Politics & society, Research

Russia, fraud, confidence and elections

By Kathleen Maclay


San Francisco — Probes by congressional committees and a special counsel into suspected Russian interference in the 2017 U.S. presidential election are still underway, but experts at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association (APSA) on Friday zeroed in on the likelihood of such obstruction while highlighting potential consequences and ways to safeguard the American electoral system.

The Russian flag

Dov Levin , a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, has assembled a database of 117 U.S. and U.S.S.R./Russian interventions in partisan elections between 1946 and 2000. That means attempts to influence the outcome of elections happened in one of every nine competitive national level executive elections — a staggering number.

Levin contends that electoral interventions usually occur when there is motive, such as a major power perceiving its interests are endangered by a certain candidate (such as Hillary Clinton) or when a significant domestic election figure is persuaded to go along with a proposed intervention.

Such interventions, he said, usually significantly increase the odds of victory for the candidate being helped, and overt interventions are more effective than covert.

A dramatic shift

Levin said he believes, as many U.S. intelligence authorities have asserted, that Russia meddled in the Trump-Clinton race — and it’s really nothing new.

The history of foreign meddling in U.S. elections goes back to when the French tried to derail John Adams’ presidential bid, he said. It includes efforts by the pro-Nazi Germans, who bribed an American newspaper to force the publication, just days before the vote, of leaked diplomatic documents that they hoped would prevent Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election in 1940, and Russia’s planting of fake news to try undermine Ronald Reagan’s bid for the presidency in 1984.

Vladimir Putin (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

But Levin said two things are new with the purported Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election: its cyber aspect, with the Russians hacking Democratic campaign records and providing Democratic campaign materials to WikiLeaks, which shared them with the world; and the fact that word of the meddling got out before Election Day. Even though this appears to have been a “major operational failure” by the Russians, he warned that such efforts are likely to proliferate.


Several authorities on the panel expressed concern, based on their own research, about the potential impacts of election interference — not just on the outcome of a particular race but on the confidence of the American public and voters.

Political scientists Lauren Prather of the University of California, San Diego, and Sarah Bush of Temple University said their work has shown that impartial election observers can sometimes boost confidence in election outcomes in the United States and other countries, and influence the likelihood of fraud, violence and protest. At the same time, they reported, confidence in election outcomes often is tied closely to whether voters were on the winning or losing sides.

In the case of the 2016 presidential election, they surveyed more than 1,000 voters and found that before Nov. 8, 2016, that about two-thirds felt there was some meddling in the election and a high number believed it was by the Russians. But the number dropped somewhat among Trump voters after ballots were counted.

Investigatory solutions

Eric Schickler, chair of UC Berkeley’s political science department and an expert on Congress, said there is evidence that the U.S. House of Representatives’ investigators into interference in the 2016 election “are digging” in and abandoning much of the nasty partisanship that characterized their earlier efforts. Yet there has been even more probing on the U.S. Senate side, with evidence of some rare bipartisan work even though the Senate is ruled by the same political party as the presidency.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who published leaked documents embarrassing to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

While there is some concern that appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller allows Congress to essentially pass the buck on this issue, the Mueller investigation may actually serve as a bit of a safety valve to ease some of the pressure off Congress, Schickler said.

And although special congressional investigations such of these can be expected to be stronger when one party isn’t dominant, Congress has acted to levy sanctions on Russia over the fierce objections of the president.

Schickler added that ongoing revelations about the various investigations are keeping the issue of election interference in the news, and Trump’s own often volatile responses to the news may be hurting the president’s standing while emboldening congressional members of his own party.

Ballot, poll safeguards

Several panelists expressed concern that election tampering can further discourage voters in an era of already dismally low turnouts. Others said they worry about the vulnerability of aging voting machines as well as the potential for hacking electronic voting.

Several recommended the use of more paper ballots, hand counting of votes cast or at least having a paper trail to accompany machine voting.

Merely making allegations about widespread voter fraud is problematic, some panelists said, because it is almost impossible to prove a counterfactual.

But they said improvements to American voting systems could help maintain voter confidence in the U.S. election system, as could making the voter registration process easier and shortening lines at polling place lines, which have repeatedly been shown to be longer for non-white and urban voters.

Napolitano remarks

Earlier in the week, UC President Janet Napolitano, who earned a degree in political science from Santa Clara University, delivered the keynote address to the APSA members. She challenged the higher education community to help the public distinguish between truth and divisive falsehoods, and to speak out against intolerance and bigotry.