3 - Hacking the Vote
Convincing voters they needn’t bother or scaring them with threats of intimidation or making them wait in long lines or simply confusing them is all rather old hat. The modern way to steal an election is simply to hack the vote without anyone knowing. And that’s been with us since 2000, possibly in the planning a bit before that.
In Florida, there were butterfly ballots (where the vote lozenge didn’t line up with the candidate on the opposite page) and hanging chads (where the little hole-puncher thingy didn’t punch completely … and the optical marks reader thingy thought the cardboard was still covering the hole). You’ll forgive this technical explanation.
The upshot was that the country was convinced it needed to modernize. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was passed, and money was set aside to help state voting authorities enter the modern age of direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines.
Like a smart phone, these DREs would be touch-screen and everyone could use them. They could be adjusted for people with physical impairments. They could be connected to local networks or the Internet and vote tallies could speed across the ether to Vote Central at the TV networks. There, highly skilled news presenters could open up the state map on touchscreen video walls and show us where this county or that was 83% reported. And much more.
Some states were already set up by the 2002 midterms, but it wasn’t until the 2004 general election that we saw the real power of the DRE. Florida seemed to have got its holes punched and life was good. Ohio got punched, too. And there, Kerry’s lead of 51-49 at about 11 pm suddenly became a Bush lead of 51-49. A few nerdy types had taken screen shots before and after the TV video walls uniformly showed Bush winning. The screen shots told a story but did not overturn the election.
The world gasped in disbelief. Americans were voting that dullard, neo-con warmonger in for a 2nd term?
The Greens and Libs in Ohio, as Jill Stein has just announced again this year, chipped in to demand and pay for a recount. The Democrats politely sat it out. The Republican Secretary of State of Ohio, Ken Blackwell, who was coincidentally the head of the state’s Re-Elect Bush committee, declared Bush the winner.
And, indeed, the recount supported his call. The DREs, unfortunately, had no paper trail, that is, nothing to re-count except the electronic tallies. And the digits agreed that Bush had won. A number of vote-integrity groups – Black Box Voting, Verified Voting, National Voting Rights Institute -- sprang up and began trying to prove something was amiss and how it worked.
It’s been 12 years now, and quite a lot has been learned. First of all, a well-purloined election doesn’t use just one big grab. It’s the sum of a little here, a little there that does the job. And as Zachary Quinto, at Verified Voting, points out, suspicion that the vote is hacked may be the biggest threat to democracy. It gives us the idea that voting is futile. Why bother?
But that’s not the whole story. Experts are on top of the potential threats, advising states ahead of time, checking the veracity of the results, and demanding re-counts where results indicate possible problems.
Here’s what they look for:
Anomalies only a nerd could love
Experts crunch the numbers. If, for instance, Trump wins big in counties using DREs but Clinton wins where they use paper ballots, it may suggest the machines are rigged. More innocently, it may mean a wealthy county that leans GOP has digital voting and a poorer area that leans Dem still uses mechanical machines. Either way, it indicates a need to investigate. Only five states are all-digital; in other states these DRE-paper disparities may show up.
Ageing DREs, calibration problems
Likewise, one or two machines in a polling station may record high for one candidate while the other 10 or so show the opponent winning. Many DREs were bought with HAVA funds and haven’t been replaced. They have to be calibrated so that a finger-touch here actually records the candidate the voter intends to choose. Older machines may be less reliable. So, calibration might be checked if results differ significantly from what’s expected in a given precinct, or from exit poll predictions.
Malware in the machines
Malware, that is a destructive computer algorithm, can be introduced into an individual machine that will then ‘flip’ all of its votes from one candidate to another. Smart malware won’t flip every vote, just a few every so often. Hardly noticeable. Machines that are not well-guarded can be opened and ‘loaded’ in just a few minutes. Some canny cyber-security professors and their students at Princeton have been finding the flaws since the late 1990’s. The problems go beyond the machines to the software that aggregates the totals, and even the OMRs that read those chad-punched paper ballots.
Networked to share
If you want a really fast tally for those TV video walls, you can connect all the DRE’s to a network that shoots the final count off to the state’s central election control. Of course, it’s a two-way street. If tallies can go out, viruses can also come in, and the malware in one machine can spread to all the machines in a network. A few states, such as Georgia, have heeded the warning and taken their machines off of networks.
Lack of paper trail
Under pressure from vote-integrity advocates, many jurisdictions have added voter-verified paper ‘audit’ trails to their machines. One simple way is a print-out, not unlike a cash register tape, locked securely within the DRE. Visible through a little glass window, the tape shows the current vote. The voter can check his/her vote has been recorded correctly before hitting the ‘finished voting’ button. The tape can be checked against the electronic tally if a recount is called.
Safeguards turned off
Modifying an existing machine can be costly. Some jurisdictions opted for other methods. Swing state Ohio, for instance, has an ‘audit camera’ above the machine. It records the screen the voter sees ... IF it’s turned on. This year, the Republican Secretary of State John Husted said it wasn’t necessary to use the cameras. A suit was brought. The Republican-appointed judge decided with Husted. Clinton lost by 454,000 votes, well over the ‘close’ election that in Ohio law triggers an automatic recount. In any case, without a paper trail or audit camera shots, a re-count is pointless. Investigative journalist Greg Palast had a lot to say about this and other potential problems before the election. Only a few in the media paid much attention. Coiffure and emails were juicier news.
Exit polls only accurate in 3rd world
Exit polls are used by election integrity teams around the world. They are considered the gold standard, highly accurate, in proving that an election has been conducted fairly. In the US, however, they’re called into question. David Pakman’s show has a lively talk about this.
And when they vary widely from the official outcomes, attempts are made to excuse the ‘error.’ A 2008 Forbes article, referencing the 2004 election, is a good example. Somehow, the random sample specified by a computer must have been weighted toward Kerry voters. So, the exit polls predicted a Kerry win. Was random sampling not random? Go figure.
Where does all this leave us? A recount is being filed in Wisconsin by Jill Stein, Green Party, whose website says a Pennsylvania recount has also been funded and they’re moving on the money needed for one in Michigan. The combined difference is just over 100,000 votes.
Recounts may show the popular vote is much closer or may even award one or more of these states to Clinton. In the first case, it would justify more Electors breaking their pledges for Trump. In the second case, the Electoral College makeup would change in favor of Clinton. She needs Pennsylvania and either of the other two.
The prospect of changing the election results is both heady and scary. In light of Clinton’s unprecedented 2-million popular vote lead, it seems only fair. With another just-awful name added to the Trump cabinet each day, it seems downright crucial. On the other hand, the potentially violent reaction of Trump’s extreme alt-right fans is unsettling, and a few urge letting well enough alone, aka ‘appeasement.’ We can click more petitions and send money to fund recounts, or not. It’s a matter, like voting, for each of us to weigh and decide.