Democracy truly is under attack. Cyber techniques are the latest weapons. They are aimed directly at us, seeking to stimulate emotion over thought, sowing doubt and distrust. More computerization is not the answer.
Let’s start with some prayers for the folks who are dealing with major natural disasters these last few weeks and ongoing: hurricanes, flooding, and earthquakes. It’s been a difficult time for a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world, with more to come.
Two members of Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy attended a thought provoking seminar at the Brookings Institute on the national security imperative of addressing cyber interference in U.S. elections. We want to share several key points, as we interpreted them.
- Several foreign powers continue trying to shake our faith in U.S. and European democracy, with the objective of decreasing voter confidence and hence our participation.
- They are using two main cyber techniques:
- Disinformation campaigns meant to prey on, and amplify, various social friction points: immigration, race, civil rights, gun ownership, LGBTQ issues, family values, and so on. United we stand, divided we fall. Their platforms include email leaks, fake news, Twitterbots, troll farms, and Facebook ads. It’s all about hate-bait and worry worms.
- Creating doubts about the integrity of our electoral system, by attempting to hack our voter registration records, tampering with our ability to verify those records on Election Day in several counties, and by raising the possibility of electronic ballot dumping or ballot stuffing.
- Disinformation and psyops campaigns, by their nature, are aimed at stimulating our emotions, fogging our minds, and dividing people against each other. Federal agencies and social media companies must do more to alert us to various attacks and push back – but it is up to each of us to vigilantly fight temptations to doubt and to hate.
- Cyber attacks by their nature can occur at the lowest levels of government, down to the precinct level. As was underscored by a distinguished member of the panel, this puts our county and state election officials at the front of the battle – and they are not well prepared, resourced, or informed to take this on. Party officials take note as well: using the internet for early voting, absentee voting, or voting for primary election candidates can open up an even more troubling set of issues.
Further computerization, including the application of artificial intelligence, is not the answer. Hackers could and probably would coopt this too. (And – imagine – it would be deliciously easy to spread the rumor that computers are now choosing our politicians!) Instead, we need simple physical systems, with paper ballots that voters can see marked with their vote, that post-election auditors can count if required. As many as 30% of American counties do not have access to these. Access to touch screen devices should be retained only to ensure full independent ballot access for the disabled.
How do you see the situation? Do you have a story to share? We would like to hear from you. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.
Do you want to help? Here are some options:
- Reach out to your congressional representative and senators to better support the Federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC). This small, yet critical agency, set up under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, provides a repository of best practices and administers Federal funding to state and local efforts to strengthen their electoral systems, training and data management. Some federal legislators are not on board and have questioned the importance of the EAC. Current HAVA funding is inadequate.
- Volunteer as an election judge in your jurisdiction and play an active role in your community and your democracy. Remember that elections occur year-round across the U.S. so don’t wait for 2018 or 2020 – volunteer now! County officials can direct you appropriately.
- Contribute time or money to appropriate organizations. One example is the Verified Voting Foundation. They are a non-governmental organization working toward accuracy, integrity and verifiability of elections. Their primary concern lies in ensuring that the means for verifying election outcomes is in place and used for that purpose. They also focus on the reliability and security of voting systems.
Want to learn more?
- Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy, 2017. What Does Election Fraud Look Like?
- Alex Halderman, 2017. Expert Testimony to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
- Hwang and Rosen, 2017. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: International Law and the Future of Online PsyOps.
- Pippa Norris, 2017. Strengthening Electoral Integrity.