Election Dreams and Nightmares

Episode Summary

Without free, fair, open, and trustworthy elections, democracy itself is in peril. But the scary truth is that at this moment of extreme political polarization—with a history-changing U.S. presidential election in the balance, and with multiple actors striving to sway voters through means both legitimate and nefarious—we can’t be 100% sure that the voting process will work the way it’s supposed to in November 2020. In this episode we hear which threats election security experts are most worried about, and how we might imagine a way out of the current mess.

Episode Notes

The moment in the voting booth when you put your pen to your ballot (or put your finger to the electronic touchscreen, as the case may be) is democracy distilled. It’s the act that makes America a republic. But while the casting your vote is critical, it’s everything that happens before, during, and after that moment that makes up the larger election system. And these days there are whole armies of people working to influence and disrupt that system—and opposing armies working to protect it and make it safer and more accessible.

In this special Halloween 2019 edition of Soonish, we look at the scary vulnerabilities in the U.S. election system that were exposed after the 2016 presidential election, and we meet a company working to make it possible for everyone to vote securely on their smartphones. 

We hear from a retired U.S. Air Force major general who’s deeply worried about the lack of good “cyber hygiene” within state election agencies, and national security experts who fear the 2020 presidential vote could once again be manipulated and distorted by social media misinformation and disinformation. 

And we meet a science fiction author who says democracy is always a work in progress, but argues there’s an urgent need now for better media literacy and clearer thinking about how to strengthen the key beliefs, norms, and institutions behind democracy.

Check out the complete show notes, including a full episode transcript, at

Chapter Guide

00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID

00:13 Opening Theme

00:22 A Scary Story from the Senate Russia Report

02:49 E-Voting Machines Without Paper Trails

03:38 The Nightmare Scenario

04:28 Maj. Gen. Earl Matthews on Cyber Hygiene

06:33 More Money for Election Security

07:23 The Big Question: Can We Achieve Fair Elections?

07:52 The Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984

09:47 Nimit Sawhney at SXSW

10:58 The Founding of Voatz

13:58 How to Vote on Voatz

22:03 Baby Steps and Criticisms

24:19 Meet Centenal Cycle Author Malka Older

27:58 Elections as Systems, and the Dangers of Disinformation

30:59 Adapting to New Communications Platforms

32:32 The Fragility of Legitimacy

33:45 End Credits, and a Shout-Out to Open Source


The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.

Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound.

Episode logo photograph by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

Sound effects / foley from

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Please check out Open Source, one of the newest additions to the Hub & Spoke audio collective. Try the episode Do we want democracy or two-day shipping? with Matt Stoller from the Open Markets Institute.