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Making Sure Our Informed Votes Count

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

By Richard T. Moore
August 12, 2019

While 2019 is generally an off year for state elections, except for seven legislative chambers (Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia for House and Senate, New Jersey House only), nearly two-thirds of the 100 largest municipalities across America will be going to the polls this fall. Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi will also elect governors this year. These elections offer an excellent opportunity for officials and the public to test election security. However at the same time, these elections also provide nefarious foreign and domestic actors with the chance to interfere with elections and influence voters through mis-information platforms.

In view of the recent opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court leaving legislative and congressional redistricting to the states, the stakes for state legislative elections this year and next are even higher than in previous election cycles. The ability to control the design of state legislative and Congressional maps provides hackers and social media misinformation purveyors with greater incentives to try to sway the outcomes in each state.

The Center for American Progress, an independent non-partisan policy institute, has published recommendations for all fifty states to improve their election procedures. In an article published last year, entitled “Election Security in All 50 States,” authors Danielle Root, Liz Kennedy, Michael Sozan and Jerry Parshall offer, “A better understanding of how each state can improve election security preparedness (to) help build urgency for appropriate solutions and arm stakeholders with information to demand increased security measures.” The authors identified election security factors based on their ability to evaluate election security and preparedness at the state level and evaluated the preparedness of each state using these factors. The factors evaluated in the report were: minimum cybersecurity standards for voter registration systems, voter-verified paper audit trails, post-election audits that test election results, ballot accounting and reconciliation, return of voted paper absentee ballots, voting machine certification requirements and pre-election logic and accuracy testing.

Government Technology, a magazine for the tech industry, has produced a guide to help government officials make the digital voting process more secure, resilient and efficient as a defense against hackers. The guide notes that:

“Nation-state hackers and rogue hacktivists now consider elections high-priority targets to further their financial and political goals. They’re attempting to breach voter registration systems for confidential data they can sell on the digital black market or corrupt records to disenfranchise eligible voters. To shore up security defenses, election authorities need to develop a multifaceted strategy similar to a public safety emergency management plan that brings together stakeholders from every department to protect government resources, respond to emergencies and manage the aftermath of incidents.”

The guide is intended to help officials in drafting:

“Comprehensive plans by detailing the current threat landscape, describing the challenges authorities face and outlining resources that can help secure the next elections in their jurisdictions.”

Why is it important to safeguard election data and processes? Well, the Mueller Report revealed that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in a, “Sweeping and systematic fashion.” In a special report, the PBS News Hour on April 24, 2019, presented, “After Mueller revelations, how to protect election integrity in 2020.” However, preventing election technology hacking may not be enough to protect our democracy. While public opinion has been influenced for much of American history, social media has magnified the impact, reaching a much larger audience than so-called, “Yellow journalism,” of old.

Steven Rosenfeld of Alternet, considered to be a left leaning publication, writes that Russian hackers are not the only problem in protecting the security of our elections. He notes that given:

“The frail state of American democracy today, the most powerful content curators, opportunistic partisans, poorly informed journalists—and yes, overseas adversaries—are funneling and amplifying, ‘Divisive, sensational and conspiratorial,’ content, as one authoritative report put it, further undermining already shaky public confidence in voting.”

The report cited is from The Guardian entitled, “Fiction is Outperforming Reality: How YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth.” In the article, Guillaume Chaslot, described as, “An ex-Google engineer,” states, “The algorithm does not appear to be optimizing what is truthful or balanced or healthy for democracy.”

Historically, the media has influenced the development of our federal government as with the Federalist Papers and political campaigns from the days of Adams and Jefferson. No less an authority than the great Walter Lipmann in his classic, “Public Opinion,” wrote:

“The media are the primary source of those pictures in our heads about the larger world of public affairs, a world that for most citizens is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind and what we know about the world is largely based on what the media decides to tell us.”

Despite all the talk about, “Fake news,” Americans, as a whole, seem unlikely to repeal the First Amendment freedom of the press. However, the pervasive influence of social media on public opinion, where there are often anonymous authors and no responsible editors, places enormous responsibility on voters to find the truth about candidates.

Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served in Washington, DC as Associate Director of FEMA in the Clinton Administration and as a Presidential Elector in 1992. A former college administrator and adjunct assistant professor of government at Bentley University and Bridgewater State University, Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address is [email protected]

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