Roundtable – Responding To Electoral Mischief

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on May 4, 2019.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

Hello and welcome to this week’s Roundtable, where Torchlight staff discuss the current burning political questions. Today we’re talking election interference and the Democratic response. As the redacted version of the Mueller report showed, the 2016 presidential election was marked by sweeping, systemic interference on the part of the Russian government, through both a secret social media campaign and the theft and dissemination of private emails. Recent news items, including Kirstjen Neilsen’s inability as Secretary of Homeland Security to persuade Trump to address election security concerns and Trump’s phone call with Putin in which Trump denied the Mueller report’s conclusions on Russian interference, have made it clear that 2020 is almost certainly likely to involve even more foreign influence and other issues of fairness than 2016 did. I want to cover a number of potential scenarios and what both the Democratic party and voters can or should do to try and deal with these potential problems.

Let’s start with Russia specifically. Do we think Russia is likely to continue to meddle in our elections in 2020? And what can be done about that under an administration that refuses to acknowledge the existence of the problem?

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

I think that any answer other than yes is hopelessly naive, bordering on utterly ignorant. Russia made a play, and they won. They didn’t pay very much money, and they got a president that will gladhand them and help them out at all times. He is thoroughly compromised, and is a completely ineffective geopolitical opponent. The states need to be aware, but the problem is there are some states, like Georgia, that are of the exact same opinion as Trump.
Our election security must be tantamount, but the people responsible for it are delegating responsibility.

Additionally, we need to pass on the awareness that what we read may be compromised, and so if people start talking about Facebook news etc, we need to immediately shut that down, because Wikileaks and so on are just going to be used in the exact same way. False narratives and bullshit are going to be inculcated with this election as well.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

Will Russia attempt to interfere in the 2020 election? You bet. They have every reason to do so (e.g., they want to keep their Trump puppet) and no reason not to. What can be done about it? I am not sure. My first instinct is to suggest educating liberal voters to be on the lookout. However, I look at how part of the interference in 2016 was to stir up protests on the Left and the Right. I also look at how many liberals I run into who post talking point memes that are light on fact-checking, and I realize how susceptible the liberal voter may be to the same tactics used in 2016.

So, I recognize that simply educating and imploring people to look before they leap probably won’t be sufficient. Plus, it’s hard to ask people facing real and serious problems to try for a little dispassion about the issues facing them and about which they feel so strongly. The interference tactics aim to rile folks up, and people are very susceptible to that on issues about which they already feel passionate. Long story short, I don’t have good answers other than to keep making folks aware, and I am not sure that will be a terribly effective approach.

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

Ironically, I think the Electoral College is actually going to serve a role here by segregating the presidential race into 50 distinct elections. Given we know that the Russians did make attempts to penetrate various portions of the voting infrastructure across the country, the Democrats should be working to shore up election security in every state they control, particularly the purple ones. This will actually serve two purposes, the first of fending off direct attacks on the system, and second of providing defense against post-2020 claims of vote manipulation by Trump.

Major steps would include forcing voting system companies to open their hardware and software to inspection as a condition of signing contracts, and requiring paper receipts of all votes to ensure recounts are possible.

Christo

or only using machines to count votes, not cast them.

David

Good point! The reality is that aside from influencing the electorate, efforts to screw with our elections have to operate state by state since we don’t use the popular vote, so we may as well leverage that, given what it costs us.

Christo

One worry is that everytime investigations have been revealed on the extent of the actual interference, it has become more and more serious. (first, they only tried a few states, then all of them, then only accessed rolls in a few states, but didn’t change anything, then all of them) We need to assume they are building upon that, not just trying the same stuff again

Ann

I think that escalation will continue, especially with the free rein the current administration is handing Russia and, by extension, other nations.

Josh

I agree that Russia will no doubt ramp up its efforts in 2020–doubling down is what you do when an investment pays off beyond your wildest expectations—and I worry that our system is not equipped to handle it. As voters we can try and fact check everything (or rely on trusted sources for news), and some states will try to fortify their election systems, but we can’t stop the media from doing what it did in 2016 with Podesta’s and the DNC’s emails. Nor is it out of the question that interference would all be from Russia, or to help Trump.

Hillary Clinton was on Maddow recently and posed a hypothetical about a Democratic candidate asking China to hack and release Trump’s tax returns. With the GOP lining up to excuse foreign meddling in American elections, will 2020 be open season for our global competitors? What should Democrats and their primary candidates do if, say, China (or Russia) does a similar data-dump of material that looks bad for either other primary candidates or Trump himself?

David

I think the critical piece is that the Democrats must investigate anything that they find out about, particularly if it’s directed in their favor. The “both sides do it” narrative is bad enough when it isn’t literally true.  Aside from that, there’s a game theoretic argument that we need to raise the cost of interventions in our elections or they’re going to multiply.

It wouldn’t hurt if the Democrats also came out with a strong rebuke of our own extensive history of interfering in elections around the world. Some of the things we did in post-war Europe would be considered acts of war these days!

Christo

We should absolutely conduct investigations as to the source of the matter, and ensure that any security leaks are found and removed. Any leak like that is a threat to our country.

Additionally, it depends if it’s true. If the Chinese suddenly publish evidence that Trump is, say, colluding with the Russians (we obviously now know he was, but I mean even moreso), that does not invalidate everything Mueller has been doing the last 2 years.

Acting against the US and undermining our electoral process with impunity is some of the most toxic and carcinogenic attacks against our democracy. Trump basically letting this happen is some of the worst dereliction of duty, and I am not exactly sure how we handle the scope of what is to come

Ann

One of the toughest parts of this is that the media, particularly the 24-hour news media, will exploit anything salacious and that has a tendency to blow things out of proportion. It doesn’t matter what network either, as all of them do this kind of thing to survive. Further, despite solemn promises to do better after 2016, it does not appear the many in the media have learned the lesson that how they cover things actually shapes the narratives out there, rather than objectively presenting events. The Democrats can only do so much therefore to prevent damage done by media coverage using false equivalencies in an effort to sound fair and balanced or over-emphasizing something out of context to sell salacious content.

The best I have to offer at this time is to bring the coverage up short and make the context plain, including calling out media to get it right and making sure everyone understands just how untrue the false equivalencies narratives are.  Obviously with these comments, I am trying to address how the media made things like the email dumps worse and failed to confront misrepresentations regarding those emails when presenting their narratives.

Josh

I think I land closest to Dave here—I’d like to see the Democratic primary field pledge together that if any foreign nation interferes with our election, then if they become president they will respond with heavy sanctions on the offending country. Tying that pledge to a critique of American foreign policy and a promise for us not to interfere in other countries’ elections seems like a strong way to sell that to the public.

Ann

As well as cut off one of the Trump talking points in that regard at the knees.

Josh

Let’s move to talking about some other forms of interference, specifically as relates to the Democratic primary. As the DNC tries to bend over backwards to be fair to all the candidates, other people are trying to put their thumb on the scale. Jacob Wohl, a right wing I don’t even know what, meddler? recently got caught trying to gin up false sexual misconduct accusations against 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg. In such a wide open primary with so many candidates, are Democrats uniquely vulnerable this cycle to Republican ratfucking? Can the GOP be allowed to pick their preferred opponent by attacking the other Democratic candidates? 

David

I’d think it would actually be harder with so many targets.

Josh

I guess my logic Dave was that when half the field has 5% each, a major negative news cycle can be catastrophic.

David

Particularly this early in the campaign there’s almost no point in going after anybody except the top targets, since almost all of them will flame out anyway. [Editor – FiveThirtyEight.com recently estimated that roughly one third of the current candidates will drop out before the Iowa caucuses]

Josh

They did, though. Pete’s not a frontrunner at this point. Not that Wohl is the sharpest knife in the drawer, mind you.

David

My suspicion is most of the hacking at the moment will be positive targeting, i.e. I want him gone, rather than trying to eliminate all but a preferred candidate, which is what I think you were describing.  I rather doubt Wohl was trying to ensure Biden got the nomination, for example

Christo

Yeah, it makes it so a centralized ratfuck is way more difficult. Also, there are so many candidates that actually turning on one another is actually almost impossible right now. (Who will be the next nominee? DeBlasio, Apparently! Who Knew?) The thing is, we are so far out and there are so many candidates, I think a lot of people are actually tuned out until something actually happens, and not like O’Keefe bullshit things happening.

Josh

You’re probably right, but I do worry that in this field there will always be some candidate willing to take free GOP opposition data dumps and run with them. We haven’t seen much negativity at all yet but I bet that will change eventually. Plus, the candidate doesn’t have to do anything; their supporters are often negative online and may latch onto the right ginned up scandal as an excuse to attack a candidate they don’t like.

Ann

I think there is a real possibility some on the Right will try to put their thumb on the scales to swing things for the candidate they would prefer to see Trump against. Misinformation is rife. I have seen attacks on Bernie Sanders’ voting record that were taken out of context just this week. The same with Joe Biden. More will occur. Sometimes, it will be hard to sort through which are legitimate concerns and which are just more talking points meant to poison the well for a candidate. With the well-poisoning, then it’s sometimes hard to know the source, i.e., is from the Right or is it other Democratic hopefuls? One of the mantras that several liberal voters seemed to have forgotten in 2016 is that no candidate is perfect. People need to keep that in mind this time, and not lose sight of just who Trump is, or fail to vote because the liberal candidate is not pristine. 

Josh

Of course, the most effective ratfucking has always been that which uses the official levers of power—Benghazi hearings, the FBI investigation into Hillary’s email server, etc. Recently we learned that Donald Trump, inventor of the “lock her up” chant, has moved from trying to prosecute his former political opponent to trying to prosecute his potential future political opponent, by asking his pet Attorney General William Barr to investigate current 2020 poll leader Joe Biden. How serious a problem is this behavior, and what can be done about it?

Christo

It’s a massive problem, because the independence of the Justice Department is now crumbling, if not gone. The fact that it has taken us…. 2 AGs (plus some Actings) to get us to this point shows us how weak “norms” actually are, given how vital they are to our democracy. Like, we say that Trump is just an expression of Republicans as a whole, and he is, but on this issue (which is a big issue) Trump is way worse. The Attorney General should not be a political hack, and it’s pretty clear now that’s what Barr has been all along, for those not paying attention. (Those that are paying attention realized what role he had in Iran-Contra and knew from that). 

Ann

I have to agree. How serious is this? This is using the legal department of the people to suit the private whims of a single narcissistic bully. This is full on autocratic behavior in a democracy. It’s deadly serious. Unfortunately, short of constant House attempts to investigate into this behavior, it does not appear that a lot can be done to prevent it. We just have to prepare in advance for some negative outcome and hopefully have a counter for it, I guess.

Also perhaps, Democrats can try to turn around the flipped narratives that have been used since 2016. For example, point out that the ones who have done harassing investigations over and over again, without finding anything, have been the Republicans and they are doing it again. Or remind folks that, for example, Hillary Clinton actually testified for hours before Congress under oath, and Trump could not even sit with the special counsel for an interview. In contrast, Mueller’s investigation was sought on a bi-partisan basis and resulted in convictions, so not partisan harassment or a witch-hunt.

David

Let me say upfront that Biden’s situation seems likely to be benign (recap: Biden pushed for removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor for internationally condemned corruption. His son was working with a company under investigation by that same prosecutor. Bleah.)

So, it’s probably benign, but one could reasonably have concerns. Trump is absolutely pursuing it for political reasons. But is it inappropriate to investigate? I don’t know. I’ve always thought the GOP had Bill Clinton dead to rights for perjuring himself over his testimony about Lewinsky. Sometimes appropriate government action can be damned convenient for those undertaking it. If Trump starts pushing for fishing expedition subpoenas on people without even a pretext, then we’re screwed. But sometimes working in government puts you under a spotlight even when you’re innocent.

Josh

I think the question of whether to investigate Biden brings up the problem of the double standard being pushed by the GOP—that any investigation into Trump’s political opponents is just a reasonable part of doing business, while any investigation into Trump or anyone in his orbit is a partisan witch-hunt (it’s always projection with these people). The larger concern is that the idea of fair elections, of rule of law, of justice, begins to be undermined. When no Republican can be allowed to be questioned (literally, in instances of Trump refusing to be interviewed in the Mueller investigation or Trump admin officials refusing to testify before Congress), but no Democrat can go unscrutinized, then we have one legitimate party and one party that cannot legitimately govern or compete in elections. That’s a disastrous recipe for the ongoing health of our democracy.

Any final thoughts on the fraught prospects for fair, honest, and interference-free elections in the primary and in 2020?

Christo

The most important election is always the next one, and that’s never been more true. We need to anticipate the problems of 2020, not refight 2016. We have to be able to react not just to Republican intransigence now, but also their complete rejection of even pretending to reject oversight. Further, we need to be ready for Russia’s (and whoever else’s) next tactic, and we have to do almost all of it while holding only the House, with the rest of the government at the very least resistant to any defense. It’s going to be a long year, but we have to be up for it, otherwise… 4 more years.

Ann

We have evidence of serious attempts to interfere and misinform regarding our elections, both from outside the country and from within. This is dangerous. Anything to which one party can fall victim can later be used against the other party. Wanting to prevent this interference or lessen its effects should be something desired on a non-partisan basis. It saddens me deeply that it’s not.

David

One of the hardest parts of this is that the risk surface is so large. We’ve got the voting system. We’ve got propaganda targeting voter opinions. We’ve got propaganda targeting social harmony. We’ve got hackers passing information to the media with intent. We’ve got a deeply untrustworthy executive branch potentially abusing its powers to the advantage of the incumbent. These are widely divergent threats, but we’ve got no option but to face them all at once. Thankfully there are a LOT of eyes on this, so it isn’t hopeless, just hard – much like life in general. With luck we’ll get an acknowledgment of our efforts in the history books like the original (non-horrible) populist movement in the 19th century.

Josh

I think any answers do start with awareness of the problem. I think back to the last time our country was attacked, 9/11, and how the most significant step in preventing future attacks along the same lines was simply that now people knew not to let hijackers take control of the plane. I hope that in some respects, public and media awareness of interference attempts will enable us to recognize and combat their effects—to see propaganda when it’s spread, to correct misinformation, to turn down unethical aid when it’s offered. Ultimately the best we can do is keep our eyes open. And that, unfortunately, is where we have to leave things today. Thank you all for participating, and thanks to our readers as well.

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