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How the Democratic Party’s email fiasco will affect the presidential race

Wikileaks recently posted nearly 20,000 emails belonging to top officials in the Democratic National Committee, many of which derided the Bernie Sanders campaign while positioning Hillary Clinton as the clear favorite of the Democratic establishment. The scandal, which hit just three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention, forced committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign and strained the Democratic Party’s efforts to build unity at the most inopportune time.

We asked three Northeastern experts to weigh in on the scandal, with a particular focus on how the data dump will impact the election, the voting process, and the cybersecurity of political parties going forward.

Expert: William Crotty, the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Chair in Public Life and professor emer­itus of polit­ical sci­ence in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities:

Q: A columnist for The Huffington Post suggested that the DNC data-dump should spell an immediate end to superdelegates. What, if any, changes do you think need to be made to the political process to ensure that future candidates are treated fairly and major parties are held accountable to their constituents?

A: The Huffington Post has an argument. A political party and its leaders have to be faction-neutral to have any credibility in setting and interpreting party procedures and in adjudicating internal controversies. The DNC leadership under Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been anything but. She and her staff clearly and repeatedly have seen their role as promoting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton at whatever the cost. The nominating rules put in place, their interpretation, and the overseeing of their execution have been arbitrary. The Nevada and Iowa caucuses can serve as one example. Caucus results are easier to manipulate in relation to the prejudicial management of the proceedings, who is certified as voting delegates, the issues to be brought to the floor, the timing of critical votes, what results are reported to the media, and so on—and these things have been subject to constant complaint during the nominating season.

At one point I was granted a fellowship to work in Washington for the Democratic National Committee on these issues. The party at the time was making a strenuous effort to come out of the chaos, severe factionalization and corruption of the organization and its committee resulting from the tumultuous sixties. The major focal point for an accountable, representative and relevant party is its nominating system. I thought we did a good job in ensuring the representation of the candidate and issue preferences of party members. It appears all of this is a thing of the past. People in power are used to getting their way. They see their role and that of party institutions as committed to getting what they believe are in their interest. The reforms that came from this era were extremely controversial with party power brokers. The introduction of non-elected, voting convention delegates, i.e., the superdelegates, was a concession to these interests. Yes, they should go. They serve no democratic function in a voter-dependent party system. I believe the Democratic Party has a long way to go in these regards. There is no indication of any intention to make such an effort in relation to serving a broader base of member interests and achieving a candidate-neutral fairer and more representative nominating system. Wasserman Schultz has been involved in one controversy after another in relation to the arbitrary use of party powers. She should have been fired years ago. The Sanders people believe the nominating system was rigged and the Wikileaks releases present evidence to support at least some of their concerns. I expect more such leaks during this convention week with the consequences yet to be seen.

Expert: Parker Ellen, assistant professor of management and organizational development in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business:

Q: The perception among a large swath of the voting public is that the leaked DNC emails show that the committee was biased toward Clinton and even tried to undermine Sanders’ candidacy. Now that the cat has been let out of the bag, what might the DNC do to repair the damage that the emails have done with an eye toward uniting the party in the final four months before the presidential election?

A: I understand that many perspectives assume a link between party unity and voting decisions in November. From an organizational perspective, I view them separately. The election is a near-term problem for DNC leadership that requires influencing Sanders’ supporters to vote for Clinton. To accomplish their objective, the leaders of the DNC will have to employ influence tactics like rational persuasion (using logic), inspirational appeals (tapping into shared values), and apprising (letting Sanders supporters know how it will make them better off) to convince as many Sanders’ supporters as possible to vote for Clinton. Uniting the party, i.e., preventing Sanders’ supporters from becoming further disenfranchised, is a different and longer-term issue that requires rebuilding trust. Organizational members trust leaders who demonstrate care for member interests and who operate with integrity. So, in the long term, the DNC likely will need to replace some of the leadership with those who are perceived as more receptive to Sanders supporters’ interests, and are considered people of sound character, i.e., scandal-free.

Q: Sanders noted that he was “disappointed” by the DNC emails that suggested that committee members favored Clinton, but he’s remained committed to supporting his party at the polls in November. How much of an impact will Sanders’ reaction to the email scandal have on how his most ardent supporters respond to the fiasco, particularly in regard to how they’ll vote this fall?

A: I believe Sanders’ reaction could sway his supporters to “hold their nose” and vote for Clinton. The boos Sanders received when he asked supporters at an event to vote for Clinton show this isn’t a slam dunk. However, influence is based on power, and Sanders has an important source of power as it relates to his supporters. Specifically, he has referent power, which is based in the affection, respect, and allegiance his supporters have for him. In fact, Sanders drew on this to make an almost personal appeal, i.e., another influence tactic, for supporters to vote for Clinton when he addressed them as “Brothers and sisters.” So, we have to assume his call to action will carry a lot of weight and convince even some the most ardent Sanders supporters to vote for Clinton. 

Expert: Christo Wilson, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science:

Q: According to a New York Times report, researchers have concluded that the Democratic National Committee’s network was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which had hacked the White House, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. Are you surprised by the ease with which this group of hackers was able to gain access to private information from the DNC?

A: Maybe this is too cynical, but data breaches do not surprise me at all anymore. Putting data online is easy; securing it is very, very hard. People, perhaps naively, assume that government datastores are more secure, but you have to remember that the DNC is not government infrastructure, nor is it subject to the same kinds of stringent standards that the White House or State Department would be.

Q: Political campaigns collect a lot of sensitive information, including addresses, online identities, and credit card numbers, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve been taking cybercriminals as seriously as they should be. What, in your view, should campaigns be doing to safeguard private information?

A: All groups that collect private information should implement known best practices for securing their databases: everything should be encrypted; access should be limited to those who strictly need to know; the data should be minimized, or even kept offline in cold storage; independent experts should be hired to audit the security of the systems. Political campaigns are particularly vulnerable because they are somewhat ephemeral: they ramp up very quickly and collect lots of sensitive data, but rarely have the time or manpower to securely implement their infrastructure. The DNC, on the other hand, has long-lived infrastructure, so they really have no excuse for not obeying best practices.

Q: In an interview with Bloomberg, Mike Vickers, a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence who believes that the Russians were behind the attack, said, “What is unprecedented, it seems to me, is the use of these tools for covert political influence against the United States during a presidential general election.” As time goes on, do you foresee more organizations—or even countries—using the power of hacking to establish political control and sway public opinion?  

A: In a fully digitized, connected world, it seems inevitable that bad actors will attempt to leverage hacking for political gain. We already see this happening to various degrees; for example, authorities in China and Russia try to covertly steer opinion on social media. Similarly, the joint U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges was a military operation, but the goals were also clearly political, i.e., forcing Iran’s hand in nuclear negotiations.