UW News

October 6, 2020

‘Neither Free Nor Fair’: New UW podcast takes on election security in US and abroad

UW News


James Long has observed many elections in Asia and Africa, for research and as part of an advocacy organization called Democracy International. An associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, Long has witnessed firsthand the kind of election fraud that most Americans have not: ballot-stuffing, forged polling place counts, and blatant intimidation of voters and harassment of election workers.

But now, with President Trump decrying mail-in voting and suggesting he may not agree to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election – as he did in the first presidential debate – Americans are worrying about how the election will be conducted, and what will happen no matter who the winner is, said Long.

So this fall, Long launched a podcast focused on election security, “Neither Free Nor Fair?”, featuring experts from the UW and elsewhere, and building on the audience of the UW Political Economy Forum’s podcast. Newly recorded episodes focus on mail-in voting and President Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis; other topics scheduled before the general election include foreign interference, the role of social media, and resolving disputed elections. Future topics depend somewhat on what happens Nov. 3, Long said. He’s considering a continued focus on domestic issues, for example, or an exploration of elections around the world.

“This is the first election in my lifetime where Americans are talking about administration and certification of the election in the same way we do when we observe elections in developing countries,” he said. “I believe it’s my duty as a citizen to provide a platform to Americans for what the international community has learned over the years.”

UW News spoke with Long about the podcast, the issues raised and this particular time in American politics.


What do you see playing out in U.S. elections that reminds you of your experiences abroad?

The U.S. is distinct from other countries in that it doesn’t have a single election; it has 50 separate elections that occur on the same day. So there are 50 different state laws around how they do registrations, and how they administer elections. In other countries, elections are administered by one body, for the whole country.

But the way that the U.S. is similar to other countries is how its elections are vulnerable to hacking, and to the weaponization of information. This has gone on in other countries for years – and during the Cold War, the United States did that with elections in Latin America and Europe, to make sure communists or leftists weren’t elected. But the 2016 election was the first time Americans were really made aware of it here.

Today, the threats are not just coming from outside, or one candidate here or there, they’re coming from the incumbent government. That’s what we see in authoritarian countries, where leaders then claim fraud if they lose or threaten violence. This is the first time in the U.S. where I’ve seen a president make allegations that are completely unfounded about the election’s integrity to this extent, which is part of the justification for this podcast.


How did Bush v. Gore set the stage for what we see today?

One thing that was confirmed by Bush v. Gore was that there are certain election challenges at the state level, and since then, there have been some efforts in Congress, and among some states, around voting, voter registration and ballot-counting to improve the process. One conclusion I’ve come to is that some states will innovate in ways to increase voter access and protect systems, and some won’t.

Bush v. Gore made us aware of the vulnerability of elections, but it taught us the wrong lesson, which is that any disputed election can easily be resolved by the Supreme Court and therefore provide a legitimate winner.

The results of Bush v. Gore came down to the ballot count in one state, Florida, and whether the state was capable of adjudicating the recount. Remember, that recount was halted due to riots outside one of the counting centers where Gore was pulling ahead; it was litigated up to the Supreme Court, which faced a deadline in the seating of the state’s electors and sent it to them to decide the outcome.  Florida, where Jeb Bush, was governor, had already certified George W. Bush as the winner before the recount.

So it wasn’t the exercise of the law as such with the Supreme Court but rather the exercise of raw political power, with the riots shutting down the recount, that determined the winner.


These days, election security, itself, is a political issue. Why is that dangerous?

We’ve known there’s been 50 different state systems for a long time, and there have been other issues that have threatened the credibility of elections: voter suppression, gerrymandering and campaign finance. There are decades of legislation and court cases around these issues, such as Citizens United, and states can draw congressional boundaries around districts that affect voter turnout. The U.S. has dealt with those in ways some may not have liked or agreed with, but it was part of the legislative and judicial process.

What we’re not used to is people openly breaking the law or illegally and directly manipulating the vote count, or the weaponization of electoral integrity itself. The very act of voting and how ballots should be counted has become politicized, and in a one-sided way. This is the first time that many Americans are having to confront new information about what constitutes a secure ballot, what foreign interference is, and what are legal and illegal ways to count ballots. It requires an enormous amount of education for Americans; they’re learning what Afghans and Kenyans, for example, have been aware of for a long time.


With the benefit of your research, do you believe the U.S. will be able to overcome these challenges?

There are certain things that are probably not going to happen easily, like eliminating entirely the weaponization of information on social media. Social media platforms are private companies; they’re not media houses and aren’t beholden to journalistic ethics. At the end of the day, you can post wrong information, and people may or may not believe you. That being said, after the debacle of 2016, we must credit Facebook, Twitter and other platforms for more aggressively responding to fake accounts and misinformation in this campaign cycle. Problems remain, but progress is being made.

Now, with foreign interference, there’s a lot the U.S. can do, and a lot the Obama administration did do in 2016 when they became aware of what was happening with Russian infiltration of state election systems. State governments can work to improve their own systems (and many have since 2016). The federal government can also provide technical and financial support to protect systems so that someone from the outside can’t hack into them to change vote counts.

States can also learn from each other. Every time I’ve gone to an event that’s focused on U.S. elections, it’s all about how states are innovating and sharing those findings with other states. Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington are frequently mentioned as innovative states around mail-in voting, improvements in same-day voter registration, or motor-voter registrations, for example. In Washington, you effectively have a receipt to your mail-in ballot with a unique bar code that allows you to prove your ballot has been counted and means the system can’t be flooded by fake ballots under your name.

The problem is if one political party or both political parties don’t have an interest in securing the vote or engage in discussions on electoral integrity in good faith, then that will continue to be a challenge. It’s what we are seeing already in many states ahead of this election. You have to have all the players on board agree to sit back and let the voters and election administrators do their jobs, and certify winners. I fear that’s not where things are at in the U.S. right now.