How do we define who's "meddling" in elections?

This is a question we’ve addressed here before, but recent events make it more applicable than ever. A 44-year-old Russian woman named Elena Khusyaynova has been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. The headline alone is enough to send chills down your spine. It’s got the word “conspiracy” right in the title and she’s not just going after a specific candidate or group of people. She’s targeting the entire nation. But what did she actually do? We can find some answers in the announcement from the Justice Department. Here’s a hint: she was “meddling.”

A criminal complaint was unsealed here today charging a Russian national for her alleged role in a Russian conspiracy to interfere in the U.S. political system, including the 2018 midterm election.

“The strategic goal of this alleged conspiracy, which continues to this day, is to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia…

“Today’s charges allege that Russian national, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, conspired with others who were part of a Russian influence campaign to interfere with U.S. democracy,” said Assistant Attorney General Demers.

Okay. That all sounds good so far. But what did she actually do? Saying that she attempted to “sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions” is still a bit on the vague side. And none of those things really sound like crimes so much as sneaky tricks. Reading a bit further we find that she handled all the finances for Russia’s Project Lakhta, an effort clearly aimed at attempting to influence voters in the United States. Her responsibilities included:

  • Paying expenditures for activists
  • Purchasing advertisements on social media platforms
  • Registration of domain names
  • Purchasing proxy servers
  • Promoting news postings on social networks

So they were attempting to blend in with American political activists and basically fire up the crowd, probably creating or promoting fake news. But there’s no mention of making campaign contributions (which is illegal for foreigners to do), tampering with voting machines or anything else that would qualify for a violation of most of the laws we usually associate with campaign rules. She’s pretty much doing all the same things Amercian political activists do on a daily basis, aside from not being a citizen of the United States. The closest the Justice Department comes to specifying anything which sounds like criminal conduct is to say that she attempted to, “defraud the United States by impeding the lawful functions of government agencies in administering relevant federal requirements.” I’m not even sure what that means.

But don’t people do these things all the time if they are interested in political activism? And I don’t just mean Americans or in this case the sneaky Russians. Just this morning, during the six o’clock hour, CNN did a glowing review of a singer and actor named Troye Sivan. It turns out that Troye is a big favorite of Taylor Swift and some other famous people I don’t follow on Twitter. And he’s out there joining in with Taylor to push people to register to vote and, quite specifically to #RESIST Trump and support some Democrats. He’s been quite clear which side he’s on, describing his reaction to the GOP victories in the 2016 elections by saying, “I’ve been pretty heartbroken about the whole thing and I don’t even live here.”

It’s the “I don’t even live here” part you should pay attention to. Sivan is a native of South Africa and a citizen of Australia. He lives in Los Angeles now, but he’s not a citizen. So by taking this message forward, not only on television but to his considerable army of social media followers, isn’t Troye Sivan “meddling in our election” too? Or doesn’t it count if you’re supporting the Democrats? And let’s be clear, I could run down a sizable list of non-citizen celebrities who are doing the same.

And what about Americans who dip their toe into the electoral affairs of other countries? I write (and tweet) about German politics on a regular basis, particularly dealing with the disastrous leadership of Angela Merkel and her open borders policy. We have readers in Germany and hear from them regularly. Am I “meddling” in the upcoming German elections?

I think we need a better definition of just what “election meddling” means, which laws are applicable and who they apply to. You can clearly ask the social media giants to clamp down on accounts for whatever reason you like and they can do so because they are private companies. But if we’re going to start arresting people we need to know what the rules of the road are. I’d be particularly interested to have the details myself before another Democrat is elected President and I’m suddenly extradited to Germany.

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David Strom 2:31 PM on October 04, 2022
David Strom 1:31 PM on October 04, 2022