Ferro: Will technology offer a 2020 October surprise? | Guest Commentary

On Oct. 28, four years ago, former director of the FBI James Comey resumed the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails — something only possible through computer technology. Could technology again help create an October surprise in deciding the next president? Some argue it could be the old-fashioned technology of mail-in ballots. Loss of faith in the system crosses political boundaries. Our explicit technical concerns, like mail-in ballots however, are frequently determined by our political affiliations.

Comey reopened the case in 2016 despite already having most of the evidence on the newly discovered laptop owned by the former husband of Clinton staffer Huma Abedin. Comey’s team verified this fact a week later when he closed the case again. That Comey could reopen the case and close it a week later points to the power of fairly simple text comparison software — something that led technologists to wonder why he reopened the case since they understood that he would quickly know the truth.

Comey could very well have cost Clinton the election with his announcement. But that was the case only because Clinton’s lead in 2016 was soft — with up to 20% of the electorate undecided. Donald Trump won by around 80,000 total votes in three key states.

The 2020 election run-up, by contrast, seems less soft. Polls suggest the “undecideds” of this election are a much smaller percentage than in 2016 — around 5%. Biden has polled steadily ahead since January 2020. Vice-presidential selections, conventions, campaign styles, the economic downturn and the COVID crisis seem to have had little impact. Chances are, the debates and Trump’s tax returns won’t change things much either. According to numerous polls, over the past year the majority of Americans don’t want Donald Trump as their president, and a huge factor for many swing voters is not influenced by anything but their hard-to-shake perspective on Trump’s character.

That doesn’t mean Biden will win this election, however. Studies indicate that, while smaller, Trump’s base shows more commitment to its candidate than Biden’s. The closeness of the election has driven numerous concerns on both sides of the aisle over election fraud and mail-in votes for Republicans, voter suppression and foreign meddling for Democrats and gerrymandering for everyone.

Additionally, around a third of the electorate for the losing candidate won’t believe the results. A poll found that three-fifths of Americans across the political spectrum don’t trust the integrity of our election system. It may be one of the key reasons why the voter participation level is so low.

Technology has helped dramatically divide the electorate. Cable television politically subdivided viewers in the ’80s. Since 2003, software using demographic and personalized data has allowed for directly addressing voters and soliciting donations. Social media has accelerated individualized marketing.

The 2016 election saw the first credibly effective manipulation of the election by a foreign agent — through technology. Senate, justice and intelligence reports are clear. Russian attempts to break into voting machines failed. However, the Internet Research Agency in Russia used bots posing as Americans to flood social media. Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) hacked the Clinton campaign’s email servers and then used complicit actors to release that information.

In 2020, many people might feel some concern when they don’t know the outcome on election night. But taking weeks to know the outcome was normal for much of our history. Only in 1952 when the computer was used for the first time on national television to count exit polls did Americans get immediate results. In fact, the network didn’t initially trust the results of the computer and hesitated reporting the analysis. With numerous mail-in ballots this year, results may again be delayed by days.

This year, we don’t have an investigation of a major candidate. But the distrust created in the system by all effects listed here has been pernicious — the very intent of much of the meddling — and, interestingly, potentially benefits candidates who complain the loudest about system problems. The political attack on mail-in-ballots is the latest example of seeing possible election hijinks by the other side.

Meanwhile, here in Utah, surveys show that Utahns have high confidence in their election system. In addition to experience with mail-in ballots, another reason, perhaps? Local Republican dominance in the election is not threatened by mail-in ballots. Looked at with apolitical eyes, mail-in ballots shouldn’t offer any surprises to anyone. The threat of losing, however, might change your perspective.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9