Growing speculation exists about the potential for Russian hackers to rig the 2016 elections between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Russia’s motivation to interfere is twofold. Altering election results could maximize flexibility for Russia’s foreign policy, and suggesting the possibility of tampering in U.S. elections raises unprecedented fears among U.S. voters. Russian hackers will not be able to influence the presidential elections, but the psychological manipulation of U.S. voters who believe tampering is possible may damage the perceived legitimacy of U.S. elections. To prevent lasting damage, the United States should work to monitor election results for abnormalities, and the U.S. media should refrain from entertaining the idea that election rigging is possible.
If Russia manipulated the U.S. election, it would prefer Trump to Clinton. Trump’s isolationist foreign policy would allow Russia to assert its nationalist agenda in former Soviet satellite states while Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy would disrupt Russia’s agenda. Trump disapproves of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, initiatives that Russia perceives as U.S. encroachment. Clinton’s insistence that each trade deal be judged independently concerns Russia about potential future trade agreements. Trump’s isolationism would also leave NATO allies without committed U.S. support while Clinton openly supports NATO alliances. Trump supporter Newt Gingrich recently suggested the United States should hesitate before risking a nuclear war to protect NATO allies despite the U.S. commitment to the NATO charter. Trump’s disregard of the NATO charter would facilitate Putin’s efforts to reconsolidate power and influence in former Soviet satellites in the Baltics.
Some conspiracy theorists speculate that Russian hackers have the capabilities and will to rig the election in favor of Trump regardless of legal consequences. While rigging a U.S. election against Clinton would violate international law, Russia recently bent international law and used its UN Security Council veto power in the case against the Russian separatists who shot down Malaysian Airline Flight 17. A similar violation of international law occurred in 2008 when a Russian Mi-G 29 shot down an unarmed Georgian drone. Cybersecurity is still a grey area in international law, and election hacking could challenge the limits of cyber law. If Russia can deny its involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, then it likely could refute claims that it tampered with the U.S. presidential election.
Other theorists speculate that Russian hackers could rig the election in Clinton’s favor to expose the supposed corruption of the Democratic Party. The Democratic National Convention hack exposed the Democratic establishment’s preference for Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders, and rigging the presidential elections could potentially expose a U.S. government bias for Clinton. A plot to expose internal favoritism would require more sophistication for a smaller reward, making it less likely. Rigging in favor of Clinton could damage U.S. democratic legitimacy, but a Trump presidency would benefit Russian foreign affairs more directly by preventing intervention.
Despite conspiracy theories, Russian hackers will not determine the 2016 presidential election. Directly affecting the elections in a covert manner would require Russian hackers to change the results of particular districts in large states to efficiently manipulate the Electoral College. Suspicious actions, like tipping California’s consistently Democratic electoral vote in favor of Trump, would alert authorities to possible meddling. Such a flagrant discrepancy would signal that election hacking occurred. The United States has the precautions to avoid the hacking of election results by Russia.
Any perception of tampering or foreign involvement in the 2016 elections threatens the democratic process even if no meddling occurs. Clinton or Trump supporters may claim that Russian hackers rigged the election in favor of the opposition. If Trump wins, Democrats may claim that Russia rigged the election to gain flexibility in executing its foreign policy. Even if Clinton wins, belief that election tampering is possible may stimulate suspicions that the U.S. government tampered and corrupted the democratic process. Trump has repeatedly claimed that the current elections are rigged, undermining the democratic process and enraging his voter base. Trump’s supporters are disillusioned with Washington elites and what they call the establishment, making the claim that elections are rigged a comment that polarizes the U.S. populace.
The best policy to retain election legitimacy involves monitoring discrepancies in notoriously blue or red regions and identifying a swing in the vote that may signify a breach in the system. Swing states such as Ohio or Florida must be monitored even more closely. Hackers could potentially rig one or two key districts within a swing state in order to push it in either direction. These subtle hacks would be more difficult to identify and affect more believable results. Therefore, statisticians should flag significant abnormalities in certain voting regions to alert them of possible tampering. Abnormalities at the local level should also be monitored by carefully checking voting machines. Any tampering would be extremely unfortunate, but it would not dismantle U.S. democracy. It could, however, lead to further disillusionment by the American public.
The U.S. media must stress the fact that the Electoral College voting system is far too complex to manipulate. Using the Electoral College, rather than a popular vote, makes rigging an election nearly impossible. The U.S. media has an obligation to explain that manipulating data on such a grand scale is significantly more difficult than hacking a server to expose internal e-mails. Entertaining theories that a rigged 2016 election is possible hurts the legitimacy of the U.S. democratic process. Media use of hacking conspiracy theories for entertainment purposes is irresponsible and tarnishes the media’s role as a check for the U.S. government.
The biggest threat to U.S. elections is not Russian intervention but distrust from the U.S. population. Russian hacking will not dismantle U.S. democracy even if it occurs, but further disenchantment among U.S. voters with the U.S. political system could lead to greater polarization within U.S. society. U.S. domestic chaos would free Russia from U.S. interventionism and facilitate Putin’s mission to regain power in former Soviet satellite states. To prevent further damage to the legitimacy of U.S. elections, analysts and statisticians must monitor abnormalities in the election process, and objective media outlets must denounce any entertainment of election tampering conspiracy theories as irresponsible.
Austin Barvin is a first-year graduate student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is in the International Affairs program studying European & Eurasian Studies..