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Volokh Conspiracy

The Rights and Wrongs of Electoral Interference

Russia's interference in the 2016 election was wrong. But the reasons why are harder to pin down than you might think. Not all foreign interference in elections is unjustified. Far from it, in fact.


Russian President Vladimir Putin. (NA)

Despite widespread controversy over other aspects of the Mueller Report, the one thing most commentators agree on is that the Russian government tried to influence the 2016 presidential election, and that its interference was morally wrong. The least controversial part of the Report is its detailed summary of Russia's extensive efforts on this score. As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein notes, "[t]he bottom line is, there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord, and undermine America, just like they do in many other countries."

I agree with the conventional wisdom that Russia's intervention in the 2016 election was morally reprehensible. But the morality of electoral interference is not as straightforward as most people think. Not all efforts to influence electoral outcomes in countries other than one's own are morally wrong. And when they are, it is generally for reasons other than the fact that the people attempting to exercise influence are foreigners.

Many discussions of electoral interference implicitly assume that elections should be decided by a nation's voters without any influence from foreigners and their ideas. But such a position makes little sense. The origin of an idea says nothing about its validity. As the great  libertarian economist F.A. Hayek put it, "The growth of ideas is an international process… It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, un-British, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots." If ideas developed or conveyed by foreigners influence American voters for the better, we should be happy to see that happen. Indeed, the United States was founded on Enlightenment ideals largely developed in Europe by French and British thinkers.

In some cases, attempts to influence foreign elections are not only morally permissible, but even praiseworthy. Imagine that the nation of Ruritania is holding a referendum on whether to institute slavery. The "yes" forces are better organized and have better messaging than the "no" side, and appear likely to win.

The government of neighboring Freedonia finances a public relations campaign aimed at Ruritanian voters in order to persuade them to vote "no." The Freedonian PR campaign is better managed than the efforts of Ruritania's indigenous antislavery movement, and it has a decisive impact on the outcome, enabling the antislavery side to prevail. It seems fairly obvious that Freedonia's actions were laudable. Without them, large numbers of people would have suffered the horrific injustice of being enslaved.

This example is not entirely hypothetical. The abolitionist movement in the 19th century United States was significantly influenced by the antislavery movement in Britain, which worked to turn American (and European) public opinion against slavery.

As critics of the US like to point out, we have our own considerable history of trying to influence foreign elections. Not all of this activity was justified. But some of it surely was. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the US made extensive efforts to influence French and Italian voters to reject their nation's respective Communist parties. There was good reason for this. Had the communists prevailed, they would have tried to use the power of government to impose brutal totalitarian regimes modeled on that of the Soviet Union under Stalin. They would also have backed Stalin on the international scene. Liberal democratic forces in the US and Europe were entirely justified in working to prevent this.

As a general rule, liberal democratic governments try to stay neutral in each others' elections. But the best justification for this practice is prudential. If, for example, the US tries to help the Canadian Conservative Party unseat Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in upcoming October 2019 Canadian election, the other parties and their supporters will be angry, and Canadian-American relations would be poisoned if Trudeau gets reelected (or another Liberal wins in the future).

In most situations, it makes sense to maintain good relations with all the major parties in other liberal democracies, especially since the differences between them are usually not so great that the cause of liberal democracy in the world will be severely undermined by one defeating the other. But in unusual cases where this is not true (as with the Communists in 1940s Europe), this pragmatic presumption against intervention might not apply.

Sometimes, the problem with electoral interference is not the intervention as such, but the tactics used. For example, the Russian government was likely behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Hacking private computer servers is a violation of property rights and privacy, and is certainly morally reprehensible. But the nature of the wrong does not depend on the identity of the perpetrator. If American citizens had done the same thing, it would have been equally reprehensible.

The Russians also relied heavily on deception and misinformation intended to exploit voter ignorance and bias. This too was wrong. At least as a general rule, there should be a moral presumption against deceiving voters. But, once again, it's not clear that it's worse when done by foreigners than by citizens of the country being influenced.

As a practical matter, deception, manipulation, and exploitation of voter ignorance by American politicians and interest groups has a far greater impact on our elections than anything done by foreign powers. President Trump uses deception on an epic scale, including with respect to many of the key themes of his 2016 campaign. More conventional politicians differ from Trump more in degree than kind. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, was the proud winner of the 2013 Politifact Lie of the Year Award (Trump won the 2015 award) for his famous statement that, under Obamacare, "if you like your health care plan you can keep it." That deception (and others like it) were crucial to passage of his most significant legislative initiative. It probably had a greater impact than any single deception of Trump's—or any spread by Russian agents.

Sadly, lying and manipulation of public ignorance are not the sole province of Russian agents. They are standard political tactics of native politicians in both the US and many other countries. So long as most voters know little about public policy, are susceptible to a variety of biases, and do a poor job of sifting truth from falsehood, politicians will have strong incentives to lie.

The point of all this is not to excuse Russian deception by  "whataboutist"  invocation of lying by US politicians. Far from it. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that the nature of the wrong here does not depend on the nationality of the perpetrator.

In some cases, as political philosopher Jason Brennan points out, lying to voters might even be justified. If deception is the only way to prevent Ruritanian voters from backing a referendum instituting slavery, lying is surely a lesser evil than the alternative—if that is truly the only way to prevent the pro-slavery side from winning. Here too, the morality (or lack thereof) of the lies in question does not depend on whether they are spread by Ruritanians or by foreigners. It depends on the magnitude of the injustice they are trying to avert, the likelihood of success in that endeavor, and whether or not there is a more honest way to achieve the same result.

The use of manipulation and deception to influence elections is usefully analogized to espionage. The morality of spying is heavily dependent on the justice of the cause involved. While there should be some presumption against it, that presumption can be overcome if espionage is necessary to help avert a greater evil. Spying on the Nazis for the US was morally justified, while the reverse was very much not. The same goes for the use of deception to influence electoral outcomes.

This gets us to what may be the most reprehensible aspect of the Russian intervention. The hacking, trolling, and lying was in the service of a deeply unjust cause: promoting the interests of a brutal authoritarian regime and furthering Russian President Vladimir Putin's global campaign against liberty and democracy—an agenda described in detail in this Reason article by Cathy Young. That motive makes the Russian effort particularly reprehensible. But, again, the reason why it deserves condemnation has little to do with the nationality of the people involved. Americans who did similar things in service of a similar agenda would also deserve condemnation.

In sum, there is nothing inherently wrong with people trying to influence electoral outcomes in nations other than their own. Americans can try to persuade Canadians to vote for or against Justin Trudeau's government. Canadians can try to persuade us to vote for or against Trump. And so on. Right now, many in the United States and Europe are making arguments for or against Britain's Brexit policies, often with a view to trying to influence British opinion. In the past, both Barack Obama (who opposed Brexit) and Donald Trump (who supports it), have stated their views on the subject in ways obviously calculated to try to affect British attitudes. There is nothing inherently wrong with that either, though it may well have been both ineffective and pragmatically unwise.

Electoral interference is often wrong if it involves activities like hacking and deception. But the reason why such activities are reprehensible has little to do with the nationalities of the people involved. And the moral presumption against deception can be overcome in cases where it is essential to averting a greater evil.

Americans are justified in condemning Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the reasons why are not as straightforward as many might think.

UPDATE: Political blogger James Joyner responds to this post here. He argues that "the dispute over Russian interference in the 2016 US election (and in other Western elections since) isn't about the importation of ideas or attempts at moral suasion but rather nefarious methods." I think it is about both. The use of nefarious methods is an important issue, but many are angry at least in part because the perpetrators were foreigners and they believe non-Americans should not exercise influence over US elections.

He also claims that, while the "pure morality" of foreign and domestic actors' use of such "nefarious methods" is identical, the "reaction" would be different because the former is a violation of criminal law, while the latter is "arguably an act of war…. morally no different from an armed invasion."  In actual fact, many of the Russians' activities were also a violation of criminal law, as shown by the fact that the special counsel secured indictments against numerous Russian citizens (though, of course, the likelihood of successfully prosecuting them is low). I am skeptical, however, that the Russian interference qualifies as an "act of war."  It was wrong and (in many instances) illegal. But it was not the moral or legal equivalent of a full-scale armed attack.

Joyner suggests that Obama's claim that the Affordable Care Act would allow people to keep their preexisting health insurance if they wanted to "wasn't a lie at all. It was a slogan, implicitly a promise and one that I believe… was made in earnest." I think it pretty obviously was a lie, in the sense that it was a factual claim that Obama almost certainly knew to be false at the time he made it. For reasons I summarized here, the fundamental structure of Obamacare required replacement of numerous preexisting health insurance plans with ones that complied with ACA standards. That guaranteed that anyone who liked those plans would not be able to keep them. Obama surely knew that. He is a smart and knowledgeable policymaker. Yet, he told the lie and kept on repeating it for as long as it was politically advantageous to do so.

The fact that, as Joyner notes, Obama eventually admitted that the statement was "not accurate" but claimed that he had intended to "deliver on that commitment" does not make the original assertion truthful. The ACA, as enacted, ensured that the commitment would not be delivered on and Obama never put forward any policies that would have changed that (nor could he have without seriously undermining the basic structure of the law).

Finally, Joyner claims that "the Russians, Chinese, and other authoritarian regimes would reject Somin's framing" and that "in the case of great powers, interest will ultimately trump law or morality if the interest is sufficiently important." That may be true. But, so what? The point of my argument is not to persuade authoritarian regimes that I am right but to assess the morality of various types of electoral interference. The question of how to force authoritarians (and others) to refrain from wrongdoing is a separate issue.