HEIGHTENED THREATS TO OUR ELECTIONS

Our election and voting systems were facing serious challenges before the corona virus pandemic hit; it has added new challenges and exacerbated old ones. Although the final federal election isn’t until November, state and local elections are occurring (or getting postponed) now, including primaries for the federal election.

The need to postpone elections or adjust procedures for them due to the pandemic highlight the need for effective voter communication and the threat of misinformation. Voters need to know about changes in the date of an election or the location of a polling place, e.g. to move it out of a senior living facility. Voters also need to know about changes in voting procedures such as expansions of early voting and absentee / mail-in voting.

Changes in election dates and procedures provide fertile ground for misinformation that could suppress voting or manipulate it for partisan or other purposes. The pandemic also provides opportunities for divisive misinformation aimed at stirring up social unrest and manipulating election outcomes. Such misinformation can also be used to undermine trust in government and our elections. [1]

One election strategy for addressing the challenge of keeping a safe social distance from others to limit the spread of the virus would be to conduct as much voting as possible by mail. For state or localities that have the capacity, mail-in ballots could be sent to every registered voter. In other places, absentee voting could be expanded to include anyone who would prefer to vote by mail. The options for requesting an absentee ballot should be expanded to include mail, on-line or email, phone, and in-person requests.

Before the corona virus hit, our voting systems and elections were vulnerable to operational glitches and ill-intentioned manipulation. Most states use electronic voting systems that are at least a decade old and prone to malfunction. Their software is old and doesn’t have up-to-date protections from hacking. Many states have voter registration databases that are similarly antiquated and vulnerable to hacking. Finally, poor design of ballots in some states leads to voter confusion and errors in voting. [2]

Issues with our voting and election systems are of particular concern given Russian cyber attacks on the 2016 U.S. election. Russian hackers probed election networks in all 50 states, breached at least one state voter registration database, attacked local election boards, got into at least two Florida counties’ computer networks, and infected the computers at a voting technology company. Russians hacked into the Clinton campaign’s email system and two units of the Democratic National Committee, stealing hundreds of thousands of documents and emails. These purloined documents then were leaked at multiple times, frequently when the timing had particular benefit for the Trump campaign. [3]

In addition, Russian entities engaged in extensive election-related misinformation campaigns in 2016. Probably most notably, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian government-linked organization, reached over 100 million Americans via social media using a budget of over $1 million a month. Through 470 Facebook accounts and 3,814 Twitter accounts, the IRA reached over 127 million people.

The goal of the Russian social media campaign was to sow political discord in the U.S. and to build doubts about American democracy by undermining trust in our political institutions, including the validity of our elections. It used hot-button topics such as race, immigration, and religion to inflame political polarization and heighten fear and confusion. Russia seeks to undermine and delegitimize Western democracies in general, both to boost its own international prestige and to discourage democratic aspirations at home. It hopes to exacerbate divisions within the U.S. and also to fracture NATO and other international alliances.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election led to the indictment of 25 Russian individuals and three Russian organizations. They had infiltrated individual, public, and private computers and networks, including voting lists and banking systems.

Although a federal information clearinghouse for election infrastructure has been created and $380 million was provided to states for election security, most cyber experts believe our election infrastructure is quite vulnerable. In January 2019, the U.S. Director of National Security warned that Russia was looking at opportunities to advance its interests in our 2020 elections and that it would use social media to weaken our democratic institutions, influence U.S. policies, and undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships.

My next post will outline steps we should take to ensure the accessibility and security of voting for all citizens.

[1]      Weiser, W. R., & Feldman, M., 3/16/20, “How to protect the 2020 vote from the coronavirus,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/how-protect-2020-vote-coronavirus)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 3/20/20, “Election security,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/defend-our-elections/election-security)

[3]      Bryant, C. C., 5/14/19, “Amid growing concerns about 2020, a primer on Russian election interference,” The Christian Science Monitor (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2019/0514/Amid-growing-concerns-about-2020-a-primer-on-Russian-election-interference)

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