Reed, Hodgson Discuss Election Security Beyond 2020

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March 15, 2021

Harper Reed, a member of Pardee RAND’s Board of Governors, sat down (virtually) once again with RAND senior researcher and Pardee faculty member Quentin Hodgson last week to discuss the 2020 elections and how the United States can move forward and ensure the security, safety and integrity future elections.

Hosted by Pardee RAND’s Office of Development, more than four dozen people attended the online discussion, which covered topics including countering misinformation and disinformation, voting options, and foreign interference undermining trust in election integrity.

A Look Back at 2020

In the October event, Reed noted, he and Hodgson had discussed what they “thought we would see in the coming election, what we should be hopeful about, what we should be worried about, and what our predictions are.

“I’m excited to go through to see where we were right, where we were wrong, and what the future holds,” he added.

Hodgson wryly noted that this time last year “we’d already had a number of primaries. ... The biggest [political] news story up to that point was the failed app in the Iowa Caucus. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to those kinds of issues?”

He recounted the ensuing months, concluding: “It was a pretty remarkable story, the ability of elections officials to adapt to pretty trying circumstances.

“It was a pretty remarkable story, the ability of elections officials to adapt to pretty trying circumstances.”

—Quentin Hodgson

“Overall, it was largely a successfully run election, given all the challenges we faced over the last year,” he added.

The United States saw the largest turnout in more than a century for a presidential election, Hodgson said. “The adaptations that a number of states undertook to extend early voting, to provide alternatives for people to cast their ballot absentee or vote by mail, ... clearly this fed into the ability of many more people to be able to choose how they wanted to participate.”

How to GOTV

Despite the high turnout, Reed noted that one-third of the electorate chose not to participate. Whether via internet voting, mail-in ballots, or early voting in person, Reed and Hodgson discussed how to get out the vote and keep the election secure.

“A lot of states have implemented early voting so people can go to a polling place and cast their vote early,” Hodgson said. “There was quite a lot of demand for that” and for voting by mail.

Responding to audience questions in the Q&A chat, Reed asked “Why don’t we have internet voting in the U.S.? Obviously we’ve seen Estonia with their cyber programs and e-citizenship, they have a very progressive internet approach to government.”

Hodgson replied that Estonia has secure digital identities for its citizens. He said there have been experiments with mobile voting, such as in West Virginia, especially so overseas military voters can cast their vote. “Deployed military personnel, it takes weeks and weeks for them to get their ballots and send them back. So there are definitely use cases.”

“Making sure you have access to every single voter is important. I don’t think we’re quite there yet with the internet in general, let alone with internet voting.”

—Harper Reed

He acknowledged that “eventually we will get there, but in the U.S. elections are administered at the state and local level. There will probably be grass roots efforts in some places to see how this works at the local levels, in primaries.”

He and Reed noted that some of the logistical issues include how to audit an election and perform a recount, which is often done with paper backup, and the accessibility of technology for internet voting.

Reed, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, added his perspective. “Not everyone has access to the internet or devices that would allow them to vote. ... And I was constantly reminded in 2012 that all of the software we built really needed a paper backup, because the United States population is so diverse, and making sure you have access to every single voter is important. I don’t think we’re quite there yet with the internet in general, let alone with internet voting.”

Related to internet voting, and voting in general, is the topic of voter identification requirements and enfranchisement — or disenfranchisement.

Reed brought up HR1, the “For the People Act,” a bill in the U.S. Congress to expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders.

Hodgson noted, “In the aftermath of this last election, there is an incredible surge in state legislatures looking at how they’re going to change election laws and policies” — whether to increase or decrease access to the polls.

However, he said, “There’s only so much the federal government can do. This is going to be a continued debate over the course of the coming months.”

He added that HR1 “passed by the House on pretty much a party line vote. When it comes to the Senate it’s a knife edge. ... That will be a very hard bill to get through the senate.”

As for the safety of mail-in and absentee voting, Hodgson noted, “Based on the evidence we have, there’s nothing to sustain this idea of large-scale, widespread fraud that influenced the outcome of the 2020 election.”

The Role of Social Media, Past and Future

Reed and Hodgson then turned to social media platforms and the role they played in the narrative surrounding voter fraud, and other areas of misinformation and disinformation.

Hodgson noted, “It’s hard to separate out the misinformation from the disinformation. Misinformation is false information that’s spread by people who may not really know it’s false, where disinformation is deliberately spreading what you know to be false information. We saw a mixture of the two. In some cases people were primed to expect and look out for potential fraud.”

While acknowledging that elections officials at the local level worked with officials at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to try to debunk misinformation and disinformation as it came out, he added: “The challenge is, once that kind of theme gets caught in this amplifying effect of social media, once it’s out there and it gains steam, it’s really hard to pull it back.”

“I’m not sure it’s a good thing if we split ourselves into completely isolated [social media] camps. ... I think that would be even worse of an outcome.”

—Quentin Hodgson

Reed noted, “We saw Twitter took a very active approach, ultimately banning the former president. But up to the election they had been labeling tweets, trying to ‘prebunk’ misinformation.”

“The social media platforms ended up hiring thousands of people to do the checks, and now Twitter’s trying to crowdsource the effort,” Hodgson commented. “From a business perspective that makes sense, but whether it’s going to be effective is another question.”

He added, “They are still trying to feel out what makes for an effective way to both recognize ... when outright falsehoods are being spread for nefarious means and what can we do about it.”

Reed noted, “The thing we keep coming back to is, obviously these platforms are not the government, but free speech in the context that our constitution covers doesn’t really come into play with these platforms. That said, Facebook and Twitter are the de facto town squares for our country. Taking away voices ... can sway things.”

Hodgson agreed. “A question to me is, I’m not sure it’s a good thing if we split ourselves into completely isolated camps. ... I think that would be even worse of an outcome, because that means we’re in completely different worlds, in different echo chambers, and that could lead to a continued hardening of viewpoints where it becomes much more difficult for us to find any common ground.”

What Happened to Fears of Foreign Interference?

Reed then noted that, back in October when they first spoke, there was news about Iranian influence operations on the Proud Boys, but he didn’t see much else in the news about foreign influence.

Hodgson agreed. “This is an interesting story as you think back to 2016. ... What we saw was, over time, in some ways the foreign interference coming in appeared to be getting less traction in the United States.

“It’s not that it wasn’t there. I think probably what ended up happening was that the domestically produced disinformation and misinformation almost crowded it out. I’m not really sure about the Russian approach, but they may have been sitting back saying ‘There’s not much we need to do... the Americans are doing just fine on their own.’”

“We probably ‘disinformationed’ ourselves moreso than any influence operation from a foreign entity.”

—Harper Reed

Reed replied, “We probably ‘disinformationed’ ourselves moreso than any influence operation from a foreign entity.”

He continued, “All of what we’ve talked about has been about about restoring trust. Has trust been eroded? We saw a historic turnout, which makes me wonder if trust is eroded. But we also saw a bunch of people who didn’t vote. ... How do we restore trust in U.S. elections? Do we need to?”

Hodgson said he and his colleagues talked with a lot of elections security officials about cyber security, two years ago, distinguishing between the direct impact of a cyber attack on an election and what it would mean for the ability of officials to carry out the election.

“Even if you could deal with the proximate issue,” he said, “it would impact people’s confidence in the election. One of the key unknowns was, is there a tipping point, when people no longer have faith that the elections have been fair and that the outcome is what should have occurred?”

He added, “My response at the time was, I’d rather see the conflict play out in the courts than on the streets. Unfortunately what we saw was both.”

As for those who think the 2020 election outcome was illegitimate, Hodgson said, “Some of them will disengage see elections as a lost cause, and maybe become part of the 34% that don’t vote. Others will continue to engage, potentially in violent action.”

While admitting he’s not sure how to deal with people who, no matter the outcome, will see the election as illegitimate if their side loses, he added, “I joke that I want to promote a Million Moderate March on Washington to demonstrate that when you see the extremes... that’s not representative of the vast majority of Americans.”

Returning to the role of social media, he noted, “Unfortunately social media for the most part is not a great place to have a reasoned political debate.”

Reed agreed, noting, “We obviously have a lot of work to do.” He then asked if Hodgson could end with some positive news.

“It’s sort of a truism that economic anxiety is often what leads to political distress,” Hodgson replied, noting that the economy seems to be improving. Additionally, he concluded, “I think [our democratic institutions and social norms] have held up pretty well in the face of some searing forces trying to pull them apart... it will take leadership from across the political spectrum.”

—Monica Hertzman