Weaponizing Third Parties

The Russians, and the Republicans, are ready to exploit them.

Debate over the Electoral College is typically driven by liberals resentful of the fact that the Democratic Party would have won four of the last five elections had winning the popular vote been all that was necessary. As it is, it has won two of five.

Less attention is paid to a couple of things I want to talk about today. One is the Electoral College offers ample opportunity to hostile foreign powers to violate our national sovereignty. Our republic functions on public trust. That trust springs from the knowledge that we the people chose our fates by choosing our leaders.

But with a presidency decided by margins in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all that’s needed is blasting the electorates of those states with all manner of lies, propaganda and bad faith. James Clapper said he believes Kremlin sabotage of Hillary Clinton determined the outcome in 2016. I trust the former Director of National Intelligence knows what he’s talking about.

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The second thing I want to talk about is that races for statewide office are susceptible to third-party influence. To be sure, this is not news. But we live in a globalized and interconnected world in which foreign powers can amplify what used to be a decade ago fringe elements, making them appear larger than they actually are. The takeaway is that the presidency isn’t the only vulnerable target. So is the US Senate.

Russians, however, are not the only bad actors. Some inside the Republican Party are following the Kremlin’s lead in what can only be called weaponizing third parties.

Consider Montana. US Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, is running in a tight race for reelection in a state President Trump won handily in 2016. He’s campaigning against one Republican, Matt Rosendale, but maybe two. One of them is in disguise.

In March, the Associated Press reported that Timothy Adams, the head of an anti-tax group funded by the Montana Republican Party, filed for candidacy with the state’s Green Party. On the day it qualified for statewide ballot, the party sent notice asking for candidates. Adams was one of six to throw in his hat. The intention was clear. Adams, as a Green, would siphon votes from Tester, giving Rosendale the advantage.

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Again, third parties are not new to statewide politics. They are reliable Democratic spoilers. The race for Ohio’s 12th district remains too close to call, despite having occurred last week. Officials are still counting some 8,000 provisional ballots. The difference between Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor is 1,500 votes. About 1,120 of those votes went to Green candidate Joe Manchik.

But while Manchik appears sincere (crazy but sincere), Adams was not. Given the state of American politics, in which secrecy and money are conjoined, it’s not far-fetched to wonder if we’ll see more Republican candidates pretending to be third-party candidates, just as Russian operatives pretended to be American leftists. As Montana Green Party coordinator Danielle Breck told the Associated Press in March: “We don’t actually have the ability to deny candidates who file under our name.”

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To those weaponizing third parties, sincerity is beside the point. Let’s assume for a moment that Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was sincere. (Yes, there are lots of reasons to believe she was not, but humor me.) Even if she believed what she said she believed, bad actors were still going to magnify her palaver in order to influence would-be Democrats to vote for her, or worse: not to vote at all.

Trump’s margins in Michigan and Wisconsin were less than the total votes Stein won in those states—a bad situation made worse by the fact that Russian operatives helped enlarge Stein’s anti-establishment message while sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s. The result, as James Clapper suggested, was victory for the Republican candidate.

There is no room for third parties in American politics, as I have mentioned before. That will not change until we reform federal election laws to allow for power-sharing among successful candidates. But that doesn’t matter to the disaffected, the ideological, and the young (people who are most likely to vote third party). As long as they are willing to vote for the Jill Steins of the world, bad actors, foreign and domestic, will exploit them. In the past, that fact of life didn’t much matter.

Now, it’s an issue of integrity and sovereignty.

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