The 'unique' nature of the US voting system could help Russia tip the scales of future elections, experts say

  • Top lawmakers say they’re worried there was not a quicker response from the Department of Homeland Security on Russian election meddling.
  • The “unique” nature of the US’s Electoral College system, experts say, makes it easier for election-meddling efforts to be successful.
  • “Arguably, you could pick two or three states, and two or three jurisdictions, and alter an election,” Sen. Mark Warner said.

The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told reporters on Wednesday he was disappointed that it had taken nearly a year for the Department of Homeland Security to notify 21 states that their voter registration systems had been targeted by hackers during the election.

“There needs to be a more aggressive, whole-of-government approach in terms of protecting our electoral system,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. “Remember, to make 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.”

Warner’s remark has raised new questions about whether the US’s electoral system makes its elections more vulnerable to manipulation. The presidential Electoral College System features a winner-take-all structure in states that experts say may not protect against or account for the kind of voter suppression mechanisms and social media manipulation Russia deployed last year.

Experts say it may never be possible to measure the effects Russian meddling had on the outcome of the election. But many agree that it is difficult to discount the possibility that Russia’s interference, in the words of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “served to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.”

“Warner’s statement is hard to evaluate in the abstract, but certainly two to three states could have made the difference in 2016,” said Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights expert and professor at the University of Kentucky.

Douglas said that, under the US Electoral College system and its current political demographics, “eight to 10 states will typically ‘decide’ a presidential election.”

“A foreign actor thus could also target those states to try to influence an election,” he said. “That’s all to say that yes, 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.”

TrumpWill McNamee (Getty Images)US President Donald Trump is well known for his love of fast food.

The ‘once unthinkable’ might be ‘plausible’

Recent reports indicate that Russia-linked Facebook accounts targeted swing states with paid political ads between 2015 and 2016 that boosted candidates like Trump and Green Party nominee Jill Stein and amplified racially charged rhetoric.

The problem was worse on Twitter, where automated accounts known as “bots” spread disinformation and propaganda more heavily into battleground states in the days leading up to the election, according to a new study by Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project.

“The winner-take-all system of the electoral college and rural/urban polarization make our presidential elections marginally more vulnerable to effective targeted strategies by campaign — or Russian propagandists — that could tip the outcome,” said Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama who is now a professor at Savannah Law School.

Wright said the “once unthinkable” notion that Russian-backed efforts could have tipped the election now “might be plausible.”

Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University, said “we do have to take a look” at how the Electoral College structure may have benefited Russia. He noted that Trump did not win a majority of the votes (over 50%) in any of the states that put gave him an overall victory, including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.

‘Election systems are a risk-management enterprise’

Other analysts pushed back on the notion that Russian-backed efforts could have tipped the scales.

James Gardner, an election law expert at the University of Buffalo, said that while it is true the Electoral College system ” has the perverse effect” of narrowing competition in national elections to swing states, “there is a big assumption” that Russia’s efforts actually affected voters’ decision making.

Gardner said “a very small number of voters” may have been susceptible to “certain kinds of appeals during the campaign window, which in very, very close elections might alter the results.” But he pointed to studies showing that attempts to persuade voters once a campaign is in full swing is usually ineffective because people tend to make up their minds “long before the campaign begins, and to vote their habitual tendencies.”

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, was similarly cautious when asked whether the US election system might make campaigns more vulnerable to manipulation.

“On the one hand the dispersion makes it hard to interfere with whole system,” he said. “On the other hand, one can pinpoint efforts where they are most likely to bear fruit.”

Voter registration databases in battlegrounds like Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were also targeted by hackers linked to Russia, which “actively tried to at least test the vulnerabilities of 21 states’ electoral systems,” Warner said.

It is unclear how many databases were actually breached, and whether any registration information was deleted that would have prevented people from voting. But it is precisely that uncertainty, Foley argued, that makes “front end and back end protection” of these election systems so necessary.

“In this case, it is very remind ourselves of the role of provisional ballots,” he said, referring to ballots that are used to record a vote when there are questions about a given voter’s eligibility.

“They’re not perfect, and I’d rather make sure, on the front end, that these databases are unhackable. But election systems are a risk management enterprise,” he said.

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