The national voting season now begins in full force.
Maine will hold primaries on Super Tuesday (March 3) along with states all the way to California. Next Tuesday will be the single biggest day for the selection of national convention delegates who pick their party’s nominee for president.
The foundation of the American Republic’s system is that the people vote, choosing those who will govern on our behalf. The system is under attack.
In some states, the legislature engages in voter suppression to deny access to the polls of voters likely to oppose the party making the rules. Or it may draw congressional districts to segregate members of the opposing party in as few districts as possible.
Fortunately, Maine does not engage in state-level voter suppression. It is possible that the boundary between its two congressional districts could be drawn to favor one of the parties, undoubtedly a focus in next year’s redistricting.
Despite the state’s efforts, Maine voters can be affected by attempts to undermine a fair choice. Russia and extreme groups use social media to confuse voters and destroy confidence in the political process. Evidence of Russian efforts is beyond doubt.
In addition, the law now allows campaigning by groups supposedly independent of the cause or candidate they support. They present themselves as promoters of good government, instead of the partisans they really are.
There have always been partisan campaign ads, which may misstate an opponent’s position or actions while inaccurately boosting a candidate. Traditional campaigning is now giving way to social media. False information about candidates is spread as if it were news.
These social media posts go well beyond efforts to promote or oppose candidates. Some content is meant to disrupt democracy by promoting candidates who do not represent the majority. If that turns off voters, the resulting disaffection from the American political system weakens this country.
Social media may be used to promote candidates who are favorable to Russia or whose election will lead to policies favorable to foreign interests. It is impossible to measure how well they succeed in determining election outcomes, but there’s proof they are trying.
The only effective remedies are either to ban political campaigning from social media — which may run afoul of free speech rights — or ignore it. Twitter has banned political ads, though Facebook refuses to do so. It’s up to individuals to ignore false news on social media.
Even worse, Russia tries to tamper with the computers that operate elections. The solution is a paper ballot back-up. Used in Maine, the practice is blocked nationally by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The established news organizations could help with the social media issue. The Washington Post fact checker has become the national standard for revealing untrue statements made by national politicians. Unfortunately, it has had to focus most of its attention on President Trump.
An online political analyst — the FiveThirtyEight website — uses polls to produce its political ratings and rates the accuracy of many polls, which are increasing in number and variety. Given the questionable quality and partisan leanings of many polls, its ratings are useful.
What is needed is a similar watch on social media. While it may be impossible to catch all false news on major outlets, systematic reporting on major efforts to mislead voters on social media would increase voter awareness of the efforts of the Russians and extremist groups to fool voters.
The media could rate the reliability of political information on social media outlets by fact checking. A regularly updated rating, based on this fact checking, would raise public awareness of the dubious value of the unedited “news” on social media. Items for review could be suggested by readers, similar to what the Washington Post does.
The operators of social media — Facebook and the like — could provide such a service, though such responsible action is unlikely. Cable television, whatever its bias, is a precedent; it supports nonpartisan C-SPAN.
The Institute for Nonprofit News, an organization of hundreds of nonpartisan news outlets, including Maine’s Pine Tree Watch, might organize such an effort.
The foundation of the American political system is voting. The first task remains, as always, encouraging people to vote. Maine has an excellent record.
Saving the system from being undermined by foreign manipulation or short-term partisanship goes beyond that.
It depends on individuals doing more than simply casting a ballot. Given the complexity of issues and efforts to undermine the system, voters need to make sure — now more than ever — they are fairly informed, before they vote.
Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran.
He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies.
He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.
This story originally appeared on PineTreeWatch.org, a nonpartisan, non-profit news website based in Augusta. Pine Tree Watch is a product of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.