Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hacking the Vote

In reporting the hacking of the email messages of prominent Democrats during the 2016 election, the press has by and large settled on a rather intriguing shorthand: "election hacking."  (See examples here, here, and here.)  Because of its vagueness, this shorthand risks conflating the hacking of emails in order to influence the election in some way (which there is some evidence of) and the hacking of the election results themselves (which there is no evidence of).  "Email hacking" or "DNC hacking" or "Podesta hacking" or "hacking of Democrats" would seem more precise but also less likely to inspire paranoia in the American public.  "Election hacking" may offer a kind of argumentative figleaf for those who want to delegitimize the election results without openly saying that some nefarious entity actually went in and hacked the vote totals to swing the election to Donald Trump.

That's not to say that some folks won't try to argue that the election results themselves were hacked.  In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, a publication I enjoy, Michael Tomasky argues that we will never really know whether a foreign entity (in his case, Russia) hacked the election:
But if their reports are accurate, what this amounts to at the very least is that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the election in Trump's favor. Whether it managed to determine the outcome by meddling directly in the actual voting is something we don't know and will likely never know.  To arrive at such a conclusion would require a thorough forensic investigation of vote tabulations in at least the three states where Trump's margin over Clinton was less than one percent--Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin--and other steps; but this is not going to happen.
A belief that Russia hacked the actual election results has some popularity on the left (according to one poll, 52 percent of Democrats believed that it did), but there is absolutely no evidence that any such vote hacking did take place.  U.S. officials have affirmed the accuracy of the voting results, and state recounts have uncovered no evidence of vote hacking.

While it might assuage Democratic feelings to keep alive the evidence-free narrative that Russia hacked the election results, it's damaging to our body politic in general.  If that election was hacked and if we can keep alive that hypothesis without any concrete evidence, why not say the same thing about other elections?  How do we know that any elected official actually won his or her office?  If Russia can hack the election results without any obvious evidence, how do we know that other entities also have not hacked this election or other elections?  Electoral paranoia destroys the public trust that our republic is built upon.

Moreover, if it were true that Russia hacked the election results (again, there's no evidence for this), that perhaps is the biggest indictment of the Obama administration imaginable: on its watch, its policies allowed a foreign entity to destroy the democratic process.  Thus, it would be hard simultaneously to support the notion that Russia hacked the election and to hold the belief that President Obama was anything other than the worst president since James Buchanan, maybe ever.  The left can have Barack Obama as a noble president or the proposition that Russia hacked the election results--but it can't have both.

We have more than enough real challenges at the moment.  We don't need paranoia to invent more.

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