in more than two dozen states is vulnerable to be remotely hacked, they said, claiming, ‘hacking just one of these machines could enable an attacker to flip the Electoral College and determine the outcome of a presidential election.’” In our current way of selecting the president by winner-take-all, a few thousand votes in a close, competitive state have more weight than millions of votes cast in predictably red or blue states. This makes our way of counting votes especially vulnerable to hacks.
What can we do to stop this? One answer is if we change the rules of our presidential system so that winner of the most votes cast nationally always becomes the president. Under a national popular vote system, manipulating a few thousand votes in one state would not be enough to change the national outcome. If you would like to see this happen, please click below:
In today’s WSJ, Judith Miller has a new op-ed, "Surprise--Ukrainians Are Bullish on Trump."
Writes Miller, “Russia’s cyberwar against its neighbor [Ukraine] has drawn the attention of American and European analysts, who believe Moscow’s tactics demonstrate the country’s ambition and ability to target other nations. Jared Cohen, chief executive of Alphabet’s cybersecurity company, Jigsaw, notes that Russian attacks in Ukraine have been “multi-dimensional”—deepening mistrust between Ukrainians and their government while exploiting ethnic and religious divisions.”
In the current presidential system in the US, a few thousand votes in one state are enough to win an election, and misinformation spread through cyberattacks can have a heightened impact in the closest states. On the other hand, if we changed the rules so that the winner of the presidency must be the person who receives the most votes nationally, every vote cast nationwide would count equally and manipulations in one state would have far less impact. Here’s how you can:
If a national popular vote determined the winner of the presidency, it would become much more difficult for a campaign headquarters hack to influence a decisive number of votes in a single state to turn a national election.