Faith And Democracy: Rick Hasen’s NGO Solution

Lawprof Rick Hasen has been focused on election law long enough to know. He begins with a litany of internal problems.

In just the past few weeks, we learned that in the midst of the 2016 campaign the president’s eldest son, Donald J. Trump Jr., was willing to meet with a woman described to him as a “Russian government attorney” to get dirt on his father’s opponent. Voters across the country asked election officials to remove their names from voting rolls so that their personal information would not be turned over to the Orwellian Election Integrity commission that the president established to try to substantiate his outrageous and false charge that there were three million or more illegal voters in 2016. The president has stacked this commission with a rogues’ gallery of people with reputations for false and exaggerated claims of voter fraud. Democratic and Republican state officials have resisted the commission’s call to turn over voting lists.

Of course, there are problems like gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement laws, voter identification law, which all serve to undermine the efficacy of the democratic process by either suppressing votes or negating them. Rick isn’t a big fan of Trump, however, so he puts that up top and then goes on to do his best to point to the sky, which will be falling any moment now.

And yet as bad as things are, the health of our electoral process is likely to deteriorate further, with some of the threats striking at the very basis of democratic society: our confidence that votes have been fairly and accurately counted. What’s worse, we cannot count on the courts, the president, Congress or state legislatures to save us. It will take bipartisan cooperation among state and local election officials, facilitated by nongovernmental organizations committed to sound principles of election administration, to get us past this dangerous point.

We can’t count on the courts or president because the president is evil and the judges are, well, political hacks appointed by the evil president who reach decisions with which Rick largely agrees, but they don’t go nearly as far as Rick would like, such as holding Republicans unconstitutional and party membership a felony. So the courts are out.

But then there are external pressures as well.

On top of these domestic problems, there is the external threat. According to a report by the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., Russia engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the election process in 2016 by leaking stolen documents, hacking voting systems and disseminating “fake news.” Attempted Russian cyberattacks on voter databases were widespread, with hacking hitting systems in up to 39 states. According to a report in Time magazine, hackers successfully changed voter data in a county database in one state, although the database was corrected before the election.

To some, this may appear to be a cybersecurity problem. As we increasingly rely on technology, we increasingly create opportunity for hacking. Whether it’s voter databases or your credit card number at an ISP, hacking happens. Whether it can be stopped completely is doubtful, but then, a wag might suggest that the United States tries to do to Russia what Russia tries to do to us. Whether leaking stolen documents that taint a candidate is the problem, or whether the candidate’s documents taint her, is another question. The strength of concealment of true but unfavorable information about a candidate has suddenly become a virtue. Go figure.

And then there’s the “fake news,” which is a terrible thing when promulgated by the Russians (because the United States would never indulge in propaganda against the damn commies), but not nearly as horrifying when it’s done by American media to the electorate when advocating for a higher purpose.

In fairness, the problems Rick points out are real, even if his “proof” can be summed up by his team didn’t win. Of course, there could be other reasons his team didn’t win, and no one has shown that any of this altered the outcome, facile assumptions aside. But what to do about this exhausting dilemma that produces an entire government, state and federal, that fails to meet with Rick’s approval?

Faced with this vacuum, nongovernmental organizations need to take the lead on fostering cooperation across various levels of government and among political parties. The efforts of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (a bipartisan group President Barack Obama appointed to study problems with the 2012 elections), the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Bipartisan Policy Center and others show that this kind of work can be effective. Led by Pew, red as well as blue states have adopted online voter registration and voluntarily cooperated to clean voter rolls in a way that is careful enough to avoid inadvertent disenfranchisement.

Here’s where he takes a swan dive into the irony pool. To save and preserve the integrity of democracy, turn to NGOs. You know, those groups of unelected, unrepresentative, agenda-driven folks who are wrapped in pretty bow of legitimacy because they say so. It’s not that they’re all evil, or that they aren’t the honest brokers they believe themselves to be, and present themselves to be. Indeed, many NGOs are well-intended, honest and every bit as legitimate as they appear to be.

What NGOs are not is representative of the American people.

The future is scary. Public confidence in the fairness of the election process is already largely driven by who wins and who loses. State and local election officials need to overcome partisanship and resistance in areas where they can cooperate, and we need to support organizations that foster that. It may not sound sexy, but our democracy is counting on them.

Who wins and who loses is kind of the point of elections. This may be scary, particularly when your team loses and the other team is literally Hitler, but that’s the nature of democracy. It has nothing to do with whether the solution sounds “sexy,” whatever that means, but whether we adhere to the premise that we elect the people in whom we repose trust to execute the duties of their office.

Granted, there are exceptionally good reasons to doubt that we’re up to the task of producing candidates of adequate competence and integrity, but as Mencken said, we get the government we deserve, and we deserve to get it good and hard. But turning over America to NGOs (or even more likely, Facebook and Google), is the antithesis of democracy.

Election cybersecurity is certainly important, though whether we can overcome the threat of hacking remains to be seen. But the fact that the candidate you prefer lost doesn’t mean we give up on democracy and turn over control of our means of deciding governance to NGOs. Maybe it just means we need better candidates, and that the candidate failed to reflect the policies that Americans want for their nation, despite any of the problems, internal or external, even if Rick Hasen preferred them or hated the alternative more.

5 thoughts on “Faith And Democracy: Rick Hasen’s NGO Solution

  1. wilbur

    “State and local election officials need to overcome partisanship and resistance …”

    This means you guys surrender. Because NGOs are cool and have the right-thinking people in them. Obviously.

    I see.

    Fun fact: There are 3.7 million NGOs worldwide.

    1. SHG Post author

      I am not a fan of NGOs, even the ones that tend to promote the position I take, as they let the mission overcome accuracy and reason. It’s not that all NGOs suck or are untrustworthy, but the nature of advocacy is advocacy, not honesty.

  2. DaveL

    I wonder if Hasen would look just as favorably on the NRA Institute for Electoral Integrity lending a helping hand to save our democracy.

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