The real threat to fair US elections is being ignored

by Rachel Morris / 20 July, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Trump

Voters at a polling station on November 8, 2016. Photo/Getty Images

Just as Trump raises the spectre of voter fraud.

You may have found yourself wondering, once or 200 times, what the United States will become after Donald Trump. The answer will depend a lot on voting – who gets to do it, how secure the next election is. Which is worrisome, because America’s voting process is facing threats from several directions.

Voting has always been a bitterly contested activity in the US – not the placid Kiwi practice of filling out your enrolment form and trundling along to the local primary school to have your say. Segregation was sustained in part by rules that prevented African Americans from voting throughout the South. Even after the civil rights movement succeeded in wiping out those rules, efforts to block certain groups from voting didn’t stop. They just became more subtle.

One of the most potent weapons is the spectre of voter fraud. Study after study has shown that actual voter fraud – a person who votes multiple times or who impersonates someone else to vote illegally – is vanishingly rare. One well-respected survey of multiple elections has determined the rate of fraudulent voting is less than 0.0025%.

But Republicans, in particular, have whipped up fears about illegal voting as a pretext for introducing draconian requirements that disproportionately affect minorities and low-income voters – who just happen to be more likely to support the Democrats. Last year, a court struck down one such law in North Carolina, noting that it was intended to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision”.

It will come as no surprise that Trump is a gleeful cheerleader for voter-fraud conspiracies. “I would have won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he has tweeted. Despite zero evidence for that claim, he appointed the architect of the most restrictive voting laws in the country to head a commission on voter fraud.

The official, Kris Kobach, promptly requested that state governments turn over a trove of voters’ personal data, including addresses and the last four digits of their social security numbers. This unprecedented move went too far even for some red – Republican – states. One Mississippi bureaucrat responded: “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from.” But the request was clearly only the Administration’s opening bid.

Meanwhile, there is one legitimately alarming way in which the next election could be compromised. Recently, Barack Obama’s former homeland security secretary told Congress that during 2016, his department had received “very troubling reports of scanning and probing activities around various state voter registration databases” by Russian hackers.

Months before election day, the Obama Administration tried to persuade state officials to designate their voting systems as “critical infrastructure”. That would have allowed the federal Government to provide them with the same cybersecurity protections as, say, nuclear power plants. But state officials refused, fearing Washington interference. Instead, the Administration had to resort to helping out whichever local governments happened to ask for assistance. Mere days before the election, according to a Government document obtained by news website The Intercept, Russian hackers attempted to infiltrate the computers of 122 voting officials.

There’s no evidence that these attempts manipulated the results of the election. But they were a chilling wake-up call. A group of Princeton University researchers has demonstrated that the voting machines used in many states – including swing states such as Pennsylvania – can be hacked in minutes. Many, in fact, are less secure than an iPhone.

So as the Trump Administration is chasing the false threat of voter fraud, the real possibility of hacking is barely getting any attention – except, that is, from the hackers.

New Zealander Rachel Morris is executive editor of Huffington Post Highline.

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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