US Elections Untangled – EP 10: Domestic Election Meddling (with Mika Aaltola)

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Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

US Elections Untangled – EP 10: Domestic Election Meddling (with Mika Aaltola)

Are American political actors deliberately trying to undermine democracy in their own country? What should we think about President Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s restructuring of the postal service or Republican National Convention’s litigation against states decision to sue states mail-in voting?

Trump “is entering into the gray area of election meddling. We know how the Russians did it (in 2016) and now we can see if the domestic actors are doing similar type of activities”, says Mika Aaltola, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“The worst possible outcome is the process going gradually towards a more and more managed democracy, ie. autocracy. Like in Russia and Belarus, where they still have elections, but those are managed and fraudulent, really flawed.”

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Intro starts. 

The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 

Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first. 

Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone. 

Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. 

Annala: In today’s episode we’ll be talking about whether American political actors are trying to undermine election integrity in their own country.  Our guest today is Mika Aaltola, the Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 
Hi Mika, thanks so much for being back on the show! 

Aaltola: Of course. 

Annala: So today we’re going to talk about domestic election meddling, which is a topic actually that is very dear to my heart. It’s something I’m working on at the moment and I know you’ve also been following it closely, haven’t you? 

Aaltola: Yes, well I have been studying that external component of election meddling. Kind of the basics of hacking and leaking type of election meddling, operations like what happened in 2016 elections in US or like how the external actors are doing it. It seems that now the domestic actors are much more engaged in the US elections than the external actors are, although of course they are there as well. 

Annala: Yes, for example, Trump’s tweets and several statements have caught my eye. He keeps attacking Mail-In voting and he keeps undermining people’s trust in the elections. Like for example when he tweeted that absentee ballots would result in the greatest rigged election in history and that vote by Mail would be a free for all and cheating, forgery and theft and things like that. It sounds like he doesn’t want people to trust their own elections. 

Aaltola: Well, yes it is a long, long debate that he is playing up and focusing quite a lot on microscopic chances that elections can be rigged that way. There have been quite a lot of studies on Mail-In voting and different other types of voting patterns and it seems that the percentage of fraudulent voting is very, very, very low, but of course Trump wants to play that up . He wants to show that there’s something wrong in the US election system and somehow elections might be stolen from him and that is of course kind of spreading conspiratorial attitudes, paranoia in the US. That is of course also mis- and disinformation that he’s spreading. So he is actually entering into this grey zone of election meddling. We know how Russians did it and now we can see if the domestic actors are doing similar type of activities. It seems that for Trump the key part, as it was in 2016 to him as well… he is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections themselves. 2016 he was not saying aloud before the elections that whether or not he’s going to recognized outcome and he was casting quite a lot of doubt on some kind of a deep state conspiracy in elections. Now he’s more focused on a specific way the Mail-In voting and casting doubt on that system. There are different court cases in different states that use Mail-In voting and the Trump Administration and the campaign is suing particular states on those Mail-In voting procedures. 

Annala: Yes, I see. It seems to me that he’s sort of seized this opportunity that he wanted to make people doubt the integrity of the elections some way or another. Now that there is this pandemic happening and there is going to be a lot of Mail-In voting he has seen this as the perfect opportunity to use this as an excuse to create this mistrust and spread misinformation. It’s not just Trump, it’s also some of the people who work for him. Like for example, a couple of weeks ago, the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was giving an interview to Fox and she was talking about how the Trump Administration wants to see a presidential winner projected on election night this year, just like any other year. She said: “What we want election night to look like is a system that’s fair, a situation where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That is how the system is supposed to work.” I thought that was actually pretty big news. She kind of flat out admitted almost that the Trump Administration is going to make a big deal out of the fact that the votes will not be counted on election night because we pretty much all know that it’s not going to be possible this year. Because of all the Mail-In voting caused by the pandemic, we’re not going to know the results. Experts have been urging people that for the sake of US democracy everybody, all the relevant actors should spread the word that we’re not going to know and it’s fine. It’s not a sign of the system malfunctioning. It’s not a sign of anyone trying to scam. It’s just because the system is a little different this year because of the pandemic. They would want everybody to project this calming message and Trump goes and sends his press secretary to do the exact opposite, which is to sort of spread doubt and sow the seeds of this conspiracy theory that if we don’t know by election night one then it’s a sign of the system not working as it should. 

Aaltola: Yes, exactly. It is something you cast doubts on the process itself. Process that is supposed to be the cornerstone that makes democracies work better than autocracies that there is a system of handing over power to the opposition as well, if that happens. That that is one key point and I think it is the major point in talks like what you just mentioned. The other aspect has to do with mistakes in those statements. We know that Mail-In voting perhaps is not that different from the actual voting day voting, so the difference is not huge. In different states whether or not it favours Republicans or Democrats, it remains to be seen. Like in Florida, there’s a lot of elderly people who tend to vote Republican and who also like Mail-In voting, so it’s not necessarily so that it favours Democrats

Annala: Especially this year because of the pandemic. Because the elderly are more at risk than younger people, and the Republican voter base is older than the Democratic voter base. 

Aaltola: Yes, it is so. There has been a long debate, historical debate on this and close to 50 states allow some sort of form of a Mail-In voting. There are very good reasons for allowing that because many Americans are not there during the Election Day. For example, troops might be abroad, so there’s a century old tradition of Mail-In voting and it has been accepted by both parties. Now for the first time it is cast out on by a major candidate and major party and that of course changes the situation a bit. That politicizes the viewpoints that people have when they don’t accept the system as such. You know, one of the ways in which the Republicans have been arguing about this is that you shouldn’t expand the voter population so much because the error and the accidents and also purposeful misuse of the system increases when you allow for different ways of voting. That has been the Republican argument and even one fraudulent vote is too much, so that’s the key argument that they have had. The Democrats have been arguing that, OK, there might be some really, really tiny percentage of error and fraudulent voting behaviour if you increase the voting, but increasing of the voting population and the voter rate is a virtue in itself in a democracy, so they are arguing that angle. Usually there has been some kind of a compromise, you know that we have a different states, have different systems and they have been trying to reach a balance between these two viewpoints. Now this year all of a sudden, the Republicans and Trump are arguing that there’s something deeply wrong with the system and that is one key election argument that they have that the voting cannot be trusted. 

Annala: I think this year is different for a number of reasons. It makes sense that the pandemic has made people argue even more vehemently. The sides they were, the arguments they were presenting before the arguments you mentioned. The Democrats want to expand the voter base and the Republicans say they want to make sure that no fraudulent votes are ever cast, but now that so many states are preparing for this unforeseen expansion of Mail-In voting because of the pandemic, it raises valid concerns as well. Are the election officials actually up to the task? Are they going to be able to make this big change in a short time without like compromising too much, without risking election integrity? It’s a valid question. Of course it makes sense that Republicans are taking advantage of the fact that it is a valid question and pressing the argument that they’ve had for a long time, whereas of course also the Democrats are using the pandemic to make their argument stronger that we’re talking about human lives and this has to happen. This has to happen now. So there’s a lot of emotion on both sides and a lot of very sort of strong intensive emotional arguments that are also valid in their own way. 

Aaltola: Well, they are. Both sides, you know… the same situation can be interpreted in two opposing ways. That’s very common in political and social situations that we have different ways of interpretation and no one can say which one is correct. Of course when it crosses the line of being kind of managing the elections or meddling with the elections domestically, is when you purposefully tactically use the system in such a way that rigs the elections. That for example you know that you’re going to lose, so the only way in which you are going to win is to say that the system itself is somehow faulty and you take things to court you delay admitting that you lost the elections because of your claims about some mysterious errors in the system. So you can then across the threshold of kind of  taking the Democratic spontaneous level playing field away from the elections and you are managing it, you’re distorting it. That is what I would call like domestic election meddling or election interference that you purposefully do that, so it is not an honest argument. It is an argument that you make for the sake of somehow distorting the situation. 

Annala: For the sake of political gain, yes. 

Aaltola: Yes, Donald Trump has been making and his supporters have been making the claim that somehow the first term was stolen away from Trump’s that because all of these accusations and what he calls witch hunts the first term was stolen away from him that actually he has the right for the third or one extra term. Perhaps that could be also an argument that that you know this November the results do not matter that much to what matters is that of Elections were stolen or the term was stolen from Trump. So kind of the morality of the election and vote counting is a little bit and under doubt and that is something very concerning and very much unheard of in the modern day US. 

Annala: Yes, I said before that the Republican argument is also valid in its own way, but at the same time it’s very hard to believe that they’re acting out of the pure interest of protecting the elections from any fraudulent votes because after all it is known based on statistics and surveys that minorities tend to vote Democratic. The people who are most likely to be kept from voting the people who are most likely not going to be able to cast their vote. If some votes are suppressed in some way or another, they’re usually minorities. They’re usually people who would vote Democratic, so of course they’re not acting selflessly and just out of the interest of preserving the sanctity of the elections. Of course there’s political calculation going on, because clearly suppressing votes favours the Republicans. It’s impossible for them not to have noticed that, of course, that’s part of the calculus. Probably a big part. 

Aaltola: In many European countries, like in Finland, this discussion would be very different and it would be unheard if one party or government would try to change the system in a particular way that favours them. Democracy is holding in such a value that discussions and tactics like that would be impossible, but of course there’s a long tradition in the US on kind of drawing the lines of districts that were voting districts in such a way that it favours one party over another. Both democrats and Republicans have been engaging in that type of activity, so there’s a long history of little bit tweaking with the methods of democracy, than perhaps in some old European democracies and the Nordic democracies. So there are differences that we have difficulty in understanding what is going on in the US, but especially this year I think the Republican campaign is crossing some boundaries that haven’t been crossed before. But as you pointed out, they have also valid arguments they’re making and one should hear what they have to say.

Annala: You mentioned litigation earlier and the Trump campaign and the RNC (Republican National Committee) are both engaged in quite a lot of litigation about the details and the practicalities of expanding the Mail-In votes. It’s probably not surprising that some of this litigation is happening in swing states, it’s probably not a coincidence either. I think all the litigation is making it even harder for the election officials to actually execute the elections properly and communicate to the voters how they’re supposed to vote and what they’re supposed to do. If first they Mail out one thing and then the courts decide that this is not the way you can do it and then they Mail people something else, it’s going to get more and more confusing for the voter to know what they’re actually supposed to do. So, in this sense this litigation is effective even if it doesn’t always produce the results the initiating party wanted, it is still going to muddle the waters a lot. It’s going to make it harder for people to figure out what to do to cast their vote and even that alone might be enough to discourage some of the especially lesser educated people who probably find it harder to keep up with all these changing rules anyway. 

Aaltola: Yes, kind of this managing of the system or meddling and interfering with the election process tactically can lead into a voter suppression, which is another call in itself. That let’s not motivate the opposition folders to vote that has been one of the key ways for election success in US that you suppress the opposition votes. It seems that this talk about elections being somehow rigged in itself leads into less voting. Although of course, in some groups it might lead into increasing voting because people are fed up with this kind of talk, but an average person who doesn’t know that much about the election system and the history of it, it is a curious for him or her that the President is talking this way. Regardless of the fact if they are opposing or for Trump it might be that they’re thinking that I might have something else to do on a voting day. So the voting percentage might decline and that then would perhaps be helpful for Trump. So there are several ways in which you can argue that the kind of politicization of this can lead into outcomes that are better for Trump, but there are of course outcomes that different ways of seeing that this might be very harmful for Trump as well. That people see him as a loser who is now doubtful of the rules of the game and the fairness of the game. When everybody knows that 2016, he actually lost when it came to absolute number of votes and he won because of the rules of the game. 

Annala: That’s right. I’ve been wondering if his message is resonating more with his own supporters and if that might lead to actually him disenfranchising his own core supporters. If he says the elections are rigged the people who hate him anyway aren’t likely to believe him. They might, like you said, feel so fed up that they are even more motivated than before to go and vote and sort of prove him wrong, whereas the people who are the most likely to believe him are his passionate supporters. He says don’t Mail your vote that’s somehow morally objectable, that’s terrible, that’s a Democratic disgusting thing to do to Mail-In your vote. So his voters, a lot of them, are saying in polls, in opinion polls that they don’t want to vote by Mail, they want to vote in person like a proper good citizen. Then if they’re scared of the pandemic or if the lines get really, really long because there’s less polling places because of the pandemic and all this. What if they end up not actually being able to vote in person, then they’ve already given up on the opportunity to Mail-In their vote and it’s too late for them to vote any other way than in person. 
One very interesting piece of this puzzle has been all the controversies centring around the United States Post Office and the Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy. There’s been all these reforms that he’s been implementing lately, like forbidding the Postal workers to work overtime and ordering that Postal trucks have to depart on time, even if all the Mail hasn’t been loaded in the trucks yet and they’ve been deactivating sorting machines in Post offices across the country and removing mailboxes. This of course has raised a lot of alarm in the Democratic camp, partly because Louis DeJoy was nominated by Trump, he’s a well known Republican supporter and a Republican donor and there was some controversy about the selection process of how he was selected to be postmaster general. Also of course, because this ambience, right now, this fear that the Democrats and the Democratic voters have where they see everything as a sign of Trump and his cronies trying to interfere with the election. So there’s been a lot of talk about how this is a conspiracy to  meddle with the elections. All these reforms that are taking place in the…

Aaltola: Yes, that’s exactly one sign of weakening democracy in USA. It’s alarmingly weakening and the respect for US all around the world is declining because of this weakening of the Democratic political system in US. Both sides are very paranoid. Alarmist sentiments are spreading. Things seem to be culminating on the Election Day. There’s quite a lot of tension, emotion and very strong dynamics. Political agitation and stimulation is happening in different corners and  it’s very difficult to figure out what is actually going on for example with the Postal Service. Is it like a natural part of, you know, paper mails declining so radically that you don’t need all of that system anymore or is it some kind of a wrecking of the system? Because they know and they should know that Mail-In voting under pandemic situation is going to expand and they should be preparing for that situation and it seems that they are not. So what is happening is for an average citizen very difficult to kind of understand because both sides are so agitated, so paranoid on the events. So what is actually happening on this external environment of weakening cohesion and weakening American democracy?

Annala: Yes, I’ve been following it as an outsider and I find it really hard to have an opinion on this. I’m willing to believe that it’s routine to remove mailboxes from the streets and I’m sort of willing to buy the argument that deactivating sorting machines makes sense because there is a lot less Mail. There’s been less and less Mail every year and that’s a big reason why the Postal Service is in such deep financial trouble. That’s a well known fact. Also the fact that the pandemic, for some reason I don’t quite understand, but for some reason the pandemic has made the amount of Mail Americans send drop dramatically. So now there is even less Mail and the Postal Service was in deep financial trouble well before Louis DeJoy became Postmaster General. So in a way it makes sense that they’re trying to do things that create savings because the financial trouble is real and it’s big. Then at the same time the timing is very curious to say the least, right before the election that is going to be a historic Mail-In election. It’s just not a good time to start implementing these changes. They could wait a couple of months if for no other reason than just to project calm, not to to raise this alarm, not to create this panic. Even just for that reason they could have waited for a few months. Then again the situation the financial situation at the post office is very dire. Last summer they were saying that they might run out of money in September and have to just close down services altogether. So then maybe they couldn’t wait. Maybe they had to start thinking of ways to save money now. I think the problem here, like you said, is that nobody can really know. I mean, Louis DeJoy knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, but outside of his head I don’t know if anybody can really know what his motives are. 

Aaltola: Well the key part is of course, that in a normal healthy democracy there shouldn’t be this doubts at all. So on the role of the Postmaster General, for example, it would be unheard of in many of the stronger, more coherent and cohesive democracies. Unfortunately American democracy is in a situation where we have this doubts on who is managing the system and is there some kind of a conspiracy. On both sides, there are doubts on it and it’s not a healthy situation. 

Annala: Yes, here again Trump has been making things worse. He’s politicized the question of Congress giving aid to the Postal Service to keep it going. Even though traditionally Postal Service has been something all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, have trusted and liked and appreciated and seen as a good thing and an important thing for their society. But now even helping out the Postal Service has become in a way a partisan question because Trump has said things like he’s going to veto the aid package and he doesn’t want the Congress to give the Postal Service financial aid. He wants to set all these conditions and start managing the post office, start really dictating the rules on what they need to do in order to get this aid. So again, something that did not have to be partisan has been turned into this partisan tool. It’s all going to culminate in November when we’re going to see if the election is closed. How much litigation there is going to be after the election about the results? How long it’s going to take to count the votes? How long it’s going to take to have a result? An are both parties actually going to accept it? That’s a big concern stemming from all this pre-election meddling is the concern that it’s just laying the groundwork for not accepting defeat if defeat were to come. It’s also the more doubt is cast on the integrity of the elections, it’s going to make it harder and harder for both sides to accept the defeat, regardless of which side loses. People are going to feel that this was not a fair election and they’re not going to accept the result. 

Aaltola: Yes, you are exactly right. That if Democrats if they lose to Donald Trump after all of this, then the question can be asked can they win elections anymore at all, presidential elections? Of course, they won the congressional elections two years ago, but can they win presidential elections if they cannot beat Donald Trump, who is using all of these controversial tactics and tools and methods or is accused of using them? So then it is going to be a bankruptcy for somebody. Is it going to be a bankruptcy for the Republican Party or is it going to be political bankruptcy for the Democrats? We will see. One hope is that the elections are going to be decisive in such a manner that there are enough percentage points separating the winner and the loser that it’s going to be clear on the election night who won the elections. But if it’s going to be very close as the past elections have been, then we are going to be seeing quite a big of a mess. The American system is going to look very ugly and appreciation and acknowledgement of that system that has been one of the bases of the Western World Order is going to decline. 

Annala: Yes, I’ve usually always finished this conversation by asking the guest about a nightmare scenario and an optimistic scenario about how the 2020 elections might play out. I must say from my own perspective, I think the nightmare scenario with regards to what we’ve been talking about today would be a near civil war kind of a situation where a lot of the Second Amendment people who are Republican voters and a lot of them are Trump supporters. If they feel that this election has been stolen from them, if Trump loses narrowly and he pushes this message that the election was rigged and it was stolen from him, a lot of Second Amendment people interpret the Second Amendment to mean that it’s their duty to take up arms to protect the American democracy from tyranny. There is a way for Trump to push this message in such a way that these people feel that the time has come, that they actually need to take up arms and protest violently against this perceived threat to democracy, this perceived rigged election. That would truly be the American carnage. The phrase Trump coined in his inauguration speech that raised a lot of eyebrows, but that would truly be an American carnage, you know in a horrifying way. So that’s my nightmare scenario. That’s what I keep coming back to when I think about this.

Aaltola: Yes, it is certainly a nightmare scenario. My own thinking would be that the worst possible outcome is kind of a gradual calling process going towards more and more managed democracy, i.e. autocracy. Like, you know Russians they have elections still, in Belarus they had elections, but those are managed and fraudulent, really flawed. Gradually America is going to go towards a direction, where for the first time in in American history you could actually end up having systems and different ways and methods for the administrations to rig the elections. So gradually going towards that direction. But I agree with you that people are very stirred up and the possibilities of violence are there and adding to these anxieties of course, kind of this doomsday horseman, like pandemics, they are there. Then people feel anxious about their economic future as well because of many systemic flaws in American economy and because of the pandemic harm that has been caused. So there are quite a lot of anxieties that are going to be culminating on that day and I hope that we are going to wake up the morning after elections and there was a clear winner. That’s my kind of the positive scenario. That’s going to be admitted by the opposition and even Trump has to admit that… 

Annala: Or Biden if it’s Trump, who wins. 

Aaltola: Yes, you’re quite right. 

Annala: Yes, I agree that would, that would definitely be the optimistic scenario that we have a very clear winner. One of them wins by a landslide and there is really no ruling before litigating it much or there’s no point in litigating it because it’s so clear that it’s not going to change anything. People will have to come to terms with the fact that even if there was some managing going on, even if people did try to interfere with the elections, the result is so clear that it would not have changed the outcome even if everybody had played 100% fair. 

Aaltola: But it seems that both campaigns are hiring lawyers right now, just for the purpose of the latest litigation after the election. So Biden campaign has been collecting a very good team of lawyers in case that election results are very close and you need to call the courts in different states to challenge the results. It could happen that this year for the first time there’s going to be, not only a state based like 2000 in Florida, but a national in different states, in multiple states litigation processes and the election result is then uncertain for days. 

Annala: Well, here’s hoping for the positive outcome, and for the landslide win. Thank you so much for being here!

Aaltola: Thank you! 


Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be discussing the relationship between the United States and Latin America. Our guest will be Global Security Programme Director, Mikael Wigell from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.