Election Meltdown, Part 3
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S2: Hi and welcome back to Annika’s. And to this part three of our special Election Meltdown series where we’re asking somewhat fancifully whether American democracy can actually survive the 2020 election. I’m Dahlia Lithwick. I cover the courts and the law and a bunch of other stuff for Slate. And with me doing this series is Rick Hasen. He’s election law professor and author of the book Election Meltdown, on which this special series is based. Welcome back, Rick.
S1: Hi there, Dahlia. What oh, what a year this week has been.
S3: You know, I was thinking that somehow since this series has started, we’ve hit the trifecta of all of our issues that we’re talking about.
S4: And we’ve done it in like a day in Iowa and the duty of the Iowa Democratic Party to count votes in a timely fashion. You probably heard we don’t know the result.
S4: So we don’t know the results. It is too close to call. So I’m just gonna tell you what I do know that screw up has been extremely unfair to the people of Iowa. Are we?
S6: But we know by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation.
S3: We are here at part three of the series, and this part is meant to be dirty tricks. But let’s back up and say if we had to use what happened this week in Iowa as a test case, Monday night, we had our first election meltdown of the 2020 season.
S1: We have the confluence of some very incompetent election ministration, a little bit of claims of fraud and some dirty tricks. So roll it all together and you’ve got this mess. What happened in Iowa is really something that was not so unexpected for the weeks before the caucus took place. We already saw attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation about whether there was going to be cheating. There were claims that being made that, you know, the fix was in against Bernie Sanders, who was surging in the pre-caucus polls. And then there were all of these reports that Iowa was going to be using brand new technology and a new set of voting rules in the new election. That’s what happened. They tried to do both of those things. And it turns out that the new app that they told the precinct captains to download and then used to upload all of the information without that didn’t work. Right. The phone system that was used as a backup to call into the central Iowa Democratic Party to calculate what all the votes were. Well, people couldn’t get through in part. We’ve heard maybe because Trump supporters saw the phone number on TV and started calling and maybe jamming up those phone lines. And so days after the Iowa caucus, we still didn’t know who it was that won. And we didn’t even know if the counting was done right. To the point where the head of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, said maybe we need to start the counting all over again.
S7: While I think President Trump and some of his supporters have taken great, great joy in the failure of the Democratic leadership to do this right, these are in some sense, again, bipartisan problems, both disinformation and errors in just administering the elections process. This could happen to anyone at any time. Bad tech, stupid apps, people jamming the system. This is a bipartisan problem that’s being cast as Tom Perez’s fault.
S1: Usually when elections are run in this country, fortunately, they’re not run by political parties. They’re run by election officials who who are paid to do this. But with these caucuses, they’re this weird hybrid. You know, we do we take them as part of the nomination process that goes towards the general election. But they’re sometimes conducted by political parties, by themselves, maybe once every four years. And then they really don’t know what they’re doing compared to the regular Electra administrators. But you’re right that the Trump campaign didn’t just call out the Democrats for their incompetence in running the Iowa caucuses. You had Brad Parr scale of the Trump campaign accusing the Democrats of rigging this against Bernie Sanders. You had the Trump kids chiming in. And so what was, again, this pattern that we see, Democrats being incompetent. Republicans accusing them of cheating. It’s a very common theme throughout election meltdown.
S3: We’ve got Bernie Sanders supporters saying that Pete Buddah judges team actually was invested in that app. It’s also intramural smashing each other on the face. And the net effect right in the aggregate is the thing that you’re terrified of happening, which is everybody starts to think not only that it’s rigged, but that there’s just no point in voting at all. Right.
S1: Yeah, well, I saw that hashtag that was trending Mayor Cheat instead of Mayor Pete. And yeah. And certainly Sanders supporters believe that they’re getting screwed over by the Democratic Party. There are still wounds left from the bitter 2016 primary race between Clinton and Sanders. There’s a lot of distrust in the system and it doesn’t help when you have this incompetence. And, oh, we thought we reported 62 percent of the results, but we actually computed something wrong. So we’re going to start over again with the counting. That’s just a recipe for people who want to think the worst to be able to have some good fodder to use to make all kinds of conspiracy claims and other claims against the process.
S3: If you could wave your magic wand and do this caucus in a way that didn’t basically detonate all over everybody’s faces, what would you do? Just go back to paper ballots and phoning in the results?
S1: Well, sure, they could go back to what they did last time. But, you know, the key thing is they even with all of the mess ups at the beginning, what they should have said is we’re going to get it right and we’re going to announce the results when we’re completely done and we’re going to have a transparent accounting of what happened. That’s not what happened. Instead, they just kind of released things piecemeal. Everybody is on edge because things are changing by the minute. And there’s no rush. We’ve already missed that the night of the caucus to announce those clear results. So. The big thing to do is when there is a problem. Be transparent about it, own it and explain why it’s not going to happen again.
S8: So we’re cut up and now we turn to this third part of the election meltdown series. It’s all about dirty tricks and there’s just such a huge amalgam of things that come under the umbrella of dirty tricks. But it’s the ways in which these dirty tricks can undermine public faith in elections. And that can be from foreign actors like we saw in 2016 or increasingly domestic operatives. Some of this is using new technologies, some is just using old school tricks that seem to keep working.
S9: So we’re going to talk about all of that and the ways in which when you look at them all together, much as we saw in Iowa, the net effect is that everybody starts to lose faith in elections.
S3: Before we even get to a head to head presidential contest in 2020, you’ve just given us a rundown of some of the dirty tricks that were deployed by Republicans in Iowa this past week. It does leave this question that is hanging in the air uncomfortably for Democrats. Do you fight fire with fire? So we’re gonna talk for a minute about a story about domestic disinformation wars. And it’s got a little bit of a spy novel name project.
S10: Bermingham Rick, can you tell us what that was about?
S11: And he’d take it back to the 2017 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Doug Jones running against Roy Moore, the Ten Commandments judge, a Republican who’s very controversial figure. Roy Moore was so controversial. You may remember he was accused of an improper relationship with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. He was the judge that defied the United States Supreme Court on same sex marriage. And I think it’s only because Moore was such a controversial figure that Democrats had a chance to capture this Senate seat, which had been vacated when Jeff Sessions went on to become Trump’s attorney general. And so hard fought race between Jones and Moore. And all of a sudden we start seeing what appear to be Russian bots following Roy Moore on Twitter and supporting him. I say apparent Russian botts. They had Cyrillic names. Several of them used Avril Levine for their profile. Pic one declared, I love Russia in its bio.
S3: So these were Twitter accounts almost performing what you could call a parody of what we think of when we imagine a Russian bot. But these weren’t real fakes. They weren’t Russian bots. So who set these accounts up and why?
S11: So this turns out to be a liberal group called American Engagement Technologies or a it?i. And they were funded by a grant from Reid Hoffman, who is one of the founders of Lincoln. And I don’t think based on what we heard later, Reid Hoffman knew exactly why he was funding. And there were a lot of different parts of this, but there were all kinds of attempts to try to convince moderate Republican voters that they shouldn’t vote for Roy Moore.
S12: Let me give you some examples of some of the things that this 80 farmed out for various operatives to do. One thing was a group called dri-, Alabama, which were apparently Baptist teetotallers, who were supporting Roy Moore and wanted to outlaw alcohol sales in the state of Alabama. And the guy who was behind this told The New York Times that he was doing it to try to convince moderate Republicans, don’t vote for Roy Moore, he’s too extreme. Then there were the Facebook groups that were created that were Republicans against Roy Moore. One of them tried to endorse a write in candidate and actually promote that write in candidate. There was even talk of creating a superPAC for this writing candidate, apparently looking like it was coming from conservative Republicans, but actually coming from liberals who were supporting Doug Jones, according to leaked papers that were made available to both The New York Times and The Washington Post, but that have never been fully publicly released. The goal of this group was to suppress about 50000 Republican votes, just convincing them better to stay home than to vote for the extremist Roy Moore.
S11: And, you know, the margin, the election between the two was pretty close to 50000. I’m not saying that that’s what necessarily swayed the outcome, but it leaves you with questions.
S13: The project was a failure in so far as the people who funded it and that even some of the operatives who carried it out have since repudiated it. I think that style of campaign has at least been stigmatized.
S14: This is Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth, who’s done a lot of research on fake news and political influence campaigns on social media.
S13: I don’t think we know, however, how effective it really was. It’s very difficult to evaluate the success of campaign influence efforts that take place via Facebook because the platform is so closed. It does highlight the risk that domestic political actors can use some of the same tactics that the Russians have used. And that really complicates some of the questions we’re dealing with here. There’s a very strong consensus that foreign actors have no place in our elections, but the questions become much more complicated when it comes to people who are part of our political process, but are stretching the boundaries of conventional politics. And, you know, our legal and regulatory system hasn’t fully caught up with that problem. And I think our our kind of media ecosystem hasn’t either. You know, the platforms certainly have been caught off guard again and again by these sorts of incidents. And there’s no reason to think that they will catch the next one in time. You know, you can’t rerun elections or at least you couldn’t without great damage to the legitimacy of our democracy. So these kind of last minute sneak attacks remain a worrisome threat.
S3: Slate Plus members can hear more of your conversation with Brendan Nyhan in an extra episode of this series. So go to Slate.com, slash amicus plus to check it out. It’s incredibly interesting. And do you agree with Brendan, Rick? This probably actually didn’t sway the election. And anyway, there’s just no way of knowing whether it did. And although these activities were unpalatable, they were dishonest. They just weren’t illegal.
S11: So I think Brendan is right that we don’t have good evidence as to. How much these things sway elections? I know that Alex Stamos, who used to be head of security at Facebook, thought Trump’s micro-targeting was much more important than the Russian disinformation during 2016. It’s really hard to measure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and take actions against them if we could. The question is no. Is it legitimate? We’ve had dirty tricks before, you know, dirty tricks. Go back to the beginning of the country. What’s different now is that you can kind of supersize them through the use of social media. Things can spread virally that are false. There’s all kinds of ways to try to manipulate public opinion that weren’t available before.
S15: And what about Brendan’s point that it’s different when they’re domestic political actors? That that’s a whole different kettle of fish than Russians intervening.
S16: So I think, you know, when it comes to the law, we have a lot more tools to deal with foreign interference and we could take steps. But, you know, there’s a controversy now over whether, for example, Facebook should be banning lies by candidates. Right. President Trump puts out a lie. And should Facebook take that down? Well, do we really want Facebook to decide what the truth is? You know, and so the line between what’s improper campaign talk, what’s illegal, what’s ugly, but OK. You know, it’s really hard to draw those lines. And I don’t know that either Facebook or the government can really be in the business of doing that. But what we’ve learned is that whatever the Russians tried to do in 2016, Americans can try and do in 2020 themselves. We don’t need foreign interference. We can interfere with our own elections. Thank you very much.
S15: And we can dress it up as clever campaigning or just free speech.
S11: That’s right. And you know, the kind of the First Amendment stalwarts are out there saying, oh, you know, it’s just about what people need to hear. And the truth will rise to the top. I talked about this with Rene D’Arista, who’s the technical research manager at Stanford’s Internet Observatory, about how hard it is to even detect or even define what counts as improper campaigning versus legitimate free speech and the sort of early policy frameworks that the tech platforms came up with to address what happened in 2016.
S17: A lot of the emphasis was on taking down content because the actor was inauthentic. So what that would mean is, you know, the Russians ran a fake Texas secessionist page, but there is nothing that is inherently wrong with holding the position that Texas should secede. Ergo, real Texas secessionists who are running the same page or the same content would not have been taken down. So that was this idea of authenticity of actor when you have domestic actors running those types of pages. That’s a perfectly legitimate First Amendment free expression framework for people to express their political point of view. So the question becomes for platforms, where are the lines between legitimate activism like people deciding that they’re all going to coordinate and a Facebook group and coordinated and authentic activity?
S16: Who is going to be the entity that’s going to arbitrate what’s true and what’s false? Do you trust the Trump administration set up a government agency to tell us the truth? Do we trust Facebook? Right. So we lack good intermediaries to tell us what’s true and what’s false. Even if we thought that was a good idea.
S15: So really, after effects of what happened in 2016 in terms of foreign interference in domestic elections, they continue to reverberate through this 2020 election cycle. Russian tactics influencing domestic actors, as we’ve just heard about Russian tactics likely influencing other foreign actors. We are in foreign interference, information overload. Can you help me right now? Sort the signal from the noise here.
S18: So if we think back to 2016, we saw three very different kinds of attempts at Russian interference. First there was the manipulation over social media. The kind of things that Project Bermingham tried to emulate, not just false speech, but also provocative speech. Number two, we saw. Think back to WikiLeaks.
S19: Roger Stone, the leaking of embarrassing, true emails that came through from the DNC and from other Democrats. And the third thing we saw and this is maybe the most troubling, although it’s hard to rank these we saw probing and in some cases attempts to manipulate information in state voter registration databases. It might be that the Russians weren’t really actually trying to change the databases, but we’re just trying to undermine our confidence of the process by showing that they could. But was those three different things that we saw that thanks to the fact that we have a president who is not willing to punish, it really has gone unpunished. And I think encouraged again for 2020.
S15: OK. Let’s chunk those out one by one.
S11: We’ll start with the St. Petersburg based Internet research agency which used Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, especially Instagram, although that got under-covered in 2016. Even Pinterest to stir up American political unrest. Rene D’Arista research, the irae on behalf of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She describes it as a kind of black PR social marketing agency working for the Russian government. You know, creating those means and and having troll farms. But they go beyond that and they work to recruit unwitting people into acting on behalf of them in real life, infiltrating activist communities and trying to drive people to participate in the streets, which is maybe why this aspect of the Russian interference has gotten so much attention.
S20: And I think that’s because it touched people very directly. So it’s it’s very much a social, first participatory process that incorporates everyday people into inadvertently manipulating their neighbors as well as continuing to to be manipulated themselves. It’s very hard for us to say in any kind of material sense what impact that had even me. You know, with access to the Senate’s data set, I could see the number of comments on posts, but I couldn’t see what the comment said. So when they ran voter suppression campaigns, I can tell you that in some cases, you know. 900 comments appeared on the post, but I can’t tell you what the comments said. Maybe they were saying, no way, we’re going to go vote. Anyway, this is a ridiculous suggestion. Or maybe they were saying, right on, we’re not going to vote. And that’s that’s two very different responses to that kind of content.
S15: So this is exactly like what you were saying about Alabama in 2017, in the 2016 presidential election. We have the same problem. We just don’t know the extent of the effect that this type of intervention manipulation actually had. We can agree it had some effect, but we’re just never going to be able to quantify it. We just can say it’s it had an effect and it’s going to have an effect again.
S11: How many people stayed home? How many people voted different way? That’s really hard to quantify. But one effect that we do know is that it’s undermined people’s confidence in the election process.
S21: And we’re still vulnerable from foreign and domestic actors. And we make ourselves vulnerable in part because of what Rene de Resta calls bespoke realities. These online environments where we only see what we want to see news from organizations that confirms our biases, friends sharing stories with the same political views. Brendan Nyhan says these kinds of information cocoons results in self sorting, where we form into groups that can be targeted with disinformation about a particular candidate or issue. And this is especially the case for those people who are the most politically aware and the most hyper partisan.
S13: The ecosystems that committed partisans live in are an important kind of breeding ground for misinformation that may disseminate from the kind of digital fever swamps out into the mainstream. And it’s important to. Address misinformation at that stage. Be before it spreads more widely and we’ve seen this transmission process again and again as as as fringe claims move from move into mainstream discourse, whether it was the birther myth or claiming that Barack Obama was a Muslim or the pizza gate conspiracy theory. Again and again, these kinds of claims have started with a group of fringe hardcore believers and then have been amplified by elites and refract it out into the mainstream.
S15: These fever swamps, they can breed conspiracy theories, but that fracturing of audiences and the ability to micro-target Americans was also used by the Russians in 2016 to exploit existing rifts and to really focus on one group in particular.
S11: One of the most disturbing things that we saw from the analysis of the Russian activity on social media in 2016 was the targeting of African-American communities. The creation of a group called Black Tovisit that was trying to convince African-American voters that Hillary Clinton was not in their corner and that they should just stay home.
S16: It was a whole ecosystem of various groups that pulled in actual African-American voters in support of this idea that Africa-American voters should just stay home. But, you know, this kind of micro-targeting of messages to try to depress turnout, it’s become a lot easier to do through social media and through the virality of various kinds of means that get spread.
S15: Almost none of this activity is actually illegal under federal election law, correct?
S11: Well, we could thank Brett Kavanaugh for that, because in an opinion he wrote when he was a circuit court judge in a case called Blooming versus Fair Election Commission, he had upheld the constitutionality of a law that bans foreign election activity in American elections.
S16: But he, for First Amendment reasons, read the statute is very limited to apply only to express advocacy. So an ad that said Hillary Clinton is a Satan does not really say vote against Hillary Clinton. It’s just declaring her affinity with affinity with Lucifer. That does not count as an election ad. And so it’s interesting, if you go back and you look at the Mueller charges against the Russians back. Remember, the very first one was the targeting of those 13 Russian operatives at the Internet research agency. They weren’t charged with campaign finance crimes and they were charged with things that were associated with that. But no direct charge. And, of course. Right. No direct charges against WikiLeaks, against Roger Stone. All of these entities that could have been accused of engaging in illegal foreign campaign activity because that’s being read so narrowly. It’s actually much of this activity is actually not illegal, which means it could happen again even if Facebook is guarding against illegal activity.
S22: But, you know, I think it’s important to keep our heads attached to our necks at this point and not just give up and say, you know, the Russians are going to be able to mess everything up because, you know, even with all of this information out there, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars that’s being spent in elections to try and convince people to vote one way or another.
S23: Brendan Nyhan talked about, you know, where the Russian activity in 2016 fits into the larger way that people’s political opinions were influenced during that election in 2016.
S13: The Russian misinformation was one part of a kind of torrent of misinformation that is directed at Americans, and it seems to have made up a very small part. The same is true for the so-called fake news Web sites that have received so much coverage in that period since the 2016 election. Those untrustworthy Web sites which frequently published false or unsupported claims about the candidates and about contemporary politics were like the Russian content, a tiny percentage of most people’s information diets. So it seems as though their effects were quite limited.
S16: So even if not that many people are being swayed by particular messages coming from the Russians or from anybody else, we’re losing confidence overall that the information that we’re seeing online is true and that this undermines voter confidence if they believe that there’s nobody that can be trusted.
S24: You know, there was a recent NPR PBS Marist poll which found that only 62 percent of Americans think that United States elections are fair.
S23: 51 percent of Americans surveyed said that trumpet encouraged election interference. Four in 10 believe that another country is likely to try to tamper with 20:20 election results. I mean, there’s just this profound lack of confidence in the process, in part because we’re being bombarded with and even having the series and talking about this.
S18: Will this cause people to lose confidence in the process? The exact opposite of what we’re trying to do, which is an election where the losers will accept the results and we’ll be able to have a hard fought but fair contested election with a clear winner and a clear loser and a chance to fight in the next election.
S15: So this is kind of profound, right? You’re saying that we’re sitting here trying to delineate the line between true and false, real and fake manipulation and advocacy. And in so doing, we are feeding this just general nihilists sense that everything is fake. And yet I think it’s probably meta, as it sounds like useful to try to parse what is real and what is fake. So can we look with an understanding that we’re making people crazy? Can we look at another face of this beast of disinformation, which is deep fakes?
S25: I’m Danielle Citron. I am a professor of law at the BEA Law School and the vice president of a cyber civil rights initiative.
S11: So Danielle Citron wrote a paper with Bobby Chesney of the University of Texas examining the threats that deep fakes pose to national security, to privacy and to elections.
S25: It’s easy with just a few photos to create a completely fabricated video of someone doing and saying something they never did and said. And we were thinking, you know, what about the presidential campaign coming up and the campaigns across the world? And what are the implications gonna be for the power that video and audio has over each and every one of us? It’s so persuasive. It grabs us in the gut. And what if it’s time just right the night before an election?
S15: And this is really quite terrifying. The notion that something I guess we haven’t yet seen, which is we could see what looks like an absolutely truthful video of a presidential candidate that’s been completely ginned up in an underground lab. Not true.
S14: Yep, that’s pretty scary, but that’s not all there is to deep fakes. Just as Brendan Nyhan was talking about with disinformation, generally false information is a problem. Not necessarily because people are going to believe the fakes, but because it’s going to undermine our trust in real true information, also known as facts. In the case of Deepak’s, Daniel Cetron and Bobby Chesney have come up with a term they call the liars dividend. The idea is that deep fakes make it easier for liars to avoid accountability by claiming things that are in fact true are actually not true. The existence of deep fakery then can be leveraged by bad actors to cast doubt on things that actually happened. Of course, President Trump is the world’s loudest, quote, fake news proponents. He even claimed that the Access Hollywood tape wasn’t real.
S25: Not only did the president say that about the Access Hollywood audiotape, but he also said it about the Holt interview. You know, the interview where he says it’s just this Russia thing. You know, I fired Komi because I wanted this Russia thing behind me. And he said about a year after the interview that was just fake. Can’t believe anything you you see and hear. I never said that. And my sense at least and this is ADIC total, but my sense is from talking to people about especially Trump supporters, is that they believe in that. They believe that it’s all fake news and that, you know, the president can do no wrong. And then, of course, he wasn’t thinking about Russia. He was just thinking Komin was a bad guy. He wasn’t loyal and he needed to be fired. So I think people and it’s not surprising because we know that we have motivated reasoning. So we tend to that, you know, the notion of confirmation bias is that we tend to believe information that accords with our own, you know, viewpoints. And so for folks who are motivated to believe the president that what he says is true and that it’s fakes, you know, it’s a fake that holds interview or the Access Hollywood tape, then for that audience, they’re going to believe them. So confirmation bias just re-, you know, it will reinforce, you know, your own thinking and viewpoints.
S11: This is dangerous, not even for those who have the technical ability to create sophisticated, deep fake. You may remember there was the cheap fake, which was when Nancy Pelosi’s words were slurred and it was just kind of slowing down a video and changing the pitch a little bit to make it seem like Pelosi was drunk. And if people want to believe that, you know, the idea that Nancy Pelosi is as drunk, you know, speaking in public. People are going to believe it, you know. So it’s really hard to get someone who wants to believe something bad about the other side, to recognize that maybe they’re being manipulated and maybe things are not as they appear.
S15: This is the Steve Bannon playbook book, right? Just flood the zone with with garbage. And this is also the Putin playbook, right? Flood the zone with garbage. And at the very best, you get people to believe something that isn’t true. And at the very worst, they don’t believe anything is true. And it’s kind of win win. Except if you care about truth, it’s lose lose. I’m going to ask you the depressing question I keep asking you, but is there some role for, let’s say, the law in regulating all this?
S16: Well, you know, Facebook and these other platforms, they’re private actors, so they can kind of do what they want. Now, one thing California is trying to do is to regulate cheap fakes by banning them, you know, but not banning parody or satire. Can’t wait to be the judge that has to decide what counts as legitimate parody. It’s not funny. That’s going to be cool. I think a good approach would be a law that requires any kind of manipulated video to be labeled as manipulated. It could be satire or not satire, you know, at least giving voters more information, more transparency. But I’m not sure that that would work. And Danielle Citron is not sure either.
S25: The difficulty is finding the perpetrators, ensuring that those perpetrators are in our jurisdiction. So then you know that they live in the United States in a jurisdiction which we can prosecute them. And then for civil suits that you have the resources to sue someone and that it’s timed in a way that it will make a difference. Right. So for the deep fake released the night before an election, the harm is done when it tips the election, not, you know, the after effect of suing later on those sorts of remedies. They exist. They’re modest. The problem is, you know, can we save ourselves right with counter speech? Can we think of a marketplace of ideas as something that we can engage in and that truth will rise to the top? And I’m really worried the law has a really modest role to play when it comes to elections and speech about matters of public importance. And if the law doesn’t, can we fix this ourselves? And are we at the mercy of Facebook and Twitter to fix it for us?
S10: Galya, maybe you need to lift your head up off the desk.
S3: You remember when you told us we had to keep it together. Mine actually just popped off. It’s rolling around the podcast booth like a sackable and we’re not even done on dirty tricks yet. Okay, my head’s back on. We are moving on from social media disinformation campaigns that are run by Russian contractors at the Internet Research Agency. Now we’re running into the logit spy stuff, the G.R. you this is Russian military intelligence just working straight up directly for the Kremlin to meddle in U.S. elections.
S14: All right. So now we’re talking about things that are clearly illegal. Less about social media, more about stealing and weaponizing information.
S26: Rene jrasta spent most of 2019 researching with the G.R. he was doing with their hacking and leaking operation using a data set that Facebook had provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which arrested found was that the hacking leak started out as a failure when the G.R., you first released information over Facebook.
S20: They got almost no engagement at all. And that’s because they didn’t know. They didn’t run any ads. They didn’t do any audience building tactics. They created Facebook pages. They tried to entice people to go to their document drops and nothing happened. And then what you see is you see them begin to DMB journalists and you see them begin, you know, per the Mueller report to reach out to WikiLeaks as well and to capitalize. Then at that point on the larger audiences that mainstream media coverage or WikiLeaks has audiences afforded them. And what you start to see then is any time they want to control a media narrative or shift a media narrative, a new set of documents is dropped. For example, immediately following the above, it was Access Hollywood tape. There was a new a new kind of tranche of documents that was released the next day. Right. Change the conversation.
S14: So, look, we don’t know exactly what’s coming at us in 2020, but I think we can expect Russia to repeat successful tactics like the hacking leak. Just last month, it was reported that the Russians hacked the Ukrainian energy company Berris WMA, a name we’ve heard a lot. Convenient. Rene D’Arista says this tactic poses a big question for journalists.
S20: How do you cover a hack? People will think of it as newsworthy and oftentimes the documents contain their end. You know, it’s a glimpse into the behavior of powerful figures. One thing that we’ve seen with Jerry Hawkes is that they are willing to incorporate manipulated or false documents in there as well. So this is a challenge for media as they think about racing to to break something. Well, at the same time, validating the content and contextualizing it as what it is, the media wasn’t doing a very good job of that in 2016. So the question about will they be better prepared with a with a plan for 2020? Still an open one.
S15: So this goes back to your earlier point, Rick, which is it’s bad enough that you can have a hack in a dump, but now you’re saying, oh, we can have a hack and a dump and some chunks of that dump are just completely fabricated. And the people who are supposed to in the moment breaking news, ferret out what is true in that dump and what is completely false. Are the press who have no skills to do that in the moment?
S16: Yeah, well, it’s this misinformation mash up is especially dangerous because, you know, what is the instinct of the press? Gotta be first. Gotta get the scoop. Yeah. And so there’s gonna be a rush to publish before there’s full vetting and lots of journalists are responsible, but it doesn’t take much for something to be spread and for people to find it, even if some journalists are acting responsibly.
S15: And three weeks later, when you say, oh, it’s this prisma thing, this part of it is fake is really too late. Let’s just look at the last stop on the high tech meddling. And that is what your worst case scenario. Your thing that scares you the most.
S16: So, you know, I talked about how the Russians were sticking around state voter registration databases in 2016. Doesn’t look like they did much damage of, oh, you know, this not all the information’s been released. Right. So one of the fears, Marco Rubio talked about this, what a Florida voters go to the polls and they’re using an electronic poll, books, you know, which lists everybody’s name and that they’re eligible to vote. What if that’s all messed up and people can’t vote on that day and people have to cast thousands of provisional ballots would be a huge mess. It’s worrisome, but I have a much worse scenario. And when we think about election security, it’s not just about the voting machines or the voting machines going to be hacked. It’s not about the voter registration databases. What if this attack on a power grid in the city of Detroit or in the city of Milwaukee, you know, pick a swing state, pick the Democratic city with the large Democratic minority population and turn the lights off? The Russians were able to do this in Ukraine in 2015. You know, they kind of practice on the Ukraine before they get to us. And I mean, I’d like to think that the president would treat that as an act of war, but he might actually invite that to happen. And so I don’t think our election officials, if you think back to what we heard about Detroit in an earlier episode, I don’t think election officials in Detroit would be prepared to deal with people not being able to get to the polls. I don’t think the courts would be prepared to think about do we want to have an election do over in the state of Michigan that could determine the outcome of the election? Do we want to leave that to Neil Gorsuch? I leave that question to you.
S15: So you hear that Michigan bring candles. Gonna take a lot more than that. Rick, you’re not done with dirty tricks yet, are you?
S27: Now, you know, we’ve talked so much about high tech dirty tricks, but it doesn’t take a black site or a troll farm or a deep fake to try to erode confidence in our elections. Through that very first piece of audio, in part one of the series. President Donald Trump’s scattershot dissembling on voter fraud, calling out California.
S28: When I look at what’s happened in California with a Florida catastrophe that took place in Florida, but he seemed really reluctant to talk about what’s going on in North Carolina, if anything. You know, I guess they’re going to be doing the final report, but I’d like to see the final report.
S27: Well, I do want to talk about North Carolina and North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in particular. And to do that, I got in touch with TV reporter Joe Bruno of WSOC TV, who’s emblematic of one of the pillars of our democracy. Shoe leather, local reporting. And I’m going to let him tell the story. Taking us back to the election in question. A race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in 2018.
S29: This was a race that a lot of people were watching. It was one of the races that people were seeing. Taking a closer look at to see if a Trump district that swung to him by 12 points could swing to a Democrat during that year. And a lot of money and a lot of resources were invested in the Democrat in that race. Dan McCreedy, he was facing Mark Harris, who is a pastor in Charlotte. Harris is a more conservative Republican. Dan McCreadie is a more moderate Democrat. The race is being flooded with ads.
S30: This was it was being covered very heavily and it ultimately came down to just a couple hundred votes on election night in 2018.
S15: So what is it that threw this whole election into question?
S11: Well, it involves absentee ballots, how they were collected, who collected them and what was done with them. In poor rural Blaydon County population, 33000, 478 people in the twenty eighteen general election. The absentee mail in ballots overwhelmingly favored the Republican candidate, Mark Harris. And then people started looking back further in time and Bladen County and a pattern emerged.
S30: We looked at the knife congressional district race in 2016. That was a little surprising because we saw that Mark Harris only received a handful of votes for votes in that election. The incumbent at the time, Robert Pittenger, he received one vote and then a guy by the name of Todd Johnson, received 98 percent of the absentee by mail votes with a total of 221 in the twenty eighteen primary. Mark Harris put up huge absentee by mail numbers against the incumbent, Robert Pittenger, 437 of 456 absentee by mail votes went to Mark Harris. Incumbent Pittenger only received 17. So, I mean, here you’re looking at these huge numbers that these candidates are able to rack up against an incumbent. And the thing that Mark Harris had in common with Todd Johnson in 2016 was that he had someone on his campaign team, the same person, McCray Dallas, who was running this absentee ballot operation for him in Bladen County.
S15: OK. She says saying who is McCray Dallas, Rick?
S11: Well, he spearheaded the operation to collect these absentee ballots in Blaine County. He’s being paid by Mark Harris. He’s also an elected official and he’s still on the Bladen County Soil and Water Commission board.
S30: He’s has reputation down there for being a political operative who worked on several different local campaigns. And he was hired by the Mark Harris campaign through third party consulting firm called Red Dome to basically run ship down there.
S15: And Rick, can you tell us what, quote, running ship means down there in Bladen County?
S11: Well, I think we know some of the story, but not all of it. What we do know is largely thanks to reporting by Joe and other reporters down there, once the alarm bells started ringing about these weird absentee ballot results and some affidavits got leaked to Joe. He drove down three hours to Bladen County. And here’s what he found.
S30: And the first day we were there, we went to an apartment complex in Blaydon Borough, where there was just a cluster of people who requested the vote by mail and just talking to people, just randomly encountering them in the parking lot, talking to them about the election. The first guy we spoke to an interview told us that a lady and a Mark Harris T-shirt came to his door and asked for his absentee ballot and he handed it to her. And we said, you know, did you? Why? Why’d you do this? I mean, are you worried that your vote counted? And he’s. And he basically said, I. I didn’t think anything of it. I just wish somebody came to the door and asked from about and I gave it to them. So that was our first sign of wrongdoing, because in North Carolina, you are absolutely not allowed to collect another person’s ballot. And here we just interviewed a man who said that that’s what happened.
S14: And the evidence of wrongdoing just kept piling up. Joe was contacted by a source who handed over copies of absentee ballot envelopes, and the envelopes had some interesting characteristics.
S30: What we found was just a pattern of the same people signing as witnesses. That’s a really unusual thing, because if you think about it, if you’re sending in an absentee ballot and you need two people to witness the ballot for you. Who are you going to ask? You’re probably just going to ask somebody who’s in the room with you or, you know, a family member or a friend, just whoever sitting near you. And here we had the same group of people repeatedly signing, some of them dozens of ballots. So that showed that unless they had a lot of friends, that showed that there was signs of a ballot harvesting operation.
S31: So Jonah’s team tracked down some of these people who were, you know, like Zelig showing up witnesses everywhere and he talked to them.
S30: You know, seventy five or a hundred dollars, that’s all these workers were being paid to pick up these ballots.
S32: One person told me that they needed the money for Christmas and they just thought it was good work. They thought it was trustworthy work, its elections. They thought they were doing a good thing. They were never told by McCrea Doussa what they’re doing is illegal. And it seems like McRae always knew what he was doing was wrong.
S33: So at this point, the story breaks open, getting national attention. The State Board of Elections launches an investigation. And here’s the good news I was promising you. It kind of worked the way you would hope, albeit with a couple of dramatic moments.
S34: There is a hearing before the commission. And Mark Harris is on the stand and he’s being asked questions about what he knew about the hinky ness of the McCray Dallas operation and whether he shared any information with his son.
S35: And he’s claiming he doesn’t remember, I think he claims doesn’t remember four times they have a recess just before Democratic Attorney Marc Elias was about to pounce on him in cross-examination. And he says, yeah, you know what? Let’s have a new election and the bipartisan board of election votes to throw out the results of the election and do it over.
S34: That’s a pretty rare thing to happen.
S35: That election is so infested by concerns about fraud that there has to be an election do over.
S34: So a new election is held. The state starts tightening up some of its rules about ballot harvesting. And, you know, Joe Bruno says that took a while. Things finally seem to be moving in the right direction.
S30: The people of Blaine County are extremely nice and friendly, people who care about their local elections. It just seems like they were taken advantage of in this situation. And for weeks, national media descended upon this small community and really shed light on everything. And it took a lot of sunlight to really disinfect some of the issues that had been plaguing that county for several years. But I believe that I would say that the people, Blaine County are a lot better off now that they can trust that the elections that they are having are fair, that these absentee ballot harvesting programs are no longer being run. And they can trust that the person that they have representing them in Congress or maybe in a local office is there because that’s who people want to be in place.
S15: If this has been happening for years and years, why does it only just come to late in 2018?
S16: Part of the reason is that, you know, Bladen County is three hours from Charlotte. And, you know, you don’t have a. Media presence that’s down there observing things really closely, but also state election officials were concerned about what McCray, Dallas had been doing in earlier elections. They had brought to the attention of the United States attorney and the United States. Cherney, who was a Trump appointee, really had not focused his attention. And they still have not really focused all that much attention on Bladen County. Instead, they’ve kind of gone after really low level voter fraud just to try to make a splash. At one point, they went after a poll worker who had registered her boyfriend, who was a permanent resident but not a citizen, to vote. They asked the person that they were handing the voter registration form to if he was eligible to vote. They did not check the box that he was a citizen and she was eventually part of a plea deal. She pled guilty to voter fraud and the press release, said North Carolina election official, because she was a poll worker, pleads guilty to fraud. And so they trumpeted fake voter fraud, but didn’t focus on what the state really wanted them to focus on, which was real voter fraud. One of the investigators for the state said he just had no idea why the feds were not interested in what seemed to be a serious fraud operation going on in Bladen County, even though good shoe leather reporting smokes out a pretty horrifying story of a systemic problem.
S15: A little bit of what you’re saying is the legal systems are not always adequate to address them. This really required a massive vote harvesting operation before anyone sort of kicks in with actual legal consequences.
S11: Well, so here’s maybe more of the good news story, please. There is everyone’s paying attention to elections. And when there are anomalies like this guy, Mark Harris, getting the lion’s share of absentee ballot votes in a part of the jurisdiction that should be voting for Democrats. Red flags go up, right. So we see all kinds of weird patterns in voting. That’s a signal that there needs to be an investigation. And although the federal government did not step up quickly, the state government did and it did the right thing. And a state like North Carolina. You know, you’ve talked about a lot on your show, lots of fighting over voting rules in that state. Here the state, Democrats, Republicans were able to get together and to deal with the situation, hopefully take steps so that it can’t happen again in a place like Blaydon.
S7: One of the paradoxes that we are dealing with here is that we are just doling out horror stories and bad news. We talked a little bit about Project Birmingham. We talked a lot about Bladen County. We’re talking about bad actors and math factors that we don’t even know about doing things we may not hear about. And it would be entirely reasonable to say the system is broken and yet and yet the system is fixable. It just can’t be fixable. In October of 2020, we need to fix it now. And I think the metal part of this entire show is that people need to believe in systems. In other words, if we don’t fix them, all we’re going to do is foster more doubt.
S36: But if we can persuade our elections officials are political officials are voting public, that actually there are tweaks to systems that could make this thing serve all of our interests. Then let’s do that right. That’s all you’re really calling for, is have confidence that systems can be tampered with, but also that they can be fixed and work to fix them.
S37: So the first thing I’d say is it’s not an on off switch on whether or not the system works or doesn’t. We need to think about this in terms of 2020 is what are the things we can do to lessen the chances that dirty tricks and attempts to manipulate the process are actually going to interfere. And so we want to take it step by step. I don’t share Joe brunos optimism overall, but I think the message here is one of activism. You know, you have to kind of take it in your hands and say, what can we do to make sure that systems are transparent? People understand what’s going on and that there are steps taken proactively to make sure that when there is an attempt to try to mess with our elections, we’re ready and we’re ready to react in a way that’s going to reinforce the strength of the system and not further bring it down.
S36: And what’s your answer to the normative question that dances throughout all of this, which is should Democrats be engaging in their own dirty tricks? Do you fight fire with fire? Is it a mistake to disarm on one side?
S37: Well, you know, I think this is a different situation than, for example, Democrats not having a superPAC when Republicans have a superPAC. I don’t think there’s something immoral about having a superPAC in a regime where they’re allowed. But I do think there’s something immoral about trying to suppress the vote by spreading misinformation or trying to demobilize people. You know, that’s the kind of thing that we saw time and again. We saw the Russians do it in 2016. We saw some of the. Pro Jones forces trying to do that in the Project Birmingham’s situation. I think we don’t want to see anyone engaging in tactics that demobilise people and try and convince them that there is no point. And that, of course, is the danger here. We’re having a five part series on election meltdown. And, you know, one answer is just to crawl under your desk and not come out till after the election. And I think that’s exactly the wrong reaction here.
S3: And so, Rick, what’s coming in part 4 of election meltdown next week?
S1: So we’re gonna deal with what I consider to be a very difficult question. When is it okay to call an election stolen or rigged?
S21: We’re gonna talk about the rise of incendiary rhetoric with Professor Carol Anderson. She’s the Charles Howard Candler professor of African-American studies at Emory University, whose book One Person No Vote How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy is something everyone should have on their shelves.
S38: And Peter, that book.
S2: That is a wrap for part three of our election meltdown series here on Amicus from me and from Rick Hasen, thank you so much for listening in. If you want to get in touch or e-mail is amicus at slate.com. You can always find us on Facebook, Facebook.com, slash Annika’s. And today’s show was produced by Sara Bermingham. Gabriel Roth is editorial director of Slate Podcasts and June Thomas is senior managing producer of Slate podcasts, Slate Plus members. You have a bonus episode coming your way again. Everyone else, back with you next week for part 4 of them.