Various concerns about the security of U.S. elections have arisen over the past two decades, some more significant than others. While many studies have shown that voter fraud, for instance, is vanishingly rare in the U.S., what about the state of electoral administration, lost votes, and cyberattacks? On Oct. 16, two experts teamed up at MIT to share insights from their research on what is and isn’t working in America’s electoral system.
“Data, Technology, and the Integrity of Elections,” the first talk in this year’s Mens et Manus America series, featured presentations by Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, and Eitan D. Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University and author of “Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
The good news
The twin presentations, which drew about 80 attendees to Room E51-345, revealed that while the system of counting and collecting votes is much improved since the problematic presidential election of 2000, significant challenges remain.
“In 2016, the process of running the election was as good as its been in two decades or longer, and I stand by that despite what you’ve read in the news,” said Stewart, a founding member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), an interdisciplinary initiative founded to address the voting machine problems that came to light during Florida’s 2000 election recount.
In fact, Stewart said, the number of votes lost during collection and counting has been cut in half since 2000. “A lot of good things have happened,” he said, outlining several improvements that emerged from the VTP’s work — including better voting machines, modernized registration systems, and an increase in the professionalization of election administration.
“We grew up worried about the problems of the 1890s,” he said, noting that the theft of ballot boxes was once a main electoral concern in the United States. “Now we have new problems.”
These include the risk of cyberattacks, such as Russia’s apparent efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Stewart remarked that while it’s unclear how much impact Russia’s actions had on the election’s outcome, the fact that such a threat exists a problem in itself. “From my perspective, what we can’t measure might hurt us,” he said. “One of the critical issues is how to make those problems that may be emerging measurable.”
Reports that Russia used Facebook ads and Twitter posts to influence the 2016 election also raise new questions about what forces are working to sway voters and how — a topic Hersh illuminated in his remarks.
An expert in public policy and voter targeting, Hersh explained how political campaigns use publicly accessible data, such as voter registration records and census data, to market their candidates to specific audiences.
For example, some state registration forms ask voters to identify their race and some do not — a difference that prompts different campaign strategies, Hersh said. “If you are a campaign and you don’t know individually who is black, you have to go to black neighborhoods. If you do know individually, you can go to black homes in mixed neighborhoods,” Hersh said.
How influences on the electoral system are changing
While Hersh didn’t take a stand on the value of these divergent strategies, he, like Stewart, emphasized the importance of understanding the influences on the system and how they are changing. For example, in the realm of voter influence, Hersh said he expects an expanded role for such internet giants as Facebook and Google, which collect reams of data about their users.
“Now you have companies that have better information than the government,” Hersh said, which means that corporate policies will begin to play a role in what data campaigns use. For example, Hersh said, “Google has more rules about lying in ads than the government does.”
The rise of corporate data in the political process
Political uses will also raise new issues for companies — such as whether to allow political actors to hide their identity, a concern that doesn’t arise with commercial advertisers, Hersh said. “I think the big question going forward is how much these companies care about targeting people for political campaigns rather than commercial purposes.”
Regardless of what campaigns attempt, however, Hersh said the evidence indicates that campaigns are ultimately more successful at influencing turnout that in winning over voters. “Mobilization targeting is pretty effective,” he said. “But convincing someone to change their mind? There’s little evidence any of that works. It’s extraordinarily hard to persuade someone.”
MIT’s Mens et Manus America Initiative explores the social, political, and economic challenges currently facing the United States. The nonpartisan initiative is co-sponsored by the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the MIT Sloan School of Management, and is co-directed by Agustín Rayo, professor of philosophy and associate dean of SHASS, and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, the Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy and deputy dean of MIT Sloan.