UC Answers: What are UC experts doing to ensure safe elections?

Professor of political science discusses threats to the electoral process and how to own your vote

Delegitimization of the November 2020 election outcomes is a grave threat to democracy, says Richard Harknett, professor and head of the University of Cincinnati Department of Political Science. 

“Every day bad actors plant false stories within social media feeds," says Harknett, who has immersed himself in cybersecurity for over two decades and is a trusted source when it comes to politics and cybersecurity. "They botnet likes and drive viral posts, and they have even planned events through fake groups and have Americans show up to hopefully clash with each other."

That’s why Harknett and other researchers at UC’s Center for Cyber Strategy and Policy, funded in part through the Ohio Cyber Range Insititue, are currently studying defenses against malicious computer technologies and other bad-actor mechanisms, with a specific focus on the manipulation of peoples’ faith in mail-in voting. The team will be running experiments to help develop a communication strategy for counter-delegitimization on social media — what messages work in what form of delivery (e.g., tweets, postings, video, TV). 

Q: Are Americans more tuned into the November 2020 elections than in the past?

Harknett: The ultimate test of engagement is how many people vote. Early indications in polling show that this election will be on the higher end of turnouts historically. A related but distinct element is partisanship — how connected do people feel to their party, ideology, and or candidates. By all measures, we are experiencing very high levels of partisanship, which means many people have made up their minds, and they do not consider the perspective or candidates from the opposing party. Whether they show up to vote is the unknown answer at this stage.

Q: How do most people get their candidate information?

Harknett: Media trends indicate that people are increasingly moving toward social media platforms as sources of candidate information. These platforms share content generated by candidates, their surrogates and their supporters. Studies show many people rely on headlines and short introductory lines in their online news feeds but do not spend a lot of time reading full articles. Video messaging is also becoming prevalent as a source of information.

Q: What are the top sources of disinformation? 

Harknett: One of the crucial elements of misinformation campaigns to recognize is that bad actors  leverage the networking of traditional media, print and internet-based platforms. So, it is not about isolating a particular source of misinformation, but trying to tie multiple sources together. Studies have shown that people place more legitimacy on stories if they see them in different formats on different sources. Television will report on a tweet that then gets discussed in a newspaper the next day or immediately in their online format. It is the networking of misinformation that needs to have our focus.

Q: What is the greatest threat to the November 2020 elections?

Harknett: From an electoral standpoint, the greatest threat we face from misinformation is not the misinformation itself, but what it can cumulatively achieve —delegitimization of our electoral process and therefore a loss of faith in electoral results. If adversaries and domestic actors raise so many doubts in the minds of voters that they do not trust who wins the election, then the president will be fundamentally weakened as a leader. This is the ultimate goal of most foreign adversaries, and unfortunately many domestic actors are not taking care to avoid further undermining people's trust — we cannot assume trust, we have to earn it. That comes from not only performance (how one handles the election itself) but through a base trust in the legitimacy of institutions. Eroding respect for institutional authority (legitimacy) is a grave threat to democracy.

Q: What is UC doing to protect the voting process?

Harknett: Researchers at UC are examining what enhances legitimacy in voters’ minds and what erodes it through a series of experiments to be conducted over the next few weeks. Our goal is to identify some ways election officials can actually enhance people's trust and potentially flag practices that might work in the opposite direction. We are hoping that we can add to the great work many officials are doing in Ohio to protect the vote and make sure that every vote counts and people trust the results come November.

Q: How can an individual safeguard their vote?


Make your vote count. Take a few minutes on your secretary of state’s website to find out now that you are registered, where you can vote, how you can vote and when you can vote in your state. If you are not registered, contact your local board of elections and find out how to register. It's what makes democracy in the United States work.

Do your homework. Get your information from multiple sources that are not partisan or compare different partisan views. Do not rely on a forwarded Facebook page. Go and investigate the source if you think it sounds too good. It just requires a few extra clicks. Protecting the country’s democracy is worth the effort.

Stay updated. Go directly to the secretary of state’s website or twitter feed in your state for information. While the quality of such information varies across states, these are the offices in charge of the process. See if the secretary has a reputation for bipartisanship or not, and use that to assess what they are saying about the election.

Featured photo at top of Richard Harknett by Lisa Ventre/UC Creative + Brand.


Stay engaged

Learn more about UC's Center for Cyber Strategy and Policy, which advances the study of cybersecurity. 

Find more UC Answers to your important questions.