While some may not want to dwell on it, there will be another presidential election this year. The 2020 election seems like it was not that long ago, and yet in the intervening years the world has changed dramatically (even though the 2024 presidential candidates are familiar). The biggest change may be that artificial intelligence has now become a part of everyday life.

Beyond generating strange images and recipes, AI is already being used to impact elections across the United States and the world. From AI-generated robocalls that mimic world leaders to AI-generated cyberattacks, it’s not hard to find alarming examples of AI being used in nefarious ways. The concerns over its potential to create misinformation and deepfakes are of course valid. But, while these concerns must be taken seriously, the technology can also improve U.S. election’s cyber infrastructure and improve the efficiency of election administration.

Yet instead of focusing on these potential positives, lawmakers have primarily reacted fearfully and proposed rules and regulations that aim to limit AI’s negative capacities. While most Americans are in favor of government action around AI, many questions remain about the constitutionality of such laws and their effectiveness in successfully curbing election disinformation.

As R Street Institute governance policy fellow, Chris McIsaac argues, a more forward-thinking approach would recognize that, “American elections are decentralized by design, and this approach, which empowers individuals at the local level, provides the best opportunity to truly strengthen American democracy for years to come.”

McIsaac takes a close look at AI and elections in a new report released today. He examines the risks and opportunities that AI offers—specifically in terms of election information, cybersecurity, and administration. McIsaac evaluates the government’s AI-oriented policy responses to date, and assesses the effectiveness of regulating AI in campaign communications through prohibitions or disclosures that AI was used.

In the end, he offers practical alternatives to a fear-based reaction to AI. His recommendations will empower local election officials to focus on strengthening cyber defenses, build trust with the public as a credible source of election information, and educate voters on the risk of AI-generated disinformation and how to recognize it.

As we head into the 2024 election, McIsaac urges government leaders and Americans to keep these key points in mind:

  1. Voters must remain skeptical of information they consume online and anticipate that there will likely be an uptick in deceptive content as Election Day approaches
  2. Always consult multiple sources, resist emotional manipulation, and take personal responsibility for not spreading false information
  3. Civil society groups, the private sector, and the media can support voter education and raise public awareness of the risks involved with AI by continuing to draw attention to the issue so that it does not slip out of the public consciousness, while also avoiding the risk of sensationalizing the issue
  4. Candidates for office can defuse the effects of deceptive AI-generated content by pledging to not use it and urging supporters to not use it. Candidates also need to resist the temptation to claim that unflattering audio or video is an AI deepfake when it is real. Simple decisions by leaders to avoid fanning the flames would go a long way to minimizing the potential impact of false information generated by AI
  5. Although AI has accelerated the sophistication and power of cyberattacks on election infrastructure, existing cybersecurity best practices can still help reduce the threat posed by these attacks. Familiar strategies like multi-factor authentication, strong passwords, email authentication protocols, and cybersecurity training remain powerful defenses against phishing and social engineering attacks, even those generated by AI

As McIsaac concludes, “AI technology is here to stay, and it is incumbent that our leaders and individual citizens take on the responsibility of adapting to this new reality while setting aside the temptation to seek protection from government rules and regulations that are unlikely to achieve their intended purpose.”

Read the full report here.

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Table of Contents:

I. Executive Summary

II. Introduction

III. Overview: Artificial Intelligence and Elections

IV. Policy Responses

V. Public Awareness and Individual Responsibility

VI. Conclusion

VII. About the Author