Earlier this month — which seems like eons ago in the current political landscape — Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson caused an uproar when issued a statement suggesting that Russian hackers pose a threat to voting systems in several Florida counties, and had the ability to wreak havoc on upcoming elections. Nelson had been briefed on the matter by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA), the co-chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
There was nothing particularly new in Nelson’s comments. Four months earlier, Florida’s other U.S. Senator, Republican Marco Rubio, raised similar concerns about the vulnerability of local election systems. And this past July, at his press conference announcing the indictment of twelve Russian military intelligence officials for their efforts to undermine the 2016 Presidential Election, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein described continuing Russian intelligence operations targeting state election systems and software providers.
Nonetheless, Florida Governor Rick Scott expressed outraged at Nelson’s warning. Scott — who is running for Nelson’s Senate seat and currently leading in the polls — suggested that Nelson’s claim of a Russian threat was an election dirty trick of sorts. Scott did not state exactly what he viewed Nelson’s ulterior motive to be — nor did he acknowledge that Rubio and Rosenstein had raised similar concerns — he only demanded that Nelson “put up or shut up”; that Nelson either present evidence proving that the threat was real or admit that his comments were an election ploy.
As if on cue, the day after Scott’s outburst, a group of kids participating in a voting machine hackathon at DEFCON 26 — an annual hacker convention — threw gasoline on the Florida controversy. In just ten minutes, an 11-year old boy, Emmett Brewer, hacked into a replica of the Florida state election website and changed the voting results. And Brewer was not alone; in all, 35 kids participating in hackathon successfully manipulated election results on replicas of election sites from 13 battleground states.
The DEFCON hackathon was intended to bring public attention to the continuing vulnerability of state election systems, and it did. The National Association of Secretaries of State — those obscure state officials responsible for overseeing actual voting — were understandably embarrassed by the DEFCON results, and insisted that their sites would have greater security than the replica sites that the young hackers successfully hacked. In any event, the officials pointed out, state election sites only publish the results of elections; they are not the voting machines where actual votes are cast and tabulated. Those officials, however, missed the point. They chose to disregard the utter chaos that would ensue should fake results be published on an official state site in the wake of elections, only to have a secretary of state come out some number of days later and declare that the published results were not correct, and that the real winner was not the person that the public had come to believe had won.
The Nelson-Scott kerfuffle and the DEFCON hackathon were the first things that came to mind last Tuesday evening when I heard that Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum had upset three challengers to win the Florida Democratic Party gubernatorial primary. The Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party was ebullient in the wake of Gillum’s surprise victory over the mainstream frontrunner. Earlier that day, before the votes were in, a post on Nate Silver’s hallowed 538.com political prognostication website had described Gillum as the fourth of four entrants in the race, “dogged early on by poor fundraising and an FBI investigation into his city hall.” Now he was the party nominee.
I had no reason to believe Andrew Gillum was not the actual winner, but as I considered the New York Times post-election headline, Andrew Gillum Shocked Florida With a Primary Win, a voice in the back of my head kept asking, how do we know who actually won?
In our electoral democracy, the credibility of voting systems is the coin of the realm. We accept election results, in part, because the consequences of not accepting them are so dire. In 2000, after an excruciating recount — and the 5–4 Supreme Court vote in Bush v. Gore that called an end to things — George W. Bush defeated Al Gore to win Florida by 537 votes out of the total 5,963,110 total votes cast. After weeks of hand-to-hand combat on the ground — with arguments over butterfly ballots, dimples and hanging chads — one thing was clear: no one could state with certainty which candidate a plurality of voters had actually intended to vote for. The simple truth is that when six million votes are cast, the margin for error is greater than 0.01%. But we accepted the results and moved on.
The Florida recount in 2000 has had numerous consequences. It laid to rest any doubts that the Supreme Court is a political institution. Indeed, in the wake of Bush v. Gore, it seemed safer to question the partisan action by the majority on the Court — or Ralph Nader’s third party run for that matter — than to focus on the larger implication of the Florida vote: the inherent inexactness of voting systems themselves. If one concludes that voting systems do not reliably transmit the intended will of the voters — and that the reported results of elections lack credibility — the viability of our winner-take-all electoral democracy quickly comes into question.
That, ultimately, was the implication of Bill Nelson’s cautionary words, as well as why it raised Rick Scott’s hackles. As the frontrunner in a Senate race, Scott has little interest in taking his eye off the prize that lies within his grasp to ponder the implications of the threats to the integrity of our election systems that Rod Rosenstein laid out in July. Nor are we, riven as we are by political animosity, capable of rising to the challenge that Rosenstein laid down at his July press conference: “When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats, and instead to think patriotically as Americans. Our response must not depend on which side was victimized.”
From the vantage point of someone weaned in Philadelphia politics, Rosenstein was making a seemingly untenable ask. Politics is a blood sport focused on a single objective: Winning. There is no prize for coming in second, for fighting a good fight, or for following the rules when the person that beat you didn’t. Since the founding of the Republic, we have come to accept all manner of tactics in pursuit of victory in democratic elections. In Philly, it seemed as though anything that increased votes for your candidate or suppressed votes for your opponent was fair game, from the wads of cash distributed as “walking around money” on Election Day to get your folks to the polls, to throwing voting machines down the elevator shafts of high-rise housing projects to suppress votes on the other side. Anything, in the name of winning — as long as it didn’t land you in jail.
At the national level, tactics ranging from the use of wedge issues and coded language to motivate one’s own voters, to voter suppression in myriad forms to suppress voting on the other side, to gerrymandering legislative districts to tip the scale in favor of the party in power, have been facts of democratic life, at least as far back as the famously nasty election of 1800. That year, Thomas Jefferson played on the resentments of rural and southern voters toward urban, Northeastern elites to topple President John Adams, as Jefferson surrogates questioned whether Adams was really a Christian, accusing him both of being an atheist and a closet Muslim. Little, it appears, has changed.
Rod Rosenstein is now insisting that we set aside this long, partisan history and collectively understand the threat that Russian operations represent. He is arguing that our commitment to liberal democracy must supersede the passions and partisan identities that drive democracy on the ground.
No doubt, he is right. Liberal democracy and thinking patriotically, as Rosenstein defines it, is elemental to what it is supposed to mean to be an American. But, it may be that Vladimir Putin has a clearer grasp of our political realities than Rod Rosenstein does. Liberal democracy — the bane of Putin’s world view — is an intangible concept that appeals to the better angels of our nature. In contrast, democracy on the ground — the world in which Putin has sought to intervene — is messy, passionate, and often driven by our worst instincts and emotions.
Indeed, for many Americans, the line that Rosenstein is drawing may seem arbitrary. For those who have historically been disenfranchised by any number of domestic political strategies that have manipulated our elections — such as voter suppression, unlimited money, or domination by elites, to name a few — foreign meddling may not look as qualitatively different as Rosenstein suggests.
For others, particularly those embroiled in the winner-take-all of electoral politics, looming threats to the nation take a back seat to threats to one’s own election. Were Rick Scott thinking patriotically when faced with Bill Nelson’s warning words about the threat Russia poses, he could have simply embraced Nelson’s words; after all, Nelson wasn’t actually accusing Scott of anything. But, immersed as he was in the middle of a high-stakes electoral contest, the notion of agreeing with his adversary probably never crossed Scott’s mind.
If Putin was looking to continue to wreak havoc in our politics, helping Andrew Gillum win on Tuesday would have been a good next step. Just look at how things have played out. Within hours after the results were posted online, racial animus was in full bloom, and within days virulently racist robocalls from white supremacists were up on the air, further stirring the pot.
And Russian intelligence operatives would not have had to actually tamper with voting machines to achieve that outcome. They would only have to be able to do what the kids at DEFCON did, and manipulate how the votes were reported online. After all, just imagine the pandemonium and rage that would tear the Democratic Party apart if one day next week, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner were to announce that his website had indeed been hacked, that the wrong results had been posted online, and that the actual winner was the establishment candidate, the pre-election polling frontrunner, Congresswoman Gwen Graham.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.