We cannot protect our electoral systems from cyber and misinformation risks by today’s standards. Whether the threat is domestic or foreign, it has become increasingly clear U.S. midterm elections (and perhaps every election thereafter) will face a retooled version of the interference that still casts a long shadow over the 2016 U.S. presidential contest. Indeed, the fact that Microsoft recently stopped suspected Russian cyber hacks, along with the cleanup act taking place at Twitter, which purged 70 million accounts, and Facebook, which is coping with its fall from grace over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, at once mark marginal improvements in readiness, as well as the persistent nature of threats arrayed against democracies. In all, hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world have learned how frail democracy can be when the combustible mix of voter apathy and political partisanship combine with a 24-hour tribal news cycle, misinformation campaigns and rampant cyber threats aimed at sowing maximum damage not only to candidates, but to the democratic process itself. While there is nothing that can be done in the span of two months to harden electoral vulnerabilities to U.S. midterms, including from teenaged hackers, there is only one thing we can do ensure the will of the people is heard. Vote in record numbers, irrespective of party, class or creed, but for the sake of country and democracy, overwhelming the margin of error and doubt.
If nothing else, the contentious 2016 presidential election, in which many are still smarting from electoral defeat under a darkening cloud of suspicion, proved that elections and the very basic democratic duty of voting are massively consequential. In short, the electoral margin of error matters. Anything that can influence the margin of error, in which a candidate or ballot initiative hangs in the balance, are critically important. If the margin is affected by a convoluted voter exclusion or gerrymandered registration process, it should be confronted with simpler alternatives. If the margin is influenced by erroneous polling data that suggests victory is a sure thing according to the “numbers” and projections, doubt it. Most importantly, if the margin is wrongly influenced by deliberate actions, cyber-attacks and millions of fake news-inducing social media accounts, only a vigorous democratic process can overwhelm this margin of error. Getting closer to a one-to-one relationship between a voter and a vote will help harden the electoral process, enable greater accountability and enfranchise more of the electorate.
With a little over two months to go until U.S. midterm elections, which will surely be overshadowed by top of ticket politics with all eyes on the White House and the rapidly developing Mueller probe, demanding more redundancy in how voters and votes interact with their democracy is not only possible, it is urgent. Just as there is a new generation of voters who are getting enfranchised primarily through their very first taste of political consequence, whether they won, lost or abstained in disgust or apathy in the last round of elections, there is also a new generation of technologies that can be brought to bear on democracy’s most sacrosanct tenet – namely voting. A pilot project in West Virginia, for example, is using blockchain technology combined with a mobile application to ease the voting process for overseas military service members. A similar platform, once it exits the pilot stage, can be brought to bear on other politically marginalized segments of the population, such as the elderly, infirm, single parent households, farmers, rural communities and minority groups, if not the electorate writ large, for whom the prospect of getting to a polling station comes with often insurmountable economic or logistical hardships. In the same way blockchain records a single unit of value in a decentralized, trust-based and audit-proof manner, voting seems to be a problem at once big enough and uniform enough for technology to make a positive impact. Indeed, when electoral outcomes are in doubt, having a technology such as blockchain that combats double counting at scale should be widely deployed.
The U.S. should take little comfort in being a country where historically more votes were cast for American Idol than for selecting the next president. Part of this gap stems from ease of use and a growing generation accustomed to instant gratification courtesy of having a smart phone in their hands for more than a decade. The tech savvy 18 – 35 segment of the population compromises more than 36% of U.S. electorate. This is a generation that has bucked all their parent’s admonishments about riding in cars with strangers, staying at an unknown person’s home or entrusting their hard-earned money to nameless, faceless and uninsured institutions. In short, if the Baby Boomer generation placed their trust in institutions, Millennials and Gen X, would say “in technology we trust.” While technology alone is no panacea, as it is a contributing factor to many of our woes, the global shift from analog to digital exposes massive cracks in our societal structures.
Take an issue as fundamental as the issuance, recognition and verification of identity. Following the Equifax breach of more than 150 million personally identifiable records, two critical flaws were revealed, neither of which has been fixed. The first, is the reliance on centralized “honey pot” data storage practices that are a catastrophic event waiting to happen – a veritable BP oil spill of data. The second, is the issuance of an unchanging, alphanumeric identity system, the U.S. social security number, which is often issued at birth and connected to individual financial outcomes, as well as voter registration and validation. When confronted with new threats to democratic processes, it would be the definition of insanity to do the same thing expecting different outcomes. While experimentation with electoral design and technologies should be encouraged, the safest bet come voting day is to vote.