A recent spate of articles and audio programs is acknowledging that the manipulation of election results using electronic voting equipment is a distinct possibility. NPR, Wired, the Washington Post, Science Friday, and most comprehensively – an almost 9000 word article at Politico, are all reporting on the vulnerabilities of the machines that we vote on. The networks have joined the chorus with coverage at ABC, NBC and CBS. It’s a welcome sight to see this coverage, and it’s also about time. A small army of election integrity activists, computer scientists and journalists like Brad Friedman and Victoria Collier have made the point repeatedly over the last ten years; Collier most emphatically in an eye-opening 2012 article in Harper’s Magazine.
I have been one of those voices. In 2008, I released a documentary Holler Back – [not] Voting in an American Town. As part of the filming, I recorded the hack of the AccuVote-TS voting machine that is described in the Politico article. The hack is by then-graduate students Alex J.Halderman and Ari Feldman, working with Professor Ed Felten at Princeton. The documentary clip is 5 minutes long and well worth watching. It contains back and forth cuts between Halderman and a Lehigh County Pennsylvania election official, where Halderman explains how they overcame every single one of Lehigh County’s security measures.
Lehigh County Former Chief of Staff Levi Price, “We changed the passwords for each election.”
Halderman, “The password didn’t stop us for more than a few seconds.”
Lehigh County, “You have to have the technological capability of altering the software.”
Halderman,“The memory card is just a standard off-the-shelf memory card that you use in your digital camera. The smart cards you can buy over the internet.”
Lehigh County: “We have 700 separate machines. Each of those 700 separate machines is locked with a different key.”
Halderman, “You don’t need to break all 700 locks. Because a viral attack is possible, all you need to do is infect one or a small number of machines. And then the virus and your malicious vote-stealing software will spread from machine to machine during normal election procedures.
My narration: But what if we had a paper trail for the touch-screen machines. Would that make them more reliable?
Brad Friedman, (of Bradblog.com) “There is no reason to trust a touchscreen or DRE system with or without a paper trail. Period. You can hack the paper trails as easily as you can the internal numbers.”
That was in 2008.
HACKING IS NOT THEORETICAL
Which brings me to my next point: while the coverage is welcome, there are still some problems with the current narrative.
One problem with these stories is that they all take the position that this is a theoretical issue that they are concerned could happen. From the Politico article, “’You would be hard pressed to find an example of our voting systems ever being hacked in a real election environment, as opposed to that of a hack attempt inside of a laboratory environment in which zero real world physical election processes are utilized,’ writes Kathy Rogers, a spokesperson with ES&S, in an email, and correctly so—it’s never been proven that an election was deliberately hacked.”
This is actually not true. As early as 1994, the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa was successfully attacked through the computers. According to Peter Harris, the head of the official election monitors, "The electronic count was compromised by a hacker who went in and multiplied the vote. The electronic count was then closed down. It stopped. That's when the results stopped going to South Africa and the rest of the world." The BBC reports that, “The secret manual system saved the day.”
If hacking the voting equipment is as easy as buying a memory card and a mini-bar key on the internet, and allows one control of local, state, and federal budgets it is not hard to imagine that it is already happening. The media may suffer from a lack of imagination, but hackers do not.
Our research does not prove that elections are being hacked. But the reported totals do not look accurate when analyzed statistically, and after extensively looking for other causes, we conclude that the manipulation of the count is the most likely explanation. The data indicates this is already occurring, and has in all likelihood been happening for years in both Democrat and Republican primaries, as well as general elections.
OPTICAL SCAN MACHINES ARE VULNERABLE
One concern about the current narrative is that some security experts are recommending optical scan machines as the solution to our election security woes. Our research indicates that computerized elections with a paper trail are as vulnerable as those without.
We performed a detailed statistical analysis of New York, a state that votes on paper, and then runs the ballots through optical scan machines. According to those familiar with the process, the results of the optical scan machines are all centrally tabulated by computer. In an interview Professor Halderman confirmed that central tabulation is a vulnerable security opening, where results could be assigned new percentages. “If you’re manipulating the central counting systems, then you can make an overall adjustment.” Asked whether it’s possible to get access to the central counting software, he replied, “Probably. It’s been our experience in the last decade with the Diebold systems, for instance, that it was certainly possible in the machines and counting systems we examined.”
Voting on paper is necessary, but if we want to be confident the results are accurate, it is also necessary to count the votes by hand. This is a conclusion that most of the European democracies have come to. As Ben Wofford points out in the Politico article, “Eight countries in Europe that once flirted with digital voting have seen six go back to paper; Britain counted its Brexit votes by hand.”
Below is the segment of our report showing how problematic the New York Democratic 2016 primary results are. For those who have not read the full report we found that a significant difference in the percentages that the candidates receive in small and large precincts is a cause for concern. There is no demographic explanation that is large enough to account for these variations. Furthermore, the variations are consistently helping or hurting certain candidates, ruling out random error as the problem.
New York State —
Multiple Issues Raise Serious Concerns
If voting-machine results were inaccurate on a regular basis, there would be some evidence of it. One indicator would be that votes counted by machines would give different results than votes counted by hand. In fact, this is now being seen in elections all over the country.
In the 2016 Democratic primary in Kings County, New York (Brooklyn) a group of affidavit ballots were hand-counted by a group of volunteers. Comparing the hand-counts with the machine-counts, there is a noticeable difference (Figure 1). In every single assembly district we examined, except one, Hillary Clinton performed better when the votes were counted by machine; Sanders performed better when the votes were counted by hand. The graph shows eight of the districts that were included in the study. This is a small sample of the overall ballots cast, but the consistency of the results makes a convincing case that something is amiss.