Hacks, partisan divide means 2018 election is shaping up to be a mess––this is nothing newPosted by Josh Taylor / November 4, 2018
The 2018 elections haven’t even happened yet––although early voting is finished in most states––and it’s already shaping up to be a right old mess. But don’t worry, this isn’t a Chicken Little, doom-and-gloom article claiming that this is the death rattle of the American Experiment, democracy, or the West as we know it. We’ll leave that kind of shameless fear mongering to the Washington Post, who is cashing in nicely on the supposed threat that the Trump administration and the GOP poses to our nation. No, this article instead points out the various threats facing the 2018 election, but then tries to put those threats into a larger historical context.
Let’s start with the most obvious point of concern for the 2018 elections: social media. In 2016, Russian agents and other bad actors intentionally waged a misinformation campaign and social engineering program the likes of which the world has never seen. It’s not that there have never been such programs––they’ve existed as long as civilization. What was new about this was the leverage involved. It took a relatively few people leveraging powerful technology and knowledge of American social structures a comparatively small amount of work to cleave a rift in United States society, driving the already wide gap between Democrats and Republicans even farther part.
Well, terrible news everyone, the same thing is happening again. Twitter, at least, seems to be doing something to stop the misinformation campaign…sort of. The Democratic Party recently alerted Twitter to the existence of fake accounts (claiming to be from Democrats) encouraging people––wait for it––not to vote at all. These fake tweets used familiar tactics of exploiting socially divisive issues: “The Tweets included ones that discouraged Democratic men from voting, saying that would drown out the voice of women, according to two of the sources familiar with the flagging operation (source).” Twitter has deleted a whopping 10,000 accounts perpetrating this nonsense.
Meanwhile, Facebook is staying the course and doing as little as possible to stop the spread of fake news and misinformation. According to recent exposés by Vice, the media company bought fake Facebook ads allegedly paid for by Mike Pence and freakin’ ISIS which Facebook failed to flag. They also posed as a few senators––oh wait, every senator, all 100 of them––to run ads, which they were able to do without problems.
The election infrastructure is also alarming. According to a Vice piece, there are still massive vulnerabilities, leaving election equipment open to hacking.””It’s way too soon to say that American elections are secure from online attacks,” Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business, told VICE News.”
Finally, Americans are simply not confident in the elections anymore, according to Zeynep Tufekc, associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina. This lack of confidence itself jeopardizes the election and, as a result, American democracy.
Ok, so all of that is pretty bad news, eh? Well, it may or may not be comforting to learn that elections have been kind of a mess for most of American history. Take the years following the Civil War, for example. When the freed slaves were given the right to vote, some whites did everything in they could to maintain political power. The follow except comes from documents housed at the incredible Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. In it, a community leader from Marshall, Texas describes the measures undertaken to prevent blacks from voting:
Yes, Harrison county has for several years rolled up very heavy votes for the democratic ticket, majorities out of all proportion to her democratic voters. I have no apology to make for this, although I was one of the leaders in the movement, claim to have done as much as any man in the county to rid Harrison County of radical rule, and was in several shooting scrapes with negroes on account of it.
In 1878, by stuffing some boxes, playing tricks on negroes and partially by force, the county radical ring was overthrown.” By around 1892, the blacks “have quit voting, because their votes were not counted as cast.
“I think that Harrison county will have fair elections in the future––at least so long as no ticket is put against our citizens’ party ticket.”
Of course, this is an extreme example. This book is filled with less racist of election tampering, including the use of threats and intimidation to coerce voters. The point is this: our elections have never been stellar. But they’re getting better, and the fact that we’re agonizing over them now is a good sign that our democracy is fine. We still need to work to improve our election processes, but we’re not teetering on the brink of collapse.