Elections are a technology. I don’t mean just that they rely on technology, although cybersecurity, voter data, misinformation, and online advertising are all central to how today’s elections are fought. I mean elections are themselves are a technology—an essential mechanism in the running of a healthy society. Elections enable power to alternate between different factions without civil war; they limit mismanagement and corruption and tyranny; and they provide for a constant flow of new ideas about how best to run the country.
The central component of this technology, other than things like ballot boxes and voter rolls, is trust. If voters don’t trust the election, it fails at its only job, which is to produce a government that is widely accepted as legitimate. And most Americans, right now, do not trust the upcoming presidential election.
In a Yahoo News/YouGov poll in September, only 22% of Americans thought the election would be “free and fair.” Another 32% said they weren’t sure, and 46% said it would not be. Fully half of Donald Trump’s supporters and 37% of Joe Biden’s fell into the “not free and fair” camp.
Trump is squarely responsible for this. His repeated claims about mass mail-in ballot fraud and other voting irregularities, while absolutely false, explain the high level of distrust in the vote among his own supporters. His attacks on the postal service and his repeated refusals to say whether he’ll accept the election result alarm Biden voters. The hack-prone paperless voting machines still used in some US states and the lingering specter of Russian interference don’t help either.
Since Democrats are expected to vote by mail at about twice the rate of Republicans, pundits expect that early numbers on Election Day will favor Trump, followed by a large “blue shift” toward Biden in subsequent days as mail-in ballots are counted. The president and his supporters will cast doubt on the results and seek to have some of these votes thrown out by the courts.
This will set the stage for extended legal wrangling. More than 300 lawsuits are already pending (many brought by Democrats) over voting rules and restrictions that states have imposed in the wake of covid-19. A number of scenarios have described how these fights could delay the result for weeks and possibly end in both Trump and Biden making legally plausible claims to the Oval Office, which the Supreme Court would need to adjudicate.
None of this means Trump cannot win fairly. Even with Biden’s lead in the polls, there are still a number of scenarios in which he does not win the presidency. A (largely) clean Trump victory is entirely possible, though as in 2016 it will almost certainly involve a big disconnect between the popular vote and the Electoral College result. Once again, though, it’s the legitimacy of the result in the eyes of voters that is at stake and that Trump is ferociously undermining. This is bad for America and the whole world, whichever man wins.
All of this is why MIT Technology Review is launching the Outcome, a pop-up newsletter focused on the security and integrity of the election. It will cover topics such as misinformation, voting machines, and cybersecurity, but above all it will ask the same questions of the election that we ask of every technology: Is it working as intended? How are power and money shaping it? How is it being used and misused? What are its strong and weak points? Is it, ultimately, safe?
The Outcome will come to your inbox several days a week, and we expect to keep it running it past Election Day, at least until there’s a result. The lead writer is Patrick Howell O’Neill, our senior editor for cybersecurity, but many of our staff across the newsroom will weigh in.
We’d love to hear from you, whether it’s about a fight over the placement of ballot drop boxes in your electoral district, a heartwarming story about volunteers helping people vote safely, or some surprising piece of political advertising you came across in your Facebook feed. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook and all the usual places, or you can sign up here to get the Outcome and join the conversation about how to make the election safe again.