National Security

Elizabeth Warren has a Plan to Make it Easier to Vote—But It Won’t Make Most Votes for President Count

Senator Elizabeth Warren has released her detailed plan aimed at making voting easier and elections more secure. Her plan includes modern voting machines with paper ballot trails, mandatory automatic and same-day registration, early voting, vote-by-mail, and making Election Day a federal holiday.  All of these ideas would make it easier to vote, but a bigger problem would remain: most people’s votes for president still would not count.

Right now, the candidates make no effort to win the votes of most Americans.  In all but two states, all votes for the runner-up candidate and all excess votes for the winning candidate are systematically disregarded.

Warren’s plan calls for a bonus in federal funding for states that achieve high voter turnout rates.  But she doesn’t mention the reason that voter turnout in many states is so low: people rightly understand that their votes for president do not matter.  It should come as no surprise that voter turnout is generally much higher in states that were contested in recent elections than in safe states.  If the votes in every state mattered as much as they do in swing states, we could expect turnout to increase by tens of millions of votes.

Warren also notes that our current elections pose a national security vulnerability.  However, she doesn’t mention the fact that part of the reason we are so vulnerable to foreign interference is that our elections are decided by just a few states.  This quirk of our electoral system makes it easier and cheaper to target the places that matter.  Under a national election, it would be much harder to skew the results because every vote everywhere would count, not just the votes in a handful of swing states. 

Fortunately, making a national popular vote a reality is not up to presidential candidates.  It is up to the states to decide how to allocate their electoral votes.  If enough states agree to pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, turnout will drastically increase, elections will be more secure, and, most importantly, the vote that every person casts will be counted in the final tally.

Our Election System Makes us Vulnerable to Foreign Hackers

 When we talk about the Electoral College and the national popular vote, we usually think about issues of fairness, democracy, history, and policy.  But there is another problem with the way that the Electoral College currently operates—with one candidate getting all the electoral votes from a state whether he or she wins that state by one vote or one million votes—that counsels strongly in favor of reform: election security.

As national popular vote activist Bunnie Keen writes, our current system makes it much too easy for a malevolent foreign power to hack an election:

The Mueller report documents that, in 2016, at least one county computer system in Florida was successfully hacked by Russian operatives. The vote margin for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton was just over 100,000 votes in that state. That was approximately .07% of the total votes cast nationwide (136 million) in our last presidential election.

It’s not known at this time which Florida county suffered the intrusion, but if the results were sufficient to flip the state’s total electoral votes from one candidate to the other, does it matter at this point?

The critically urgent question that must be addressed before 2020 is: Who do we want to have the greatest influence on our next presidential election: the American people, or a foreign government?

When elections can turn on just a few hundred votes in one state, as it did in 2000 and easily could again, even a small or relatively contained hack could make a universe of difference.  If all votes counted equally, the system would be much more difficult if not impossible to hack.

The Electoral College Puts Democracy at Risk

Our democracy is gravely at risk from foreign meddling.  As Michael Chertoff and Anders Fogh Rasmussen explain their article, “The Unhackable Election: What It Takes to Defend Democracy” in Foreign Affairs:

Because the Internet and automation enable aggressors to act anonymously on a large scale, technology has significantly reduced the costs and risks of election meddling.

In some cases, foreign meddlers have tried to directly boost whichever candidate or party was most likely to adopt a soft stance on Russia. However, in most cases, their strategy is simply to discredit the entire democratic process. In the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries, for example, Russian operatives supported both the Republican candidate Donald Trump and the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, with the goal of radicalizing the political debate.

Nor is the threat limited to Russia:

In August, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, announced that there was a “sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling, and North Korean meddling” and said that the U.S. government was working to crack down on it. That same month, Twitter suspended 284 fake accounts with apparent links to Iran, and Facebook discovered 76 fake Instagram accounts originating in Iran. 

The article discusses many approaches to the threat, including the technical and human aspects of cyberdefense; cooperation between the government and private sectors; updating our voting systems; and public education campaigns.  It does not, however, mention something that makes elections in the United States particularly vulnerable to foreign interference: the Electoral College.

To shift the result of our elections, a malevolent foreign power does not need to reach everyone—just a few people in the small number of states that decide elections.  If the president were elected by the national popular vote, coordinating a disinformation campaign would be more complicated, more expensive, and less successful.  

A Clear and Present Danger: and What To Do About It

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.

National Popular Vote Would Help Protect Nation From Influence of Russian Disinformation

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.

Politico: “The Electoral College Is a National Security Threat”

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.” 

America's Voting Machines Are Vulnerable. How Can We Weaken Hacks?

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:

A National Popular Vote Would Weaken The Impact of Cyberwar

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:

Foreign Adversaries Could Flip An Election By Hacking A Senate or Presidential Campaign

Foreign Adversaries Could Flip An Election By Hacking A Senate or Presidential Campaign

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.