By Matthew Olsen and Benjamin Haas
September 20, 2017
In Federalist No. 68, his pseudonymous essay on “The Mode of Electing the President,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College could shield the United States “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Because of the “transient existence” and dispersed makeup of the electors, he argued, hostile countries would find it too expensive and time-consuming to inject “sinister bias” into the process of choosing a president. At the time, the new American leaders feared meddling from Great Britain, their former colonial master, or perhaps from other powers such as France, and they designed a system to minimize the prospect that Europe’s aging monarchies could seize control of their young democracy.
Hamilton and his colleagues never could have envisioned a year like 2016, when an enemy state—Russia—was able to manipulate America’s election process with stunning effectiveness. But it’s clear the national security rationale for the Electoral College is outdated and therefore it should be retired. Simply put, it enables foreign powers to more easily pierce the very shield Hamilton imagined it would be.
In Hamilton’s day, as he argued, it would have been nearly impossible for a hostile power to co-opt dozens of briefly chosen electors flung across 13 states with primitive roads. But in the social media age, the Electoral College system provides ripe microtargeting grounds for foreign actors who intend to sabotage presidential elections via information and disinformation campaigns, as well as by hacking our voting infrastructure. One reason is that citizens in certain states simply have more voting power than citizens in other states, such as Texas and California. This makes it easier for malign outside forces to direct their efforts.
But what if the national popular vote determined the president instead of the Electoral College? No voter would be more electorally powerful than another. It would be more difficult for a foreign entity to sway many millions of voters scattered across the country than concentrated groups of tens of thousands of voters in just a few states. And it would be more difficult to tamper with voting systems on a nationwide basis than to hack into a handful of databases in crucial swing districts, which could alter an election’s outcome. Yes, a foreign entity could disseminate messages to major cities across the entire country or try to carry out a broad-based cyberattack, but widespread actions of this sort would be not only more resource-intensive, but also more easily noticed, exposed and addressed.
Congressional investigators are currently examining Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has publicly called out Russian microtargeting in 2016 swing states. In March, Warner highlighted reports of “upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a botnet,” and he raised the question of whether these trolls targeted voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Donald Trump, of course, won those three states by a combined total of fewer than 80,000 votes, securing him an Electoral College victory and a four-year trip to the Oval Office, despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.
Facebook has already acknowledged that fake users linked to Russia spent $100,000 running political ads on its platform, on polarizing topics such as gay rights, gun control, immigration and race. Some of these ads were aimed at specific geographic areas. But we don’t yet know the full extent of Russia’s microtargeting efforts or whether they involved any cooperation with Trump’s campaign. And definitive answers to these questions may not emerge until Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller complete their investigations.
Apart from Russia’s disinformation campaign during the election, there also is reason to be alarmed about Russian cyberattacks on voting systems, including voter databases and electronic poll books used to verify voters’ identities and registration status. Recent reports indicate that Russian hackers targeted election systems in at least 21 states, and that the scope of these attacks exceeded what had been previously disclosed. These revelations are consistent with prior findings of intelligence agencies that Russian spies have been conducting reconnaissance on U.S. election processes and technology.
But setting aside for now worries about what happened in 2016, it is equally—if not more—important to consider the startling potential for interference in future presidential elections. As Clint Watts, a counterterrorism expert and former FBI agent, testified in a March hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, “Today, you can create content, gain the audience, build the bots, pick out the election and even the voters that are valued the most in swing states and actually insert the right content in a deliberate period.” Furthermore, he explained that outside actors are capable of cleverly disguising bots as human beings with local flavor:
“If you do appropriate target audience analysis on social media, you can actually identify an audience in a foreign country or in the United States [and] parse out all of their preferences … If you inhale all of the accounts of people in Wisconsin, you identify the most common terms in it, you just recreate accounts that look exactly like people from Wisconsin.”
And choosing the right voters to target is not a task that requires domestic assistance. As Issie Lapowsky of Wired recently explained, “there’s nothing preventing a Russian actor or anyone else from reading the news and understanding the American electorate, and thanks to readily available digital tools, targeting that electorate is simple.”
There are additional ways to help combat foreign interference in presidential elections. These include hardening our voting systems through better cybersecurity, making public the false narratives that adversaries push through fake news stories and encouraging social media companies to identify and block fake accounts and bogus ad campaigns designed to tilt our elections. These methods should be fully considered and, if appropriate, implemented. But ending the Electoral College should be central to the discussion.
Democrats may currently be more sympathetic to this cause given the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but this should not be a partisan issue. Protecting U.S. elections from foreign interference is a legitimate national security concern that all Americans should be able to embrace. Both state and nonstate actors may have an interest in influencing our future elections, and there’s no telling right now which presidential candidates they will prefer. In addition, although Russia clearly favored Trump in the 2016 election, it also demonstrated its willingness to gather ammunition on Republicans. According to the intelligence community’s unclassified report on Russia’s interference, “Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.” If it were in Moscow’s interest to promote a Democrat’s bid for the White House or damage a Republican’s, it would not hesitate to do so.
“Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio stated in an October 2016 warning to his fellow Republicans against exploiting information hacked by Russia and disclosed by WikiLeaks.
There are, of course, other arguments against the Electoral College: that an individual’s voting power should not be diluted or strengthened by virtue of geographic location, especially for an office that is supposed to represent every citizen equally; that it does not fulfill one of the original intentions of our framers—to exercise discretion and buffer the whims of the masses; that it has a dark history involving pro-slavery sentiments; that it often gives white, rural voters more voting power than minorities living in cities; that despite this, it still does not encourage candidates to campaign in rural areas but rather focuses their attention on cities in a smattering of swing states; and that swing states receive more federal funds than other states. But now, it’s time to also examine the Electoral College through a national security lens.
Hamilton certainly deserves his towering reputation as “the most important Founding Father who never became president,” but at least on the supposed national security benefits of the Electoral College, his argument no longer holds. To help protect our elections from foreign interference, we should change the way we choose our presidents.
Matthew Olsen served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center under President Obama and as general counsel at the National Security Agency. He is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and co-founder of IronNet Cybersecurity.
Benjamin Haas graduated from West Point in 2009 and was an intelligence officer in the Army for five years, including two deployments to Afghanistan. He is now a student at Stanford Law School. You can follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).