Any federal plan to intervene at this late date will backfire.
Someone will be elected president in November, but we may never know if it will be the candidate who wins the most votes.
Both major parties have raised the issue of potential election fraud in 2016. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently wrote a letter to FBI Director James Comey detailing his concerns that “the threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.” Last month Donald Trump said, “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised.”
Advances in technology have made voting fraud potentially easier and more effective. Gone are the days when phony paper ballots had to be manufactured and legitimate ones misplaced or destroyed. These days, with touch-screen voting, you don’t really know what is happening on the other side of the icon. Paper ballots could be miscounted or thrown away but at least you knew who you voted for. With electronic voting you don’t; so it requires more trust that election officials are doing the right thing.
Unfortunately, trust in government is at historic lows. Add to that the possibility that outsiders could hack into voting systems and change the results before election officials even see them. As election systems grow more connected and network-dependent, the possibilities for foul play, whether foreign or domestic, increase.
As well, the closer the race, the more useful and effective fraud becomes. In 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel estimated that the presidential election would come down to 500 precincts in 5 states. This was out of a total of 174,000 precincts in the entire country, with an average of 1,100 voters per precinct.
If rigging the results simply requires tipping the balance in 500 close precincts, or subtly raising vote totals in other friendlier neighborhoods in the same states, the threat of a stolen election becomes more likely.
Recently the Department of Homeland Security has been floating the idea of declaring the election system to be part of the country’s “critical infrastructure,” thus bringing it under the department’s cybersecurity mandate. Discussing such a radical change ten weeks out from a presidential election makes no sense. It would be impossible for DHS to set up an adequate system spanning 50 states and myriad forms of voting in two months’ time, if they could do it at all. Also the unilateralism of the approach — a decree redefining the electoral process as a computer network under federal supervision — would undercut traditional state control of elections and cut the voters themselves out of the decision.
The greatest harm would be to the legitimacy and integrity of the election itself. The threat of a rigged outcome is real, but DHS has not demonstrated the expertise to mitigate it or presented a plan for public discussion and debate. Furthermore, recent revelations of mismanagement, misconduct and low morale at the DHS-led Transportation Security Administration have not helped the department’s image.
Hillary Clinton has the most to lose if DHS slaps together a jerry-rigged election validation system that operates about as well as the Obamacare exchanges did. If she wins a narrow victory over Donald Trump, she would enter office with vast numbers of Americans believing that DHS handed her the win. A substantial Clinton margin would be seen in some quarters as even more evidence that the fix was in.
It is too late in the game for the Federal government to contemplate upending the election system and imposing a bureaucratic quick fix that is doomed to fail. In 2016 it will be up to state and local officials, as well as watchdog groups, to secure the integrity of the vote. Protecting the election system from future hackers will be left up to whoever next occupies the White House, hopefully winning fair and square.
James S. Robbins writes weekly for USA Today and is the author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism and the New American Identity.