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AI and Democracy: Navigating the New Frontier in Campaigns and Elections

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Craig P. Orgeron
November 17, 2023

In an era teeming with technological advancements, the repercussions of artificial intelligence (AI) have echoed through the hallways of various industries. Still, none will be as profoundly altered as the democratic process during election campaigns. Nancy Gibbsion, Director of the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently termed 2024 “the first AI election,” a prognostication that underscores the seismic shifts we will witness in our political fabric. The discussions held by Latanya Sweeney, Miriam Vogel and Sharad Goel provide vital insights that deepen the narrative around the AI-driven metamorphosis in democratic processes.

Artificial intelligence has always been on a collision course with democracy, given its potential to reshape how we communicate, interact and make decisions. Its foray into political campaigns and elections is not entirely new, but its role rapidly evolves from a peripheral tool to a central strategy for engagement and persuasion. The implications of this transition are as profound as they are complex, painting a future both fascinating and fraught with ethical difficulties. Vogel’s analogy of AI to a “team of interns” reflects its burgeoning role in processing and analyzing data, potentially streamlining campaign operations and voter outreach with a sophistication hitherto unseen. However, Sharad Goel’s comparison of AI to “the best experts” hints at a more profound impact, suggesting AI could revolutionize policy analysis, strategy formulation and even the creation of political narratives.

Imagine campaign strategies fine-tuned by AI algorithms that can predict voter behavior with eerie accuracy. Tailored messages could be delivered to individuals based on their browsing history, purchasing habits and even sentiment analysis gleaned from social media activity. AI’s ability to process vast amounts of data means campaigns can identify and target micro-groups of voters with unprecedented precision, potentially elevating the political discourse to a more personal and relevant level. However, with such power comes the risk of manipulation and privacy invasions. The fine line between personalization and propaganda blurs when AI tools are employed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities or to spread misinformation. Deepfakes—hyper-realistic video or audio forgeries—can be leveraged to undermine trust in candidates or to sway public opinion undetected. Our defenses against such tactics remain nascent, and the regulatory frameworks governing AI’s campaign use are still embryonic.

Furthermore, the digital divide could exacerbate existing inequalities in political participation. As campaigns become more sophisticated and reliant on AI, those without access to the latest technologies or the literacy to navigate them could be marginalized. Voter engagement, a cornerstone of democracy, might devolve into a privilege of the tech-enabled, silencing voices already struggling to be heard. Despite these challenges, AI also presents opportunities for enhancing democratic practices. Voter education can be revolutionized with interactive AI interfaces that provide unbiased information on policies and candidates. Election monitoring can be bolstered by AI systems capable of detecting and reporting irregularities in real-time, thus protecting the integrity of the vote. AI could also streamline administrative processes, making voter registration and voting more accessible and efficient, potentially increasing turnout and democratic participation.

The question remains: How can we harness the benefits of AI while safeguarding our democratic values? The answer lies in a multidimensional approach. Regulation that keeps pace with technology is crucial. These laws must ensure transparency and accountability in using AI by campaigns, including the sources and methodologies of data collection and the nature of algorithmic decision-making. Ethical frameworks should guide the development and deployment of AI tools in political contexts, balancing innovation with rights to privacy and free speech. The ethical use of AI in democracy also involves educating the electorate about these technologies—increasing digital literacy so that voters can critically assess AI-generated content and make informed choices.

As we hurtle towards what may be remembered as the ‘AI election’ of 2024, the imperative for dialogue and action has never been greater. Democracies must adapt to survive and thrive in the age of artificial intelligence. This means engaging technologists, policymakers, civil society and voters in crafting a future where AI serves the electorate and preserves the foundational tenets of democracy rather than undermining them. The intersection of AI and democracy will inevitably redefine the landscape of political campaigns and elections. While the potential of AI to invigorate the democratic process is immense, its unchecked rise could also pose significant risks. Balancing these will require not just foresight and innovation but also a steadfast commitment to the democratic principles that must guide the evolution of our political systems in the age of AI. As we stand on the cusp of this new era, the lessons we draw from the upcoming elections will set precedents for future generations. The ‘AI election’ of 2024 is not just a landmark in political history; it is a test of our collective will to shape a democracy that reflects our highest aspirations in an age where technology holds the mirror to our societal values.

Author: Dr. Orgeron has extensive technology experience in both the private sector and the federal and state levels of the public sector. Currently, Dr. Orgeron is a Professor of MIS at Millsaps College. Dr. Orgeron has served as an Executive Advisor at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and as the CIO for the State of Mississippi and as President of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

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