How to Un-Ring Foreign Bells in Our Elections

The last few weeks have brought both good and bad news about our recent election.

The good news is that the election recount turned up no evidence that electronic vote counts were manipulated. This should come as a relief to all of us, including those who might have preferred a different outcome. While I would have preferred a Hillary victory (though I never supported her personally), the brouhaha that would have arisen had the recount overturned the election results could have had catastrophic consequences for our economy and the future of democracy. Altogether, I am glad that we can put to rest any doubts about the integrity of the vote.

The bad news is that, as reported in the New York Times, our national intelligence community agrees that Russia sought to manipulate the election through other means.

A quick summary: two hacker groups infiltrated the servers of the DNC, senior Clinton campaign advisor John Podesta, and the campaign of Senator Lindsay Graham. The politically and personally embarrassing emails that they stole found their way to WikiLeaks, which put some of them online every few weeks during the presidential campaign.

On the surface, this might not be terribly troubling: after all, government transparency is generally a good thing. However, as many have already observed, the hacks and leaks appear to have been a Russian plot to affect the United States, presumably to Russia’s advantage. The suspected hackers are widely believed by the intelligence community to be cyberwarfare arms of the F.S.B. and the G.R.U., two Russian spy agencies. What exactly the hacks hoped/intended to accomplish is still a point of disagreement within our intelligence community, but no one is under the impression that Vladimir Putin was trying to help us.

The nature of Russia’s meddling causes unique problems for a democracy like the United States that enshrines freedom of speech in its founding documents.

On one hand, the leaks were news, and the information within should not have been suppressed by our government. But on the other hand, the violation of American servers and intentional interference in the American election is an act of cyberwarfare. That reality sets up a bigger problem—our powerful 1st Amendment vs. national security and sovereignty.

Cyberwarfare is something that is often tricky to grasp, but the key is to realize that it is more than traditional war waged on virtual battlefields. It is not just a “bombing run” on virtual infrastructure or the shutdown of our power grid. Cyberwar includes methods of international conflict that have previously been the exclusive realm of spooks: psyops, information war, and character assassination.

Claus von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, and while Russia’s methods would be strange to the Prussian theorist, he would immediately grasp that the campaign waged online during the last year is exactly “other means”.

Last month, a Rubicon was crossed. A bell was rung that cannot be un-rung.

Information knows no borders, nor can we significantly check the speed at which it spreads. While we can attempt to limit data breaches in the future, Russia’s playbook will be used more and more often in the coming decades by more and more players. It will to be up to us citizens to sort fact from fiction, information from propaganda, and trustworthy sources from duplicitous ones. That may be the biggest overall problem.

But our dilemma may be even more insidious. While manipulation of data has previously been part of cyberwar campaigns, none of the Podesta or DNC emails appear to have been edited by the people who seized them. While their significance has been spun and debated and at times falsified, the veracity of the emails themselves appears to be indisputable. In the future, it will not be enough to ask “Is this true?”

We must also train ourselves to question why we are seeing what we are seeing. We must always ask whether or not we are being manipulated into believing something false and whether doubt and fear are being sown by people who wish us ill. What we will see in the future is not only the spreading of lies but the weaponization of the truth.

And that is truly terrifying.

So the good news today is that election results apparently were NOT fiddled. The bad news is that many of the bells we heard ringing during our election are from outside our borders and that they are just as effective in summoning voters to voting booths as bells ringing in the town next door. If those bells cannot be un-rung, how can we silence them in the future?

And perhaps more importantly: should we?

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Majority Rule

Our American form of representative democracy is derived from the democratic tradition of Ancient Greece and the republicanism of the Roman Empire. Of course, neither of those systems exhibited the universal suffrage Americans now see as our right, but both utilized a commitment to majority rule—and when an issue came to vote, the majority’s votes were decisive.  America does not have a system in which the majority always rules. Due to a unique arrangement, designed as a political workaround at the time, known as the Electoral College, our current president-elect did not even win a plurality of the vote. Rather, he is likely to enter the White House having won 2.3 million FEWER votes than his rival.

Clinton’s 1.7% lead over Trump in the popular vote would have given her a margin of “victory” greater than that of nine of our forty-four elected presidents, which raises a question: how did this come about?

Under our Electoral College system, each state is worth Electoral College votes equal to the sum of its Representatives and Senators. The winner of each state’s popular vote wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes, no matter how small the margin of victory. In Michigan, for example, Donald Trump won by 0.2%—less than 11,000 votes—but received all 16 of Michigan’s Electoral College votes.

Few believe the Electoral College is close to a perfect system, but it is what our history gave us.

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the so-called “Virginia Plan” was used as a jumping-off point for much of the Convention. The plan articulated many ideas that would be immortalized in the Constitution, but it called for election of the President by Congress, which was rejected because it risked creating a Chief Executive beholden to the legislature, undermining the separation of powers and weakening the checks and balances that are so important for good governance that our founding fathers strove to achieve.

Though James Madison (the author of the Virginia Plan) favored direct election of the president, he realized that the southern states would have rejected such a system. The reason? Slavery.

That issue had already reared its ugly head at the Convention, resulting in the now notorious [and hard to comprehend] Three-Fifth’s Compromise, which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for determining population size. But that compromise (which concerned proportional representation in the legislature) did not affect the popular vote because slaves could not vote. Thus the North could elect a president without appealing to the interests of the South. (This  actually occurred when Abraham Lincoln was elected without winning a Southern state, which clearly helped contributed to the start of the Civil War.)

The Electoral College emerged as a compromise: states would gain more power as a function of population, but no state would be powerless in the election of a president.

The Electoral College has been subject to both intense criticism and rigorous defense over the years. In “Federalist 39”, Madison argues that the Electoral College is rooted in a fundamental philosophy of our government: that both states and individuals have legitimate interests and a claim to representation in the federal government.

More modern arguments are often practical. For example, it is clear that the Electoral College makes recounts possible and easier by focusing on individual states.

Despite its virtues, the College gives certain voters in small states disproportionate power. Under a purely mathematical interpretation, a vote in Wyoming is worth 3.6 times as much as a vote in California. Through a geographical lens, it favors voters in “swing states”, whose concerns become disproportionately important. In a suffragist analysis, the College essentially disenfranchises millions of voters: Texan Democrats, New York Republicans, and the 52.4% of Michigan voters who did not support Donald Trump all have legitimate reason to believe their votes effectively did not count.

However, a belief in the absolute value of majority rule is historically not correct. Neither democracy nor republic has been the norm for much of history. Aristocracy and monarchy, in various forms, have been far more common and persistent. And, that is to say nothing of empires, which are ruled—almost by definition—by ethnic or cultural minorities.

But America is not an aristocracy or monarchy, nor has it ever been an empire in the Roman or even British sense. So how can we now manage to deal with a president elect who lost the popular vote by quite a wide margin?

If Trump’s victory were simply an anomaly, we could accept it as a quirk of the system and move on, but it is not. Only five presidents had been elected without winning the popular vote, but two (Trump and the second Bush) were elected in the last sixteen years. Such current results suggest that the Electoral College no longer aligns with our more basic principle of majority rule.

The most straightforward way to guarantee majority rule would be to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote for President. Barring another Constitutional Convention, an amendment to the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Barring massive changes to the demographics and attitudes of the country, this looks to be virtually impossible given the disproportionate power held in both the Senate and Electoral College by less populous states.

Another way, which to my knowledge has never been formerly advanced, would be to have a run-off when a candidate wins the Electoral College without winning the overall popular vote. A runoff eliminates all but the top two candidates so that the winner inevitably must end up with a majority.

While there would be a brief period of uncertainty to make time for the run off, that is surely a better situation than electing a president without majority popular support, and the use of runoff systems in other countries has rarely caused problems and is very commonly used. Our country’s current public divide is likely a result, at least in part, of a vocal segment of the population feeling that Washington failed to hear them. Now sadly, a significant number of voters has clear evidence that their voices were simply ignored.

That cannot be good for the future of our nation.