The Scale of the Election “Emergency”

Many are the heaving breasts – all about are heralds of Doom: This election will mark the end of democracy! The vote will be dishonest! Mail-in ballots are not to be trusted! Etc.

Let’s catch our breath and consider what we actually face. I base these observations on lengthy conversations and debriefings of experts at the Open Source Election Technology Institute with whom I created eight podcasts describing The Voter’s Journey.

We surely aren’t where we want to be; we are not where we’d hoped to be when the CARES Act was passed many months ago. At that time there was discussion of $3.6 billion in additional funds to enable states to gear up for predominantly mailed-in ballots, plus $25 billion to insure that the Post Office would be solid in the coming election. Neither chunk of funds was allocated. Many of us sensed at the time that the window of opportunity was short. Indeed it was.

The pandemic will be with us throughout election season. At the time of this writing, in mid-September, several states – including key battleground state Michigan – are starting early voting or have already mailed ballots to every voter (North Carolina). Vermont and Virginia begin early voting this week. The game is afoot.

What are the biggest dangers the system faces? I’ve asked this of John Sebes, at OSET. We have all heard the Russians are active once more. What are their capabilities? Can they flip 100,000 votes with a click? Can they disenfranchise voters in a given state? Apparently they cannot. Most of the “attack surfaces” of our election systems – of which we have 51 distinct varieties, one for each state plus DC – have been secured against direct intrusion. Any such effort would be detected in real time or disclosed based on curious outcomes in a Risk Limiting Audit. The Soviets know this, and on some level (despite their passion for and possible compromise of the present occupant of the White House) will likely not dare to expose themselves to the furies that would come from naked intrusion. They will therefore use social media disinformation campaigns to drive wedges and sow confusion. Their primary goal is to promote distrust in any case. Why not just go for that soft underbelly? That’s a more complex contagion to detect. But effective campaigns will surface and can be countered appropriately.

Electronic pollbooks with names of registered voters are a soft target. We have noticed in previous years that Russian hackers have penetrated voter registration systems. Here there could be real harm. Legitimate voters could be eliminated or forced to vote provisionally with the simple trick of altering a name on a pollbook. States are aware of this risk and have made efforts to harden their systems. Vulnerabilities persist. There could be drama for both absentee and in-person voters if registrations are mysteriously effaced. We need to be watchful.

It is important to note that something like 30% of voters – there are 220 million potential voters in the US – have their registrations eliminated between cycles. Some people move. Others die. Some are dropped by accident. My wife was, for example. This doesn’t indicate perfidy. The systems are large and they bumble on. The remedy is to check your registration now and make certain you are on the list. Correct errors.

The fact seems to be that Russia and China and Iran will be hard-pressed to directly impact the numerical outcome. They will to varying degrees try to use our epistemological derangement, racism and regional schisms to their benefit. Russia’s primary goal is to promote distrust and disorder. If they can undermine democracy – they have already with what they helped foment in 2016 – they win. We the people can be their willing dupes.

Every QAnon enthusiast, Hillary-basher and hashtag #ImWithStupid voter who shares a moronic meme on Facebook might as well be in the pay of the GRU.

Luckily, not everyone is.

A real stressor on the system will be the volume of mail-in ballots. Here could see constructive modification of rules to enable states to do more efficient counting. Michigan says it is illegal to open a mail-in ballot before election day. That may have been extremely clever a decade ago, with under 20% mail-in voting. But with 75% of several million ballots sitting in a mountain, there are better ways to, as it were, slice through this Gorgian knot. Or envelope.

But since the money to enable localities to enlarge staffs was not allocated, and since apparently our esteemed leader and his goons are dedicated to disassembling the Post Office prior to November 3, there could be challenges in transmitting mailed ballots. The rather loud noise about postal service efficiency and the glare of attention this has drawn may save us from the worst of P.O. breakdowns. At Christmas the postal service handles billions of pieces of mail. Here will be a maximum of 120 million spread over six weeks. I don’t think a total freakout is required.

Early mailing is necessary. And walking a ballot in to a secure drop box now looms as a prudent strategy. Word about that is widespread. Those who wait til the afternoon of Nov 3 may experience varying outcomes. I think most people understand it’s no longer 1980.

What about the count? Well, there are a few states – interestingly Florida among them – who know how to do this hybrid in-person/mail-in thing efficiently. Florida will report its outcome on the evening of Nov 3. So will California. Also Oregon and Washington, which have been deep into mailed ballots for some time. Oddly, some of the biggest states – New York pops to mind – seem to be flummoxed by this new-fangled mailed thing. Let us hope they grow a brain, and a staff, in time.

A preponderance of in-person voters will be Republican. They have been instructed not to trust mailed ballots. Black Americans also do not trust the mail. This could lead to some interesting encounters at voting centers across the country on Nov 3. One possible scenario is false impressions caused by exit polls of in-person voters, suggesting a majority for the incumbent. That would surely lead to loud claims and major Fox news.

On the other side, there could be ways to assess the volume of a particular party’s ballots in key states based upon bar code identification of party affiliation. Without even opening the ballots, there could be clear indication of the direction of this election – by October 15.

In truth, this election – as defined by a plurality of votes cast – could be over before the third week of October. That’s a strange notion, one we should become comfortable contemplating. We may not know the outcome, but it may be determined long before straggling voters head to their lines on Nov. 3. There, in the in-person setting, a lingering nightmare is a scarcity of poll workers and inadequate funding to overcome the challenge. Real delay may ensue for those who chose viral exposure over prudent early action.

The only real danger we face is the possibility of close contests in a few key states. If indeed some races are close, uncounted mail-in ballots become critical. Legal challenges will then loom, and disinformation campaigns will explode.

Some observers doubt that any key state will be close. If that is so, noise of any sort won’t matter in the least. If by chance this election is a blowout, there will be precious few opportunities or incentives to bleat, complain, bloviate or insinuate. There will just be numbers – big, clear and determinative.

Actions to be taken are: Check your registration. Request your ballot early. Fill it out – all the way to the lowest positions. Check your signature. Does it match your auto license signature? Walk it in to a secure drop box.

We may not get a final complete count on the night of Nov. 3, but we should have a clear idea of who won and by how big a margin. If and only if the count is close will there be any disputes. If this is a landslide, indications will be stark that evening. In any case, we should all spread awareness that we are in a time NOT of “election night,” but of “ELECTION SEASON.” Hey, time to grow up, ‘Murica.

The morals of the story:

  1. our electoral system even now is hard to directly hack
  2. the Russians will concentrate on disinformation campaigns
  3. pollbooks are vulnerable but intrusions will be detectable
  4. the volume of mail-in ballots will be unprecedented – could be 70% of total
  5. overall turnout is likely to be historic; could be over 70% (150+ million)
  6. late voters will be majority Republican leading to possible mistaken exit polls
  7. most states will be able to total their votes, in-person and mailed, on 11/3
  8. only if a contest is close will there be disputes and disinformation
  9. catching, exposing and delegitimizing disinformation is everyone’s job

It feels scary, but we are likely to muddle through passably when the smoke clears. I think the result will be clear and dramatic. Then we can begin not just to right our leaking ship of state, we can implement a rock-solid, truly transparent and trustable election system as part of our democratic renaissance.

Vote early.

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