Some Problems with Treating Democracies as “Information Systems,” Starting with Voting and Ending with Money

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The well-regarded (and by me, too) public-interest technologist Bruce Schneier has written an interesting piece, “Defending Democracies Against Information Attacks“, part of a larger project, “that models democracy itself as an information system and explains how democracies are vulnerable to certain forms of information attacks that autocracies naturally resist.” This fits naturally into today’s moral panic about defending “our democracy” at the cyber level from adversaries, in particular Russia[1]. But that’s not my topic today. Rather, I want look briefly at the ballot, at institutional power, and then at whether Schneier’s “model,” as he describes it in the linked piece, can provide any more than partial insight into “democracy” as practiced today in the United States (spoiler alert: no). To be fair, Schneier’s interesting article, since it covers information systems as such, also treats the Census and public commenting (as at the FCC on net neutrality). It also treats a variety of attacks, so the scope of his piece is much larger than this post.

First, to the ballot. Readers know that my litmus test for good-faith writing on election security is at least a mention of paper ballots. Here is what Schneier has to say:

Policy makers need a better understanding of the relationship between political institutions and social beliefs: specifically, the importance of the social aggregation institutions that allow democracies to understand themselves.

There are some low-hanging fruit. Very often, hardening these institutions against attacks on their confidence will go hand in hand with hardening them against attacks more generally. Thus, for example, reforms to voting that require permanent paper ballots and random auditing would not only better secure voting against manipulation, but would have moderately beneficial consequences for public beliefs too.

Needless to say, hand-marked paper ballots, hand-counted in public are the international gold standard for balloting, and most definitely not “permanent paper ballots and random auditing.” Schneier’s “reform” would permit “ballot marking devices,” which, since they involve digital, are hackable by definition. Even Politico understands this:

The dispute over the ballot-marking devices centers on the fact that they use barcodes, which can be read by scanners but not by humans. Though the paper records also display a voter’s choices in plain text, which the voter can double-check, the barcode is the part that gets tallied.

The danger: Hackers who infiltrate a ballot-marking device could modify the barcode so its vote data differs from what’s in the printed text. If this happened, a voter would have no way of spotting it.

In a landmark report published last year, the National Academies recommended against voting devices that tally barcodes. “Electronic voting systems that do not produce a human-readable paper ballot of record raise security and verifiability concerns,” it said. “Additional research on ballots produced by BMDs will be necessary to understand the effectiveness of such ballots.”

(See here at NC for much more on this.) It’s almost as if Schneir — perhaps as a result of deformation professionelle — believes that there must be a digital intermediary in the process. But that’s just not so, as international experience shows. In fact, in this case, the digital should be eliminated from the equation entirely. So that’s a little unnerving, especially coming from a technologist.

Second, institutional power. Schneir writes:

[W]e need far better developed intellectual tools if we are to properly understand the trade-offs, instead of proposing clearly beneficial policies, and avoiding straightforward mistakes. Forging such tools will require computer security specialists to start thinking systematically about public beliefs as an integral part of the systems that they seek to defend. It will mean that more military oriented cybersecurity specialists need to think deeply about the functioning of democracy and the capacity of internal [like who?] as well as external actors to disrupt it, rather than reaching for their standard toolkit of state-level deterrence tools. Finally, specialists in the workings of democracy[2] have to learn how to think about democracy and its trade-offs in specifically informational terms.

This sounds relatively innocuous, until you realize that the intelligence community is already deeply embedded in “election security” (“DHS says teamwork is improving election security,” Federal Computer Week) even though, as we show above, the primary target of their mission — electronic voting systems — shouldn’t even exist. Presumably, however, DHS and other organs of state security are already “thinking deeply about the functioning of democracy.” It’s a classic Quis custodiet ipsos custodes question: Do we really want to hand the social function of legitimating election results over to the intelligence community? Especially if when any of the “trade-offs” aren’t visible to the public?

Third, to Schneier’s project itself:

Our initial account is necessarily limited. Building a truly comprehensive understanding of democracy as an information system will be a Herculean labor, involving the collective endeavors of political scientists and theorists, computer scientists, scholars of complexity, and others.

Another way of saying this — and it’s not Schneir’s fault — is that “election security” is also a Jobs Guarantee for every sort of lanyard and credentialist (especially the sort with a clearance), even though, again, the electronic voting systems whose protection is central to mission shouldn’t even exist. But then, it’s the rare consultant who recommends that the system they were hired to fix should be abolished. And further down:

In modern democracies, the most important such mechanism is voting, which aggregates citizens’ choices over competing parties and politicians to determine who is to control executive power for a limited period. Another important mechanism is the census process, which play an important role in the US and in other democracies, in providing broad information about the population, in shaping the electoral system (through the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives), and in policy making (through the allocation of government spending and resources). Of lesser import are public commenting processes, through which individuals and interest groups can comment on significant public policy and regulatory decisions.

All of these systems are vulnerable to attack. Elections are vulnerable to a variety of illegal manipulations, including vote rigging. However, many kinds of manipulation are currently legal in the US, including many forms of gerrymandering, gimmicking voting time, allocating polling booths and resources so as to advantage or disadvantage particular populations, imposing onerous registration and identity requirements, and so on.

Holy moly, what kind of “account” of “modern” democracies can you give, if you don’t include money? Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen write in their magisterial “Party Competition and Industrial Structure in the 2012 Elections” (International Journal of Political economy, vol. 42, no. 2, Summer 2013, pp. 3–41):

Estimates of who qualifies as a member of the now-famous 1 percent of top income earners vary, not least because of the staggering inequalities at the top of the pyramid. Citing a Congressional Budget Office study, The economist (2012) suggested on the basis of figures for 2007 that the cutoff might be as low as $347,000; other, perhaps less careful estimates put the threshold higher—at somewhat over $500,000 (e.g., Bell 2011). In any case, we think it is reasonable to treat contributions over $500 as coming largely from the 1 percent. This leads to a significant conclusion that both major party campaigns float their campaigns [3] on the basis of appeals to the 1 percent—fully 59 percent of the president’s campaign funding came from that quarter (56 percent if one applies the higher threshold of $1,000) while 79 percent of the funds mobilized by Romney’s campaign originated there.

If one reckons, as we suspect many politicians and campaign fundraisers do in practice, simply in terms of the itemized contributions (because those are so much easier and cheaper to chase quickly in campaigns), the major party candidates’ dependence on the 1 percent becomes breathtaking: Almost two-thirds of the itemized financing for the president’s campaign came from donors contributing more than $10,000, while more than 70 percent of the Romney campaign’s financing came from donors of that scale (not shown in Table 1). By that metric, both major party presidential hopefuls relied on donors giving $1,000 or more for about 90 percent of their funding.

This is what has been hidden by the inability to frame true totals embracing both corporate and individual money. What both major investors and candidates have long known intuitively—that a relatively small number of giant sources provide most of the funding for successful major party candidates—is true. The relatively thin stream of small contributions simply does not suffice to float (conventionally managed) national campaigns, and all insiders know it.

And isn’t it remarkable that in Schneier’s listing of “many kinds of manipulation are currently legal in the US,” he doesn’t list, well, the purchase of political campaigns as a kind of manipulation? Isn’t that the biggest “information attack” of all?


[1] Scheier writes: “… the ‘Guccifer 2.0’ hacking identity, which has been attributed to Russian military intelligence….” where “attributed to” is not only accurate, but, in today’s political environment, courageous.

[2] Presumably not citizens?

[3] As of 2012. In 2016, the Sanders campaign was different and unique.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. albert

      Election integrity? If you mean that the system functions as designed, then yes, it does. It works as intended.

      I know a few folks who follow local elections closely, because (they say) that local elections can have real effects on the people in a particular district. I agree with that assessment. The higher up you go on the food chain, the more Political Theatre you find, until, at the Presidential level, it’s all theatre. We have two permanent parties, both sides of the same coin, the Corporate Coin.

      You may remember big discussions on Bruces blog ( about election security. Many commenters proposed technical fixes for the problems cited, but the arguments put forth by the paper ballot crowd won the round, IMO. It’s the classic tree vs. forest problem. In that case, you cut down the trees and make paper out of ’em, ballots, that is.

      The technology is so complicated nowadays, that even well-intentioned engineers can’t see all the problems with their code, let alone test it rigorously. Now we have CPUs with little operating systems built into them, a computer within a computer, that operate quite independently of the CPU itself. Amazing!

      It appears that technology cannot cure its own problems. Perhaps this isn’t apparent to the technologists.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > You may remember big discussions on Bruces blog ( about election security. Many commenters proposed technical fixes for the problems cited, but the arguments put forth by the paper ballot crowd won the round, IMO. It’s the classic tree vs. forest problem. In that case, you cut down the trees and make paper out of ’em, ballots, that is.

        Well, if they won the day, he should have mentioned them!

  1. Porch possum

    Schneir was fully behind a recent US presidential candidate and, despite have a strong background in cyber shenanigans, seems to hold contemporary notions about “Russian hacking” and its profound effect on our process.

    As the too-online say, sad.

  2. False Solace

    What a disappointing analysis from Schneier. Watch as the flinty-eyed realist who coined the term “security theatre” dons a pair of rosy spectacles and invites crony capitalists into the election system. Voting machines are a technology that should be banned the same way the Orange Catholic Bible banned thinking machines, with no exceptions, ifs, or buts. None of the code is open source or even audited! Typical stupidity of the overeducated — “nobody could have predicted” it would go wrong — except for everyone who did. Bruce, where is your brain?

    Truly, the best democracy their money can buy. Thank you Lambert.

    1. lambert strether

      > Watch as the flinty-eyed realist who coined the term “security theatre” dons a pair of rosy spectacles

      Good point. I had forgotten Schnier coined “security theatre.” This sounds a lot like “democracy theatre,” doesn’t it?

  3. dk

    I just don’t want people thinking it’s going to be easy just because it’s paper. Paper is a pain (not just paper cuts but that too) and a lot of things can go wrong with it. And any stickler for accuracy is going to hate vote counting; then again they should hate any large dataset because keeping records is hard for reasons that have nothing to do with the storage media. Schneier’s clumsy application of “information system” may be poorly applied but it’s not inappropriate.

    I’m more worried about the political road to paper ballots hand marked/counted in public. And I’m even more worried about the serris, who in most cases are the LE officers involved in in election security and logistics:

    The easiest and surest way to hack and election is from inside its administration, and paper doesn’t change that one bit, only some of the methods. If we can’t elect honest and trustworthy officials and find skilled and honorable staff, a (further!) change in technology isn’t going to prevent anything. System changes are opportunities for scammers and grifters of all kinds.

    1. juliania

      “…I’m more worried about the political road to paper ballots hand marked/counted in public. And I’m even more worried about the serris, who in most cases are the LE officers involved in in election security and logistics..”

      I won’t quibble about your worries, but I will say that it was ‘in public’ that we, the voters saw the takeover of our electoral rights in 2000, and on tv to boot! Then the problem was with automatic ‘chad’ readings, or so they said, and those little ladies in Florida were the last we saw of handcounted ballots being forcibly prevented from doing the counting.

      I’m with Lambert!

  4. TG

    “Through money, democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed intellect.”
    ― Oswald Spengler

    “Democracy and plutocracy are equivalent in Spengler’s argument. The “tragic comedy of the world-improvers and freedom-teachers” is that they are simply assisting money to be more effective. The principles of equality, natural rights, universal suffrage, and freedom of the press are all disguises for class war (the bourgeois against the aristocracy). Freedom, to Spengler, is a negative concept, simply entailing the repudiation of any tradition. In reality, freedom of the press requires money, and entails ownership, thus serving money at the end. Suffrage involves electioneering, in which the donations rule the day. The ideologies espoused by candidates, whether Socialism or Liberalism, are set in motion by, and ultimately serve, only money. “Free” press does not spread free opinion—it generates opinion, Spengler maintains.” – Wikipedia.

  5. Sound of the Suburbs

    The people now vote for politicians who do what lobbyists want when they get into power.

    A modicum of common sense would tell anyone this was not a good idea.

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