College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Five ways to reduce the dangers of fakery during election season

The computer science expert onstage testified to the foolishness of using computers to administer elections.

Among the many valid points three panelists made at last week’s Advanced Methods at Purdue roundtable discussion – “Fakery in Campaigns and Elections: Can it Be Stopped?” – that one was the most unsettling.

“It doesn’t take much expertise to break these (voting machines),” said Mikhail Atallah, a Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Purdue and an expert in applied information security. “You’re talking about passwords that are ABCDE, encryption keys that are the same for all the Diebold machines, so if you take a screwdriver to one, you’ve got the key for all of them.”

Atallah’s proposed alternative? A return to “good old paper” ballots, creating an audit trail for pollsters and a firewall blocking computer hackers who hope to infiltrate the system with malicious code.

Ballot security was among many election issues that Atallah discussed with fellow panelists Jennifer Kavanagh and Walter Mebane – a list that also included misinformation, social media and traditional media companies’ responsibilities, ballot access, and American voters’ confidence in the country’s electoral structure and outcomes.

These are all contributing factors in an informational crisis the nation must now confront.

“Russian interference in 2016 didn’t work by trying to convince people to change their mind,” said Kavanagh, political scientist at RAND Corporation and co-author of the new book Truth Decay: An Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life (RAND Corporation, 2018).

“It didn’t say, ‘This is what you should believe.’ All it did was just play on preexisting cleavages and raise doubts about the institutions of democracy, and that doubt is enough. If you think about a pool of water and you drop in one drop of ink, it’s just one drop, but that speck pollutes everything.”

So what can we do, individually and collectively, to reduce fakery’s harmful effect on the electoral process? Here are five suggestions the panelists said might help:

1. Open software to scrutiny: A major problem with most states’ election software, Atallah said, is that it is proprietary.

As a result, the people who are best equipped to evaluate its quality and identify the vulnerabilities hackers might exploit are legally prevented from doing so. Thus states like Georgia that use electronic-only voting machines are exposed to hacking threats and do not create a paper trail to verify voters’ selections.

The computer science professor suggested states should insist to voting machine and software manufacturers that “If you want to do business with us, put your source code online for all citizens to see and scrutinize.”

Simply creating transparency in the process would help improve election security and reduce voters’ concerns about the validity of the outcomes, said Jay McCann, professor of political science and organizer of the AMAP symposium and roundtable discussion.

“(Atallah) actually has a bigger agenda if he’s advising policy makers to not make code proprietary in the first place,” McCann said. “Have transparency in the actual software that you’re using, which is a good lesson.”

2. Check your biases: How do we determine what is actual “fake news,” and do we even care? Getting the full truth often requires legwork, discernment, and a willingness to challenge one’s belief structure.

That means seeking and evaluating information from multiple sources, not just parroting memes or rhetoric churned out by politically motivated news commentators.

“We know an awful lot about what kind of gas to put in our car and what to give kids for breakfast. There’s a lot of general, common-sense knowledge out there, but somehow that level of common sense does not transfer over as one would wish to our communication habits,” McCann said. “So we forget who we are talking to on social media, and how information flows might be filtered as they come our way. This leads me to a good lesson: Know yourself. In terms of the information, make a good-faith effort to get informed.”

3. Consider switch to paper balloting: Atallah and the panelists seemed to agree that America should consider backing away from electronic voting, as European countries like Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands have done.

“I think he was speaking from great authority on that,” McCann said. “If I just started saying, ‘Oh we need paper,’ I wouldn’t have the gravitas that somebody in computer science would.”

Kavanagh reminded the audience, however, that paper ballots have their own drawbacks, specifically referring to the controversial Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election and other fraudulent behavior that could accompany manual vote counting.

“I agree that paper ballots are probably better, but they also have a lot of problems, too,” she said. “I’m sure that we all remember the whole hanging chad incident. … There are lots of different ways the election process can go awry, and we’re very, very vulnerable to these things.”

4. Don’t expect social media companies to solve the issue: Social media companies have come under fire in recent years over the misinformation that easily spreads throughout their channels.

Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to reduce bad information, but Kavanagh dismissed their efforts as only a “Band-Aid.”

“They’re not addressing the fundamental problems, which are that these platforms are incredibly susceptible to this type of interference or this type of influence, and the social media companies themselves don’t really have the incentive to fix it,” Kavanagh said. “The current model is working for them. They’re making lots and lots and lots of money. So we’re asking them to operate against their economic interests.”

McCann added that government regulation in this area would be ineffective. Instead, he suggested that social media companies find ways to signal to users which accounts are generally trustworthy.

“I think better is to educate the public,” McCann said. “Maybe embarrass people who spread (bad information) by having some sort of quality markers or something: If you’re known to be disseminating fake stuff, or on the other hand if you’re known to disseminate only high-quality news, then you get a seal of approval. So a reputational cost for the user is probably a better way to go. Because we know in our everyday life, if you’re known to be a purveyor of lame gossip, you pay a price for that.”

5. Still, make use of social media’s value: Mebane created a process he calls “election forensics,” describing how he and a team of student researchers aggregate and evaluate Twitter posts from election season.

Their research attempts to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the voters’ intentions. It also reminds the electorate that social media can be a tremendously useful tool because of its ability to provide real-time feedback.

  • Voters who are being turned away from the polls share their experiences on Facebook.
  • A series of Instagram photos show that lines are especially long at a particular polling location.
  • Tweets about malfunctioning machines switching votes force election officials to administer a checkup on the machines.

Such updates can make a positive difference, but they can also be used to spread misinformation. Again, check with multiple sources.

“The impetus behind that is to rely on informants who are tweeting,” McCann said.

At the same time, social media is also at the root of the informational crisis that is spreading across the world. McCann said he left the roundtable with the sobering belief that democracy is not a given – even in a global power like the United States – without election safeguards and trustworthy information that allows voters to at least agree on basic foundational facts.

“We’re in an age now where people are getting swept up through social media and their own dysfunctionality and estrangement, so much so that they’re sending pipe bombs around and shooting up synagogues,” McCann said. “So we should be apprised, we should be mindful, of the stakes.

“This is not like World War I or World War II, where we have to save democracy through military means. But the kind of vigilance that’s needed and the team effort that’s needed, I think it’s still very relevant. This is kind of a soft war. It’s an information war in a sense. That was one of the big takeaways from this event: Our guard still needs to be up.”