Every four years when we vote for President there are stories about ballots being miscounted or results being manipulated. It’s an American tradition to wonder if a close election was stolen, especially when your candidate unexpectedly lost. That tradition has only gotten stronger as electronic voting machines have become more common.
When I voted two weeks ago, I pushed invisible buttons on a big screen that made little ‘X’s appear, followed by a red button marked “Cast Your Vote”. As always, I assumed my votes were accurately transmitted somewhere and were properly counted. It’s a matter of trusting our political institutions and civil servants.
But these days it’s also a matter of trusting the private companies that sell the machines and software that count millions of votes. That’s why, for years now, experts on voting have called for changes that would make electronic voting more secure and easier to audit. For instance, all voting machines should create a paper trail that could be used to check the results (I don’t even know if the machines we use in our county create a paper trail that could be reviewed if the results were audited).
This year, of course, there is another reason to wonder about the election results. Russia has some of the best computer hackers in the world and it’s almost certain that they successfully interfered with our election. National security officials released a statement in October accusing Russia hackers of collecting and distributing thousands of personal emails from the Clinton campaign. We don’t know precisely what effect the publication of those emails had on the campaign, but it’s fair to say it didn’t help the Democrats.
Stolen emails weren’t the only subject of that October statement:
Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company… [Our agencies] assess that it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber attack or intrusion. This assessment is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place. States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the Internet, and there are numerous checks and balances as well as extensive oversight at multiple levels built into our election process.
Nevertheless, [the Department of Homeland Security] continues to urge state and local election officials to be vigilant and seek cyber-security assistance from DHS. A number of states have already done so. DHS is providing several services to state and local election officials to assist in their cyber-security. These services include cyber “hygiene” scans of Internet-facing systems, risk and vulnerability assessments, information sharing about cyber incidents, and best practices for securing voter registration databases and addressing potential cyber threats.
All right, so considering the longstanding concerns about electronic voting in general, and the likelihood that Russia tried to access some of our election systems this year, it isn’t crazy to be more concerned than usual about this election. Throw in Clinton’s surprising defeat in a few key states where she was expected to win, plus some strange-looking results from those states, and we’re now seeing stories like these from the Guardian:
“Hillary Clinton urged to call for election vote recount in battleground states” (here)
“Jill Stein prepares to request election recounts in battleground states” (here)
It should be noted that it wasn’t the Clinton campaign (or even the Stein campaign) that began calling for an audit of the election results. Two election experts, Ron Rivest and Philip Stark, made their case a few days ago in USA Today. (Rivest is the Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Technical Guidelines Development Committee, while Stark is Associate Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UC Berkeley and a member of the board of advisers of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission).
They’ve been joined by J. Alex Halderman, who is Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan and the Director of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security & Society. Halderman is an acknowledged expert in the field of electronic voting security. This is from a statement he posted today:
Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not. I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked. But I don’t believe that either one of these seemingly unlikely explanations is overwhelmingly more likely than the other. The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence — paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts.
Halderman also explains how a foreign power might tamper with the election in a few key counties in a few key states, giving an unearned Electoral College victory to a walking disaster.
We don’t know yet whether Clinton will request recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and possibly pull out her own Electoral College victory. It’s rumored that some senior Democrats don’t want to rock the boat and give credence to T—p’s claim that the election would be “rigged”. I sincerely hope that’s not the case. This isn’t one of those times when it would be better for the country if everyone relaxed and supported the apparent President-elect. (That’s what many leading Democrats said during the 2000 election fiasco and look where it got us.)
Finally, as an example of the kind of unaudited result that’s drawing attention, below are the voting histories of two counties in Michigan going back to 1980. Macomb and Oakland counties have usually shown similar levels of support for Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections.
For some reason, however, this year the two counties swerved apart. It looks like Macomb County’s support for the Democrat went way down and its support for the Republican went way up. That’s in comparison to Oakland County’s vote this year and Macomb County’s election history. Maybe it’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new voting pattern in Macomb County. Or maybe it’s evidence that something went seriously wrong in a key county in Michigan and needs to be looked into. Who knows? (Outside Russia, I mean.)
Curious, isn’t it? This is why we need to #AuditTheVote before it’s too late. We don’t have anything to lose by fighting for the truth.