On July 3, a group of Georgia voters filed a lawsuit against state officials following the discovery that their voting machines were deeply vulnerable to hackers and had possibly been breached.
This information was not news to the sued officials: a cybersecurity expert had discovered and reported breaches in August 2016, and even more vulnerabilities were reported in March 2017 – but nothing was done to fix them. Instead, elections were held in Georgia with ostensibly faulty equipment, making the results of both the November 2016 election and a high-profile special congressional election in June 2017 questionable.
Were Georgia’s elections compromised?
We will never know, because on July 7, 2017, a computer server critical to the lawsuit was destroyed. It’s not clear who ordered the data wipe, but it occurred on the watch of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a defendant in the lawsuit and a Republican running for governor in 2018. And it makes any forensic investigation of the machines now impossible.
The Georgia election server attack barely made the news – distracted as we were by nuclear threats, treasonous officials, and neo-Nazi rallies – but this quiet scandal is both a devastating reminder of unanswered questions about the 2016 election and a harbinger of threats to come.
A democracy or an elected dictatorship?
These threats range from unanswered questions about the integrity of voting equipment to the implementation of laws designed to disenfranchise voters and predetermine election outcomes. They signal a president and party all too willing to undermine American democracy in order to retain power, creating in effect an elected dictatorship.
Though multiple officials have stated that Russian hackers did not affect the actual vote tallies, there has never been a comprehensive forensic examination to prove whether that is indeed the case.
The American public has never received clear answers about what happened
Conflicting information about the 2016 Russia cyber hacks has been slowly leaked over the past year, with Bloomberg reporting in June 2017 that 39 states were targeted by hackers, and the Department of Homeland Security notifying 21 of those states in September 2017 – but refusing to say if the Russian election hacks were successful, and if so, to what degree. Notably, in an August 2016 public statement, then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid urged FBI Director James Comey to go public about Russia’s “intent to falsify election results.”
In other words, questions about the ability of hackers to penetrate election systems arose long before Trump won. But the American public has never received clear answers about what happened – and when citizens tried to get them in Georgia, the evidence was destroyed.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely the American public will get clear answers under Trump and a GOP-dominated Congress, as ensuring electoral integrity threatens their ability to remain in power.
Other problems are long-brewing and homegrown
But foreign interference is only part of the threat to the American electoral system; other problems are long-brewing and homegrown. Take voter suppression. Restrictive voter ID bills are popping up across the country, while the Democrats continue to pin much of their hopes on the 2018 midterms. While the success of Democratic candidates this week indicates growing public support for the party, this support won’t mean much if structural issues are not addressed.
Free and fair elections next year are far from certain
Since Trump took office, Democrats have heralded the 2018 midterm elections as an opportunity to remove him by retaking Congress and beginning impeachment proceedings. In the pre-Trump era, this would be a sensible approach; in the Trump era, it is a distant dream unless threats to election integrity are addressed immediately. When an autocrat is in power, and basic voting rights are being eroded in a myriad of ways, free and fair elections next year are far from certain.
The ongoing threats of election interference and voter suppression should be the Democrats’ highest priority. It makes no difference how amazing your candidate is if citizens are disenfranchised. It does not matter how great your policy plans are if your constituents cannot vote to support them. And it makes no difference to an American autocrat that you may plan to impeach him, when he and his backers can simply rewrite the election rules to render themselves a permanent majority.
A predictable partisan power grab
What should be a straightforward, non-partisan issue – everyone should have the right to vote and the assurance that their vote was accurately counted – has become a partisan power grab with overtures of foreign conspiracy. There has been no serious move to ensure protection from foreign interference in future elections, nor have the sanctions passed against Russia for interfering in 2016 been upheld. The Trump administration appears more interested in collaborating with a foreign entity that attacked it than in ensuring its citizens’ own rights.
Voters’ rights have long been contested throughout US history, but the combination of technological manipulation, powerful officials who support racist policies, and hostile foreign interference leaves US citizens uniquely vulnerable today.
Though the right to vote is a fundamental precept of democracy, women, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and black Americans received it only gradually; prior to the 20th century, the majority of the country was locked out of the process.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed in order to combat widespread discrimination and prevent disenfranchisement. While obstacles remained, it generally became easier over the next few decades for people of all races and backgrounds to vote – that is, until 2013, when America took a giant step backwards.
A giant step backwards for voter rights
That year, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, proclaiming that “our country has changed” and racism is largely a relic of the past. Four years later, white supremacists inhabit the White House.
The partial VRA repeal opened the door to new restrictive voter ID laws that disenfranchise non-white voters being passed in fourteen states, a move which helped secure Trump’s win. In Wisconsin alone, the new voter ID laws suppressed over 200,000 votes; Trump won the state by 22,748. According to MIT political scientist Charles Stewart, the laws – along with other bureaucratic issues like long polling lines and difficulty registering – likely caused over a million lost votes countrywide, and may have well given Trump the Electoral College.
The effect of the voter ID laws on the 2016 election was predictable: many journalists – including me but most notably political journalist Ari Berman – warned repeatedly that assurances of the Democrats’ demographic advantage fall apart when those demographics are disenfranchised.
Today, wary of the threat of Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a notorious opponent of civil rights – some Democrats are being proactive, like former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who created the voting rights nonprofit Let America Vote. But Kander is a rarity: instead of focusing on the future, many Democrats have been endlessly relitigating the 2016 Bernie vs Hillary primary, a toxic obsession that will ensure a loss unless both camps unite to make voter rights a priority.
Enter the “fraud commission”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has added a third nefarious factor: the creation of a baseless “voter fraud commission” that appears determined to discount votes based on spurious allegations of fraud. Voter fraud – unlike voter suppression – is exceptionally rare. The commission, run by Kansas Secretary of State and right-wing extremist Kris Kobach, has demanded an enormous amount of personal information about voters from state governments – a violation of privacy so offensive only six states have complied.
Kobach’s power to determine the legitimacy of a voter is as dangerous as his committee is factually groundless
Kobach, who has a track record of enabling voter suppression in Kansas, has now blatantly joined forces with white supremacist supporters of Trump, penning columns for Breitbart, the website run by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. His columns make bogus accusations of prior voter fraud, building a narrative for Trump’s base, and often slander immigrants – in one case, citing a Holocaust denier as a source for his xenophobic claims.
Kobach’s power to determine the legitimacy of a voter is as dangerous as his committee is factually groundless. These are the designs of white supremacist autocrats assessing a shifting American demography and deciding the best bet is to simply lock certain voters out.
These threats must be challenged by us all
Threats to voter rights – suppressive ID laws, hackable machines, Russian interference, a fatuous fraud commission, and the ongoing plague of gerrymandering – give the GOP an undeserved advantage in 2018. This is likely why they remain sanguine in the face of deeply unpopular policies like TrumpCare, which they tried to pass despite overwhelming public rejection, and abysmal approval numbers for both Trump and the GOP. There is no need to win over the people when you have decided you’ve already won the election.
Throughout 2016, as Trump cried out that the election was rigged, and his advisor Roger Stone forecast a “bloodbath” should Trump lose, Democrats were reluctant to emphasize threats to the integrity of our electoral system. This reluctance may have well cost them the election. To avoid a replay, threats to election integrity must be challenged vigorously and early – not so a particular party can win, but because voting is a constitutional right that must always be protected.
Republicans acting in good conscience should have no problem backing initiatives that prevent disenfranchisement, tampering, and foreign interference. That so few seem to care – and that the Democrats are often distracted by intraparty bickering – is a bad sign.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” Ben Franklin famously stated in 1787, when asked if the US would be a republic or a monarchy. Today the question is whether we will be a republic or an autocracy. Refusing to confront threats to election integrity is a sure road to the latter.
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