Ever since its detection, the Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections has captured many headlines in the U.S. and around the world, headlines that frequently described it using various synonyms to the word "unprecedented". However, this intervention is merely a recent and unusually (in)famous example of a form of interference that goes back centuries. As Dov Levin, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Hong Kong, notes one of the first competitive national elections in world history, the 1796 US presidential election, was also the target of interference by Revolutionary France against John Adams, the sitting vice president and the candidate of the Federalist party. Furthermore, one out of every nine national level elections between 1946 and 2000 has been a target of such interference by the U.S. or the USSR/Russia.
In a new book on this topic "Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral Interventions" published on September 7th by Oxford University Press, Levin set out to study why election interference (or in technical terms partisan electoral interventions) occurs and what effects it may have on the results. "Very little has been written about election interference by social scientists as a separate, stand-alone phenomena", explained Levin, "So I decided to try to answer these two foundational questions about such interventions." He uses for this purpose a mixture of historical case studies and a statistical analysis of a first of its kind dataset of U.S. and Russian/Soviet interventions (called PEIG) and election surveys.
The book first describes the characteristics of such interventions finding that a wide variety of techniques are used for this purpose both covert and overt. It finds, for example, that the methods used by Russia in 2016, are one common method of election interference. As Levin writes, "when Putin ordered the GRU to intervene in this manner in the 2016 U.S. elections they were using a tried and true meddling technique."
Two concurrent conditions can cause such interference. The first condition is that a foreign power perceives its interests as being under a severe threat by a significant candidate or party within the target. That candidate or party has, or is perceived to have, inflexible preferences on key issues that diverge from that of the great power- making conventional diplomatic methods appear potentially ineffective or too costly a solution. The second, more important condition is that another significant domestic actor within that country wants or is willing to be aided by the foreign power (i.e. 'collude' with it) in this intervention. Partisan electoral interventions are usually an "inside job" because such meddling is essentially an attempt to strengthen or create a domestic election campaign by a local candidate or party. Accordingly, without such a local actor being available and therefore willing and able to provide the would-be intervener with its private information on how to win the election such an intervention becomes infeasible.
As for the effects of such interference on the targeted election results, Levin finds that such interventions frequently affect election results in the desired direction, increasing the vote share of the preferred side by 3% on average. Analyzing specific cases of such intervention the book finds that in many past cases such meddling was the key factor that enabled the preferred side to win.
The 2016 Russian intervention case is found to be no exception to these patterns. In a special chapter dedicated to this case Levin estimated that Hillary Clinton, in the absence of the Russian intervention against her, would have won the popular vote over Trump by 4.13%, or 2.03% more votes than she did in 2016. Such a popular vote victory by Clinton would have caused four states with 75 electoral college votes (Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) to switch to her column, leading Clinton to a decisive victory in the electoral college as well- 307 to 231. Accordingly, while agreeing that some domestic factors mattered as well, Levin writes that "the Russian intervention is likely to have been a hinge of history" that enabled Trump's election in 2016.
Given this historical record and his findings, Levin expects electoral interventions to remain a common phenomenon in the future. Nevertheless, states can, in some ways, reduce the ability of electoral interventions in their elections to cause them harm. The book accordingly concludes with some policy recommendations in this regard, such as how to make it more difficult for would-be interveners, such as Russia, to use cyberspace for this purpose.