Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.
It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.
American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.
This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.
When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.
Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.
It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.
It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters - and especially Black Democratic voters - from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?
The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud - will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats - seeing what Republicans are doing will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.
We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?
Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.
Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.
The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.
They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.
This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.
Last week I signed on to two joint letters about the security of the 2020 election. The first was as one of 59 election security experts, basically saying that while the election seems to have been both secure and accurate (voter suppression notwithstanding), we still need to work to secure our election systems:
We are aware of alarming assertions being made that the 2020 election was “rigged” by exploiting technical vulnerabilities. However, in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent. To our collective knowledge, no credible evidence has been put forth that supports a conclusion that the 2020 election outcome in any state has been altered through technical compromise.
That said, it is imperative that the US continue working to bolster the security of elections against sophisticated adversaries. At a minimum, all states should employ election security practices and mechanisms recommended by experts to increase assurance in election outcomes, such as post-election risk-limiting audits.
The New York Times wrote about the letter.
The second was a more general call for election security measures in the US:
Obviously elections themselves are partisan. But the machinery of them should not be. And the transparent assessment of potential problems or the assessment of allegations of security failure — even when they could affect the outcome of an election — must be free of partisan pressures. Bottom line: election security officials and computer security experts must be able to do their jobs without fear of retribution for finding and publicly stating the truth about the security and integrity of the election.
These pile on to the November 12 statement from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the other agencies of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) Executive Committee. While I’m not sure how they have enough comparative data to claim that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” they are certainly credible in saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
We have a long way to go to secure our election systems from hacking. Details of what to do are known. Getting rid of touch-screen voting machines is important, but baseless claims of fraud don’t help.
On Blockchain Voting
Blockchain voting is a spectacularly dumb idea for a whole bunch of reasons. I have generally quoted Matt Blaze:
Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea? Glad you asked.
- It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have.
- It’s basically incompatible with “software independence”, considered an essential property.
- It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.
I’ve also quoted this XKCD cartoon.
But now I have this excellent paper from MIT researchers:
“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting”
Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L. Rivest
Abstract: Voters are understandably concerned about election security. News reports of possible election interference by foreign powers, of unauthorized voting, of voter disenfranchisement, and of technological failures call into question the integrity of elections worldwide.This article examines the suggestions that “voting over the Internet” or “voting on the blockchain” would increase election security, and finds such claims to be wanting and misleading. While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.Online voting may seem appealing: voting from a computer or smart phone may seem convenient and accessible. However, studies have been inconclusive, showing that online voting may have little to no effect on turnout in practice, and it may even increase disenfranchisement. More importantly: given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.This article analyzes and systematizes prior research on the security risks of online and electronic voting, and show that not only do these risks persist in blockchain-based voting systems, but blockchains may introduce additional problems for voting systems. Finally, we suggest questions for critically assessing security risks of new voting system proposals.
2020 Was a Secure Election
Over at Lawfare: “2020 Is An Election Security Success Story (So Far).”
What’s more, the voting itself was remarkably smooth. It was only a few months ago that professionals and analysts who monitor election administration were alarmed at how badly unprepared the country was for voting during a pandemic. Some of the primaries were disasters. There were not clear rules in many states for voting by mail or sufficient opportunities for voting early. There was an acute shortage of poll workers. Yet the United States saw unprecedented turnout over the last few weeks. Many states handled voting by mail and early voting impressively and huge numbers of volunteers turned up to work the polls. Large amounts of litigation before the election clarified the rules in every state. And for all the president’s griping about the counting of votes, it has been orderly and apparently without significant incident. The result was that, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 230,000 Americans, record numbers of Americans voted — and voted by mail — and those votes are almost all counted at this stage.
On the cybersecurity front, there is even more good news. Most significantly, there was no serious effort to target voting infrastructure. After voting concluded, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Chris Krebs, released a statement, saying that “after millions of Americans voted, we have no evidence any foreign adversary was capable of preventing Americans from voting or changing vote tallies.” Krebs pledged to “remain vigilant for any attempts by foreign actors to target or disrupt the ongoing vote counting and final certification of results,” and no reports have emerged of threats to tabulation and certification processes.
A good summary.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.
California’s Proposition 24, aimed at improving the California Consumer Privacy Act, passed this week. Analyses are very mixed. I was very mixed on the proposition, but on the whole I supported it. The proposition has some serious flaws, and was watered down by industry, but voting for privacy feels like it’s generally a good thing.