Voting United States by Tom Arthur (creative commons)

With Today’s Technology and an Electoral College Quirk Even a Foreign Country Can Influence a U.S. Presidential Election

But can a foreign country change the outcome? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is yes but the odds are probably not very good. There are two fundamental methods of influence available to a foreign government — (1) hacking into the ballot system and altering the ballot count or (2) using campaign-type tactics that influence how voters vote or if they vote. Technology and the quirky way the Electoral College is implemented opens the possibility that both methods will work.

In a December 2016 Washington Post piece Michael McFaul wrote of the first method, “…our electoral college system makes us more susceptible to tampering, because simply under-counting a small fraction of votes in a few targeted precincts of a few key states can change the electoral outcome.” However, with a minor wording change from “under-counting a small fraction of votes” to “convincing a few potential voters to alter their voting behavior” the same basic message applies to both methods.

In the next section we’ll explore how the Electoral College system makes us more susceptible to tampering by foreign governments.

The Quirk That Matters

While existence of the Electoral College (EC) system by its very nature makes our election system quirky, the potential election-swinging quirk discussed here arises because of the way most states implement the system and not the EC system itself. That is, the quirky small state bias built into the Constitution’s Electoral College won’t likely alter the outcome of a presidential election unless the Electoral College vote approaches being a tie. The last time that happened was the 2000 Bush/Gore election when Bush won the presidency with a five Electoral College vote margin after Florida was declared for him. Then it’s back to 1876 for an Electoral College vote close enough for the small state bias to have had the potential of coming into play. Typically, the Electoral College vote margin overwhelms the small state bias.

Instead, how most states allocate their assigned Electoral College votes increases the odds that a foreign government can impact our elections, and this quirk especially drives candidates’ campaign strategies.

Because the Constitution leaves how Electoral College votes are determined to individual states, quirky situations on at least two levels are created. This is the case because all but two states determine their Electoral College representatives on a “winner-take-all” basis.[1] That is, if a candidate wins the popular vote in a winner-take-all state, he or she gets all the electoral votes allocated to that state. It doesn’t matter if the popular vote margin of victory is one vote or a million.

The winner-takes-all system facilitates creation of swing (aka battleground) states. In a swing state the potential democratic/republican popular vote split is close enough that changing a relatively few votes can swing all the state’s Electoral College votes from one candidate to the other. These states attract the lion’s share of campaign budgets and candidates spend a disproportionate time reaching out to swing state voters. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker summed up the argument during his 2016 run for the presidency, “The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president, 12 states are.”[2] Unlike candidates, foreign governments typically work from the shadows, but effectively mastering the swing state quirk increases a foreign government’s odds of success.

There are several strategies that will influence an election’s outcome. They include flipping voters’ choices from one candidate to another, convincing voters not to vote, and changing the minds of unlikely voters through “get out the vote” drives. Of course, these strategies are tailored around getting a particular candidate elected. Generally speaking, candidates and foreign governments backing a particular candidate seek common goals — convincing voters or likely nonvoters they should:

· Switch from the other major party candidate to their side — a 2 vote swing for each success

· Switch from their major party rival to a third-party candidate — a 1 vote swing for each success

· Switch from a third-party candidate to their side — a 1 vote swing

· Convince voters aligned with their opposition it isn’t worth voting at all — a 1 vote swing

Of course, the above assumes that third-party candidates stand little to no chance of winning, but they can be spoilers. The oddity of this is that they typically spoil the chance of the major party candidate most closely aligned with their beliefs. For example, Ralph Nadar’s Green Party run in 2000 likely threw the election to George Bush over Al Gore in Florida’s hanging chad plagued election.

Select Battleground States in the 2016 Election

From the 2016 election four battleground states deserve special mention — Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In each of these states the popular vote difference between republicans and democrats was razor thin, ranging from 1.5% for Florida down to 0.2% for Michigan, but Mr. Trump won them all, thereby winning the election. Mrs. Clinton took two other razor-thin states (New Hampshire and Minnesota), but of course, they were not enough to swing the outcome. (For data see the Federal Elections Commission.)

While we could debate about how much influence Russia had in causing the above razor-thin results, the more important point for 2020 is showing how a foreign country’s government can influence the 2020 election without breaking the bank because battleground states will be where the action is in 2020 just as it was in 2016.

Bottom line, an astute observer can narrow focus to a very small portion of the electorate and potentially yield an outsized impact. For example, in 2016 Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin went for President Trump by just under a total of 78,000 popular votes out of the almost 14 million ballots cast in these three states. In many situations, a less than six tenths of one percent vote difference would be considered a rounding error, but in these winner-take-all states it made all the difference, swinging 46 Electoral College votes Trump’s way.

While both the candidate and a foreign country backer have the same goal, by necessity they use very different tactics. The candidate will visit battleground states often, set up an extensive campaign infrastructure, seek local endorsements, and generally make their presence known as much as possible. Of course, in today’s world social media is also a key ingredient.

On the other hand, foreign governments want to stay in the shadows being as stealth as possible. For them, they want voters seeing and reacting to their handiwork not realizing how those results came about. The more natural it seems the better. As is easily seen, this is a tall order. Fortunately, for us we have the Mueller Report which lays out in excruciating detail how Russia went about the task in the 2016 election. Of course, the Mueller Report was the last thing Russia wanted, but in the end it has become a user’s manual for other foreign governments wanting to influence the 2020 election.

The Russian Playbook

Russia attempted both methods of influencing the 2016 election — hacking into the voting system and influencing how voters either vote or convincing them not to vote.

Hacking

Regarding hacking, a Senate intelligence committee found that “Russian government-affiliated cyber actors conducted an unprecedented level of activity against state election infrastructure in the run-up to the 2016 election…[Redaction].” In addition”[Redaction]…the Committee found ample evidence to suggest that the Russian government was developing and implementing capabilities to interfere in the 2016 elections, including undermining confidence in U.S. democratic institutions and voting processes.” One witness before the committee concluded that the Russians targeted the voting systems in all 50 states. Another witness “characterized the activity as ‘simple scanning for vulnerabilities, analogous to somebody walking down the street and looking to see if you are home. A small number of systems were unsuccessfully exploited, as though somebody had rattled the doorknob but was unable to get in … . [however] a small number of the networks were successfully exploited. They made it through the door.”

Illinois was one of the voter systems successfully hacked. “DHS staff further recounted to the Committee that ‘Russia would have had the ability to potentially manipulate some of that data, but we didn’t see that.’ Further, DHS staff noted that ‘the level of access that they gained, they almost certainly could have done more. Why they didn’t… is sort of an open-ended question. I think it fits under the larger umbrella of undermining confidence in the election by tipping their hand that they had this level of access or showing that they were capable of getting it.”’ In short, the Russians seemed to be saying next time we can hack your voting system if we want, and there isn’t anything you can do about it.

Influencing Potential Voters — The Social Media Campaign

While the hacking should give us pause, how the Russians went about trying to influence voters brings us into a new frontier, especially with regards to their social media campaign. Activities included:

· The Russian Army stealing hundreds of thousands of emails and documents from the Democrats and releasing them at first through two Russian controlled websites and then via Wikileaks. (The Mueller Report, p. 4)

· An extensive social media campaign operated through the Internet Research Agency LLC (IRA) funded by a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Putin. (The Mueller Report, p. 4)

While stealing documents from the Democrats has aspects similar to the voter system hacking activities already discussed, there is a distinct social media component. Stealing the information was the first step, but perhaps the more important step was getting it out to the public in a way that yielded the maximum benefit to Mr. Trump, the Russian’s adopted candidate. For example, WikiLeaks released the first batch of emails stolen from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager within an hour of the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, blunting the negative impact on the Trump campaign. Was the timing pure dumb luck or astute social media manipulation? The general public may never know the answer for sure, but it is apparent American experts respect Russian cyber abilities. Of course, here we are discussing Russian activities not Trump campaign activities. It appears Russia oversaw an independent stealth operation with the objective of helping the Trump campaign effort.

In addition to the above Russian Army activities, the Internet Research Agency conducted an array of social media activities, the extent and sophistication of which is mind-boggling. The Mueller team concluded, “The IRA conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system. These operations constituted ‘active measures’ (активные мероприятия), a term that typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs” and “Initially, the IRA created social media accounts that pretended to be the personal accounts of U.S. persons. By early 2015, the IRA began to create larger social media groups or public social media pages that claimed (falsely) to be affiliated with U.S. political and grassroots organizations” (Mueller Report, pp. 14 and 22).

It is easy to see that hacking attempts aimed at our voting infrastructure and stealing troves of documents is beyond the pale, but many may have more difficulty seeing the problem of a foreign government using social media to assist a candidate. Perhaps seeing the extent of the activity will help. Fortunately, the Mueller Report also gives a sense of what the IRA did via social media.

“Instagram accounts had hundreds of thousands of U.S. participants. IRA-controlled Twitter accounts separately had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures who retweeted IRA-created content. In November 2017, a Facebook representative testified that Facebook had identified 470 IRA-controlled Facebook accounts that collectively made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017. Facebook estimated the IRA reached as many as 126 million persons through its Facebook accounts. In January 2018, Twitter announced that it had identified 3,814 IRA-controlled Twitter accounts and notified approximately 1.4 million people Twitter believed may have been in contact with an IRA-controlled account.” (Muller Report, p. 15)

Additionally, the IRA advertised helping it reach larger audiences. Facebook estimated that the IRA purchased more than 3,500 ads costing approximately $100,000 (Mueller Report p. 25). Mueller’s Report also gives a sense of what the Facebook advertising supported and the impact. It reads, “Collectively, the IRA’s social media accounts reached tens of millions of U.S. persons. Individual IRA social media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. For example, at the time they were deactivated by Facebook in mid-2017, the IRA’s ‘United Muslims of America’ Facebook group had over 300,000 followers, the ‘Don’t Shoot Us’ Facebook group had over 250,000 followers, the ‘Being Patriotic’ Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the ‘Secured Borders’ Facebook group had over 130,000 followers” (Muller Report p. 26). We need to keep in mind that these Facebook groups had either a pro-Trump and/or an anti-Clinton leaning bias, giving us a sense of what creativity fueled with ad dollars can do. Of course, similar activity occurred on the other major social media sites as well.

A Quick Diversion

Russia wasn’t the only social media heavy hitter in the 2016 election season. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns had significant social media presences, but the Trump campaign deserves special accolades. Aided by the Republican National Committee, Mr. Trump’s campaign took use of social media to a much higher level. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 digital media consultant, couldn’t help but gloat shortly after the election saying, “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing. Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.” Not surprisingly, Mr. Parscale is now Mr. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager. For the Trump 2016 campaign it was a digital-first effort, while Clinton relied more heavily on more traditional campaign technics such as TV ads, with social media taking more of a back seat.

It’s easy to envision that the Trump and Russian campaign activities could have dovetailed even without collusion. After all, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, met with a Russian colleague the FBI believed had ties to Russian intelligence agencies and shared his strategy for winning votes in key Midwest states like those discussed above. Manafort also shared the campaign’s internal polling data with this Russian colleague. (Mueller Report, p. 6–7). It is feasible that the Russians donned the black hat and provided what Wired termed the “echo chamber” of fake news coming from many directions while the Trump campaign independently wore the white hat (perhaps with a little very public Twitter dust around the edges) with no collusion between the two.

On the surface it would seem that social media would be more of a national activity raising the question of how foreign governments or campaigns can use social media to target voters in battleground states? In reality it is easier than you might think. Firstly, social media activities can be tailored so that they appeal to select voter groups in battleground states, and secondly, ad spends can drive the selected voters to the relevant social media material. Hence, if one of a campaign’s messages won’t appeal to you, astute ad targeting can avoid you while seeking out individuals that would be interested. At the same time, you may receive ads more relevant to you.

Not to belabor the point of using social media but Facebook was also extensively used by the Republican National Committee (RNC). They fine-tuned Trump ads to yield the maximum impact in a way that is not possible in traditional media. For example, after the third Presidential debate the RNC tried 175,000 ad variations in their attempt to achieve the maximum engagement on Facebook.

Conclusion

We humans have the tendency to believe that we are not easily fooled. Advertisers beg to differ, and witnessed by their reliance on social media, so do Presidential campaigns and the Russians. Perhaps 2016 set the stage, but we may not have seen anything yet. Next year may take political use of social media to a height that we can only dream about in our worst nightmares.

[1] The Constitution specifies that each state is allocated votes equal to the number of senators and house members in their respective Congressional delegations. In addition, Washington, D.C. is allocated three Electoral College votes. While in some rare cases Electoral College members selected by the state-determined process will go rogue, all but two states use the winner-take-all process. Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions with their electoral votes determined by a “proportional representation” system that apportions their electoral college votes by two votes for the candidate with the highest number of popular votes within the state and the remainder determined by the outcomes in individual congressional districts.

[2] For 2016 the likely 12 swing states were Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona (See Politico for information on the first 11).

Retired economist and newbie news satirist predominantly using raw beginners “haiku” that do little justice to this elegant Japanese poetry form.

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