Some Thoughts on Russian Interference in US Elections

A few key observations on the bigger picture.

A few observations that have occurred to me over the last year or so, but that I have never posted about:

1.  Yes, the US has overtly and covertly interfered with the elections of other countries. We can have an argument, both as a generic policy matter as well as in regards to specific instances (including in Russia), as to whether those actions were moral, justifiable and/or efficacious.  However, the fact the US government has engaged in such activity does not mean that we should shrug our shoulders and opine how “everybody does it.”  The US has also sponsored the assassination of foreign leaders and fomented coups abroad, not to mention rained drones down on foreign territory.  I am suspecting that if another government did that to us, the response would not be “well, everybody does it.”  And while direct interference in US campaigns is not the same thing as an assassination attempt, it is in the same category of covertly trying to influence our internal politics.  That is not small thing, and should not be dismissed as such.

2. Russia’s behavior makes sense.  To be fair, Russian behavior here makes all the sense in the world, from a Russian point-of-view.  They see the US as a power rival, and they also are sensitive to criticisms of their internal politics-not to mention that Putin has a personal interest is denigrating liberal democracy.  As such, as a foreign policy action, creating domestic political discord in the US (and in Europe) is to Russia’s tactical advantage.

3. Voting mechanisms don’t have to be attacked for this all to matter.  The good news is there seems to be no evidence of attempts to hack the actual process of voting.  Rather, the goal has been to create disinformation in the campaign process and to take advantage of our open society, free press, and prevalence of social media.  This can influence individual voter behavior, voter turnout, and general attitudes about our electoral system.  These things can all matter in a close election and they can have longer-term detrimental effects as distrust and polarization grows.

3.  Any POTUS should be concerned about this kind of activity. Further, any POTUS should be able to both a) denounce outside interference by name, and b) find a way to deal with how that interference influences his own election (one way or another).  The integrity of our democratic processes are at the heart of this conversation, not just the Trump campaign and how it may, or may not, have been helped by Russian actions (let alone in terms of collusion).  Of course, most (all?) previous presidents would have understood this.

FILED UNDER: Russia Investigation, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    Any POTUS should be concerned about this kind of activity. Further, any POTUS should be able to both a) denounce outside interference by name, and b) find a way to deal with how that interference influences his own election (one way or another).

    Yep. Unless of course the POTUS in question is guilty of aiding, profiting from, and covering up Russia’s attack. There really is no other explanation that fits the known facts. Trump is so paralyzed by fear of exposure and so insecure he can’t even make a stab at pretending to give a sh!t.

    Any remotely competent president would have said, “I am appalled at Russian interference. I don’t know whether it affected the outcome or how deep the corruption goes, but this is so serious I have asked Hillary Clinton to handle our national response.”

    That would have de-politicized it. No special counsel needed. Easy. Unless of course you are GUILTY.

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  2. @michael reynolds: I think this is a real possibility. I do think an alternative hypothesis is that he really is a such a narcissist that he cannot bear to admit anything that would taint his precious win.

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  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    The counter to that is Trump’s refusal to impose sanctions, and his unique refusal to ever say an unkind word about Putin. That shows fear, not narcissism. He knows.

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  4. @michael reynolds: It is not an unfair point. But as a Russian expert friend of mine pointed out, we are still selling arms to Ukraine, which is not what Putin wants us to do, and that undercuts (to a degree) the notion that Trump is afraid of Putin in all things.

    And, also, the fact that the only strong-man type that Trump insults is Kim. He likes Duterte, Erdogan, and Putin.

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  5. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    We’re still selling arms to Ukraine because stopping the sale would piss off a billionaire or two and would be too crudely obvious even for Trump.

    A U.S. company says it has been selling lethal weapons to Ukraine since last year, ahead of an expected decision by the Trump administration on whether to provide such weapons to Ukraine.

    “We started delivering our product to Ukraine last year and we are continuing deliveries up until now,” said Richard Vandiver, Chief Operating Officer at the Texas company AirTronic, USA, in an interview with VOA’s Ukrainian service.

    Vandiver said the sales have been limited to short-range defensive weapons, principally Precision Shoulder Fired Rocket launchers (PSRLs), which are a redesigned and updated version of the widely deployed Soviet RPG-7 anti-tank weapon. Ukraine is engaged in a struggle against Russian-trained and funded separatists in its eastern region and fears an armored assault.

    The U.S. Congress has approved $350 million in security aid for Ukraine in its most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including $47 million for defensive lethal weapons. The act awaits final approval in the House of Representatives before going to President Donald Trump for his signature.

    I can find no info on the ownership of Airtronic. The Texas district to which it relocated some years back is represented by Republican Lamar Smith – a member of both the Judiciary and the House ethics panel. The senators are a strangely quiet ex-critic Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.

    The potential damage done by cancelling the sale outweighs any advantage to Putin. Vlad doesn’t give a damn if Ukrainians get a handful (47 million in ‘lethal’ weaponry) of relative pop guns.

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  6. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Refresh me: Did Trump start insulting Kim before or after Kim called him a dotard?

    @Steven L. Taylor: @michael reynolds:

    It could be narcissism and fear. Narcissism created Trump’s infatuation with Putin. Fear, now that Mueller’s jaws are slowly closing around Trump, may sustain it.

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  7. CSK says:

    Please release my comment above from moderation purgatory.

  8. @CSK: I am fairly certain Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” before the dotard comment.

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  9. Matt Bernius says:

    The good news is there seems to be no evidence of attempts to hack the actual process of voting.

    If by that you mean the switching of one vote to another, I totally agree.

    However, I expect that we are eventually going to get confirmation that hackers did breech servers containing voter registration data (it appears that this happened in Georgia). And honestly I will not be surprised if we learn that some registration data was altered.

    One would hope that this would lead to better securing of registration data, however I’m not holding my breath.

    Rather, the goal has been to create disinformation in the campaign process and to take advantage of our open society, free press, and prevalence of social media. This can influence individual voter behavior, voter turnout, and general attitudes about our electoral system. These things can all matter in a close election and they can have longer-term detrimental effects as distrust and polarization grows.

    110%. It’s telling that a lot of the efforts seemed aimed at discouraging minority voter turn out and pushing those on the further left to vote for Stein. Given how close this election was — especially in key states — both candidates needed all the votes they could get.

    And ultimately the fact that Trump lost the popular vote, while winning the election, definitely helps in terms of breeding additional distrust and potentially suppressing future turn out in urban centers.

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  10. @Matt Bernius: Yes, I mean actual vote changing. If we find (which will not surprise me) hacking of registration info, that will be very serious–even if nothing was altered.

    And yes: the polling was close going into the election and only needed a few nudges to effect the outcome. Comey’s letter was one such nudge. Russian interference appears to have been another.

    The EV/popular vote inversion was icing on the cake.

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  11. de stijl says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    If by that you mean the switching of one vote to another, I totally agree.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, I mean actual vote changing. If we find (which will not surprise me) hacking of registration info, that will be very serious–even if nothing was altered.

    That there isn’t a Manhattan Project to harden and secure our registration data and voting systems is shocking to me.

    2016 elections are coming up fast.

    Imagine that millions of registration records are altered and millions of people cannot cast a vote or required to vote provisionally.

    Now imagine the much worse scenario were votes were altered on a massive scale. It would be utter chaos. Who won? How to we figure that out? If we can’t, who will hold the seat until we conduct a do-over? Partisans would go absolutely nutso. We can’t do a quick re-do because our voting system is compromised

    It would be the Brooks Brothers riot in thousands of precincts.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    There was a story, kind of buried months ago, that some math professor types did statistical analysis and found discrepancies in Trump’s favor in places without a paper audit trail.

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  13. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If we find (which will not surprise me) hacking of registration info, that will be very serious–even if nothing was altered.

    100%.

    @de stijl:

    That there isn’t a Manhattan Project to harden and secure our registration data and voting systems is shocking to me.

    Unfortunately, this is an area where our current system, which allows each state to handle the running of elections, makes it very difficult to get this type of project off the ground. Different Universities (really faculty at given universities) have made runs at this, but there’s no current momentum for a national effort (and probably will no be until there’s official proof of registration hacking).

    Now imagine the much worse scenario were votes were altered on a massive scale.

    I honestly think we do a huge disservice by tying “hacking” to “directly altering votes.” The reality is that while it is feasible to hack a single machine to alter votes, the current set up of machines makes this *really* difficult to do across machines across the country (or even in a state).

    The result is that it takes focus away from far more practically vulnerable systems like voter registration.

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  14. TM01 says:

    Everyone on the left likes to talk about Russian interference in the elections, yet even tho it’s illegal for foreign nationals to interfere in an election, these 13 Russians were not charged with that. They were charged with things like defrauding the US. Via some pro Trump and Bernie Facebook posts and memes.

    Are you seriously saying we should start an international incident over social media posts?

    (And BTW, I see good arguments against computer and internet voting above. Paper is much harder to hack.)

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  15. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And yes: the polling was close going into the election and only needed a few nudges to effect the outcome. Comey’s letter was one such nudge. Russian interference appears to have been another.

    Again, 100%.

    The challenge is that there is no actual way to quantify the impact of each nudge. I think fair minded people will acknowledge that this has to have had some effect (in the same way that advertising has an effect). But, to my knowledge, there are no real tools to get at what that effect was (again, this is why all the intelligence reports say outright that they do not address the issue of impact).

    Honesty, if voter rolls were changed, it would be one of the few possible opportunities to begin to get at any sort of quantification of effect. And even then, it will largely be a stretch — which means that individuals whom so choose can deny there was any demonstrable impact.

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  16. @TM01: Have you read the indictment?

    Also, I would recommend the Lawfare podcast on this matter that was posted yesterday. It seems that perhaps you have not fully investigated the claims that the indictment makes. We are not just talking about the posting of internet memes.

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  17. TM01 says:

    Here’s what Facebook has to say about MuhRussia

    The majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump and the election. https://t.co/2dL8Kh0hof

    — Rob Goldman (@robjective) February 17, 2018

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @mattb: The effect of Comey’s statement can be approximated as it happened at one point in time. Russian hacking, not so much as it was spread out.

    If it weren’t for Comey, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by about 6 points and the Electoral College by 70 or more. And that might have turned into control of the Senate as well, though that’s a little more speculative.

    I have yet to see a definitive explanation for Comey’s act. He argued he had to tell Congress, but doing so violated FBI policy. He may have thought Hillary was safe and he could buy some cred with Republicans at her expense. He may have been preempting leaks from what sounds like a RW cabal, Giuliani’s buddies, in the NY FBI office.

    Comey strikes me as mostly a good guy, but he’s still the villain in this piece. And saying that doesn’t let the Russians, Trumpsky, or people in his campaign off the hook for their crimes.

    Let me also point this out as an example of the corruption of Republican elites being the root cause of our problems. The public was only sensitized to Comey’s letter because the GOPs in Congress and their witting and wittless (I’m looking at you FNYT) allies in the media spent months creating a scandal out of nothing.

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  19. michael reynolds says:

    @CSK:

    It could be narcissism and fear.

    Certainly. But the narcissism explanation won’t stand on its own – it doesn’t explain why Russia chose him. And they did choose him. They went after Republicans who opposed him for the nomination, then they continued to support him while also supporting fringe candidates who would hurt Hillary.

    Why him? That’s the question that is not answered by the ‘chaos’ theory of Russian motivation. Certainly they wanted chaos but of course Trump was chaos whether he won or lost. The Russian’s specific interest in Trump is obvious: they’ve been using him to launder money. Russians overpaid him for properties, that’s established. Trump was caught money-laundering at his Casino and had to pay a fine. Manafort is a money-launderer. Jared is desperate for Russian cash to stave off bankruptcy. Mike Flynn was in bed with Russians, along with Carter Page. And one of Trumplets, Eric or Junior, said loudly that the Trump organization no longer needed Deutsche Bank, they had Russian money. Miss Universe – Russia.

    And there’s the dossier. It’s no longer a question whether or not Trump hired sex workers, that’s established fact. It’s also a fact that Trump spent a fair bit of time in Russia and stayed at the best and most expensive hotels – the kinds of suites the FSB routinely monitors.

    Here’s my (unoriginal) theory of the case:
    1) Deutsche Bank cut Trump off, the last bank that would touch him.
    2) Either Trump reached out to one of Putin’s pet oligarchs, or the reverse, it doesn’t matter. Russian money started flowing to Trump, keeping his organization afloat.
    3) As added insurance the FSB put cameras and microphones on Trump. As one does if one is Russian intelligence.
    4) Trump is informed that his friend in the Kremlin is prepared to help him win. Trump says, cool. And can you keep the lines of credit open for me? And Putin said, sure, Don and I’ll hold onto this little tape right here, too.
    5) Without Putin, Trump is broke. If he turns on Putin, Putin can cut off his money supply and play some tapes on the teevee.
    6) What does Putin want from Trump? To end sanctions and give him a free hand in Russia’s near-abroad. Congress, acting with suspicious speed makes it impossible for Trump to end sanctions.
    7) Congress in fact adds sanctions which Trump refuses to enforce.
    8) Nor will Trump launch an investigation into meddling his own NSA calls, “Incontrovertible.”
    9) And spends his morning toilet time tweeting lies denying Putin did what Putin incontrovertibly did.

    And there really is only one motive that fits all the facts – Trump is owned, body, soul and bank account, by the dictator of Russia.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Yep. Unless of course the POTUS in question is guilty of aiding, profiting from, and covering up Russia’s attack. There really is no other explanation that fits the known facts. Trump is so paralyzed by fear of exposure and so insecure he can’t even make a stab at pretending to give a sh!t.

    The POTUS in question might have other legally shady things that he is afraid a careful investigation of his campaign and finances would turn up.

    And, whatever it is, I think it’s very clear that he thinks Putin knows.

    (And a smart Russian operation would be releasing drive and drabs, to perpetually keep the President weak)

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  21. @michael reynolds: If the goal was disruption, Trump was the most obviously disruptive. I suspect they are surprised he won.

    While I agree your hypothesis may yet be correct, I don’t think it has to be to explain what has happened. I think a combo of Trump’s ego and the Russia desire for disruption are probably sufficient (especially when you throw in the already existing polarized political climate in the US and the GOP dysfunction).

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  22. Teve tory says:

    Steven L. Taylor says:
    Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 17:45
    @TM01: … We are not just talking about the posting of internet memes.

    TM01 says:
    Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 17:52
    Here’s what Facebook has to say about MuhRussia

    Steven taylor: “tm01 don’t step on that rake.”
    Tm01: (steps on rake)

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  23. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t disagree with you at all. And…I can add that Eric Trump, as well as Trump Jr., has gone on the record saying that most of the Trump money comes from Russia.

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  24. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I look forward to the day when the Ukraine magically ‘reacquires” nuclear weapons from NATO.

  25. Jake says:

    Cheering for a team, nothing burger for over 2yrs you’ve been trying nothing

  26. CSK says:

    @Jake:

    Jake, what you wrote above makes absolutely no sense either syntactically or grammatically. It’s incomprehensible. Please clarify, if you can.

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  27. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @TM01:

    Here’s what Facebook has to say about MuhRussia

    In your eternal naivete you’re buying into Facebook’s attempt to try and create a hard line between electing your Dear Leader and sowing political discord and confusion. There is no line between the two. Trump IS confusion and discord. It’s why you have a MAGA hat wearing kid killing 17 children in a school.
    In addition Facebook was but a small part of Russia’s efforts.
    Look…you were fooled into voting for an incompetent child to run the country…if Russia didn’t con you, who did?

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  28. mattb says:

    @gVOR08:

    The effect of Comey’s statement can be approximated as it happened at one point in time. [excerpt from article — “If it weren’t for Comey, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by about 6 points and the Electoral College by 70 or more.”]

    While I don’t question that Comey had an effect on the election, I have deep reservations about the quantification of the effect that Drum is doing. In fact, when on reads the Vox article that he’s basing his analysis on, they don’t really get into a direct quantification of the Comey effect. In fact, they write:

    But the Comey effect was real, it was big, and it probably cost Clinton the election. [Matt: Emphasis mine]
    source: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/11/14215930/comey-email-election-clinton-campaign

    All that said, when an election ultimately boiled down to less than 80,000 votes across three key states, everything matters.

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  29. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    While I agree your hypothesis may yet be correct, I don’t think it has to be to explain what has happened.

    I suspect we’ll get an answer before the mid-terms. Suspense!

  30. Guarneri says:

    So here are some other observations:

    I don’t see people shrugging their shoulders and saying, as a dismissive, everyone does it. I see people observing that Democrats crapping their pants have selective outrage. We all wish this activity did not exist, on either side. But kindergarten was a long time ago.

    Further, in the case of the recent indictments, could Russia’s activities be more cartoonish and inconsequential? The money spent compared to candidates’ spend is measured in the third decimal place. Call me crazy, but when an earthquake happens I’m a tad suspect that some guy stomping his feet was the cause.

    Should any POTUS be concerned? Of course. But exactly what should they do? Obama described Russia’s efforts as something like a gnat on our ass, followed by “cut it out.” Powerful stuff, there. And let us recall his dismissal of Mitt Romney’s 80s Cold War mentality.

    Is it possible to deal with any issue these days at this blog without turning it into a partisan and silly anti-Trump rant? There is plenty of blood on the floor. I would submit that this hysterical atmosphere fuels the public mood, and in turn politicians stances. Meanwhile, nothing productive happens.

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  31. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You truly need a mental health professional. Its been more than a year.

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