DOES THE #AUDITTHEVOTE MOVEMENT HAVE LEGS?
Three nights ago, my wife told me to check my Facebook page because she had “tagged me” (whatever that means*) with a story from New York magazine about a group of lawyers and computer scientists who have urged the Clinton campaign to file recount requests in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. (She also said something about a petition that as of this writing has close to 200,000 signatures.)
So I started to write about that story, but then one of the quoted security experts (Professor Alex Halderman) published a follow-up on Medium to provide context and to correct nuances of the story that he felt the magazine’s coverage had omitted.
(At the University of California, Berkeley, a separate unrelated group of security experts are also calling for a “risk-limiting” audit of the election for similar reasons and on similar grounds.)
Professor Halderman’s blog post describes the facts that have driven this group of respectable and well-regarded experts to urge a review of the election — these facts include
(1) Reports that Russian agents wanted to or tried to interfere with and subvert the mechanisms of democracy in collusion with the Trump campaign in key battleground states;
(2) Troubling statistical anomalies in voter turnout compared across jurisdictions within those battleground states;
(3) The experience of Ukrainian election officials, who in 2014 were caught off-guard by a multi-pronged attack on vote-reporting and online tabulation of their national election in 2014. (Some of the details of that 2014 attack were covered in this Wall Street Journal story.)
In August of this year, Ben Shapiro wrote a nice summary article for Politico about the security threats that endanger electronic voting generally, stretching back to the dramatic headline-grabbing criticisms directed at electronic voting system manufacturers made by Andrew Appel and Alex Halderman in 2003. The story also briefly touches on the capacities of foreign hackers to disrupt elections with non-physical attacks.
On Facebook and elsewhere, the New York magazine story is being circulated along with admonitions to readers to call or write the Department of Justice and urge the DOJ to audit the election. As the New York story points out, the deadlines for candidate recount requests (which are functionally distinct from and more modest than full-blown election contests filed in court, but which help frame the factual context and discovery process in advance of possible litigation) are almost over—today, November 25, is the deadline for a recount in Wisconsin; Monday, November 28, is the deadline in Pennsylvania; and Wednesday, November 30 is the deadline for a recount in Michigan.
On the topic of recounts, Green Party candidate Jill Stein might or might not use some of the money she’s raised to request recounts, although her request would not particularly help any other candidate, and seems like a quixotic cry for attention.
As to my analysis, recounts are not forensic examinations of the veracity of an election—they are merely re-tallies of the election returns to correct arithmetic errors. Realistically, if there is credible evidence of some actual and material election fraud, that evidence will only be adduced through a criminal investigation or an election contest, or both; not a recount.
Is Hillary Clinton going to file an election contest?
Eh … I would put the odds of such litigation as slim to none.
The problem for the Clinton campaign is twofold.
First, there is a matter of a lack of concrete evidence of material irregularity in the conduct of the election — beyond arguing that the statistical patterns of turnout and voting results looks fishy, one would need to articulate with some credibility how the election outcome was hacked. Without knowing more, I just don’t see any evidence of tabulation errors that might be collected through an election audit as being sufficient to support a contest of the results.
Second, the losing candidate is under pressure from her own party to accept the results in the interest of promoting a peaceful transition to the new administration.
ELECTION HACKING IN CONTEXT
Whether rigging an election in 1916 or in 2016, and independent of the technology used to record votes, the person or group doing the rigging always faces the same general tactical challenge: You can’t rig an election except by getting your hands on the ballots.
Voting machines are not networked, and you cannot access them remotely — as Professor Appel demonstrated when he broke into his guinea pig voting systems, an election-stealer actually has to get his or her hands dirty.
That being said, if you have actual possession of the equipment to be used in an election, you can presumably maliciously destroy the election to your heart’s content, limited only by your technical skill and the scope of your evil intentions.
But that’s always been true — technology alters the details of how the machinery might be subverted, but it doesn’t alter the scope of the broad security problem at hand.
Stunts like reprogramming voting machines to play Pac-Man, or theatrical subversions of the District of Columbia’s abandoned notions of Internet voting don’t frighten me to any greater degree than any other hypothetical or actual examples of election subversion, because even the most extravagant forms of election fraud are dependent on physical access to the machinery of voting.
Or rather, I suppose all examples of election rigging do frighten me, but always to the same extent, and independent of the specific details of any particular method of election theft that might be described, whether it involves paper ballots or electronically recorded votes.
In other words, I find election rigging involving ballot box-stuffing and paper forgery to be just as worrying as election rigging involving sleeper software, self-replicating trojan horse viruses, and reverse-engineered access keycards.
So rigging an election that uses direct-recording electronic voting systems is described in technical terms that are cooler and more sinister-sounding, but that are simply the electronic analogue of getting a guy to cut the bottom out of an old-fashioned galvanized metal ballot box.
So if someone came to me and said, “I think the November 2016 presidential election was rigged in key counties within at least three of the battleground states,” my first questions would include:
- What kind of security measures preserved the voting equipment against unauthorized access in each of those counties?
- What evidence have you found of a breach of those security measures?
The forensic challenge might well be complex, and the answer to my question might be a mix of direct and circumstantial evidence of ballot insecurity.
“Well, in X County, county maintenance workers reported that a padlock on the county’s equipment shed was cut sometime between October 30th and November 1st, but an inventory showed no theft occurred.”
“In Y County at Precinct 301, election workers had decided to get a head start on things, so they dropped off their equipment at the Smith Elementary School on the evening of the 7th, and had the janitor lock the equipment in the basement boiler room, but they don’t know who else has a key to the boiler room.”
“In Z County after the polls closed, the election workers couldn’t find any of the wire-hasp seals that were supposed to be in the election kit, so they just went ahead and closed up the equipment and loaded it on the county pick-up truck to take it back to the county courthouse. Since they hadn’t bothered to write anything down on their seal register or their ‘transfer of physical custody’ form, the county clerk yelled at them and made them feel bad, but what’s done is done. The clerk went out to Office Max the next day and bought a few serial-number embossed wire hasps, and put those on the equipment.”
Such bits of evidence are the kernels of a potential police investigation — each irregularity (whether trivial or serious) prompts follow-up questions.
- Does the county have a surveillance system for its voting equipment shed?
- What were the reported tallies?
- Who voted in each precinct?
- Should the district attorney file a motion to impound the equipment to preserve evidence?
- How many of the voters, when called and interrogated, are willing to say who they voted for?
- Does a judge need to issue subpoenas to solicit grand jury testimony from the voters listed on the poll list?
So is it theoretically possible that elements in the Russian government could try to steal an American election by hacking voting machines? Well, sure. I mean, if and to the extent that neither the Russian government nor any of its intelligence allies minds the retaliatory risk to their own voting apparatus. Tit for tat, and all that.
To me, the fraud inherent in this election is more likely to be explained not as the product of a specific foreign–funded computer security breach of individual electronic voting units, but rather as a kind of collective self-inflicted wound on the body politic. I’m not oblivious to the threat or the potential that I have underestimated the ease of the technical limitations to be overcome, and if it does turn out that the physical mechanisms of our election’s ballot collection was subverted by a network of Russian hackers, I will be just as surprised and outraged as anyone, but I’m not going to tie myself in knots of paranoid doubt and fear in the absence of evidence.
And the disturbing spread and political uses of so-called “fake news” and outright propaganda in the months and weeks leading up to the election, combined with what Americans have apparently just realized is a dire need for education about how — in addition to “Snopes it” — to discern fake from fact.
Vote suppression and racial gerrymandering also constitutes a kind of political fraud, to be sure, but the preconditions for this kind of fraud are a heady and profound failure of civic education in the face of the resurgent tides of open racial discrimination that now threaten to sweep away the gains of the civil rights movement. Maybe one might throw in a little soupçon of politically naive and dangerously nihilistic political experimentation, and voila!
In any case, if this election was overtly stolen through manipulating the tabulation of ballots, the state (through criminal investigation and prosecution) can punish the theft. But practically speaking, the only person with legal standing to file a civil suit (i.e. an election contest) to repair the civic damage caused by that theft is the losing candidate — not the voters, whether through an “audit” or otherwise.
So, unhappy voters, petition the DOJ as you see fit, but in petitioning for an “audit” you are not formally initiating any sort of recognized investigative or restorative process to change the outcome of this election.
You can also demand some sort of revolt by the Electoral College as well, if you’d like, but you should know that with a few negligible exceptions, the electors from each state are chosen by the candidate who wins that state’s popular vote. In other words, the electors are friends and supporters of the candidate and are chosen specifically for their loyalty to the candidate who has identified them for that role.
*I know that when I say, “I don’t understand Facebook,” it looks like I’m crotchety and dim, shaking my liver-spotted fist at the kids tearing across my yard on their fancy social-network mountain bikes. And well …, I probably am crotchety and dim with respect to popular social networking sites and technologies (although as I understand it, Facebook itself is now kind of the fuddy old “grandpa” portal in comparison to Instagram and Twitter).
But honestly, can even those of you who regularly and confidently use Facebook (I’m looking at my wife right now) say that in your heart you truly love Facebook’s often extravagantly non-intuitive interface and design? Really? Even when it breaks expectations and functions in a manner inconsistent with other routine communication structures? Well, okay then. I guess it’s just me.