In Sanders on Trump and the challenge for the left – full transcript (published in the Guardian, which was behind Operation Clark County), Sanders describe Russian interference in the US presidential election as a bad thing:

Sanders: For a start, what we know to be a fact, is that Russia played a very heavy role in attempting – successfully, I think – to impact our election. That is unacceptable. The evidence is that they have done it before and they will do it again. For all democracies around the world it is not acceptable that democratic institutions are being undermined by an authoritarian government and we ought to figure out how we deal with that – how we protect our democracies and at the same time make certain that Russia stop doing what it is doing. It is absolutely unacceptable. I think probably Obama was not as strong as he should have been in getting that message out to Putin.

I accept that Russia has an authoritarian government. I can accept illegally obtaining information from one side of the race as being a bad thing, but that's the case whether it's done by a foreign individual or by a local. I can accept fake news or other forms of lying as a bad thing, but that's true whoever is doing it, and I'm very hesitant about having restrictions against it.

But is there a rationale for saying that a foreign government interfering in a democratic country's election, no matter what shape or form it is, is intrinsically bad?

To create a hypothetical scenario, if North Korea set up a news channel called "North Korea Today" which had opinion pieces 24/7 for Chelsea Clinton's election in 2020, would North Korea's hostility to the United States and/or its police state nature be rationales for shutting the channel down? Have there been past precedents for something like this?

The Q&A A Beginner’s Guide to the Trump/Russia Controversy described many things about Russia's interference except why it's a bad thing, and What you need to know about Russia’s election hack and why US senators say it “should alarm every American” doesn't really go to the heart of why it's a bad thing. I came across the Quora post Is it actually bad if Russia leaked information that influenced the U.S. electorate during the presidential election? but wasn't that impressed by the quality of the answers.

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    America "interferes" with democratic processes all the time. Obama was fervently anti-brexit. It is only a problem when the side one supports loses. Commented May 1, 2017 at 13:13
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    It's a great question, but I'm tempted to VTC because there's no objective 100% unbiased answer to "what is the rationale". Did you mean to ask "what are the rationales stated by specific political actors"? (which is objectively answerable without subjective patina of whether stated rationale is true or accurate)
    – user4012
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 13:53
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    @easymoden00b Obama may have had a strong opinion on Brexit but his intervention did not involve breaching Britain's communication infrastructure and attempts to manipulate the voting outcome by illegal and subversive means.
    – Nobilis
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 7:50
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    Isn't the principal issue whether the "interference" is overt or covert? Russia Today isn't what I'd call a reliable news channel, but (in the UK anyway) there are no calls to ban it. The EU and its politicians are clearly and overtly seeking to influence the UK's current election -- and they clearly have a great interest in its result. They should be free to express their views. Whereas any organisation, domestic or foreign, covertly trying to bend the electoral process to its hidden agenda is undesirable even if not illegal.
    – nigel222
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 14:19
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    Sanders' focus was narrower than yours. Sanders: "For all democracies around the world it is not acceptable that democratic institutions are being undermined by an authoritarian government." Your: "But is there a rationale for saying that a foreign government interfering in a democratic country's election, no matter what shape or form it is, is intrinsically bad?" (emphasis mine) Commented May 2, 2017 at 17:38

7 Answers 7


Because it Violates Sovereignty

The political science and legal concept here is sovereignty. The basic notion of sovereignty is that any sovereign power is free to rule itself without interference by other sovereign powers in its internal affairs. The principle of non-intervention further says that no state should interfere in the political independence of another state.

As a matter of international law, the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years' War and established the modern international order) established nation-states as sovereign entities. This principle has been included in innumerable charters and treaties since then, such as this 1996 United Nations Generaly Assembly resolution which similarly calls for no interference in internal affairs.

When one nation interferes in another's electoral process it violates their right to manage their internal affairs.

So what is interfering?

The grey area here will be "how much does it take to count as interference?" The U.N. Friendly Relations Declaration says it this way:

The principle concerning the duty not to intervene in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of any State...

In the first example (North Korea using state-owned media to broadcast information that supports Chelsea Clinton) there is no "intervention". The USA, in creating rules for its domestic elections, has decided that citizens are free to consume whatever media they like when making electoral decisions. Additionally, we would have to recognize North Korea's sovereign right to manage it's state owned media.

In the second example (Russian hacking) there is intervention. Russia has no sovereign right to take non-public information from American citizens, doubly-so since the information is about a process Russia has no sovereign power over. Additionally, hacking is a "use of force" and is prohibited by international law (albeit one that is difficult to detect and prosecute).

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    But what if it was actually the CIA acting like russia to stoke the fires of war? Commented May 2, 2017 at 17:38
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    @SoylentGray - That is a very different premise than what the question provides. I'd suggest you open your own question if you are interested in that. Commented May 2, 2017 at 17:54
  • In all seriousness this is a great answer. I think it is missing the historical factors where interfering in the succession of another country has been a grounds for war as long as there has been a written history and probably before that. Commented May 2, 2017 at 18:07
  • @SoylentGray - I am open to that, but no examples come to mind. Are you thinking of a specific example? Commented May 2, 2017 at 18:26
  • No this answer just has too much of a modern feel to it and I know that the stories of political meddling goes back at least to the times of the greek city states. Commented May 2, 2017 at 18:35

If a person or organization inside the state interferes in an election by illegal means, the citizens and government have lawful ways of dealing with that through the courts or election councils.

A foreign state can't be stopped so easily, as we've seen in Russia's case. There was no way for Hillary Clinton to sue the hackers that broke into the DNC systems or start libel suits in two dozen countries where people (Russian-sponsored or not) were pumping out fake negative news about her.

The only way to fight this is sanctions by the state government itself. If the party favored by the foreign state interference wins, that action is unlikely. President Trump's administration shows this clearly. This establishes the interference as a done deal and undermines the confidence of a lot of voters in the whole democratic process, endangering the legitimacy and stability of the government overall. That is a bad thing if you like your democracy.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 21:35

The devils advocate viewpoint is quite strong here, that it doesn't actually matter, so long as candidacy and voting integrity and freedom of choice itself is unimpaired.

A vote is intended to represent the free choice of a set of people - in this case the eligible adult citizens of a state or region. The implicit assumption is that we don't posit that there is a "right" or "wrong" vote, or that the outcome was wrong because they "should have thought differently". What they vote is what their decision is. The essence of voting is that we don't consider the election result invalid because we think people should have considered the news and information differently than they actually did. We might believe that the reraising of the email legal issue days before the election unfairly tilted it one way, or emotive appeal or money unfairly tilted it another way, or that economic issues in some country promoted a racist candidate in that country to high office, but we don't argue that the election result becomes legally incorrect or invalidated because people (in our view) misjudged based on all they heard and knew.

If that's the case then suppose a foreign state uses covert means to affect the public view of things. Whatever was done or not, each person has honestly voted their personal view "on the day" of who they choose to lead the country. It isn't a basis to overturn the election, if its alleged the information pool included information deliberately placed by outside parties, any more than any other news or information.

Individual voters choose what they want to choose -- whether or not the information and perspectives they hear were all actually correct information and fair perspectives (their job at the time to decide if they accept any information, whatever its nature, or whether they check it)... whether or not they later change their mind or wish they'd known other information (as happens to many people after most elections anyway)... and the democratic process respects their freely made choice as the result.

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    Agreed - it's beyond reason to assume that foreign governments won't try to influence an election to their benefit. To claim that such influence alone compromises the election process would be to claim that no nation of consequence is democratic.
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 19:24
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    Can any of this be backed up? Commented May 1, 2017 at 21:04
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    @indigochild - no, because its a social perspective - its a bit like a legal ruling which one can agree or disagree, but is how it is. This is a possible perspective on how it is, and how currently we construct our choice of leadership - namely that we don't assert a right or wrong choice, and we assert that agreeable or not, perceived influence or not, what freely choosing voters vote on the day is considered their choice, whether they did it on the bass of research or ignorance, influence of drink or stress, whatever their mood, whoever they inbibed opinions from, whatever their ability to q
    – Stilez
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 21:32
  • ...question, whatever their research or not, whether they assumed or not, whether they are well minded or racist, whether they regret in hindsight, their choice on that day is what we count, and on that day it is counted and their right to hold that view is treated as sacrosanct to the point we don't even ask them to state their view much less justify it; the process they used to reach that decision, and any checking if its agreeable is by consensus their free choice
    – Stilez
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 21:35
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    +1. Voters are free to choose for whom they wish to vote regardless of who provides real or false information. If they choose based on faulty information that is on them. The voter has the ultimate responsibility to decide how to consume and use the information that is available. The same can be said of the media outlets. If they choose to deliver false information, that is on them.
    – CramerTV
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 22:02

A democratic election is supposed to represent a free choice made by the voters. For an outside force to support or oppose one side in the election compromises the freedom of that choice. The more effective the support or the opposition, the more compromised.

You can argue about the importance of that freedom of choice relative to other considerations, you can argue about the rationality of the electorate or about the effectiveness of outside interference, you can cite examples from history to argue the possibility or impossibility or desirability or undesirability of such interference in various cases. But that's the “intrinsic” philosophical objection.

  • What is a "free choice", if not the choice a person knowingly and wilfully makes - regardless of how they come to that decision?
    – Stilez
    Commented May 6, 2017 at 14:19
  • If you're making that choice based on false information I gave you, I question whether that counts as "knowingly and wilfully". Commented May 6, 2017 at 20:43
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    To which three responses - it was your choice what to check and how much to check, and was in fact your choice; in every election you have incorrect and untruthful information; we don't at any time declare any vote "less valid" because of their misperception or the untruthfulness of any other public statements. (Will you say someone's vote isn't valid, knowing or willing, if there was misinformation told to them as truths by friends and family?)
    – Stilez
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 7:51
  • @Stilez I'm saying their choice wasn't freely made. That's not the same thing as saying the vote wasn't valid. As for the rest, do some reading on information asymmetry. Commented May 9, 2017 at 1:26
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    I'm aware of both of those and deeply value the principles behind them. But for this Q, we need the definition of "consent"/"freely made" closer to "had capability to assess all options and quality of information, and to choose any of the options without penalty or fear". The issues you're describing are always present, and we just don't consider the presence of either to render the choice of a person not freely made, despite assymmetry
    – Stilez
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 7:03

I don't believe that, generally speaking, one nation influencing another's democratic election is broadly considered bad. The issue referenced in the quote isn't a general complaint about foreign influence. It relates to something quite specific. As has been pointed out elsewhere, foreign nations attempt to influence democratic elections all the time, including the united states influencing other nation's elections, as well as other nations influencing the united states' elections.

So a foreign nation attempting to influence another country's democratic election isn't, in and of itself, bad. Or rather, that it is so commonplace that it doesn't usually draw any undo attention.

The issue in the case referenced in the quote is that a foreign nation used covert and illegal means to do so, while allegedly conspiring with one particular side in the process.

The heart of the DNC leaks was a concerted covert intelligence attack to breach government-related systems.

If the GOP was aware of the methods by which this information was obtained, then their use of the information is a tacit endorsement of such activities, but only when it serves their own interests.

It also raises the suspicion of a quid pro quo arrangement, potentially indebting our leadership to a foreign nation.

Thus, the concern is two-fold: that a foreign power can gain undue influence over a winning candidate by virtue of intelligence obtained through illegal means, and that a candidate would knowingly benefit from such illegal activities.

  • That said, every voter on the day was in fact in a position to evaluate this (and therefore in a position to make their decision with full ability to ignore this concern, discount it, accept it, or anything else). If some people didn't, or others were swayed who later regretted being swayed - they had the choice to be swayed (or not) on that day and that's a position many people routinely feel themselves in after an election anyhow. Philosophically it's hard to see in what sense it changes the essence of an election - that "the people" chose.
    – Stilez
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 13:30
  • @Stilez How many of the details were available to the public before the election? Iirc, key details were only revealed after the fact. Additionally, note that this election had a notably low turnout, even by American standards. It's arguable that the low turnout was a tangible demonstration of public concern.
    – Beofett
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 13:42

One of the political principles which most mainstream parties claim to uphold (even in countries where they are blatantly lying) is that of democracy - rule by the people, for the people. You can argue about whether political activism by domestic businesses, foreign-owned businesses that operate within the country, foreigners with involvement in the country, etc. are close enough to part of "the people" to deserve some rights to involvement in the political process, but a foreign government is pretty clearly beyond that line.

Also, most accusations of foreign interference allege actions which are beyond the accepted norms, or even beyond legal limits, for campaigners in the election. There is also the implication that whoever they are helping will act in that country's interests regardless of whether it benefits the target country. That's not to say that it definitely will not help the target country, but rather that any such benefit will be a secondary consideration.


Additionally to the points mentioned in other answers (and the actual moral issue aside), there is the strong factor that country B is a "common enemy" for all political parties in country A. It is almost impossible for the winning party (if it allegedly won due to or with the help of the other country) to argue in favour of the external influence. It is also very hard to argue that the influence did not happen at all - how would they prove that?

It is also reasonably likely that even if the vote was close, the majority is in favour of their own country itself, so anybody arguing that the influence was not bad or did not happen will have a diminuished position.

In this regard, emphasizing the influence of country B is is at the very least a strong rhetoric move. Bringing up the moral issue then makes the argument even stronger (rhetorically).

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    Why would it be a "common enemy"? Commented May 2, 2017 at 17:47

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