WASHINGTON — Russians and Americans both have a history of meddling in foreign elections but they are not equivalent, international organizations and democracy proponents say.
Mounting evidence that Russian computer hackers interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has led to multi-pronged investigations into U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign. The investigations revolve around security concerns over the electoral process and fears that a foreign power could mold public opinion or break into election computer systems to sway voting outcomes.
But some international organizations and nations are heavily invested in promoting another form of intervention: professional election assistance, in the service of spreading democracy around the world. They say the Russian interference in U.S. elections that has captured recent headlines contrasts with the “legitimate” election assistance that is a key plank of Western international development.
Just exactly what qualifies as a justified or legitimate election is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. Even in the United States, up to 2.7 percent of ballots cast in recent presidential elections were invalid, higher than the 1 percent reported in Russia, according to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s voter turnout database.
Trump’s dismissal of the investigations as a “witch hunt” and repeated denials that his campaign had anything to do with Russian agents fly in the face of the U.S. intelligence community’s “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated an effort to undermine America’s democratic process. They also fail to account for the many charges and convictions resulting from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In a report by the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials reported in January of 2017 that Russian operatives reporting to Putin had “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” in favor of Trump winning the White House.
Some international observers note such actions would not be much of a departure from the norm of recent decades. Between 1946 and 2000, there were at least 117 “partisan electoral interventions by the great powers” of the United States and Russia or former Soviet Union, according to American political scientist Dov Levin, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong.
More than two-thirds of the interventions, or 81, were carried out by the United States; the other 36 were done by the Russians or Soviets as of 2016, he reported in an article published by Georgetown University’s peer-reviewed International Studies Quarterly.
“Such interventions have been a quite common phenomenon extending back to the beginnings of competitive elections and even including the 1796 U.S. presidential elections,” he said on his website about his findings, where were based on a dataset he constructed and continues to maintain.
“Since World War II electoral interventions have become quite common,” Levin said. “There were such interventions in approximately one of every nine competitive national level executive elections during this period. Indeed, the recent Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections for Trump may be the start of a new wave of such great power interventions. Nevertheless, electoral interventions remain understudied.”
Last year’s French presidential election was dogged by hacked documents and reports of Russian spying on Emmanuel Macron’s campaign. Russia has meddled in at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004 with cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and other forms of interference, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund.
“I come at this issue as a national security professional who has watched social media and online platforms be weaponized to attack the foundations of our democracy,” the alliance’s director, Laura Rosenberger, told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in August. “Technology is not standing still, and authoritarian regimes – including not only the Russian government, but also others like the Chinese Communist Party — are learning lessons about how to use these tools most effectively.”
The United States, for its part, manipulated elections in the 1940s in Italy and in the 1950s in Germany, worked to oust elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and had a hand in recent elections around the world in everywhere from Afghanistan and Iraq, to Tunisia and Ukraine.
Some of the hallmarks of Russian and American meddling include the spreading of false rumors, fake emails and information to help an establishment candidate or shore up the opposition. Unsurprisingly, Western experts argue that a pro-democracy agenda makes foreign involvement an honorable pursuit.
“We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings,” Thomas Melia, a visiting professor at Princeton University and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year. “So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections.”
Did you know that @UN has provided electoral assistance to over 100 countries since 1991? Learn how @UN is working to support democracy & good governance around the world → https://t.co/1h3KsMbz6t 📷UN Photo/Paul Banks pic.twitter.com/bBR7lIWUia
— Director-General (@UNOG_DG) August 20, 2018
A basic right
It’s not just Americans who try to spread democratic institutions and elections around the world.
Through the United Nations, more than 100 countries play a role in furthering democratic values and processes through development. Among the biggest supporters are nations such as Australia, Britain, Canada, European Union, India, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland. Their money pays for advisory services, civic education, computer applications, logistics, short-term observation and training.
The main U.N. entities that do the election work — often joined by partners that work on human rights, development, peace and security — include the U.N. Development Program, U.N. Democracy Fund, U.N. Women, the U.N.’s peacekeeping and political affairs departments and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee — guarantees, among other things, free elections. Three times a year, a little-known expert panel gathers in Geneva and New York to uphold civil and political rights.
The job of the 18 independent experts who sit on the U.N. Human Rights Committee is to ensure that 172 nations live up to their commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Another six countries — China, Comoros, Cuba, Nauru, Palau and Saint Lucia — have signed but not ratified the treaty, which took effect in 1976. Nineteen others have taken no action on it.
At its 2005 World Summit, the U.N. General Assembly reaffirmed that “democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.”
Two years later, the General Assembly named September 15 as the International Day of Democracy, which is used to review the state of democracy in the world.
Download ASD's Policy Blueprint for Countering Authoritarian Interference in Democracies to see the 30 actions gov't, civil society, media, and the private sector can take to defend our democracies. #SecureDemocracy. https://t.co/k1frEArBX6
— Securing Democracy (@SecureDemocracy) June 26, 2018
Interference versus aid
An op-ed article titled “Election assistance is not election interference” — published on the websites of The Hill and the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, or IFES, by its vice president for programs, Michael Svetlik — notes that claims of manipulation and disinformation have cast doubt on election outcomes from Kenya to France to the United States.
Kenya’s Supreme Court nullified a presidential election result last year because the voting might have been hacked, and said the electoral commission failed to verify the results before announcing them. But it rejected the claims of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s opponents that he had improperly used his influence and government resources to win the August 8 vote against opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Also in 2017, Trump created a presidential commission to look into alleged voter fraud in U.S. elections. He disbanded it in 2018 when his hand-picked panel produced little, if any, evidence. U.S. intelligence officials, however, said the Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election were focused on helping elect Trump to the presidency by hurting his opponent Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, senator and top diplomat and an outspoken critic of Putin.
“As concerning as this trend may be, equally worrying is the ongoing effort to conflate election assistance with election interference,” Svetlik wrote. “It is critical that policymakers, American citizens and the international community fully understand the stark difference between the two.”
Svetlik said he views election assistance as a key element of international development which, when practiced by nonpartisan international organizations like IFES, provides important help to local partners who can, in turn, promote more professional and independent electoral institutions.
He cited international norms, best practices and “broadly agreed-to treaty obligations concerning human rights, democratic governance and genuine elections” as the basis for the partnerships, which then “work to bring these principles to life and support electoral processes with integrity.”