Meddling in foreign elections is a major topic as investigations continue into potential Russian interference in the 2016 US election and collusion with the Trump campaign. In this edition of our blog series on foreign election interference, we look at the allegations made against Russia.

In December 2016, outgoing President Barack Obama told the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) to publish a report into a series of cyber attacks targeting the Democratic Party during the election campaign. Obama heavily suspected Russia of being behind the attacks and ordered the report to be released before he left office.

Key Judgements in the Intelligence Report into Russian Interference

On 6 January 2017, the intelligence community published its declassified version which concluded that Russian was indeed to blame. The report found that Russia deliberately set out to influence the US Presidential election with the following goals:

  • to undermine faith in the US democratic process
  • denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency
  • to help Trump’s election chances

But how did the Russians seek to achieve these goals alleged by the US intelligence agencies? The report states that the influence efforts “followed a longstanding Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations – such as cyber activity – with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls'”.

Putin Denies Involvement

Intelligence agencies laid the blame for cyber attacks squarely at the feet of the Russian Government. This includes attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the publication of hacked personal emails from Clinton’s campaign manager.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied any state-backed Russian interference in the 2016 US election. However, in early June he suggested that “patriotically minded” Russian hackers working independently may have been behind the cyber attacks. Putin remarked “artists may act on behalf of their country, they wake up in good mood and paint things”. He said the same is true of hackers, “if they are patriotic, they contribute in a way they think is right to fight against those who say bad things about Russia”.

Did it work?

If the allegations are indeed true, was Russian interference in favour of Trump the deciding factor in the election? The intelligence report doesn’t make an assessment on this matter. However, as discussed in an earlier blog, political scientist Don H. Levin’s research suggests election interference generally works. Moreover, using data on US and Russian interference from 1946 to 2000, he found that interventions increase the share of the vote for the favoured candidate by, on average, 3 percent.

Theoretically, assuming Trump’s share of the vote was 3 percent higher than it otherwise would have been, would this difference have affected the outcome of the election? The tentative answer is it might have done. In key battleground states won by Trump, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the highest victory margin was just 1.3 percent. Assuming the alleged interference boosted Trump’s vote share by 3 percent uniformly, then without the interference Hillary Clinton would have won these states, and the White House, with a majority of 307 electoral college seats.

Next week we turn to the topic of intervention through electronic voting. Is it possible? Stay tuned and find out!