Thursday, November 26, 2020

Conspiracy theories, a staple of US elections


The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a statement on November 12 calling the last elections “the most secure in American history,” thereby directly contradicting the claims of the president who appointed them.

Bafflingly though, 88% of people who voted for Trump falsely believe Biden did not legitimately win the election. This, according to a The Economist and YouGov poll.

Conspiracy thinking around elections is nothing new in the US. Joe Uscinski, professor at Miami University specializing in the study of conspiracy theories, noted that conspiracy theories about election fraud are, in fact, a regular fare in US elections. “What we found was a regular stream of voter fraud accusations over more than 120 years that seemed to recycle endlessly”.

What is entirely new is a sitting president stoking the rumors himself. Where conspiracy theories usually swirled and died on the fringes, 2020 saw the theories being mainstreamed as the rabble-rousing Trump breathlessly claims of being ganged up on by deep state, Zionists, globalists, and other shadowy groups.

One of the theories being floated is that the software used to count the votes in the US is secretly controlled by Smartmatic, a company founded in the US in 2000. The rumor goes that ES&S, Dominion, Hart InterCivic, Scytl and Indra – all prominent election technology companies – are mere fronts of this evil company that the elites are using to control democracies around the world. Expectedly, Scytl, Smartmatic, Dominion, Indra have all denied the rumors.

In a recent marathonic and evidence-free press conference, Trump’s “Elite’s Strike Force” hit almost every conspiratorial keyword, from George Soros to Fidel Castro, from China to Cuba, and from The Clinton Foundation to the Chinese Communist Party.

Sidney Powell, who was present at the conference but was later disavowed by the legal team for concocting rumors that are too bizarre even for them, went as far as to claim to have evidence that “this came from Venezuela, from Nicolas Maduro, from Hugo Chavez, from Cuba, and from China which has significant interests in Venezuela.”

The idea that Hugo Chavez, dead since 2013, was able to steal the elections to overthrow Trump, has clearly just become the gold standard of preposterous claims.

This is not the first outrageous conspiracy theory Donald Trump has fanned. Uscinski writes that the president had “flirted with 9/11 conspiracy theories, proposed conspiracy theories about Syrian refugees, and accused Mexico of conspiring to ship murderers and rapists across our borders. His main claim to fame however was pushing the Birther theory in 2011.”

As unhinged and incredible the theories are, what’s worrying is how they are further eroding whatever trust the people have left in government. Americans have the terrible burden of preventing this from leaving a lasting scar on democracy.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Kyrgyzstan unrest highlights ills of political clientelism



Hordes of outraged Kyrgyz citizens have spilled into the streets of Bishkek, overrunning several government buildings and springing a number of opposition figures from jail in the process. The protesters, armed with rocks, have been battling the police in close quarters, leaving one protester dead and some 500 others wounded.

The ongoing turmoil has set off an unexpected turn of events — the election commission has annulled the results of the elections, Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov has resigned from office, and his post temporarily filled by Sadyr Zhaparov, one of the opposition figures released by protesters.

At the root of the unrest is political clientelism and its most common manifestation, vote-buying. The opposition is roiling with suspicions that the administration massively bought votes in the recent parliamentary elections. Although Kyrgyzstan is known to have one of the freer elections among the Central Asian countries, the recent incidents have revealed the ills of political patronage which has plagued the rocky history of the young republic.

In the 2017 presidential elections which installed current president Sooronbai Jeenbekov into power, for example, European observers noted massive vote buying. Although the observers cited the elections as a step towards being a full-fledged democracy for the ex-Soviet state, they emphasized the need to address the issue of political patronage squarely.

The parliamentary elections in 2015 was also marred by charges of vote buying.

Kyrgyzstan is just one of many democracies around the world which are grappling with the deleterious effects of political clientelism. Recently, charges of vote buying have hounded elections in Thailand, Indonesia, and Kenya, among others.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

2016 Philippine elections free from fraud - forensics experts

Elections forensics experts Kirill Kalinin, a national fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Professor Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan have concluded in a study that the contested 2016 Philippine general elections was free from fraud.

A paper titled “Using Election Forensics to Detect Election Fraud in the Philippine Elections, 2016,” revealed its key findings that the Philippine 2016 elections were relatively clean.

This study used the tools of election forensics to investigate charges of electoral fraud in the Philippine national elections of 2026.

“We focused on digit tests, finite mixture model and its equivalents. We pay particular attention to the measurement of stolen votes and geographic allocation of election fraud across national elections. We then focus on Marcos v. Robredo court case, which helps us to validate some of our research findings for the vice-presidential election,” the paper said.

It will be recalled that defeated vice-presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. had filed an electoral protest against the winner Vice President Ma. Leonor Robredo for alleged fraud. Although the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, composed of Supreme Court justices and tasked to decide on electoral disputes involving the two top elective positions, has yet to issue a formal ruling, it commented last year that its recount showed Robredo increasing her lead.

The study further said that even though there is some limited evidence suggesting the presence of election fraud, “their effect on the electoral outcome for the national races is insignificant.”

Election forensics is an emergent discipline which employs a diverse set of statistical tools such as Benford’s Law and other techniques similar to those employed to detect financial fraud, to analyze electoral data for pattern deviations which could suggest fraud.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), which is at the forefront of the new field, “numbers that humans have manipulated present patterns that are unlikely to occur if produced by a natural process—such as free and fair elections or normal commercial transactions.”

“These deviations suggest either that the numbers were intentionally altered or that other factors—such as a range of normal strategic voting practices—influenced the electoral results. The greater the number of statistical tests that identify patterns that deviate from what is expected to naturally occur, the more likely that the deviation results from fraud rather than legal strategic voting.”

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How bullet-proof is the paper ballot?

Calls to modernize elections are often answered with warnings. Skeptics claim that automated election systems lack the necessary mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the vote. These promoters of paper ballots seem to forget that basically all recorded cases of election fraud were conducted while using paper-based systems.

The article Cheating with Paper Ballots, by Professor Andrew Appel from Princeton University, debunks the notion of the infallibility of the paper ballot as he enumerated several possible ways to commit electoral fraud using these instruments.

One method, Appel said in the article, is to steal the entire ballot box and replace the paper ballots with fraudulent ballots marked differently, or just ignore the paper ballots entirely.

The article reveals that the practice used to happen on a regular basis, citing an example: “That is, in some counties, the party bosses who controlled the polling places and ballot boxes would just report whatever counts they wanted, regardless of the ballots. [See also: Robert Caro, Means of Ascent, 1991, Chapter 13]. In the 19th and early 20th century, insider election fraud was widespread in the U.S. [Saltman, The History and Politics of Voting Technology, 2006],” the article continued.

The practice of ballot-stuffing and ballot box-snatching appear to be prevalent in other parts as well, as evidenced by the conviction of a former Philadelphia Congressman, as well as reports in Russia, and in the Philippines.

Another method to cheat in elections that use ballot paper is by sabotaging the audit or recount, the article said.

“While working in a recount (or audit) of paper ballots, hide a bit of pencil lead under your fingernail. Surreptitiously mark overvotes on ballots marked for the candidate you don’t like,” Appel said.

Appel’s observations squares with a documented of incident in the Philippines where fraudsters appear to have made post-election tampering on ballots to sow confusion and undermine the legitimacy of the results.

The article argues that what all this illustrates is that “paper ballots with audits and recounts, by themselves, are not a panacea.”

Interestingly, Appel recommends the use of a precinct-count optical scan to counter such fraud.

“Votes are recorded and tabulated by the voting machine immediately as they are cast; paper ballots are saved in a sealed ballot box for later audit or recount,” Appel said.

“The election fraudster will find it more difficult to make fraudulent paper ballots that exactly match a fraudulent voting machine’s report, than to hack just the voting machine or just the paper ballots. Although the paper ballots are the default ballot of record, serious discrepancies can lead to investigations. Once it ends up in court, the judge can hear evidence; perhaps there will be reason to rule that the machine counts are trustworthy where the paper ballots are not,” the article continued.

This excellent article by this Princeton scholar is a clarion call to modernize voting systems. Election administrators must take advantage of any available technology that enhances the speed, accuracy and auditability of the count.