Twitter fact-checks Trump: labels postal voting claims as false

Twitter has taken both a huge and a tiny step in deciding to tag President Trump’s tweets about postal voting in California with a link to a fact-checking page. It is huge because this is the first time that any social media platform has even come close to censoring the President when he makes false statements and because it appears to go against Twitter’s own ‘free speech for politicians’ policy.

Screen Shot 2020-05-27 at 09.29.00

But it is also tiny because it is merely a link to another page, a tag applied many hours after the original tweets. And as the Guardian and others have shown, the link doesn’t appear in some cases if you reproduce the tweet elsewhere.

That Twitter should choose to make this decision for posts about elections is not that surprising. The company has singled out attempts at “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes” for special attention. That said, the platform failed to act when President Trump made false statements claiming that Michigan would be sending a ballot to every voter by mail (they are merely sending a postal vote application – something done by many Republican states). It might be cynical to look at the company taking action when the tweets are about their home state of California as being significant, but there you are.

The tweets in question are a repetition of the sort of thing the President said in the Michigan case – that the state would be sending ballot papers to anyone living in the state, even if they are illegal immigrants (that bit is implied) and that state officials would then tell people how to vote. Each aspect is clearly false. The linked fact checking page is pretty good – it aggregates a range of journalists and others explaining why the President’s statements are not correct. How many of the President’s followers will actually read it remains to be seen however.

Predictably, the President is claiming that this action has infringed his right to free speech, and that he ‘will not allow it to happen’ despite platforms having the right under federal law to decide how to moderate what appears. His campaign manager Brad Parscale claimed that this justified his decision to end Trump’s advertising on Twitter, despite the platform itself taking the decision to end all political advertising in 2019, something the Trump campaign at the time complained was biased.

My own view is that I do not believe that Twitter would have taken this decision if it were to be a one-off. They will be generating a huge backlash which will only be justified if they really intend to push on and have a similar form of fact-checking for future statements by Trump and other candidates. Whether they will limit their actions to tweets about elections or spread the net further will be closely watched. In the meantime, it is also a shot across the bows for Facebook which has refused to allow its third-party fact-checkers to critique the posts of politicians and other world leaders.

Russia’s remote voting proposals will lessen transparency and trust

In an already controlled environment, the latest moves to change electoral systems in Russia have the potential to further tighten the grip of the Kremlin. A Bill to enable candidate registration signatures to be collected via the state services app has been amended at the last minute to allow remote voting via a number of means. It passed the Duma (the lower house of parliament) after lawmakers were given just 36 minutes to see the proposed amendments. Covid-19 restrictions limited the amount of media and public scrutiny that was possible of the procedings.

What appears to have emerged from the process is a Bill that will allow for the development of internet voting, for postal voting and to expand the range of people who are qualified to vote at home on election day. In addition, for health reasons, voting will now be allowed in the precincts of the polling station as well as the voting room itself.

There is an axiom that any time you take the ballot paper out of the control of election officials, that vote becomes less secure and more susceptible to fraud. These new measures all remove the oversight that election administrators – and observers – will have over the process. It is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s leading independent election observation group – Golos – have said of the changes: 

“Their implementation without simultaneously ensuring guarantees of effective control will increase the level of distrust of citizens in elections.”

To take the changes one by one:

Internet Voting

Internet voting is often seen as the solution to many election problems. In the UK it was trialed as a response to declining turnout in the early 2000s. But just because someone tells a pollster that they are more likely to vote if they can do so from home via the internet, doesn’t mean they will actually do so. TV programmes which use internet voting have many hours of positive broadcast coverage and still only get a small proportion of their audience to vote.

As I have written before, internet voting is doubly problematic. First in that it takes the vote out of the polling station. Second, that it is reliant on ‘black box technology’ so the voter cannot see directly how their vote contributes to the result and there is no paper trail. If some malign actor, either within the election commission or hacking in from outside, wanted to fix the result then it is far more possible with internet voting and almost impossible to prove.

The only country which successfully uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia which has spent many millions (in a very small country) on security. This includes a reader for every household so that voters can insert their national identity card to be validated. Even then, I would argue, it is not completely secure as other members of the household could vote using a person’s card – particularly if they are vulnerable or disinclined to vote. And the chances of pressurized voting are obvious.

Postal Voting

Postal votes have been the subject of many election fraud cases around the world. It is not quite true to assert, as President Trump does, that all postal voting is riddled with fraud. But postal votes are subject to many of the risks of other forms of remote voting.

Where a person cannot make it to vote on election day, postal votes can be a good thing. In the UK we used to have a ‘for cause’ system which meant you needed a valid reason for asking for one. Now we operate an ‘on demand’ system. This avoids the need to tie up doctors and employers and for election administrators to deal with lots of paperwork.

Where the UK – and others – have largely failed is when they seek to adopt universal postal voting – ie every voter is sent a postal vote to their registered address. I have dealt with such issues here. In short, if a person is not aware that their vote is being sent by post then it is easy to abstract and cast illegally. Switzerland is a country where all-postal ballots do work well, but is a very different electoral culture.

In order to have an effective postal vote system, a country needs to have a means of verifying that the application and the resultant vote come from the registered voter. You don’t want to allow others to apply and then vote on your behalf. This means having lots of staff, lots of time and specialist signature matching software. My experience of the Russian system is that the elections staff are generally pretty well trained and motivated, but they are short staffed and would need a significant increase in their budgets and allocation of high quality hardware from local administrations which are often reluctant to let them have anything other than the oldest computers.

Traditionally, Russia has sought to address the problem of people being away from home on election day by allowing ‘place of stay’ voting. This system, managed by the state services app, allows a voter to move their polling station up to a couple of days before the election. If you are away from home on business or an economic migrant, you can simply change where you vote to a local station. And there are special polling stations created in hospitals and railway stations, and even on ice-breakers and at the Antarctic Research Station. So with all these options, are postal votes really needed?

Early Voting

Early voting has been used for some time in a number of countries. It is not the most susceptible to fraud as it still requires the voter to attend a polling station (their own or a central hub) where they are dealt with by election administrators in the same manner as on election day. However, it can stretch the resources of party and other observers who are there to ensure that nothing untoward happens. And it can make it easier for the same voter to cast multiple ballots by going from polling station to polling station.

Home Voting

Home voting has been the traditional means by which Russia allows those who cannot come to a polling station on election day to vote. It has always been restricted to the old and people with disabilities and requires an application by the elector which is then adjudicated by the polling station committee. If approved, then on election day a subset of the committee, plus observers, takes a small version of the ballot box to the home of the voter. Although in most cases this is a workable solution, it requires the intrusion into the voter’s home of up to eight people and it is often difficult to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

The proposal now is to allow carers as well as those being cared for to vote in this way. That may seem a logical step, but simply extends the problem, I would suggest.

Precinct Voting

The proposal is to allow voters to cast their ballots not just in the confines of the polling booths, but also within designated areas within the precincts of the polling station building – in courtyards, for example. This is being done, it is claimed, for health reasons.

Fairly obviously, loss of secrecy is a big problem with this proposal. If people are wandering around with their ballot then it can be seen by others. In my experience in Russia at least one third of voters do not bother to fold their ballot after completion. 

I don’t know whether there will be polling booths set up in the courtyards where voting will be allowed, but the chances are that these will be as unpopular as those in the officisl voting room if there is a fear of Covid-19.

Perhaps the other major problem is that election officials and observers will find it difficult to track what is happening. This makes frauds such as carousel voting, illicit pressure, family voting and proxy voting all more easy to achieve.

On the other hand…

I certainly would not suggest that the Russian voting system is in the dark ages. The place of stay voting system is very good indeed and deserves to be studied by many supposedly advanced democracies. And the state services portal makes it possible to accomplish a lot of tasks related to the elections process in a simple and speedy manner. That’s a boon to voters as well as to the state. If there were to be a form of internet voting then this might well be the basis for such a system.

That said, however, it is clear that the changes being developed as a result of this Bill are not going to make the Russian system more secure and will actually do only a little to enhance access to voting. Fundamentally, they open the way for those who wish to rig the vote to do so. Citizen confidence in elections stems from knowing that votes are cast freely and that the result is an accurate counting of only legitimate votes. Sadly I think that this Bill takes Russia away from those principles.

Reading List – 15th May 2020

Apologies for not having done one of these for a while…

 

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Center argues that Russia could be squeezed out of a new bipolar world where everything comes down to the USA and China. And while this may be a relief to some in sanctions-affected Russia, he argues that the risk is that Russia loses relevance.

 

In Time Magazine, David Miller argues that just because Netanyahu can annex parts of the West Bank doesn’t mean he will.

 

Nana Kalandadze of International IDEA looks at the aborted attempt to hold an all-postal ballot in Poland last weekend.

 

Russia proposes postal and internet voting for ‘national vote’

(UPDATE: See additional notes below)

Russia is proposing to allow voting by mail or online in the ballot due to take place to approve the changes to the constitution proposed by Vladimir Putin back in January. The vote was due to take place in April but was postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. No new date has yet been set.

President Putin is widely felt to want the vote to take place sooner rather than later but there is understandable concern that voters may not want to go to the polls if it is held while people are still catching and dying from coronavirus. Hence the move to allow people to vote from home.

Russia has previously made big efforts to ensure everyone can vote in elections. During the 2018 Presidential elections I witnessed the promotion of the ‘place of stay’ voting system which enabled any registered voter to move their polling station, reflecting where they actually lived or would be on election day, rather than their official address. This could be done on paper, but most people did so using the “Unified Portal of State and Municipal Services” – an app which is genuinely easy to use and which covers most state and local services. Russia also created a range of special polling stations in hospitals, railway stations and even icebreakers to ensure that those who would be away from their registered address could still have their say.

The country also allows people to register to vote at home. This is used mainly by the very old and people with disabilities. It is a relatively common system in the former Soviet states, but it is cumbersome as it requires members of the polling station team – as well as observers – to enter the voter’s home on Election Day. Until now, Russia has not had a system of postal voting, nor, of course, of internet voting.

Setting up such systems is complex. There is no simple ‘off the shelf’ model. As we have seen in the USA and in Poland (although the latter election was abandoned with four days to do), you cannot simply state that everyone can vote by mail and expect it to happen without a flaw. The postal service needs to have the capacity and knowledge and there needs to be some sort of mechanism to make sure that the vote reaches and is completed by the right person. Having signatures or other personal identifiers on file – and a computer system able to accurately verify them – is needed. Plus, as soon as you take the ballot outside the polling station, the risks of coercion increase.

In the case of internet voting, the good news for Russia is the state services portal. This could provide a gateway for an online balloting procedure. But there is still a long way between having that portal and being able to use it for a ballot that voters can trust to remain secret and secure. The only country in the world that uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia, which has invested a very large amount in security hardware to make sure the right person is voting.

For all these reasons, ODIHR recommended in the case of Poland that significant changes should not take place less than 6 months before the election is due. That recommendation would surely apply for Russia as well.

To date all we have is a law passed by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. It must still go to the upper house, the Electoral Commission and the President, but it seems unlikely to change much. The details of how it might work are still to be made public and it might be that this remains an aspiration rather than a reality. But it will be a development that will be closely monitored by elections analysts both in Russia and elsewhere.

UPDATE: Kommersant reports that, contrary to what was initially reported, remote voting will not be allowed for the national vote on the constitutional changes. Given the conflicting reports, I am looking to get clarity. However, if Kommersant is right then there is still the likelihood that Russia is looking to move to online and postal voting for future elections – possibly as soon as this autumn’s regional or next year’s Duma polls. That still presents a big logistical challenge for the state.

Elections during Covid-19

Whilst the world is trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the normal functionality of most states is taking a back seat. That includes elections and democratic processes. The challenge for all leaders is to ensure that emergency measures put in place for times of crisis are rescinded as soon as they can be and normal democracy and personal freedoms are once again allowed to flourish.

So far, at least 20 countries have had elections postponed and more decisions are needed all the time. A few have tentatively named new dates in the autumn, but most are as yet un-scheduled. Some ballots have struggled on, but it has become clear that this will not be possible for much longer. Elections which had hoped to get under the wire, such as France’s local elections, have been pushed back. In the first round, the government asked voters to stay three feet apart and bring their own pens. Despite these and other measures, turnout dropped from 63% in 2014 local polls to 45%, prompting President Macron to postpone the second round. 

And yet there remain a few polls which may still take place. According to International IDEA, “elections in South Korea (15 April 2020), Russia* (public vote scheduled for 22 April 2020) Bolivia (3 May 2020), New Zealand (19 September) and Romania (late 2020) are being held as originally scheduled despite concerns related to COVID-19.”

(*Note that the Russian vote has now been delayed).

The decision for lawmakers is how they can balance democracy with the health of their populations. Can mitigation measures be put in place to allow an election to go ahead, or will it put the health of voters and poll workers at risk? And is there a risk that one section of the population – typically older people – will be less inclined to vote, thus affecting the legitimacy of the outcome?

Reading the expert scientific opinion, we know that the virus can be spread by sneezing and coughing and by social contact. It is yet to be shown how long the virus can live in the open air, but places where large numbers of people can be expected to gather are at risk and such comings together have been banned in many states. Facemasks and disinfecting might help, but probably not enough to ensure that busy polling places are not without at least a degree of risk. And it would not be practical to ask every person to wear a mask or to wipe down all surfaces between each voter.

Even if it were possible, the level of concern among voters would be significant and would surely affect turnout – a factor that is not in the interests of any candidate, nor of democracy.

In those cases where elections have happened regardless – often in a country’s early stages of dealing with Covid-19 – various mitigation measures have been tried. For instance, in Israel, special polling places were set up for roughly 5,500 people self-isolating and these featured plastic sheeting and poll workers in protective gear.

Postponing elections is an easier option, but it has a significant impact on the democratic legitimacy of those who stay in office longer. And in many countries it is simply not legal to extend terms. Over the past few years, the annual survey of the state of democracy in the world has shown a small degree of backsliding. One of the tenets of a democratic society is that elections are held regularly and freely. Postponing them obviously risks this and so must only be taken as a last resort. In cases such as North Macedonia’s parliamentary elections slated for April 12th, the delay is less important as these were early polls in any case. Postponing them until the originally scheduled date in the autumn might not have a significant impact on the democratic health of the country.

One might also argue that the democratic deficit created by postponing local and mayoral elections for a year is not huge as these are less powerful positions. But it may still be the case that a postponement is unconstitutional. In an emergency session of parliament on 15th March 2020, Austria passed the ‘COVID-19-Law’. The law does not mention elections, but allows for far reaching restrictions to public life, including bans of assembly for more than five persons. Local elections scheduled for 15th March in Vorarlberg and for 22nd March in Styria have both been cancelled. Indefinitely postponing elections is not in Austria’s Constitution and its election laws prescribe: “In the event of circumstances that prevent the beginning, continuation or completion of the election, the election administration can extend the election or postpone it to the next day.” If a new date is not pencilled in soon then it may be that such instances will result in court fights.

Another case of concern is the vote on a new constitution for Chile due to be held on April 26th which has now been postponed to the autumn. This vote was the outcome of many years of protests about the Pinochet-era constitution. Instead of voting to replace widespread restrictions to personal freedoms, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced a 90-day “state of catastrophe” to confront the growing outbreak. The move gives the government extraordinary powers to restrict freedom of movement and assure food supply and basic services. The military is permitted to intervene and uphold order when necessary. A significant test of every country’s leadership will be how restrictive the measures are that they feel they need to put in place and how soon they can start to ease them. 

And what of the November election for the US President – the most powerful elected office in the world? There couldn’t really be a serious debate about extending this term of office because it would fall immediately into an argument about President Trump himself. But if there could be an objective discussion, where would that end up if the virus was still having a major effect on American life? And how do we even get to the November elections which are reliant on a series of primaries to determine presidential and down-ballot candidates?

Various suggestions have been made about alternatives to the normal voting rules and procedures, but the oft-touted concept of all-mail voting does not come without significant risks. In particular, fraud, or the potential for it, is much higher based on the experience of the UK.

The idea of implementing an all-mail ballot is an attractive one, but comes up against significant barriers in the US context. Chief among these is that elections are a devolved responsibility with states and counties having their own laws and procedures. Just 34 states have a vote by mail option and the federal government cannot mandate its adoption. That is not to say that states might not choose to provide such a choice where they currently do not, or to expand it where it is currently limited, but such action comes at a price – both financial and logistical. One state that will be trialling an all-mail vote is Maryland where a special election is to be held on 28th April. 

As an international election observer for more than 20 years, I know also that taking ballot papers out of the confines of the polling station carries a significant increased risk of fraud. And in a large election with many contests, there will be a significant rise in spoiled ballots and voter confusion in cases where there is not an official on hand to explain the process to those who may be unsure.

Such problems are exacerbated where the vote by mail is not obtained through choice but is universal. In the UK we trialled this over several elections between 2000 and 2002. The aim was to raise turnout in years which traditionally had low participation rates. The problem was that ballot envelopes are easily identifiable and can be taken by someone other than the intended voter. This happened chiefly where the voter had moved on or was not interested in voting and is an even bigger concern in multi-occupancy dwellings where residents have access to the mail of others. Where a voter has applied for a postal vote, they are more likely to raise the alarm when it does not arrive on time. But where they might not be expecting their vote to arrive in the mail, they may not know it is missing – particularly if they are someone who is less inclined to vote in the first place.

The other issue we faced in the UK was of unscrupulous campaigners stealing votes, pressuring voters and even creating ‘fraud factories’ to open up completed ballots and change them if they were not cast to the liking of the criminal parties. 

With accusations of electoral fraud common in the US in recent years, even the possibility that this might be happening would be enough for candidates from across the political spectrum to throw accusations. This would damage trust in democracy and the credibility of those declared the winners.

Whilst in the UK we continue to allow postal voting on demand, we have tightened the system significantly. The all-mail election experiment was abandoned and the signature and date of birth of all postal voters are held by election officials with every returned ballot having a signed declaration which is checked before the ballot envelope is included in the count. It is a long and costly business with an impact on personal privacy and also leads to some valid votes potentially being excluded. But it is considered the fairest balance. Campaigners in the US have already made this a point of contention with some arguing for ballots without a perfect signature match to be counted.

That is not to say that all-mail ballots cannot work. The Swiss use such a system and there are few, if any, accusations of fraud in that country. But it should not be thought of as a risk-free option for the USA or elsewhere, even in these extraordinary times. 

Technological solutions such as voting using text messaging, via the internet or by telephone were also trialled in the UK and found to have significant security risks. In a country where foreign agents are accused of having sought to disrupt the last election, it would be foolish to consider introducing more opportunities for hacking. The only country that routinely uses internet voting for public elections is Estonia and they have invested billions over many years into hardware and software to improve the security of the vote. The chances of any other country doing so for an election due in the next couple of years is negligible.

Inevitably, there is no easy solution to this challenge. Postponement, all-mail and technological solutions each have their benefits but also significant drawbacks. The debate to identify the least problematic option or options should continue. But it will only be successful if accepted by all parties and candidates as the best alternative.

UPDATE: International IDEA has now produced a technical paper looking at the options for holding elections.

Voter Suppression and poll failures – the latest government election efforts

Two significant bits of news as regards elections in the UK have emerged in the last few days:

Voter ID requirement would be suppression effort

First, the government has said that it wants to press ahead with plans to require voters to take photo identity documents to the polling station. This measure, although a common requirement in countries with ID cards, has been dubbed an attempt at voter suppression in the UK where the most likely to be hit would be young people, the elderly and people from minority communities.

Two rounds of pilots have taken place in local council elections where voters were required to bring either photo ID or poll cards in order to be allowed to vote. In the most recent trial in five local authorities, more than 750 people were turned away and did not return with the correct documents although many others did so after initially being refused. In contrast, during the 2015 elections (which included a general election) there 665 complaints of electoral fraud but most related to nominations or postal voting. There were 26 cases reported of ‘personation’ at a polling station, but none resulted in convictions. A total of around 51.4 million ballots cast.

But if most other countries require ID, why shouldn’t the UK? 

First, because we don’t have a national identity card system. (That’s a whole separate civil liberties argument). So we have to rely on forms of identity that we do have – passports and driving licences. But only about 78% of the adult population have passports and only about 80% have driving licenses. These raw statistics would suggest that 96% of the population would have one or the other, but actually if you don’t have a passport then you are much less likely to have a driving licence. So the real figure is about 11% – one in nine of the population. And these people are statistically more likely to be much younger, not in work or from minority populations – in other words, statiustically less likely to be Conservative voters.

In order to get around the ‘No-ID’ problem, the government would have to issue a special form of voting ID card. With a potential 5.6 million to issue, this would be an expensive and complex business (it would have to be free to the applicant) and very difficult to promote to the audiences who need to see and understand the message.

All this begins to look very similar to efforts in the United States to suppress the likely support for opposition parties. 

I used to work for the Electoral Reform Society. As part of that work I highlighted the much more real danger of electoral fraud connected with postal votes and this work resulted in significant changes to the law to try to stamp this out. Even with those changes I would still regard postal voting as a much greater risk of fraud than in-person voting. In response to the new government proposals, the ERS have said:

“Ministers should focus on combating the real threats to our democracy – dark ads, disinformation and dodgy donations – rather than suppressing voters’ rights.”

Electoral Commission criticises government over Euro-poll failures

Second, the Electoral Commission has blamed the government for the failures of the European Parliamentary elections when thousands of eligible voters were denied the chance to cast their ballot. The Commission has blamed “outdated laws” and “the failure by the government to act on recommendations made four years ago”.

The Commission also said voter confidence in the election was lower than in any other recent polls, denting the democratic contract with the public.

Thousands of EU citizens who were on the electoral roll were turned away as they had not been informed they also had to fill in a form confirming they would be exercising their vote in the UK rather than in their country of origin. There were a number of reports of councils giving misleading information to voters who made enquiries and of authorities who failed to process returned forms properly.

Many UK citizens living overseas complained that they did not receive their ballot papers in time to have their vote count.