Clouds Over Election Day

Anyone looking forward to an end to the endless scandals and outrageous mudslinging of the 2016 presidential campaign once election day is over, should brace themselves for the distinct possibility of more of the same.

The gracious concession statements and humble victory speeches that have traditionally marked the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another may not be on the agenda election night, or any night thereafter, for that matter. The email scandal and the way the vote counting process is shaping up all but guarantee it.

The news that the FBI is looking into newly discovered Clinton emails is only one of the clouds over Election Day. Unprecedented foreign interference in the elections (read: Russia) is a real possibility. In all the years of the Cold War, the Soviets never posed a threat of any kind to the integrity of the American electoral process. But this time, thanks to the technology of electronic vote counting, the essential machinery of democracy has been launched into cyberspace, where hostile agents can take aim at it and wreak havoc.

The potential for sabotage is so serious that the U.S. has publicly blamed the Russian government for hacking national Democratic party offices, along with data breaches in the election systems of at least two states. The idea of special sanctions against Russia for such cybercrimes has been suggested. In fact, it was the Obama administration itself that issued in April 2015 Executive Order (EO) 13694 which authorizes sanctions on anyone perpetrating “malicious cyber-enabled activities” that could threaten national security. Interference with the electoral process might well qualify — but officials would not comment.

The FBI has already advised local governments to ramp up their cyber security and is offering assistance in doing so. Given the track record to date, it is doubtful that any available precautions would be sufficient to stop a determined hacker with the kind of resources Moscow can provide.

However, in the America of 2016, the threat of internal interference still looms greater. Any time a campaign generates such strong emotions, allegations of vote rigging — not to mention actual rigging —can be expected. Normally, the allegations are made during or right after election day. The bizarre thing is that in this case the rigging has been predicted by a major party candidate months before people go to the polls.

In such circumstances, restraint should be the watchword for the warring political camps. But since restraint is a quality which has been noticeably absent in this campaign, other means will have to do. Electoral committees routinely provide for poll watchers and police on patrol to keep order and help guarantee that the citizens’ right to vote is protected. The unsettling news is that they will be short of help this year.

For the last fifty years, the Justice Department has sent squadrons of observers and poll monitors across the country to ensure that voters are not intimidated or discriminated against. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, the Justice Department sent more than 780 observers and other personnel to polling places in 23 states to watch for unlawful activity. They were specially trained to carry out their task inside polling places.

But that picture will be altered by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, which puts new limits on the Department’s activity.

“In the past, we have … relied heavily on election observers, specially trained individuals who are authorized to enter polling locations and monitor the process to ensure that it lives up to its legal obligations,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said. “Our ability to deploy them has been severely curtailed.”

This year, they will not be allowed inside, per the Court’s ruling. Observers will be going to fewer than five states — and only where federal oversight has been specifically ordered by judges.

In some states, such as Pennsylvania, partisan poll watchers are legal, and susceptible to abuse. Some of the states have curtailed partisan poll watching; Pennsylvania, a key state in the election, has not.

Donald Trump’s repeated calls for his supporters to go to the polls not only to vote for him but to watch others vote, lest they steal the election from him, is further cause for concern.

Thus, in a climate of suspicion such as we have never seen before, Americans will cast their votes on November 8, unsure that they will be fairly counted.

The Russian threat is partially mitigated by the fact that most electronic voting is done offline and therefore not vulnerable to hacking. Even if the U.S. does not invoke Executive Order 13694, one hopes that stern warnings to Moscow in private about the gravity with which such actions would be viewed will serve to keep hands off.

Mindful of these concerns, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest assured the country on Tuesday that “the President has got complete confidence that our system of democracy and our system of administering elections is durable and strong.”

Many Americans, however, do not share in that confidence.