Articles / Interesting Case of the Month
“Partisan gerrymanders. Voter purges. Cyberattacks. Electoral College backlash” – Columbia University asked a group of its professors “for a status report on the central mechanism of US democracy.” Their response: there are ‘8 things . . . every reader [should] know.”
First, there has been decreasing faith in the integrity of the American voting system. This has resulted, at least in part, from events such as the two recent presidential elections where the popular vote winner did not prevail. However, abolishing the Electoral College (which permits for such outcomes) would require a constitutional amendment, which seems unlikely.
Next, efforts to suppress the votes of those thought not to favor the party in power are increasing. In the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, the Court held that the formula used to determine what jurisdictions required oversight of changes in voting laws was unconstitutional because states were being discriminated against based on past behavior. Immediately after the decision, several states introduced new bills such as those imposing more stringent voter ID requirements in Texas and North Carolina. Although such changes have met legal challenges, they have had an effect on election results. For example, African-American turnout in North Carolina in the 2016 election was negatively impacted. Per the authors:
“Black Turnout Down in North Carolina After Cuts to Early Voting,” NBC News reported on November 7, 2016, the day before the presidential election. In the end, Donald Trump won the state that Barack Obama ’83CC carried
“North Carolina is widely seen by conservatives and liberals as a laboratory for what the future of voter rights might look like,” Cobb says. “The demographics of the electorate in the coming years is the main battlefront in politics right now.”
Third: States are purging their voter rolls in efforts to control who votes. Using the “purported problem of rampant voter fraud” voters are being stricken from the [rolls] and voting suppressed. “[T]he claim of voter fraud is itself fraudulent: numerous studies have found virtually none at all.” However, some states have used such claims to justify voter purges. For example, Ohio lawmakers purge the rolls by sending out postcards to anyone who did not vote during a two-year period. If someone does not vote in the next four years or return the postcard, they will be purged. The Supreme Court recently upheld this law as providing reasonable evidence that someone had moved. Some have proposed challenging such laws based on discrimination to minorities.
Fourth: Gerrymandering “isn’t going away” and may in fact be on the rise. There is currently a lack of clarity around the permissibility of political gerrymandering (as opposed to racial gerrymandering, which is unquestionably illegal).
“The Supreme Court has been going round and round on partisan gerrymandering,” says [one professor]. “What they’ve said is that districting is so inherently political that it has been difficult to find principled criteria in the Constitution or constitutional law that the courts could use to distinguish what’s permissible from what’s impermissible.”
This past Spring the Supreme Court heard a claim by Wisconsin Democrats in the case Gill v. Whitford that their voting districts had been gerrymandered.
“Wisconsin is evenly divided politically between Republicans and Democrats, but because of packing, Democrats win fewer districts by wider margins — 80–20 or 90–10 — while Republicans win more districts by narrower margins,” . . . “There are no 90 percent Republican districts.
“The claim in Gill v. Whitford was that the Republican-controlled state legislature diluted the Democratic vote and maximized the number of districts Republicans would likely control — and that this violates the guarantee of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Court held 9-0 that because the claimants could not “show [that] they were personally affected by the gerrymanders,” their case must be dismissed. However, the Court did not rule out that partisanship COULD be the basis for overturning a gerrymander.
Fifth: There is great concern about cybersecurity, especially with respect to voting machines. States’ voter-registration databases are another vulnerability. However, the concerns are not just about hacking; many worry about computer error.
[M]any jurisdictions installed computerized voting systems. Computer scientists have long been opposed to this. No computer scientist trusts computerized voting systems. They’re just not secure enough. Across the country, people are casting votes on these electronic voting machines that leave no paper trails.”
[Those who understand computerized voting are] much more worried about computer error — buggy code — than cyberattacks.”. . .“There have been inexplicable errors in some voting machines. It’s a really hard problem to deal with. It’s not like, say, an ATM system, where they print out a log of every transaction and take pictures, and there’s a record. In voting you need voter privacy — you can’t keep logs — and there’s no mechanism for redoing your election if you find a security problem later.”
Sixth: “Reality is under attack. While fake news is increasingly present online, its precise effects are still unknown. In July, thirteen Russians were indicted for setting up hundreds of Facebook accounts and buying ads to damage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. Although social media companies have taken steps to filter out fake news, some suggest that “what needs to be understood and addressed most are the sources of fake news and the phenomena that drive online traffic.”
[T]his battle over reality will only get more complicated as technology advances and becomes more available. “We are quickly moving into an era where the ability to edit images or videos — even to change faces — is going to improve so much,” he says, “that you won’t be able to trust anything.”
The professors’ last two points address the future and how to moving forward. They are concerned how the 2020 election will affect the 2020 census, especially in light of the potential nastiness of the election and concerns about adding a citizenship question on the Census. Some, like Ester Fuchs, the director of Columbia University’s Urban and Social Policy program, think that voter engagement is key to help solve concerns about and lack of confidence in the voting system.
“Education campaigns are crucial. We need to put civics back into eighth-grade education. Few people understand how elections work or how a bill becomes a law or how government impacts their lives. The way to get people engaged is to get them to understand that government decisions affect their day-to-day lives, and that there’s something at stake if they don’t participate.”
Paul Hond, Columbia Magazine, “Ballot Breakdown,” Fall 2018.
How Your Brain Tricks You Into Believing Fake News:
With the average American spending 24 hours online each week, fake news is becoming increasingly problematic, especially as meddlers try to manipulate elections worldwide by spreading disinformation. However, fake news also affects a wider sphere, such as vaccinations, Holocaust denial, and rumors about false child kidnappings.
In light of the proliferation of fake news, a team at Stanford University led by Sam Wineburg called the Stanford History Education Group is trying to answer “two of the most vexing questions of the Internet age: Why are even the smartest among us so bad at making judgments about what to trust on the web? And how can we get better?”
Per Wineburg’s group, while there are unquestionable bad actors consciously trying to deceive us –
What is clear, however, is that there is another responsible party. The problem is not just malicious bots or chaos-loving trolls or Macedonian teenagers pushing phony stories for profit. The problem is also us, the susceptible readers.
Stanford researchers have found that Americans of all ages and backgrounds fail to ask important questions about content they see online, making us increasingly gullible online. Furthermore, studies suggest people are inclined to believe false news at least 20% of the time. People don’t fall for false news because they are dumb, but rather because they let the wrong impulses take over.
One such impulse is the innate desire for an easy answer. Humans also have a tendency to assume that if something is familiar, it must be good and safe. Furthermore, humans tend to believe things to which they have been previously exposed. While such tendencies might have helped our ancestors survive, they can cause problems in the increasingly digital landscape.
There are also difficulties related to the nature of the Internet. For example, stories can be posted online without the vetting of books or traditional printed newspapers. It is more difficult for humans’ brains to make sense of different types of information because it all looks so similar. Furthermore, people also tend to assume that if something appears higher in Google search results, it is more reliable. People also tend to trust visuals, even those used in false contexts.
Fact-checkers have come up with suggestions to help detect fake news. For example, in determining an organization’s legitimacy, they use lateral reading by looking on the wider web to see what it says about the organization. Fact-checkers also use “click restraint” by scanning an entire page or two of search results before choosing which to select. They recommend starting with the question “who is behind the information?” Additionally, as 6 in 10 links are retweeted without users’ reading the actual article, it is useful to actually read the article. Fact checkers also recommend looking for claims or articles that seem outlandish. Some advocate using shame to increase awareness of “digital pollution” online and make people feel like they are littering when they forward things that aren’t true. Others recommend introducing new curricula in schools to help train students on how to determine the reliability of online information.
Katy Steinmetz, Time Magazine, “How Your Brain Tricks You Into Believing Fake News,” Aug. 9, 2018.
Atlantis Found (Again)! And Exasperated Scientists (Again) Raise Their Eyebrows:
A U.K. based group claims to have discovered the ruins of the once prosperous city of Atlantis on the Atlantic coast of Spain. However, most archaeologist do not believe this is the actual Atlantis, pointing to dozens of such claims over the years, and think the ruins likely belong to another ancient culture.
Plato described Atlantis about 360 B.C. and for centuries scholars viewed Plato’s writings as an allegory. However, in 1882 a Minnesota U.S. representative published a book claiming Atlantis was a real place, resulting in people searching for the city’s sunken remains.
Two years ago employees at Merlin Burrows using data from commercial satellites found what they claimed may be Atlantis in Spain’s Doñana National Park. The site comprises remains of a long sea wall, large circles that could have been the bases of towers, ruins of a possible temple, and evidence of a tsunami. They made a documentary called “Atlantica” about their findings. Interestingly, other parties, including National Geographic and a 2004 study in the journal “Antiquity” have also hypothesized that Atlantis could be in southern Spain.
Many, however, are deeply skeptical that the find is in fact Atlantis.
[O]ne archaeologist said that the ruins likely belong to another ancient culture, and several researchers interviewed by Live Science could barely contain their exasperation when they heard the news of yet another Atlantis discovery. (People have made dozens of such claims over the years, locating the legendary society in Antarctica, Bolivia, Turkey, Germany, Malta, the Caribbean and elsewhere.)
“Bless their hearts — if they’re correct about this, that would be awesome,” said Ken Feder, a professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University. “But here’s my problem: As an archaeologist, I know that I always need to be in the company of my bullshit detector. And these guys, they have done just about everything they possibly can to set off my bullshit detector.”
The article describes the find as presented, history about the Atlantis “myth,” and other claimed Atlantis “finds.” It’s a fun and light read, and worthy of one’s time for a mental relaxation break.
Laura Geggel, Live Science, “Atlantis Found (Again)! And Exasperated Scientists (Again) Raise Their Eyebrows,” Nov. 28, 2018.