Decentralized Election System One of Our Nation’s Strengths
Rep. John Lewis’ claim that President-elect Donald Trump isn’t a legitimate president wouldn’t matter by itself. Lewis dismissed President George W. Bush as illegitimate, too. But the attacks by leading Democrats are mounting, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon and dozens of lawmakers who boycotted the inauguration. All are insinuating that Trump lacks legitimacy because the Russian government allegedly tried to sway the election.
“If we can’t carry out an election without disinformation being pumped into it by another country, we’ve got a huge destruction of our system going on,” exclaimed Feinstein.
These pols need a refresher course on American history. Foreign countries have always tried to tilt our elections using fabricated news and propaganda. The same problem plagues all powerful nations.
There’s nothing new about the latest interference except the technology: internet hacking. Russian operatives hacked into the Democratic National Committee servers and then publicized the information by handing it to WikiLeaks. Included were emails showing that Clinton was leaked debate questions and that Democratic staffers disdain Catholics.
Meddling with public opinion is different from tampering with voting machines or vote tallies. False statements can be countered with accurate ones. Words alone do not diminish the legitimacy of an election. It they did, the U.S. would have a long history of illegitimate election results.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts cautioned, “Foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them.” The framers tried to reduce the risk by barring federal officials from taking gifts “from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
Another fail-safe against foreign interference was the framers’ decision to entrust the actual conduct of the elections to local officials, keeping it decentralized.
Even with these safeguards, foreign mischief has been a part of American elections since the beginning. In 1796, agents of the French government tried to tilt the election toward Thomas Jefferson by smearing incumbent Vice President John Adams as a monarchist and organizing local pro-Jefferson societies in many states.
Fast-forward to 1916, when European countries, embroiled in World War I, intruded upon the presidential contest between incumbent President Woodrow Wilson and Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes. A prominent government-backed newspaper in Germany urged German-Americans to support Hughes. That sparked alarm that, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, German meddling would “make the American President in effect a viceroy of the German Emperor.”
Twenty-five years later, according to Politico, Britain’s secret intelligence service used every type of chicanery to defeat American politicians who opposed entering World War II to defeat Hitler. Agents bugged offices, linked anti-war candidates to Hitler and produced phony polls purporting public support for U.S. intervention in Europe. The Brits hoped to tip the 1940 presidential election toward President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was running for a third term against Republican Wendell Willkie, who opposed getting into war. Yet no one questioned FDR’s legitimacy.
And who can deny that Iran tipped an election toward President Ronald Reagan in 1980? Incumbent President Jimmy Carter’s inability to free American hostages held in Iran became the focal point of the election, their days in captivity marked nightly on the news. They were held until the minute Reagan took the oath of office, clearly pushing public opinion to favor him. Was his legitimacy undermined? No.
Looking ahead, our best defense against foreign manipulation of our elections is an educated, vigilant voting public.
But our nation also benefits from having the most decentralized election system of any Western democracy, with 9,000 jurisdictions. There’s no standardized vote-counting mechanism with which to tamper. However, the Obama administration designated these state and local election systems as “critical infrastructure,” making them a “priority for cybersecurity assistance” for the Department of Homeland Security. Threatening to nationalize our electoral system at a time when local control is more important than ever is a misguided power grab.