Credibility of US democracy is in the docks with presidential election

Election security is fundamental to the integrity of democracy. In the US, election credibility has been shaken by allegations of foreign interference, voter fraud and other irregularities, after the presidential vote in 2016 and 2020.

Ahead of the November presidential election, it is crucial to understand and address the concerns about election security in light of past experiences. On the night of November 5, public discourse in America may well shift from who will next occupy the Oval Office to debates over election security. This could include demands to halt the vote count and arguments for a re-vote, increasing polarisation and the likelihood of protests.

Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016 amid allegations of Russia’s intervention. Claims later emerged that Russia had attempted to influence the election results by launching cyberattacks and manipulations targeting the Democratic Party’s campaign.

In response, significant steps were taken to enhance election security before the 2020 presidential election. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security designated election infrastructure as critical infrastructure, allowing for increased federal support and coordination with state and local authorities.

States implemented various measures such as upgrading voting machines, creating backups with paper ballots and enhancing cybersecurity measures. Despite these efforts, when the presidential election rolled around in 2020, it was again subject to controversy.

Tainted by the rhetoric surrounding the voting results and mired by allegations of fraud and manipulation, this election made for a dangerous precedent when Trump refused to concede defeat for weeks.

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05:52

Trump supporters storm US Capitol, interrupting Congress’ certification of Biden’s victory

Trump supporters storm US Capitol, interrupting Congress’ certification of Biden’s victory

Trump’s claims that the Democrats had manipulated the election with widespread voter fraud and irregularities led to high levels of polarisation and unrest, which culminated in an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Ahead of the 2020 election, the incumbent Trump criticised the increased use of mail-in votes and the United States Postal Service, and has continued to slam postal voting in the lead-up to this year’s presidential election. That Postmaster General Louis DeJoy remains in position contributes to the unease among those Republican voters who believe the 2020 election was stolen.

But people’s suspicions of US election fraud are not limited to mail voting. The Capitol riot showed that the conspiracy theories of election breaches have polarised an already divided electorate and weakened the foundations of democratic governance.

Significantly, according to The Atlantic, which analysed 193 people arrested in connection with the Capitol riot, 89 per cent had no apparent ties with established far-right militias or other militant groups. This suggests that methods of manipulation and provocation similar to those used in the previous election could lead again to mass action in the coming vote.

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What if Trump wins?

What if Trump wins?

Although Democratic voters will be deeply disappointed if President Joe Biden failed to get re-elected, they appear to be generally prepared to accept such an outcome. There are many factors that could contribute to a Biden loss, and voter motivation seems largely driven by the absence of a more appealing alternative.

But allegations of election fraud by the Trump campaign could spark a legal process and wide debate, similar to the aftermath of the 2016 vote. This, however, may not necessarily lead to a widespread mobilisation of Trump supporters.

It is important to differentiate between two distinct groups within the Republican voter base now. On the one hand, there are pragmatic Republican voters. On the other hand, staunch Trump supporters might view an election loss as evidence of deep state manipulation against their leader, particularly if rational Republican voices are disregarded.

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Trump supporters at an Iowa caucus night party in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 15. Photo: AP

In this sense, the second group may be more open to the influence of radical right-wing groups. The connection that these diehard Trump fans have with fellow voters and Trump’s statements regarding election security ahead of November could create a tense and protest-prone environment once again if allegations of fraud in favour of Biden arise, similar to what happened after the 2020 election.

But the greatest threat to the coming presidential election may stem from a cyberattack on voting systems, potentially orchestrated by a foreign country or group. A cyberoffensive from Russia might seek to give Trump an advantage, given the geopolitical dynamics.

Given the stances of both presidential candidates towards China, a cyberattack from China could also disrupt the election infrastructure and vote-counting mechanisms. Already, a Chinese hacking group nicknamed APT31 (for Advanced Persistent Threat 31) has been accused of targeting critics of Beijing in not just the US but also Britain and Finland.

China spies a dilemma as data leak exposes risks of using hackers for hire

The danger is that an unidentified data manipulation or attack on voting machines in the US could lead political parties to start slinging accusations at each other. The political uproar, given the increasing polarisation of American society, could result in mass protests.

The decentralised nature of the US election system, with differences in security protocols and technological infrastructure among states, poses inherent challenges. Despite being deemed secure from hacking and manipulation by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Dominion Voting Systems are still considered insecure by some groups, and an allegation of manipulation of these systems during the election could have serious consequences.

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03:37

Biden attacks presidential challenger Trump during high-stakes State of the Union speech

Biden attacks presidential challenger Trump during high-stakes State of the Union speech

The fraud allegations that surrounded the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections highlighted the fragility of American democracy. Overcoming these challenges and reinstating trust in the electoral process is crucial.

This requires that America bolsters its election security, enhances local cybersecurity protocols, fosters interstate collaboration, combats disinformation, and promotes transparency and accountability throughout the electoral process.

Above all, it is essential that political leaders, the media, the public and figures such as Trump commit to upholding US democratic values and respecting the integrity of free and fair elections.

Çağdaş Yüksel is a deputy researcher at TRT World Research Centre

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