Forbes Online

The 2016 Manchurian Candidate

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Economics of the Internet
Citizen votes in election booth polling station in a gymnasium in Oak View, California, on November 4, 2014. (Joseph Sohm /
Citizen votes in election booth polling station in a gymnasium in Oak View, California, on November 4, 2014. (Joseph Sohm /

The plot is familiar: a sinister foreign government seeks to subvert America not with military might but by influencing the electoral system. In the 1960s, it was only a movie, The Manchurian Candidate. Now, we have the Washington Post's front-page news about Russia supposedly attempting to influence the 2016 election by spreading fear and doubt. The New York Times and Hillary Clinton were not far behind. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned Russia not to intervene in the American democratic process.

The world has changed substantially in the past half century. Few technologies are the same, and the Internet, largely developed in the United States, has contributed substantially to American economic growth. But where oceans once protected America from physical assault, the Internet has made us vulnerable to cyber-attacks easily within the reach of sinister states.

Some might assume impoverished nations would use the Internet to steal our wealth through the financial services sector. Terrorist states might seek to disable our critical infrastructure such as our electricity grid, communications networks, water systems, and transportation sector. But our worst political adversaries may have a larger prize in mind: undermining our democracy.

Everyday, hackers seek information about every individual and every business in America. Occasionally, the hackers succeed in stealing information about some of us, but they rarely succeed in stealing information about all Americans in one swoop. Information about all Americans is not centralized in one location. Internet thieves capture more information when they succeed in breaching federal databases, such as the Office of Personnel Management.

In recent weeks, the administration has focused on the vulnerability of our electoral system, the very backbone of the democracy that rogue nations lack. Arizona and Illinois state election systems reportedly were attacked as was the Democratic National Committee. Many fingers point towards Russia.

Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, recently mused publicly about a need for federal control and responsibility for the security of elections. No doubt, American elections need security. But is the federal government the best source of that security?

Probably not. Neither the constitution nor any part of our legal history provides for federal control over elections. DHS is stretched thin already.

The sudden interest in election security to be provided by the federal government is ironic. For years, the administration has fought against state efforts to enhance security through such simple measures such as carrying picture IDs or reducing the length of voting periods or requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. Then, security was less important than voter rights. Now, voter security is paramount.

Voting irregularities are not new in the United States; only the remedy of federal security is. President Lyndon Johnson is widely reported to have benefitted in 1948 Senate race from election fraud. Various Chicago personalities have use the phrase “vote early; vote often.” Recent years have produced many isolated state and local cases involving voter fraud. The difference now is the allegation of foreign use of the Internet to affect American elections.

But the mere use of the Internet to threaten Americans does not mean that the federal government should provide security. Every day, hackers attack practically every individual and business on the Internet. No one would suggest that individuals or corporations should rely on the federal government to protect confidential information. Ultimately, those individuals and businesses must find a security solution for themselves.

Why should state and local governments rely on the federal government for that service, even for elections? The federal government has no particularly advantage in performing services that others have every incentive to do themselves. And, centralizing election information might actually increase the risk of Internet hacking rather like the OPM data breach.

Relying on the federal government for election security would likely mean that state and local governments would provide little or no security, or worse, provide it badly. If a task must be performed, having one entity—not two—in charge is often necessary. Shared responsibility works no better with governments than individuals.

Thousands of state and local governments have their own election offices, laws, procedures, and armies of volunteers to administer elections. Today election officials answer to their respective state and local governments. Tomorrow, should they answer to the federal government? Exactly to whom would those thousands of state and local governments report for election security?

Shifting responsibility for election security to the federal government would be a stunning victory for those who seek to undermine America. America would be a reality version of The Manchurian Candidate. Election officials would be answerable to distant federal officials, rather than local governments. The better approach is for state and local governments to retain responsibility for the security of their own elections. They are up to the task. Crooked politicians and their allies might still be able to steal an isolated election here and there, as they have throughout history. But the prospect of a rogue state stealing an entire national election would be kept in check.