We’re entering into a golden age of election rigging

REUTERS/John Gress
Researchers Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas: “There are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic.”

“Counterfeit” democracy. “Deep Fakes.” With another divisive political campaign under way, experts are examining a pair of big trends they say are increasingly threatening representative government as Americans and their Western allies practice it.

Savvy officials have learned how to manipulate political systems in a way that devalues the whole democratic ideal. While following the letter of the law, they find ways to exclude candidates or voters, manipulate media and voting districts, or use vast sums of money to ensure their preferred outcome.

At the same time, information technology is developing so quickly that it soon may be impossible to tell truth from fiction. Americans already have suffered the effects of that, but Russia meddling in the 2016 election was a very small tip on a very large iceberg. Much more is out there, and governments are struggling to keep up.

It is “the greatest political paradox of our time,” researchers Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas say in Foreign Policy. “There are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic.”

Cheeseman and Klaas traveled the globe and interviewed elites, pulling their research together into their new book, “How to Rig an Election.” What authoritarian rulers have discovered, they say, is that their governments are more stable if they hold elections (even if they are rigged).  “If you have to resort to rigging with armed henchmen and stuffed ballot boxes, you’ve already failed. Today, the most effective autocrats steal elections well before polling day.”

For an example, you might point to Vladimir Putin, a master at controlling media and excluding inconvenient opponents from elections — as he did to Alexei Navalny in winning another six-year term this spring as Russian president. Years ago, Putin dodged term limits by stepping aside, remaining the power behind the scenes for four years during while the election system was revised to allow him to serve two more six-year terms.

But if you’re pointing at Putin, the rest of your fingers should be pointing back at you. “If you want to take a master class in subtle and legal pre-election rigging, you might want to travel to the United States,” say Cheeseman and Klaas. “America is where many of the rigging techniques used today were perfected, and continue to exert a powerful influence.” That’s particularly true of gerrymandering (an issue on which the U.S. Supreme Court will rule this month), and voter suppression.

In other words, we have met the enemy — and he is us.

American attitudes are important for the rest of the world, as well. Global elites watch Washington for a hint of what they can get away with — and when it comes to outright election rigging, the British researchers say, President Trump’s constant harping on “fake news” is a clear signal.

The other big threat

Coming up with fixes for such electoral manipulation is difficult, but it’s at least familiar territory. Not so with the other big threat — the malign use of artificial intelligence.

The problem in a nutshell, according to Brookings Institution scholars Chris Meserole and Alina Polyakova, is that technology is developing far faster than governments can adjust.

Artificial intelligence “promises to democratize the creation of fake print, audio and video stories” at such high quality that it’s virtually impossible to detect. Almost anyone will be able to do it. And AI keeps learning. By comparison, what the Russians did in 2016 is Stone Age stuff.

If you thought blockchain applications were mostly for use in cryptocurrencies, Meserole and Polyakova say you should think again. Their security and decentralization functions will be as much of a benefit for troublemakers as they will be for dissidents and privacy advocates. They will make it difficult to track information to its original source and nearly impossible to take down.

Henry Kissinger is worried, too. You can take issue with Kissinger for many reasons, but the man knows a thing or two about governance. Kissinger writing in the Atlantic analyzes the role information technology has on leaders’ decision-making, going so far as to question its effect on humanity’s ability to manage its affairs.

“The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection,” Kissinger writes. Artificial intelligence that learns more rapidly than humans may make bigger and faster mistakes. It also may use data to come up with new solutions to humanity’s problems, but it might not be able to even explain them to us. If that’s true, is there any point in humans collectively trying to run their own affairs?

To the extent that governments can get a handle on AI, Kissinger says, they are more likely to use it for security and intelligence than study its transformative effect on humanity. That feels like a depressingly accurate observation from a consummate political realist.

It’s easy to dismiss these worries as so much science fiction. We have more immediate concerns — trade wars, immigration, race relations, climate change and nuclear conflict. But then, two years ago, few people were focused on Russian election meddling, and how it would influence our ability to tackle such problems.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/04/2018 - 03:19 pm.

    This is no Golden Age

    Golden Age implies good times for all. That simply is a poor choice of words to describe today’s politics, unless your Golden Rule is “those who have the gold make the rules.”

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/04/2018 - 05:31 pm.

    Good article.

    Added to that, our society is more polarized than ever, making it easier for politicians to divide and conquer.

  3. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 06/05/2018 - 07:16 am.

    Internal problems

    Most problems in the USA elections, which are not highly rated for honesty in independent world studies, come from corruption within our system, not foreign sources. The USA is one of the few western nations not to have paper ballots or a paper trail, which leads to easy opportunities to influence outcomes.

    Blaming Russia for many matters in this nation is simply a way of attempting to deflect people’s attention away from domestic problems that affect their everyday lives. For several decades the USA has directly influenced foreign elections and even been responsible for the violent overthrows of democratically elected leaders such as in Iran and Chile. Also, the Clinton administration and press proudly boasted about influencing Russia’s election in which Yeltsin won with TIME magazine even having the matter on one of its weekly covers. Before the USA criticizes other nations for any election interference, perhaps we should cease illegally invading other nations illegally, a current example being Syria in which we were never invited and are in violation of world law.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/05/2018 - 08:00 am.

    Concern about Rigging?

    It was a shame how failed presidential candidate Hilary Clinton “rigged” the nominating process against good old socialist Bernie.

    It is also amazing how no one on the left seems concerned about the abuse in their party? This rigging is never used as an example of corruption in the electoral process.

    It is also amazing how the Russian narrative is only used against the GOP and never applied to the Russian involvement in the Clinton foundation, uranium deal and lack of investigation concerning the alleged Russian hacking of her emails and the DNC.

    If you are really concerning about “rigging” – and you ought to be – you ought to be concerned about all “rigging and corruption” – not just part of the narrative.

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