Bogus fliers (so 2002) and robocalls (so 2006) are being superceded by a new generation of ways of preventing the wrong people from voting.
The Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights and Common Cause report
In the last several election cycles, "deceptive practices" have been perpetrated in order to suppress voting and skew election results. Usually targeted at minorities and in minority neighborhoods, deceptive practices are the intentional dissemination of false or misleading information about the voting process with the intent to prevent an eligible voter
from casting a ballot.
It is an insidious form of vote suppression that often goes unaddressed by authorities and the
perpetrators are virtually never caught. Historically, deceptive practices have taken the form of flyers distributed in a particular neighborhood; more recently, with the advent of new technology "robocalls" have been employed to spread misinformation. Now, the fear is deceptive practices 2.0: false information disseminated via the Internet, email and
other new media.
In the past, the worst practices involved fl yers distributed in predominantly minority communities. The 2004 presidential election cycle provides some particularly vivid examples. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, fliers purportedly from the "Milwaukee Black Voters League" were distributed in minority neighborhoods claiming "If you've already voted in any election this year, you can't vote in the presidential election; If anybody in your family has ever been found guilty of anything, you can't vote in the presidential election; If you violate any of these laws, you can get ten years in prison and your children will get taken away from you." In Pennsylvania, a letter with the McCandless Township seal on it
falsely informed voters that, to cut down on long lines, Republicans would vote on November 2 and Democrats would vote on November 3--the day after the election. Similar fl iers were distributed at Ross Park Mall in Allegheny County.
In Ohio, a so-called "Urgent Advisory" memo on phony Board of Elections letterhead warned voters that if they were registered by the NAACP, America Coming Together, the Kerry campaign, or their local Congressional campaign, they were disqualifi ed and would not be able to vote until the next election. More recently, automated calls, known as robocalls in the world of political campaigns, have been the weapon of choice. In 2006, the Secretary of State of Missouri, Robin Carnahan, reported that in one county, "robo-calls reportedly
warned voters to bring photo ID to the polls or they would not be allowed to vote. There were also reports on the radio in Kansas City of automated telephone calls telling voters their polling places had been changed and givingincorrect polling place information."1 According to the National Network for Election Reform, "Registered voters in
Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico reported receiving phone calls in the days before the election claiming that their registrations were cancelled and that if they tried to vote they would be arrested.
In Virginia, "Voters in Arlington, Accomack, Augusta, and Northampton counties in Virginia received phone calls on November 6 saying voters would be arrested if they attempted to vote on Election Day. Some of the phone calls also told voters that their polling locations
had been moved, although none of the locations had changed." How might such activities translate online? Emails that appear to come from legitimate sources, such as a campaign,
an elections office, a party or a nonprofit organization could be sent in a targeted fashion that contain false or misinformation about the voting time, place or process, or claiming that a poll site has been moved. Just at the time of this writing the first serious instance of email with bogus information came to light in Florida, where voters were receiving emails stating that voters whose ID failed to match a state database on Election Day would be turned away
from the polls.
Making matter worse, spyware could be used to collect information on a voter and their online behavior to better target deceptive emails. Partisan mischief-makers with a bit of technological knowledge could spoof the official sites of secretaries of state, voting rights organizations or local election boards and advertise completely wrong information about anything from poll locations to voter identifi cation requirements. Someone could also appropriatewebsite names that are one letter off from the official site name--a typo domain or "cousin domain"--that appear to be an official site, and post phony information. Pharming--hacking into domain name system servers and changing Internet addresses--could be used to redirect users from an offi cial site to a bogus one with bad information on it.
As more and more people move from traditional phone lines to internet based calling platforms (known as VOIP or Voice Over Internet Protocol), deceptive robocalls might become even more pervasive as they will be virtually untraceable. So far in this election cycle, these tactics have already been utilized to spread false information about candidates.
Barack Obama has been the most prominent target of these attacks. Several emails have circulated widely which have titles such as "Who Is Barack Obama" and "Can a good Muslim become a good American." The content of the emails has often been the same, highlighting Obama's middle name of "Hussein" and incorrectly claiming he is of Muslim faith. While the Obama Campaign suffers through a seemingly unprecedented level of this activity, in 2004
supporters of Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry were sent an email that looked almost exactly like official campaign emails, asking for donations. The email actually came from India and was a scam to steal people's money.
Hillary Clinton did not fully escape such tactics either. The NAACP was forced to release on its website a statement from it's chairman Julian Bond stating that an email listing "10 Reasons Not to Vote for Hillary Clinton" supposedly authored by him was a hoax.
This year during the primaries, according to the online publication Wired, a series of false campaign websites materialized that appeared to be legitimate, such as FredThomsonForum.com, RudyGiulianiForum.com, and MittRomneyforum.com. Wired reported that these sites featured posts "under the impersonated names of popular
political pundits and bloggers" and "promote misleading links to candidate sites that route to YouTube videos attacking them. Most posts adopt the persona of a supporter of the candidate, while offering views that amount to over-the-top parodies of genuine boosters."
After the primaries, domain names with prospective and actual vice-presidential nominees' names popped up, leading to sites with unexpected information. For example, Obama-Biden.org and Obama-Biden.com diverted people to the website of the American Issues Project, an extremely anti-Obama third party organization. As reported by the
Los Angeles Times, the McCain-Romney.com website took viewers to the "offi cial home of the Hundred Year War...and Bush's Third Term!"
An extensive analysis of abuse of campaign domain names found that, "Candidates have not done a good job at protecting themselves by proactively registering typo domains to eliminate potential abuse. In fact, we were only able to fi nd one single typo web site that had been registered by a candidate's campaign - http://www.mittromny.com. All
other typo domains were owned by other third parties that appeared unrelated to the candidate's campaign."
This same study also enumerated several specifi c instances of "typo squatting" of domain names that were meant to look like actual campaign websites, including such gems as "narakobama.com" and mikehukabee.com." These sites were either advertising sites or directed users to sites with "differing political views." Phony campaign websites have also been created to dupe people into making campaign donations that are really
going into someone's pocket, not any campaign. In 2004, phishers (people who use e-mail to fraudulently obtain data from a user) set up a fi ctitious website purporting to be for the Democrats that stole the user's credit card number,
and another site that had users call a for-fee 1-900 number.
This year, an Internet site was set up offering to register people to vote for $9.95, a process that is free. In August 2008, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning
to consumers about voter registration scams. Prospective voters were receiving emails and phone calls from people claiming to be affi liated with an election board or civic group and asking for the person's social security number or credit card number to confirm eligibility or registration to vote. The FTC said the purpose was to commit identity theft.
This report seeks to explore how such attacks might take place in the voting rights context and the measures that can be taken to contend with them effectively. The main focus of the report is an investigation into whether our existing state and federal legal structure is suffi ciently equipped to deter and punish perpetrators of online deceptive practices. On the state level, we examine current anti-hacking and computer crimes laws, laws regarding
the unauthorized use of state seals and insignia and impersonation of public offi cials, and voting rights laws. Each of these subsections is accompanied by recommendations for ways in which state laws can be improved to better address these types of serious transgressions. We also look extensively at current federal law, including the Voting Rights Act, copyright, trademark, anti-cybersquatting laws, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Wire Fraud
Statute, Section 230 of the Communications Act, and the Can-Spam Act. Again, recommendations for improving
federal law are offered.