What’s less clear is what a fair American election would look like now. Russia’s interference is worrisome because it was foreign and because it correlated with a stunning result. But the essential fact of Russian tinkering with 2016 is that it represents an attempt to undermine democracy by manipulating and subverting what voters think about their choices. Russia, of course, had no right to engage in that kind of subterfuge — and neither does anyone else. Unfortunately, U.S. elections are already rife with similar efforts made on behalf of powerful domestic interests with their own hostility toward fair and free democracy.
For instance: A flood of unaccountable “dark money” supplies much of the information voters encounter regarding their candidates during election season. As the Brennan Center for Justice reports, independent campaign expenditures — ad purchases and other propaganda efforts funded by groups that “are free from contribution limits and can sometimes conceal their donors from the public” — reached all-time highs during 2016, closing in on and even outspending candidates and parties in 10 Senate races. These independent groups are able to raise millions of dollars from handfuls of small mega-donors and can pump as much of that money as they would like into ad purchases on social media, which are poorly regulated by the Federal Election Commission. Since campaign ads are not legally required to be truthful, this means a small number of unknown, ultra-rich donors are capable of buying social media surges full of misinformation and outright falsehoods — just like Russia.
Then there’s the matter of voter suppression. Not only have many state legislatures gradually redrawn electoral districts to all but cancel out the voters from the opposing parties in their states, lawmakers in a variety of right-leaning states have also exploited the gutting of the Voting Rights Act to enact abusive voter-ID laws in an effort to reduce the number of left-leaning voters — mainly people of color and poor people — in the voting booth. Meanwhile, several states have undertaken purges of their voter rolls, rendering thousands of voters unable to vote come Election Day. As the Brennan Center notes, many of the states engaged in vast voter roll purges have a history of racial discrimination.
Russia’s moves to undermine our electoral process no doubt come as a shock and an outrage: Americans value their democracy and prize the national narratives about achieving independence and self-government. There’s no doubt it’s that very confidence and source of national unity that Russia meant, at least in part, to undermine. And it worked.
There are certainly solutions to the problems listed above — reversing Citizens United, for instance, enforcing public financing for campaigns, defeating illegal voter suppression tactics in court, and leaving district-drawing to neutral groups — but these are all long-term solutions that will require a huge groundswell of popular support, funding and political will. It can happen. But it won’t be easy.
I hope Mueller succeeds in prosecuting whatever crimes took place on behalf of American political operatives coordinating with Russia in 2016. And I’m especially glad to see social media companies such as Facebook bearing the brunt of their responsibility for their badly run, exploitive, dangerous platforms. But it’s important to see Russia’s electoral tampering as part of a broader landscape of American democracy in decline — one that won’t be solved even if every member of the Trump campaign eventually winds up in a prison cell. American elections haven’t been fair for a very long time. Now is as good a time as any to start trying to reverse that.