Foreign interference has been a feature of American democracy since the very first competitive elections. In 1796, the first election after George Washington’s retirement, the government of France, angered by the U.S. for signing a treaty with its former foe, Great Britain, decided it needed to play an active role in choosing his successor. The French ambassador publicly released a series of diplomatic notes for publication in a Philadelphia newspaper urging Americans to reject the treaty and implying that the election of the Francophile Thomas Jefferson could help prevent war between the two countries. (It didn’t work: Jefferson lost a close election to John Adams.) There’s also evidence that fear of foreign interference was one of the reasons for the creation of the Electoral College. Making his case for the institution, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the gravest threat to republican government came from “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendance in our councils … by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” Ironically, almost 230 years later, the Electoral College would help a foreign power raise one of those creatures.
These examples are cited in Dov Levin’s just-released Meddling in the Ballot Box, the first book-length academic study of the history of foreign election interference. “This is a very common phenomenon which can have major effects on elections and determine election results,” Levin, a professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong, told me in a phone interview. “What happened in the U.S. in 2016 was not new.”
The risk of foreign interference has gotten less attention in this election than it did in 2016, perhaps in part because it is overshadowed by the president’s own threats to the integrity of the election. But it is still a concern. In August, the U.S. intelligence community released an assessment that “China prefers that President Trump—whom Beijing sees as unpredictable—does not win reelection,” while Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ ” FBI Director Christopher Wray has also said that Russia is currently engaged in “very active efforts” to influence the election on Trump’s behalf. Russian President Vladimir Putin, never one to miss an opportunity to troll, recently proposed a noninterference pact between the U.S. and Russia.
Levin makes the case that not only is meddling a more or less typical feature of democratic elections around the world, but the U.S has historically been one of the most active perpetrators. His work also suggests that current trends will only make the U.S. more enticing—and more vulnerable—to foreign interference in the coming years.
Levin’s book is based on a dataset he developed (which I wrote about in 2017) looking at election interference by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia between 1946 and 2000. (These aren’t the only countries that have intervened in elections abroad, but during this period, they were by far the most prolific.) He finds that the two powers engaged in some form of interference 117 times during this period, or one out of every nine competitive elections held around the world during this period. Eighty-one of those were done by the U.S, and 36 by the Russians. He also found that interventions correlate with an increase of 3 percent in the vote share of the aided party, more than enough to swing a very close race.
This interference can take the form of the covert methods that we more commonly talk about—leaking damaging information about a candidate to the media, giving bags of cash to a preferred candidate—or overt methods like promising a trade deal to reward a preferred candidate or threatening consequences if voters choose wrong. A recent example of overt interference was the Trump administration’s move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights shortly before Israel’s 2019 election—widely seen in both the U.S. and Israel as a blatant attempt to boost Trump’s preferred candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu. Meddling in Israeli elections is something of a tradition for the U.S.
The most depressing conclusion of Levin’s study may be that election interference turns out to be a pretty rational act. Not only is it fairly effective, there’s little evidence that either the intervening power or the aided candidate suffered backlash as a result. In fact, the data shows that intervention is more effective when it’s overt—when everyone can see what’s happening—rather than covert, though the latter is more common.
Another troubling finding: Electoral interference does not only happen in poor countries with fragile democracies. Targeted countries during the period studied include the U.K., Germany, Iceland, and the U.S. itself.
Russia’s 2016 interference fits the historical pattern. They used pretty typical methods—stealing and leaking damaging information on one of the candidates, spreading misinformation and propaganda online—which Levin argues are just digital updates of time-honored dirty tricks used throughout the Cold War. What does worry him going forward is the newfound ability of a foreign power to actually interfere in the counting of ballots. This kind of direct manipulation has been very rare, though not completely unheard-of: The book recalls that during the 1994 South African election—the first conducted after Apartheid—an unidentified hacker manipulated results on the central election commission’s computer to add votes to the opponents of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.* The fraud was only detected thanks to a simultaneous manual count.
Levin argues that two factors make electoral interference more likely. First, the country interfering needs a willing partner in the candidate being helped. Election meddling is generally an inside job; powers almost never intervene without the consent of the party they’re helping. This consent is not a given: Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, for instance, declined Soviet financial aid during his 1968 campaign against Richard Nixon—and went on to lose the race. Trump’s campaign, by contrast, encouraged Russian assistance both privately and publicly during the last election. Levin feels that Trump’s current predicament—dismal standing in the polls while multiple crises afflict his administration—makes outside assistance more likely. “That’s a situation where politicians start to look for a Hail Mary,” he says. “That’s a situation that’s very conducive for foreign powers to come in and find someone who’s willing to cooperate.”
The second factor is that the intervening country must perceive one of the candidates as a threat to its interests. When the U.S. intervened during the Cold War, it was usually to prevent the election of leftist governments that would fall under Moscow’s sway. In 2016, Russia was concerned about the hawkish Hillary Clinton and worked to either prevent her election or, if that failed, undermine her presidency. These time, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, they have similar fears about Biden.
Levin’s second factor suggests another way in which the U.S. is likely to become an increasingly tempting target for foreign interference: The party that holds the White House simply matters more for other countries than it used to. As congressional oversight over foreign policy has withered, executive power over matters of war and peace has increased exponentially since 9/11. International agreements are more likely to be carried out via executive action rather than congressionally ratified treaty. And while partisanship was certainly always a factor in U.S. foreign policy, during the period of Levin’s study, allies and adversaries could usually at least count on Republicans and Democrats to honor international agreements made by the other party and emphasize at least some of the same central priorities.
Foreign policy was already becoming just another forum for the culture wars, and Trump’s trashing of the Paris Agreement, Iran nuclear deal, and Trans-Pacific Partnership has demonstrated that foreign powers shouldn’t count on any agreement signed by the United States to survive a change of party in the White House. Trump spent his first term dismantling the agreements made by the Obama administration. If he’s elected to a second one, there’s a good change he could withdraw from long-standing alliances like NATO as well.
If you’re a foreign power affected by U.S. policy—that is, every foreign power—the question may become not whether you should take the risk of trying to influence the U.S. election, but whether you can afford not to.
Correction, Oct. 7, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Nelson Mandela’s last name.