The Russians and the porn star

2018-02-23T06:56:52+05:00 M A Niazi

US President Donald Trump is in his second year of office, but he continues to be dogged by the issues that arose during his campaign, and which illustrate the problems that are inherent in democracy. First came the first indictments recommended by the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Then the revelation that he had not only had affairs with two women in 2005, one a porn star, the other a former Playboy Magazine Playmate of the Month, when his wife had his youngest son in 2005, but that they had received substantial sums in 2016 when he was running for President.

The Russian scandal has threatened the Trump Presidency, and has led to Republican claims of bias against Trump within the FBI. Everything has been hotly contested, but the arising of the suspicion indicates the vulnerability of any electoral system to rigging. The special prosecutor in the case, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, has accused 13 persons and three companies belonging to Russia of having attempted to influence the US electoral process, including the 2016 presidential election. The persons and companies indicted are accused of having done so on the instigation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They are not accused of having committed what are normally called ‘unfair practices’ such as ballot stuffing, impersonation, snatching ballot boxes or bribing voters. Nor are they accused of falsifying the count by bribing election officials. They are accused of impersonating Americans and planting fake news on social media. This reflects both the tenuous claim of rigging, as well as the rise of the social media in electoral calculations. However, the real ‘smoking gun’ would have been any attempt, even if unsuccessful, to tamper with electronic votes.

Though that was not tried in the USA in the 2016 election, the stakes are such that it might well be tried in some other election, somewhere else. It is likelier in the Third World, where the technology used might be more vulnerable. It is that context that the plans to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) to Pakistan becomes problematic, and it is something of an irony that the party which is the biggest proponent of EVMs, the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI) is doing so on the ground that they will prevent rigging. It must be noted that India is introducing EVMs. Though there have been no complaints of rigging so far, but no one has complained that Indians lack deviousness, or that India does not have people with the requisite computer skills.

It should be noted that one reason why US presidential elections are free from rigging is that there is usually little point. One important factor is that there is no single overarching election authority, as there are in both India and Pakistan. Instead, every county is responsible for the conduct of elections, including counting, and while there are 50 states, there are about 3000 counties. To rig even a close election, one would have to succeed in changing the results in enough counties to change the result for that state, and to do so in enough states to change the final result.

It might be remembered that the US presidential election is indirect, with the states each allocated a number of votes in an electoral college, and the person polling the most votes in a state obtaining all its electoral votes. That is because the vote cast is not for the candidate, but for the slate of electors pledged in advance to vote for a particular person. As a matter of fact, candidates might well lose on the popular vote, having had huge margins registered against in some states and narrowly winning in the ones they do win, but still win on the electoral vote. This was a theoretical possibility throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but the first election of the 21st saw it happening for the first time. It happened again in 2016, meaning that it was now likely to become a frequent event. It also means the election is going to be close.

It is in close elections that rigging is most effective. One of the problems with rigging is that it must be concealed to be effective. Thus if one candidate is winning by a landslide, increasingly open rigging will be needed to defeat him or her. However, in a close election, relatively less rigging is needed to change the result, The margin will still be narrow, the election still close. But the winner would have changed.

What may well be more problematic is that President Trump has not addressed the problem. He has been quick to say that the incumbent at the time, Barack Obama, should have acted. However, he has himself done nothing. While the indictments may serve to punish those previously responsible, they do not stop the interference expected in less than a year’s time in congressional elections, with all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and a third of the Senate’s 100 seats up for re-election. Then there are a large number of state legislatures and governors.

Though Russia is likelier to interfere where it is likely to benefit, which means where federal officials will provide it benefits, those contesting state elections would be interested in learning how they could influence them, irrespective of the source.

Vote rigging is one thing, but even if that is prevented, candidates will go on wanting to conceal information that may reflect discreditably on them. That was shown by the payoffs made in 2016 to women with whom candidate Trump had had affairs in 2006. One was simply paid by Trump’s lawyer, who said the money came from his own funds, and were not a campaign contribution. The other woman was paid by the National Enquirer, for a story that was never published.

Trump had apparently tried to prevent information coming out that he felt would not go down well with his voters. Perhaps he had not wanted his wife to find out that he had had not one, but two, casual affairs while she was carrying his son. Trump was later revealed as a compulsive sexual abuser, and it says more about his supporters than him, that they are willing to vote for someone so disrespectful of women, who sees them as objects. There is an irony in the fact that his opponent was a woman, and another in her being the wife of someone who himself was no angel, and had repeatedly betrayed her.

This shows that voters are asked to take their candidate on trust. Those who support any individual do not really know whether the picture he wishes them to have of him is true. It cannot be dismissed merely as personal business. It also reflects the person’s suitability for office. It might seem irrelevant to his ability to command the US nuclear arsenal whether or not Trump was faithful to his wife, but it is indicative. It might be a datum voters might use in deciding whether to vote for him, it might not, but that he tried to conceal it is itself a new datum.

Both episodes show that democracy is only possible if voters are informed. The Russian episode shows that the fairness of the vote is not restricted to the mechanics of voting. There is also the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ on social madia. The issue of the porn star and the Playmate also show the problems caused to democracy by candidates trying to manage information about themselves. What happens when fake news is true?

Voters are asked to take their candidate on trust. Those who support any individual do not really know whether the picture he wishes them to have of him is true.

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