February 6 | Anticipating Racial Harms to Democracy from AI

Tuesday, February 6, 2024
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM
Michel Oksenberg Conference Room
Encina Hall, Third Floor, Central, S350
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305
Spencer Overton

Join the Cyber Policy Center on Tuesday, February 6th from 12 Noon–1 PM Pacific, for Anticipating Racial Harms to Democracy from AI, a conversation with Spencer Overton, Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor of Law at George Washington Law School. The session will be moderated by Nate Persily, co director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, and is part of the of the Winter Seminar Series, a series spanning January through March hosted at the Cyber Policy Center. Sessions are in-person and virtual, via Zoom and streamed via YouTube, with in-person attendance offered to Stanford affiliates only. Lunch is provided for in-person attendance and registration is required. This session will take place in Encina Hall, on the 3rd floor in the Oksenberg Conference Room.

The talk will focus on Professor Overton’s current work-in-progress, Anticipating Racial Harms to Democracy from Artificial Intelligence.

By the year 2045, demographers predict there will be no majority ethnic group in the United States, and generative artificial intelligence technologies have the potential to facilitate our transition to a democracy that protects the political liberties of individuals of all racial backgrounds. AI could empower a diverse array of candidates and community organizations by lowering the costs of and increasing access to data analysis, microtargeting, content creation, voter mobilization, monitoring policy debates, research and policy analysis, and civic mobilization.

Demography, however, is not destiny. While AI has many beneficial applications for a racially-inclusive democracy, if left unchecked it will also facilitate many harms. Political demagogues and foreign governments will utilize AI to target disinformation campaigns, stoke racial resentment and polarization, and deploy cyberattacks on election software and equipment in localities that serve large populations of voters of color. Entrenched politicians could use AI to more effectively identify voting restrictions and gerrymandering schemes that contain the influence of emerging communities of color. Even absent intentional discrimination, foundation models used to create content, moderate content, detect deepfakes, maintain voter rolls, verify mail-in ballot signatures, provide language assistance, and perform other tasks could replicate disadvantage and embed racial, language, and cultural hierarchy in elections and policymaking well into the future. The homogeneity of those who develop the tools and govern tech companies and the failure to prioritize the unique ways in which many communities of color experience AI technologies only compound the anti-democratic nature of the harms. 

Even though anticipating harm is an emerging AI principle and race is the most significant demographic factor in shaping U.S. voting patterns, others have not comprehensively anticipated the racial harms to democracy from AI. Recognizing the growing significance of AI in elections, demographic change, cultural anxiety, antidemocratic sentiment, and a U.S. Supreme Court increasingly hostile to traditional voting rights protections, anticipating the racial harms of AI is the essential first step in developing legal structures that will secure representative democracy for future generations in the United States.

About the Speaker

Spencer Overton is the Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor at GW Law and writes and teaches on democracy and race.  He is the author of State Power to Regulate Social Media Companies to Prevent Voter Suppression and has testified before Congress (June 2020, October 2020March 2023, and November 2023) on policies to stop online disinformation.  He also directs GW’s Multiracial Democracy Project, which is currently researching harms to multiracial democracy posed by: 1) artificial intelligence; and 2) continued challenges to the Voting Rights Act. 

From 2014-2023, Professor Overton served as the President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies—America’s Black think tank—where he restored the organization’s fiscal health, established several program areas (including tech policy), and worked closely with civil rights groups, the Congressional Black Caucus, and various other policymakers to increase diversity among top political appointees and to devise and advance racially-equitable policies. Under his leadership the Joint Center became an early partner of the Partnership on AI, reframed national discussions on the future of work to include a racial analysis, proposed a civil rights carve out for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that was included in federal legislation introduced by Senator Mark Warner and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and proposed several solutions to expand access to broadband in the Black Rural South that were enacted into law in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2022. 

Professor Overton also held several senior leadership roles during the Obama campaign, transition, and Administration. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he led over 140 experts as chair of the campaign’s Government Reform Policy committee. On the transition, he chaired the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Agency Review Team and helped write the Administration’s ethics guidelines while serving in the office of the General Counsel. During the Administration, he was appointed as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, and partnered with other senior officials in leading the Administration’s democracy policy efforts related to the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Administration’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending in federal elections.

Professor Overton’s work on the Jimmy Carter-James Baker Commission laid the groundwork for modern arguments against unnecessary voting restrictions. As a member of the DNC Presidential Nomination Scheduling Commission, he led an effort that resulted in Iowa restoring voting rights to over 80,000 returning citizens. He was also part of a group of commissioners that worked to successfully move more diverse states like South Carolina and Nevada to the beginning of the modern Democratic presidential primary process, which would later have significant implications in selecting the Democratic nominee in 2008 (Barack Obama) and 2020 (Joseph Biden).   

Professor Overton currently serves on the board of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Education Fund, and has also served on the national boards of the American Constitution Society, the Center for Responsive Politics (Open Secrets), Common Cause, and Demos. 

Prior to joining the academy, Overton practiced law at the firm Debevoise & Plimpton, clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, and graduated with honors from both Hampton University and Harvard Law School.