Part of the Series
Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016
RICK: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
POLICE CAPTAIN RENAULT: I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
CROUPIER (handing Renault a pile of money): Your winnings, sir.
CAPTAIN RENAULT: Oh, thank you, very much… Everybody out, at once!
(Scene from Casablanca.)
If there is anything positive to say about the 2016 elections, it’s that they have finally forced an end to the official denial of computerized election rigging. In the past month, the fact that our voting technology is a hacker’s paradise has been validated by no less than all the major TV news networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, USA Today, The Hill, The Guardian, Mother Jones, Politico, and a dozen other outlets.
Of course, the corporate media and political parties are now professing “shock” at the very prospect that US elections can be manipulated, and yes, even stolen.
Yet it has long been an open secret that game-changing races have been decided not by voters, but by insiders; from the presidential race of 1960, appropriated for John Kennedy by Democratic muscle in Chicago, to the two victories secured for George W. Bush by GOP fixers in Florida and hackers in Ohio. Among other suspect elections in recent years are key Congressional races hijacked by combinations of voter suppression, gerrymandering, dark money and the ugly little secret of American elections: rigged voting machines.
For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”
Sadly, it took a perfect storm of events to propel this crisis into the public spotlight, bringing no small amount of chaos. Today, the internet is flooded with election-rigging conspiracy theories and frantic official responses, all under the shadow of a looming contested presidential election.
As the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton camp reel from repeated computer hacks, the Obama administration has pointed the finger at Russia, giving rise to a wave of 11th hour fears that foreign agents could hack our voting systems. Yet, Julian Assange came a wink and nod away from outing DNC staffer Seth Rich as his insider source for the email leak, stoking paranoia by heavily suggesting whistleblowing was the cause of his recent murder.
As Bernie Sanders’ stunned supporters continue to sort through the wreckage of the primaries, they are overwhelmed by the mess of partisanship, voter suppression, electronic voting results that deviated widely from the polls and disastrous elections administration nationwide. Evidence suggests a bewildering mix of incompetence, party manipulation and outright fraud. Was it all enough to derail a Sanders victory? And if so, who is responsible? In our current system, these are very difficult questions to answer.
Meanwhile, back at Donald Trump’s Doomsday camp, after the reckless nominee actually invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s computers, Trump confidant and former campaign adviser Roger Stone has threatened a rhetorical (so he says) “bloodbath” of civil disobedience to shut down the government if Trump supporters conclude that the November election was rigged against them.
In this maelstrom, the assurances of President Obama and elections officials that our voting processes are honest and secure is not likely to assuage voters from any camp, nor should they.
We don’t need assurances. We need truth and ultimately, we need reform.
Elections are, to put it mildly, a wonky subject. Few Americans care to tackle their complexity, and most are eager to believe someone responsible is minding the store. While most elections officials are decent, underpaid public servants with integrity, many in positions of power are not. Over the years they have enabled — and sometimes profited from — deep structural security breaches that are not going to fix themselves.
To understand what’s happening and what we can do about it, we need to speak some uncomfortable truths and also dispel a few persistent myths.
It’s Not Voter Fraud, It’s Election Rigging
Numerous studies, such as the Brennan Center’s “The Truth About Voter Fraud”, prove that the supposed rampant scourge of phony voting is a myth. “It is more likely that a person will be struck by lightening than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls,” reads the report. However, right-wing forces have used a trumped up fear (no pun intended) to justify a glut of racist voter suppression laws that are now being challenged. Some of these have been overturned by state courts.
Donald Trump has perpetuated a common misunderstanding by conflating the terms “voter fraud” and “election rigging.” Clearly, he doesn’t yet know the difference, though in a recent piece for The Hill, Roger Stone seemed to be getting his sea legs on this issue (still, the article was muddled with factual errors and partisan attacks).
Trump’s calls to his base to monitor the polls in November will result in nothing more than chaotic voter intimidation and possible violence. Their actions may also violate a long-standing court consent decree that bars the Republican National Committee (RNC) from engaging in certain voter fraud prevention activities, particularly if they could be racially or ethnically motivated.
To add more confusion, Trump’s accusations have led to assertions that widespread election rigging is impossible. The truth is that, while widespread voter fraud is impossible, election rigging is a different matter.
Widespread election rigging is possible at the county and state levels, by elections insiders or hackers who can penetrate their systems. This can flip state, congressional and even presidential elections.
How is this possible? Because over many decades, our public elections have been privatized and outsourced to a handful of corporations and dozens of private service vendors. This is bad enough without their key players also having deep ties to political parties and religious extremists. Some have even been convicted of crimes, including bribery, bid rigging, kickback schemes, lying to voting officials and computer fraud.
In turn, these shady corporations have sold us billions in “proprietary” computerized voting systems. This includes electronic poll books, touchscreen voting machines, optical ballot scanners and central tabulators, Internet voting systems and online vote reporting networks.
Election laws have slowly been altered to facilitate this quiet transition to more “expedient” private control. In most states public oversight has been curtailed or removed entirely, including the ability to witness a full, secure public tally of paper ballots; the international gold standard of democratic elections. In jurisdictions in 12 states, ballots have been eliminated and only the secretly programmed machines remain.
Cyber security experts and “white hat” hackers, who have gained access to the machines over the years, report that every component of these electronic voting systems are ridiculously vulnerable to fraud:
- Machines are not safeguarded and sit vulnerable for weeks leading up to an election
- The shoddy locks and keys on the machines are easily opened and replaced
- Machines can be breached without breaking official security seals
- The secret software can be rigged with malicious, self-deleting code to steal elections
- The rigged code will not be detected by standard security tests
- Vote-rigging viruses can be spread from one computer through an entire network
- The administrative passwords are often easily hacked or missing entirely
- One person can access voting systems and others can enter behind them
- Last minute “patches” to (supposedly) update software can harbor malicious code
- Wireless connections are insecure and aren’t always evident
- Vulnerable hacking points include voter registration lists, any machines that are linked to the internet, any digital vote results that are transferred wirelessly to central tabulators, and all final vote tallies transferred to the websites of secretaries of states
Dozens of technical reports and studies, books, films and videos, articles, investigations and even congressional whistleblower testimony have exposed the depth of this crisis.
Both Touchscreens and Optical Scanners Can Be Rigged
Here it gets a little wonkier, so hang in there.
There are two kinds of vote tabulating systems in use: Approximately 20 percent are Direct Recording Electronic (DRE), called Touchscreens, which look something like an ATM. DREs both record and tally votes within their internal computers. The other ubiquitous machines are Optical Scanners, which scan paper ballots filled out by the voter, including absentee and vote-by-mail ballots.
The Touchscreens were an inappropriate technology purchased by states with funds from the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a $3.9 billion pork barrel promoted by the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served six years in prison for conspiracy to bribe public officials, tax evasion and mail fraud. Touchscreens immediately violated democratic elections by providing no paper ballot to audit or recount. Many Touchscreens were later retrofitted with a Voter Verified Paper Trail (VVPAT), essentially a glorified toilet paper roll of flimsy receipt paper that has proven both expensive and useless for verifying elections.
The VVPAT myth has also been a sorry source of confusion for voters who were misled into believing a personal vote “receipt” is sufficient protection against fraud. The truth is that an individual receipt tells us nothing about the total vote tally inside the DRE computer, and in no way verifies the final election results. VVPAT receipts have also compromised voter privacy.
The final, and possibly most dangerous myth to placate and mislead concerned voters, is that the Optical Scanners are safe. In fact, they are also computers that can miscount and can be secretly programmed or hacked to rig elections. The only difference in safety is that the paper ballots are available for hand-count audits. Some scanners also provide digital ballot images that can be used for a separate audit.
However, without actually auditing these records in public, with a secure ballot chain of custody, they offer nothing but a false sense of security. And here’s the rub: twelve states use Touchscreen voting machines that provide no paper record at all. Where paper is used with Optical Scanners, most states do not conduct meaningful audits. Many fail to uphold even the most common-sense standards, such as mandatory random selection of precincts (some are chosen weeks in advance), and public oversight.
Bad auditing practices may easily be nothing more than a cover for rigging.
In 2004 elections workers in Ohio were convicted of felony rigging in the statewide recount where legally mandatory random sampling was not done. Poll workers illegally pre-selected sample precincts for manual recounting, then recounted the rest of the ballots by machine, which rendered the audit meaningless. Elections Chief, Michael Vu, resigned after overseeing the corrupted election. He was quickly hired on as Registrar of Voters in San Diego, California, where he was recently sued by election integrity advocates for leaving 285,000 ballots out of a 1 percent manual audit of the 2016 primaries.
One Person, One Vote? Or 3/5 of a Vote?
Making a new case for 100 percent manual audits is a disturbing new report called Fraction Magic by investigator Bev Harris, author of the book Black Box Voting, and the Emmy-nominated 2006 HBO film, Hacking Democracy.
Fraction Magic exposes the presence of “fractionalized” programming in the GEMS software Harris says is currently counting approximately 25 percent of the votes in US elections. The programming can be used to “invisibly, yet radically, alter election outcomes by pre-setting desired vote percentages to redistribute votes.”
A fractionalized vote means that, instead of the whole number “1,” the recorded vote is allowed to be any other value that is not a whole number. This allows “weighting” of races, removing the principle of “one person, one vote.”
Weighted votes, for example, could look like this:
One person, 3/5 of a vote: “0.60”
One person, one-and-a-half votes: “1.5”
Why would anyone want to program code that makes a vote less, or more than one?
The report claims that the use of fractionalizing, specifically the way it is programmed into GEMS, could allow for an “extraordinary amount of rigging precision.” This could be by specific voting machine, absentee batch, precinct, or even by polling places in predominantly Black or Latino neighborhoods, college areas, or religious and partisan strongholds, for example.
Candidates can receive a set percentage of votes. For example, Candidate A can be assigned 44 percent of the votes, Candidate B 51 percent, and Candidate C the rest.
Is any of this proof that elections are being rigged? No. But it is yet more absolute proof that they can be, and that without manual verification of the machines, we will never know.
According to Harris, use of the decimalized vote rigging feature is invisible to observers and unlikely to be detected by current auditing or canvass procedures. Only a full hand-count of the paper ballots would definitively prove the veracity of the machine count.
For this reason, after decades of monitoring American elections, many integrity advocates like Harris promote nothing less than a full and secure hand-count of paper ballots done at the precinct, something the American public is likely to support, if given all the facts. What’s missing, however, is the political will and public resources to carry out this kind of fully verified election.
Apparently, in the United States, we can conduct multiple trillion-dollar wars around the globe, but counting our own ballots on election night is simply an overwhelming proposition.
Some hope is now dawning with far-seeing officials like Democratic Election Commissioner Virginia Martin in Columbia County, New York, who has worked with her GOP counterpart to ensure that all or most of the machine-cast votes are hand-counted.
“Some told me you can’t count the votes, it’s impossible,” says Martin. “I say you can. New York City has 100 times the voters we have, but also 100 times the resources and people. It’s just a question of managing the process, setting up the procedures. It certainly is doable.”
Yes, Election Rigging Can Happen Here
Given all of the above, the most difficult hurdle in repairing the dysfunction and corruption in our voting system is not designing solutions, and it certainly isn’t proving the problem; the evidence is overwhelming.
Instead, the problem is that the press, the political parties, the elections establishment and even some fleeced candidates, have aligned in a policy of never questioning election results. Even when — or especially when — all signs point to criminal fraud.
Though candidates like Richard Nixon, Al Gore, John Kerry and even Bernie Sanders, had reason to call foul and challenge the results of their races — or at least question the processes — they all chose to remain silent and continue their political careers without willingly donning the albatross of “sore loser” status.
The rationale given is always an unwillingness to undermine a peaceful and stable transition of power. In the case of Sanders it was to preserve the gains made by progressives on climate and wages within the Democratic Party.
The press typically goes one step further in actively disparaging as “tin foil hatters” anyone who questions election results or claims they can be rigged. This necessarily includes not only actual conspiracy theorists, but also the technical experts, and even the government officials and candidates who have had the courage to speak out.
Over the years, these attacks have chilled public discussion and fostered the ultimate Orwellian myth that stolen elections “can’t happen here.” This is not only factually disproven, it simply flies in the face of our Republic’s history.
As chronicled in “Deliver the Vote,” from George Washington onward, vote rigging has been as interwoven in the fabric of American culture as bank robbery. The two are alike in that both are high-stakes crimes with big pay-offs, and both have evolved with technology. Computers now allow for invisible cyber-heists of billions in cash. On a similar scale, thousands, even millions of electronic votes can be siphoned from one candidate to another through malicious internal coding in the voting software.
The standard defense from electronic voting proponents is that “no one has ever proven the elections are rigged.” Of course, that is the entire problem. We can’t prove it. The design of these “black box” systems prevents the detection of insider fraud. It’s the perfect crime.
Here is what we must remember: It’s not the responsibility of voters or candidates to prove a non-transparent vote count was fixed. It’s the job of legislators and election officials to provide transparency and uphold basic standards of democracy, and it’s their failure to do so that’s truly shocking.
The nation’s 9,000 voting jurisdictions and 50 states need ironclad, uniform standards for non-partisan election oversight, ballot security and counting transparency, and a final end to paperless and privatized voting.
This crisis is reaching a tipping point. If we Americans fail to act to secure our elections, as Bogart warned at the end of Casablanca: “You will regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.”
Maybe, as soon as this November.
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