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Democracy in the Crosshairs

Experts examine threats to the republic in a Wilson Auditorium event

By MOLLY HOLT

Staff Writer

(HACKENSACK) – “These are pretty grim times. I wake up every morning and I open Twitter and I know that I shouldn’t, and it frequently makes me feel pretty awful about the state of our democracy,” Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said on Oct. 19 in Wilson Auditorium. The event, “Democracy Under Threat,” was hosted by the Network for Responsible Public Policy, a “nonpartisan organization that informs, educates, and motivates the public on key public policy issues through a lecture series of regularly scheduled programs featuring authoritative thought leader,” according to their website.

The event also featured David Becker, the Executive Director and Founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. The speakers focused on two threats to democracy in America: gerrymandering and decreasing voter confidence.

Wolf opened the program by discussing the dangerous realities of extreme partisan gerrymandering which he de ned as “a tactic whereby one party uses the redistricting process to lock in a majority, or even a supermajority, for an entire decade.”

This problem has been getting a lot of attention lately due to the current Supreme Court case, Gill v. Whitford, according to Wolf. This case is challenging the constitutionality of extreme partisan gerrymandering, based on the claims that this practice was used in 2011 in the redistricting of Wisconsin.

 

“[Extreme partisan gerrymandering] cements in majorities that, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin, can’t be voted out,” Wolf said. “And when you can’t vote your legislators out, it’s pretty hard to claim that your legislature is accountable.”

Republicans drew the maps during the redistricting process to change voting districts in order to ensure that they won as many seats as possible in future elections.

“They weren’t just trying to get as many seats as possible for one election. They were trying to get as many seats as possible for a decade,” Wolf said, “In 2012, Republicans got 48.6 percent of the statewide vote. They got 60 out of 99 seats in the general assembly. That’s more than 60 percent, and they haven’t given up that majority since.”

The maps for the country are scheduled to be redrawn in 2021.

“Extreme partisan gerrymandering of the kind that we’ve seen in Wisconsin has been running rampant this decade, and if steps aren’t taken soon to reign it in, it’s only going to get worse,” Wolf said.

He explained that technology has changed the nature of gerrymandering over the last century by making it easier for parties to do.

 

“What you are now seeing are not just attempts by one person to kind of rig the game in his favor for an election or two, Wolf said. “You have one party setting up a whole state for a whole 10-year period. We’re likely going to see gerrymandering wars that are going to be unleashed by both parties, and voters, like ourselves, are going to get caught in the middle.”

Wolf believes that the courts need to get involved in order to help curb this growing problem in the country. The practice is not currently illegal.

“The very nature of the problem is that it doesn’t have a political solution,” Wolf said. “If you don’t like the way your legislators are drawing the maps, you can’t vote them out because they’ve drawn the maps so that you can’t vote them out.”

Following Wolf’s presentation, Becker spoke about a different threat to democracy, the declining confidence of American voters.

He explained that there are two widespread false narratives contributing to this decline that may ultimately be leading to voter suppression: the myth of widespread voter fraud and the misunderstanding of cyber threat to elections.

 

These narratives have the potential to undermine “the very foundation of our democracy in a way that we have never seen before,” according to Becker. He explained that despite the efforts being made to make registering to vote and the voting process easier for people, there is still an alarmingly low participation in elections in the United States.

“We have been experiencing a crisis of democracy around us, even before the November 2016 election hit, and what we’re seeing in [the election], and since then, is incredibly disturbing,” Becker said.

In the 2016 presidential election, only one out of three eligible 18-year-olds voted despite a concentrated effort on encouraging young people to register and vote.

“That’s the lowest point at any point since 18-year- olds were given the right to vote in 1972,” Becker said.

Becker then discussed the first false narrative that is believed about widespread voter fraud. He explained that a majority of Americans from both parties believe that this is a problem.

 

Becker defined it as “people illegally casting ballots that they should not be able to cast.”

He shared President Trump’s post-election tweet where he claimed he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Trump claimed that for his call for a major investigation into voter fraud was based on a Pew Research Report.

“I’m the guy who wrote that report,” Becker said. “The report was not about fraud at all. The report was about…how voter lists are inaccurate.”

Trump’s call for an investigation led to the creation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. This is a bipartisan commission, but Becker said this was the first bipartisan commission he has seen where the chair and vice chair are both from the same party, in this case, that is the Republican Party.

This commission was formed based on the idea that there hasn’t been investigations into election integrity, but Becker said that is not the case.

“Voter fraud exists,” Becker said. “It’s not zero, but it’s not much more than zero.”

Becker then discussed the second false narrative, the misunderstanding of cyber attacks on elections. There have been countless headlines stating that there were cyber hackings that interfered with results of the 2016 election, and suggested it may be a problem in future elections.

 

“There’s a lot of confusion out there about the actual facts, and I think it’s important to get this right,” Becker said. “The first fact is the threat is real. No one is saying the threat isn’t real. Russia is attempting [to] influence our elections.”

However, Becker explained that there have only been two attempted hacks on an actual election system, and only one of those two attempts was successful. The attempts were on voter registration databases on the statewide level.

 

Becker explained that the only successful hack was from an IP address associated with Russia on the Illinois state voter registration database.

“They did it very slowly, Becker said. “They were just collecting a few records at a time. And it didn’t trigger any warnings.” After two weeks of doing this without being noticed, “they started accessing about 10 records a second, and this caught the attention of Illinois officials. And they noticed it right away, and they shut down access.”

Becker noted that they did not change or delete any information; they simply accessed the records.

He then explained why a foreign power would have an interest in hacking the system, but not doing anything with the information.

“They wanted to be noticed,” Becker said. “They wanted us to worry about what was happening with our election technology. They wanted to do it at a point in time when it was going to get the most notice and the most play.”

 

Becker said that there has been no evidence that any hackings altered the vote totals themselves. He stressed that there have been investigations into this phenomenon.

“There is a narrative out there that says that no one has looked for this, he said. That is absolutely false.”

According to a poll done by NPR, 47 percent of Americans do not trust that elections are fair at all or very much. Becker blames the two false narratives.
“I don’t know what these numbers mean yet,” Becker said, “We’ve never seen this before, and it’s something that concerns me a great deal, and we’re going to have to see how this plays out over time.”

He also stressed the importance of rededicating ourselves to facts.

“There are a lot of things that we want dearly to be true, that would feel so good if they were true,” Becker said. “There are a lot of people who really want to delegitimize President Trump however they possibly can. But here is the fact, President Trump won a majority of the vote in enough states to comprise a majority of the electoral college. And that is actually true.”

Becker hoped that if election officials can help destroy these false narratives, then maybe people would be more likely to participate in elections.

We need to have a way to transparently demonstrate to the American people that when they cast their ballots that those ballots are going to be correctly counted,” he said.

The entire program can be viewed on the Network for Responsible Public Policy’s website, http://www.nfrpp.org. The organization will be hosting another event entitled “Money in Politics: Free Speech or Corrupting” on Thursday, Nov. 2 in Wilson Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

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