Will Mark Zuckerberg’s $50 Million Donation be Used to Spread Election Misinformation?
Facebook’s role in enabling Russian interference and disinformation in the 2016 election raises concerns about Mark Zuckerberg’s $50 million donation to the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR), a small organization run by David Becker.
The choice to empower Becker troubled many election security advocates who know him as a serial purveyor of misinformation about the safety of electronic voting. Becker has provided cover to voting machine companies and elections officials who assure Americans their votes are safe when they use systems proven vulnerable to malfunction, fraud, and hacking.
A lawyer and former Director of the elections program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, Becker has no cyber-security credentials to call upon when he dismisses the decades-long work of bipartisan security experts. His misguided efforts to instill confidence in voting results undermines the work of grassroots activists fighting the lobbying might of a handful of well-connected voting machine companies with histories of deceptive practices, conflict of interests and revolving doors with election officials.
Worse, Becker appears to be willing to outright mislead in order to craft a comforting narrative that our elections are “as secure as they’ve ever been”, including his false claim before Congress that no voting systems are connected to the Internet.
The National Election Defense Coalition (NEDC) is right now working vigorously on a public pressure campaign to convince officials in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida to disconnect their election devices from the Internet before November. This past year, the NEDC helped expose voting machine vendors who lied about their modem-enabled voting systems being certified by the Elections Assistance Commission.
Becker regularly espouses a stock talking point of those who deny our vulnerability to fraud; that there are so many disparate unconnected voting jurisdictions that it would take an unimaginably vast conspiracy to hack and alter election results in thousands of voting systems. But Becker studiously avoids two facts:
- “Trade secret” voting systems software code is off limits to inspection, therefore any fraud in the programming itself that could affect millions of votes could go undetected.
- Historically elections have been decided by one or two counties in just one state, as in Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004. Or sometimes by a very small percentage of votes in a few states, as in 2016 when Donald Trump won in Michigan by 10,704 votes, in Wisconsin by 22,748 votes, and in Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes.
A recent example of this is Becker’s cover for former Georgia Secretary of State, now Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp who ran for office in 2019 at the same time he was conducting a massive purge of voter rolls, refusing to recuse himself from overseeing his own election. Gov. Kemp then oversaw the wildly unpopular purchase of an expensive, insecure new voting technology — Ballot Marking Devices (BMDs). Both libertarians and progressives challenged the purchase. But Kemp got some public relations help from Becker.
In August 2019, Becker published an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Ga.’s new voting machines will be up to the task”, dismissing the concerns of elections advocates, some of whom filed a lawsuit to stop the hasty roll out. Leading experts warned that BMDs were an expensive and unnecessary security risk. Voting rights advocates warned that the troubles of electronic voting machines always disproportionately impact poor and minority communities. Compared to paper ballots, BMDs greatly limit the number of people who can vote at once, causing long lines. Lack of poll worker training or machine malfunction would be a recipe for Election Day disaster.
And that is exactly what happened in the disastrous Georgia 2020 presidential primary election when electronic poll books and BMDs malfunctioned, poll workers were untrained, logistics were bungled, and lines were up to seven hours long, predominantly in African-American and poor neighborhoods.
According to the New Yorker: “A lawsuit filed last year by Fair Fight, the voting-rights organization chaired by Stacey Abrams, argued that the state had distributed fewer B.M.D.s to African-American precincts than their populations warranted. Tuesday’s election, in which predominantly African-American precincts experienced egregious delays, proved them right.”
New BMDs in Pennsylvania’s Northampton County also experienced widespread malfunction in November, where the New York Times reported: “Election Day here had been marred by complaints of long lines, glitch-prone touch screens and frustrated poll workers. Voters across the county said the experience further eroded their already shaken confidence in the election process.”
In a 2018 Washington Post article entitled, “The midterms will be the most secure elections we’ve ever held,” Becker wrote: “About 80 percent of all voters can vote with an auditable paper trail. That number continues to grow, with all states on the path to implementing all-paper ballots by 2020”.
This was an extremely misleading assurance. Many states within Becker’s 80% audit figure have negligible or toothless auditing laws, or their practices do not always follow the laws. And at the time he wrote the article the US Senate had just axed the bipartisan Secure Elections Act, which would have mandated eliminating notoriously insecure paperless touch screen voting machines. When Becker published his Washington Post bromide, it was well known that a number of states were not on track to get rid of these hackable systems that cannot be recounted and audited. This outraged election security experts.
Then Becker goes further, essentially accusing security advocates of being useful idiots for the Russians.
“ … some are casting doubt on the ongoing integrity of our elections. If Russia’s goal is to delegitimize democracy worldwide, and particularly in the United States, then some here in our own country are doing the dirty work for them.”
Becker’s article called forth the ire of Post readers who excoriated him in the commentary section. One reader gives Becker the benefit of the doubt as to his motives:
“This guy means well. He wants to keep people from staying home because they don’t have faith in the voting system. He’d be better off acknowledging the problems and counseling people to vote anyway.”
David Becker’s stated plan is to use his $50 million to “assist state and local election officials to ensure elections are secure, voters have confidence in election outcomes, and democracy thrives as civic engagement grows.”
This is what we all want.
But Becker’s plan won’t work if it’s predicated on ignoring the warnings of election security experts, minimizing real threats, and supporting voting systems that result in electoral train wrecks and widespread voter suppression.
For American democracy to thrive, confidence in elections should not require public deception or be beholden to the most powerful commercial interests in our media landscape. With that in mind, perhaps the values and interests of Facebook should not inordinately shape the messages we receive in the 2020 election.