Georgia governor’s race awash in election security issue
By BILL BARROW and FRANK BAJAK
Monday, November 5
ATLANTA (AP) — An already tight governor’s race in Georgia devolved into new chaos Monday after the Republican candidate, who is also the state’s chief election official, alleged with little evidence that Democrats sought to hack a voter database that will be used in Tuesday’s elections.
Republican nominee Brian Kemp made the allegation just as reports emerged of a gaping vulnerability in a system that he controls as secretary of state.
An attorney for election-security advocates notified the FBI and Kemp’s office on Saturday that a private citizen alerted him to what could be a major flaw in the database used to check in voters at the polls.
Independent computer scientists told The Associated Press that it enables anyone with access to an individual voter’s personal information to alter that voter’s record.
In response, Kemp asked the FBI to investigate the Democratic Party for trying to hack the system.
Kemp’s office did not detail any Democratic acts, offering no evidence for beginning a probe of his partisan opposition days before an election.
Democrat Stacey Abrams told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that she believes her opponent “cooked up the charge, because he realizes, once again, he left the personal information of six million voters vulnerable. This has happened twice before.”
“We have nothing to do with this,” she added in an interview on CBS “This Morning.” ”When he gets caught, he blames everyone else.”
Both programs said they offered Kemp an opportunity to appear as well, but he declined.
Polls suggest Kemp and Abrams are locked in a tight race in a contest that has taken on historic significance because of the potential of Abrams becoming the nation’s first black female governor.
She’s accused Kemp of using his post as secretary of state to make it harder for certain voters to cast ballots. Kemp counters that he’s following state and federal law and that it’s Abrams and her affiliated voting advocacy groups trying to help people, including noncitizens, cast ballots illegally.
The state Democratic Party called Kemp’s accusation “a reckless and unethical ploy” and said he was using the FBI to support “false accusations.”
The finger-pointing is the latest turn in a campaign whose final weeks have been dominated by charges of voter suppression and countercharges of attempted voter fraud.
In the voting integrity case, a federal judge last month endorsed the plaintiff’s arguments that Kemp has been derelict in his management of the state election system and that it violates voters’ constitutional rights with its lack of verifiability and reliability.
The atmosphere has left partisans and good-government advocates alike worrying about the possibility that the losing side will not accept Tuesday’s results as legitimate.
According to AP interviews and records released by the Georgia Democratic Party, the lawyer for the election-security advocates, David Cross, notified both the FBI and Kemp’s counsel Saturday morning that a citizen had alerted him to the flaw. But the citizen had separately informed the Georgia Democratic Party, whose voter protection director then sent an email to two computer security officials.
“If this report is accurate, it is a massive vulnerability,” wrote the director, Sara Tindall Ghazal. Party officials provided the AP with the email, its recipients’ names redacted.
Neither Cross nor the state party went public.
But reporters for the online news outlet WhoWhatWhy obtained a copy of the Ghazal email and the email that Democratic Party officials received from the private citizen who discovered the flaw, Richard Wright.
They published a story Sunday just as Kemp’s office released its statement accusing Democrats of attempted hacking.
“While we cannot comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation, I can confirm that the Democratic Party of Georgia is under investigation for possible cybercrimes,” said Candice Broce, who works for Kemp.
Rebecca DeHart, executive director at the state Democratic Party, said no one from Kemp’s office notified the Democratic Party or asked any question about the correspondence before issuing its public announcement of an investigation.
WhoWhatWhy’s story said five security experts had reviewed the Wright complaint and independently confirmed that the database is vulnerable to hacking.
One of those experts, University of Michigan computer scientist Matthew Bernhard, told the AP that anyone with access to an individual voter’s personal information could alter that voter’s record in the system.
Another computer security professional who reviewed the vulnerability — without attempting to probe it for fear of prosecution — is Kris Constable of PrivaSecTech in Vancouver, Canada. “Anyone with security chops would have detected this problem,” he said, “so (the system) clearly has never been audited by any computer security professional.”
The FBI declined to comment. A representative for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the agency had been notified, but it deferred to Georgia officials for details.
Cross said Wright, a businessman with “some background in software,” doesn’t wish to speak publicly.
The Coalition for Good Governance, a plaintiff in the voting integrity lawsuit against Kemp, issued a statement decrying his outsourcing of the voter registration database and electronic poll book voter check-in system to a third party, PCC Technologies.
“There are still immediate steps that Secretary Kemp and the State Election Board can take to mitigate some, but not all, of the risk for Tuesday’s vote,” the group said.
Efforts to reach PCC for comment have not been successful.
The hacking accusation is not the first from Kemp accusing outsiders of trying to penetrate his office. Immediately after the 2016 general election, Kemp declared that DHS tried to hack his office’s network, an accusation dismissed as unfounded in mid-2017 by the DHS inspector general.
Georgia’s centrally managed elections system lacks a verifiable paper trail that can be audited in case of problems. The state is one of just five nationwide that continues to rely exclusively on aged electronic voting machines that computer scientists have long criticized as untrustworthy because they are easily hacked and don’t leave a paper trail.
In 2015, Kemp’s office inadvertently released the Social Security numbers and other identifying information of millions of Georgia voters. His office blamed a clerical error.
His office made headlines again last year after security experts disclosed a gaping security hole that wasn’t fixed until six months after it was first reported to election authorities. Personal data was again exposed for Georgia voters — 6.7 million at the time — as were passwords used by county officials to access files.
Kemp’s office blamed that breach on Kennesaw State University, which managed the system on Kemp’s behalf.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Colleen Long and Jill Colvin in Washington and Ben Nadler in Atlanta contributed to this report.
For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics
Florida’s Amendment 4: Restoring voting rights to people with felonies might also reduce crime
October 26, 2018
Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh
Victoria Shineman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Pittsburgh provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
On Nov. 6, voters in Florida will consider a ballot measure that would restore the right to vote to 1 million citizens who are currently not able to vote because they have felony convictions.
My research finds that when Virginia restored voting rights, ex-offenders became more trusting of government and the criminal justice system. These attitudes are known to make it easier for citizens to re-enter society after being released from prison and decrease their tendency to commit additional crimes.
The results from my study in Virginia might give a glimpse of what would be expected if the Florida measure, called Amendment 4, passes.
Florida’s felony disenfranchisement laws
More than 6 million U.S. citizens do not have the right to vote due to state laws that limit the voting rights of those convicted of a felony.
All but four states automatically restore voting rights to people after they are released from prison, or after completion of parole or probation.
In Florida, however, voting rights are never automatically restored.
They can only be restored by an application to the Executive Clemency Board – a four-member panel including both the governor and the attorney general. Citizens must wait at least five years after completing their sentence before applying. The clemency board is able to reject applications for any reason, including traffic violations.
Under current Gov. Rick Scott, the clemency board approved fewer than 2,000 restorations of voting rights over six years. There is a current backlog of more than 10,000 applications.
Given these strict laws, more than 1.6 million voting-age citizens in Florida do not have the right to vote – including more than 1 out of every 5 black citizens statewide.
Amendment 4 would change the Florida State Constitution. If the referendum passes, voting rights will automatically be restored to all citizens who finish probation. This change would apply to all felonies except for murder and sex crimes.
New research from Virginia
In Virginia, an ex-offender can only regain their right to vote if the governor signs an executive order personally restoring their civil rights.
Typically, previous governors waited for people to apply and considered individual applications for restoration with varying scrutiny. But in 2016 and 2017, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe made the unprecedented move to proactively restore voting rights to more than 150,000 ex-offenders – more than any other governor in U.S. history.
I went to Virginia during the November 2017 statewide election, shortly after many new restoration orders had been processed. I recruited a sample of 93 citizens with felony convictions to complete two surveys – one before the election, and one after.
More than 70 percent of these individuals already had their voting rights restored by the governor, but many of them were not aware of their newly restored rights.
I randomly divided them into groups. After the first survey and before the election, individuals in one group were informed about whether their voting rights had been restored. Individuals in another group were not provided with this information. I then compared the attitudes within the two groups before and after the election.
Since many subjects were unaware that their voting rights had already been restored, the study randomly increased information about their voting rights. Because the two groups being compared are similar in every way – except for the information they received about voting rights – I am able to measure the effects of learning that your right to vote has been restored.
Citizens who were told whether their voting rights had been restored became more trusting of government and the criminal justice system compared to those who were not provided with this information. They also viewed the U.S. government as more fair and representative. And they became more trusting of the police and more willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
These findings corroborate results from another study I conducted in November 2014. The earlier study similarly informed some citizens with felony convictions in Ohio that their voting rights had been restored. Compared to another group who was not provided with this information, subjects who were informed that their voting rights had been restored reported higher trust in the government and the police.
These trusting and pro-democratic attitudes are known to help citizens reintegrate into their communities upon release from prison.
Research suggests citizens returning from prison reintegrate more successfully if they are able to transition from an identity as a “criminal” to an identity of a “law-abiding citizen.”
Not being allowed to vote creates a lasting stigma that makes it harder for them to see themselves as valuable members of society. On the other hand, being encouraged to vote causes people to become more informed and more trusting.
Research on crime also suggests that people are more likely to obey laws when they believe those laws were created through a fair process. Individuals who were informed about their voting rights also perceived the government as more fair and representative. Thus voting rights might make it easier for returning citizens to reintegrate into society, while also reducing the incentives to commit further crimes.
Lessons for Amendment 4
Policies regulating the voting rights of ex-offenders have historically been a partisan issue, with Democrats supporting voting rights and Republicans supporting voting restrictions.
But Amendment 4 has had strong bipartisan support. One argument that increases support on both sides is that restoring voting rights would decrease crime.
There are other studies that have found a relationship between voting rights and lower crime. But none of them have yet been able to test whether restoring voting rights causes crime to decrease as mine does.
My research provides the first causal evidence that restoring voting rights causes ex-offenders to the very develop attitudes and behaviors that make them more likely to successfully reintegrate into society and avoid returning to crime and prison.
Amendment 4 could not only affect voter turnout and electoral outcomes – it could also decrease crime and the costs of the criminal justice system.
Even a few bots can shift public opinion in big ways
November 5, 2018
Associate Professor of Operations Management, MIT Sloan School of Management
Tauhid Zaman is a registered Democrat.
Nearly two-thirds of the social media bots with political activity on Twitter before the 2016 U.S. presidential election supported Donald Trump. But all those Trump bots were far less effective at shifting people’s opinions than the smaller proportion of bots backing Hillary Clinton. As my recent research shows, a small number of highly active bots can significantly change people’s political opinions. The main factor was not how many bots there were – but rather, how many tweets each set of bots issued.
My work focuses on military and national security aspects of social networks, so naturally I was intrigued by concerns that bots might affect the outcome of the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. I began investigating what exactly bots did in 2016. There was plenty of rhetoric – but only one basic factual principle: If information warfare efforts using bots had succeeded, then voters’ opinions would have shifted.
I wanted to measure how much bots were – or weren’t – responsible for changes in humans’ political views. I had to find a way to identify social media bots and evaluate their activity. Then I needed to measure the opinions of social media users. Lastly, I had to find a way to estimate what those people’s opinions would have been if the bots had never existed.
Finding tweeters and bots
To narrow the research a bit, my students and I focused our analysis on the Twitter discussion around one event in the lead-up to the election: the second debate between Clinton and Trump. We collected 2.3 million tweets that contained keywords and hashtags related to the debate.
Then we made a list of the roughly 78,000 Twitter users who posted those tweets and constructed the network of who followed whom among those users. To identify the bots among them, we used an algorithm based on our observation that bots often retweeted humans but were not themselves frequently retweeted.
This method found 396 bots – or less than 1 percent of the active Twitter users. And just 10 percent of the accounts followed them. I felt good about that: It seemed unlikely that such a small number of relatively disconnected bots could have a major effect on people’s opinions.
A closer look at the people
Next we set out to measure the opinions of the people in our data set. We did this with a type of machine learning algorithm called a neural network, which in this case we set up to evaluate the content of each tweet, determining the extent to which it supported Clinton or Trump. Individuals’ opinions were calculated as the average of their tweets’ opinions.
Once we had assigned each human Twitter user in our data a score representing how strong a Clinton or Trump backer they were, the challenge was to measure how much the bots shifted people’s opinions – which meant calculating what their opinions would have been if the bots hadn’t existed.
Fortunately, a model from as far back as the 1970s had established a way to gauge people’s sentiments in a social network based on connections between them. In this network-based model, individuals’ opinions tend to align with the people connected to them. After slightly modifying the model to apply it to Twitter, we used it to calculate people’s opinions based on who followed whom on Twitter – rather than looking at their tweets. We found that the opinions we calculated from the network model matched well with opinions measured from the content of their tweets.
Life without the bots
So far we had shown that the follower network structure in Twitter could accurately predict people’s opinions. This now allowed to us to ask questions such as: What would their opinions have been if the network were different? The different network we were interested in was one that contained no bots. So for our last step, we removed the bots from the network and recalculated the network model, to see what real people’s opinions would have been without bots. Sure enough, bots had shifted human users’ opinions – but in a surprising way.
Given much of the news reporting, we were expecting the bots to help Trump – but they didn’t. In a network without bots, the average human user had a pro-Clinton score of 42 out of 100. With the bots, though, we had found the average human had a pro-Clinton score of 58. That shift was a far larger effect than we had anticipated, given how few and unconnected the bots were. The network structure had amplified the bots’ power.
We wondered what had made the Clinton bots more effective than the Trump bots. Closer inspection showed that the 260 bots supporting Trump posted a combined 113,498 tweets, or 437 tweets per bot. However, the 150 bots supporting Clinton posted 96,298 tweets, or 708 tweets per bot. It appeared that the power of the Clinton bots came not from their numbers, but from how often they tweeted. We found that most of what the bots posted were retweets of the candidates or other influential individuals. So they were not really crafting original tweets, but sharing existing ones.
It’s worth noting that our analysis looked at a relatively small number of users, especially when compared to the voting population. And it was only during a relatively short period of time around a specific event in the campaign. Therefore, they don’t suggest anything about the overall election results. But they do show the potential effect bots can have on people’s opinions.
A small number of very active bots can actually significantly shift public opinion – and despite social media companies’ efforts, there are still large numbers of bots out there, constantly tweeting and retweeting, trying to influence real people who vote.
It’s a reminder to be careful about what you read – and what you believe – on social media. We recommend double-checking that you are following people you know and trust – and keeping an eye on who is tweeting what on your favorite hashtags.