Hacking American Democracy

AJ Kohn
AJ Kohn
Dec 29, 2016 · 10 min read

The recent revelations around Russian hacking leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election have produced a wide variety of reactions. Your reaction is likely tied to your party affiliation.

Yet, that’s not what this piece is about. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s hugely important to understand the Russian influence on the election. I urge you to read Esquire’s How Russia Pulled Off the Biggest Election Hack in U.S. History and remember that prior to the CIA leak that the DNI and DHS had already confirmed this intrusion.

This piece is about how we’ve quietly allowed American democracy to be hacked over a decade or more. We’ve been frogs in a boiling pot and now we’re cooked.

Armstrong Democracy?

American Democracy is like a Lance Armstrong Tour de France victory.

One of the cornerstones of a democracy is that everyone should be given the opportunity to vote, right? However, a variety of voter suppression tactics seem to be par for the course. Perhaps the bigger problem is that people don’t seem to see this as an attack on our democracy.

I get it. If you can suppress votes for the opposition then your candidate winds up winning. But did they really win? If you participate in any sort of athletics I think you know that winning through cheating is hollow. My daughter plays tennis and she’s lost when her opponent clearly calls balls out that are in. But I’d rather she lose honorably then “win” by cheating.

So right now our democracy looks a lot like a Lance Armstrong Tour de France victory. For those not in the know, Armstrong won 7 times and was then stripped of them all when his cheating was exposed.

Non-Criminal Democracy?

Who exactly can vote? Would it surprise you to know that felons may or may not have the right to vote depending on what state they reside. It’s true.

State laws governing voter eligibility vary. Nine states impose a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons. In 32 states, felons can vote after serving their sentences and completing parole. Three states — Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — have no prohibition and allow prisoners to vote, although Massachusetts voters will act on a ballot measure in November that would strip prisoners of voting rights.

I find this troubling for two reasons. The first is that voting rights differ by state, which could have a material impact on the Electoral College. It turns out that nearly 1.5 million residents in Florida are disenfranchised. That’s a fancy word for not being able to vote.

The majority of those disenfranchised are African-American males who traditionally would vote for a Democratic candidate. So the fact that Florida bars felons from voting at all may have swung that state to Trump in the 2016 election.

Seriously, lets do the math. The final margin was 120,000 votes. If just 500,000 of those felons voted and they voted at the exit poll rate for black males (81%) then you’d get 405,000 additional votes for Clinton and 95,000 additional votes for Trump for a net gain for Clinton of 310,000. That would put Clinton ahead by 190,000 in Florida.

This becomes even more troubling when you look at the disparity of black versus white prisoners and the racial bias that crops up in our judicial system. We have institutional racism that delivers more black men and women to prison in the last few decades and have state laws that then remove them from our democracy. How does this just … happen? Why are we okay with this?

The second problem I have is that some states strip voting rights forever, which seems at odds with the notion that a person has served his or her time for their crime. It just seems rather un-American to me that a person can’t redeem themselves after doing something wrong.

Papers Please Democracy?

Photo ID required for the first time in many states in 2016.

Of course one of the other methods for voter suppression is implementing Voter ID laws. These laws are aimed at suppressing the votes for poor minority voters. While proponents claim this helps reduce voter fraud, the data says otherwise. Voter fraud isn’t an issue, it’s a distraction trotted out to help implement voter suppression laws. Don’t believe me, believe the folks who are making this happen.

You wanna know why I left the Republican Party as it exists today? Here it is; this was the last straw: I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American’s constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power. A vigorous debate on the ideas wasn’t good enough. Inspiring the electorate and relying on their agenda being better to get people to vote for them wasn’t good enough. No, they had to take the coward’s way out and come up with a plan to suppress the vote under the guise of ‘voter fraud.’

I know some of you will say it’s so easy to get a photo ID, so what’s the big deal. Well, it is a big deal for a lot of people. Just not people like you. And a video of someone interviewing black people on the street isn’t proof that obtaining a photo ID is easy. (Someone actually responded to me with a video like this thinking it was the ‘smoking gun’ evidence that photo ID was a bogus claim.)

Instead, I ask that you visit the Research on Voter ID on the Brennan Center for Justice and click on a few links. This isn’t something where there’s a lot of doubt. It’s been studied over and over again and it’s clear that it’s a problem.

Once again, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent shouldn’t we all want a real democracy where everyone who wants to vote is given that opportunity? If you support or turn a blind eye to these voter suppression tactics you’re turning your back on democracy.

Crosscheck Democracy?

Middle Name and Suffix were ignored creating massive false positives.

One of the newer ways to suppress votes is something called Crosscheck. This is the brainchild of Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and Trump’s immigration advisor.

What Crosscheck essentially does is pool voting rolls across states so that they can look for individuals who might try to vote in two states. Crosscheck identified 7.2 million people who might be participating in voter fraud by being registered in two states. Yet, only four people have been convicted for deliberate double voting.

The reason for this small number is that this type of voter fraud just doesn’t happen much. Instead, Crosscheck is largely about suppressing minority voters. This is done in one of two primary ways.

The first is that Crosscheck often relied solely on first and last name only, meaning that Michael Leonard Jackson residing in Georgia and Michael Page Jackson residing in Virginia might be seen as the same person trying to attempt voter fraud. Funny thing is, when you use this technique it skews toward suppressing minorities.

The second is that they assume that those registered in two states are doing so purposely. But the truth is that you move and you might not tell your prior state to purge you from the records. If you’re a poor minority this is even less likely. If you’re just trying to make ends meet and you’re in the middle of a move — a stressful event — then taking care of this sort of thing isn’t just not high on the list, it isn’t on the list at all.

And a postcard sent to both addresses is going to go largely ignored because it looks like junk mail. And those implementing the Crosscheck program are well aware of this.

So in many ways the election was rigged, just not in the way some claimed.

“Trump’s victory margin in Michigan was 13,107 and the Michigan Crosscheck purge list was 449,922. Trump’s victory margin in Arizona- 85,257, Arizona Crosscheck purge list- 270,824;. Trump’s victory margin in North Carolina was 177,008 and the North Carolina Crosscheck purge list had 589,393 people on it.”

These numbers should terrify anyone who believes in American democracy. How many of these people showed up wanting to vote but were turned away? If you do the math, many of these races might have turned out differently without Crosscheck in place.

Why is anyone okay with this? Even if you’re a Republican, do you want the party to win so badly that you are willing to abandon true democracy?

Voting Rights?

How exactly does this happen in America?

So I’ve covered voter suppression via laws against felons, voter ID laws and a specific tactic to suppress votes thinly disguised as an attempt to prevent voter fraud. Alone any one of these might have changed the election. But together there’s no doubt they’ve changed the outcome of the election and the course of our democracy.

But lets pretend that’s not the case.

We’ve had to deal with attempts by local and state governments to suppress minority votes in the past. But we did something about it. We passed something called the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson (1908–73) on August 6, 1965, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States. The act significantly widened the franchise and is considered among the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.

America knew that democracy hinged on the ability for equal access to the ballot box. It helped to ensure that those forces who wanted to suppress the vote of minorities were held in check by the Federal government.

But in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted that section of the Voting Rights Act and allowed lawmakers to make changes without the oversight of the Federal government. The result was not surprising.

Polling place closures as a result of Voting Rights Act rollback.

The impact on the 2016 election is undeniable.

The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights surveyed 381 of the 800 counties previously covered by Section 5 where polling place information was available in 2012 or 2014 and found there are 868 fewer places to cast a ballot in 2016 in these areas. “Out of the 381 counties in our study, 165 of them — 43 percent — have reduced voting locations,” says the important new report.

868 fewer places to cast a ballot in 2016 and most of them were in areas of low income and minority voters.

This is important because this group of voters can’t wait in line for three hours on a workday. They have to work or they don’t eat. They have to get back home before the babysitter leaves. There’s just no excuse for three hour lines to vote. This is America not some third-world country.

Voting boundaries?

Gerrymandered districts.

Many lawmakers have been busy not just suppressing votes but changing the boundaries of districts to influence election results. This practice is called gerrymandering and it’s been practiced on both sides of the political spectrum, though more effectively by Republicans.

One of the more interesting ways to visualize gerrymandering was this New Republic piece that looked at something called the efficiency gap.

Gerrymandering viewed through efficiency gap by state.

Again, gerrymandering can be done by either party but lately it has skewed toward Republicans and in states that were quite important in the 2016 election.

It’s of vital importance that this practice be addressed and stopped prior to the 2020 redistricting effort. In fact, President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder will lead a group on redistricting reform. It’s that important, particularly as it relates to congressional seats.

This type of boundary warfare moves us further away from a representative democracy and creates an inequality in the value of a vote based on whether you’re in a gerrymandered district or not.

Equal Time?

Last but not least is the change the FCC made in enforcing the equal time rule, which helped ensure that each candidate was given equal time via the media.

In its ruling, the FCC is saying there is no law against a radio station giving millions of dollars of free airtime to get their favored political candidate elected, and there is no codified FCC rule against it, either.

Do we think the media had an impact on the 2016 election? Of course! The media has always had an impact on the election but there is rising evidence that the polarization of media has eroded public trust.

I’m less concerned about the influence of the media on their specific views. The research I’ve done makes me believe that it’s less about what you consume than where you consume it. However, I am concerned that there is a lack of trust of the media based on the inherent bias many exhibit. Without that trust, we begin to distrust facts because of who is broadcasting them. It’s a safeguard on our democracy in many ways. An x-ray of our inner-workings.

So perhaps getting back to a place where both sides have to be presented will increase trust even if it doesn’t change political views.

Frog Democracy

‘Merica Democracy!

I’m still appalled at the Russian interference in our election and terrified that more than a third of Trump voters now have a favorable view of Vladimir Putin.

But the bigger threat to American democracy is from within. It is simply un-American, in my view, to support initiatives aimed at limiting anyone’s ability to vote. But that’s exactly what’s been happening while America obsesses over celebrity gossip and grouses about the lack of a headphone jack on the newest iPhone.

No matter what party you support, if you don’t stand against these anti-democratic tactics then you’re putting party over country.

AJ Kohn

Written by

AJ Kohn

Owner, Blind Five Year Old. Human being interested in Search, Technology, Social Media, UX and Design.