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Will the 2016 Primaries Be Electronically Rigged?

Computerized election rigging in the 2016 primaries threatens all US candidates – and free and fair elections.

(Photo: Voting Machine via Shutterstock)

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“You’ve heard the old adage ‘follow the money.’ I follow the vote, and wherever the vote becomes an electron and touches a computer, that’s an opportunity for a malicious actor potentially to … make bad things happen.” — Steve Stigall, CIA cyber-security expert, in remarks to the US Election Assistance Commission

Primary election rigging in the coming weeks and months is all but assured if American voters and candidates don’t take steps to prevent it now. Evidence that US voting systems are wide open to fraud and manipulation should be taken seriously in light of the unprecedented high-stakes elections we’re facing.

Not in recent history have American voters been presented with such radically polarized candidates, forcing a crucial choice for the direction of our future, and possibly upending long-established centers of power.

Local fixers, insider operatives, rogue hackers and even foreign countries could all rig US elections electronically.

It’s no secret that US primaries have been tightly controlled by the two ruling parties, usually to the benefit of their favored candidates. If this internal manipulation (some might call it rigging) is not publicly condoned, neither is it loudly condemned.

This year, however, the primary season is shaping up to be a battle royal between the political establishment and outsider insurgencies who are challenging the party elites and defying their usual filters, money and manipulations. And it seems all bets are off.

As a brazen Donald Trump kicks down the door of the GOP, tens of millions in super PAC dark cash has (so far) failed to buy the candidacy for a lackluster Jeb Bush. Accusations abound that Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has stacked the deck for Hillary Clinton. Yet nothing – not even corporate media’s censorship or outright hostility toward Bernie Sanders – has blunted his skyrocketing grassroots campaign.

You might ask: What is left, then, for the party powerful to ensure outcomes in 2016? Would any of them be so desperate as to actually rig the final vote count? Could they?

Indeed, they could.

But to be fair, so could a lot of other people. Local fixers, insider operatives, rogue hackers and even foreign countries could all rig US elections – in whole or part, in 50 states and most of the United States’ 3,143 counties – electronically, and without detection.

Time and again, the beneficiaries of suspicious primary elections are establishment-favored candidates.

The potential for this vote-rigging cyberwar is the result of an ongoing crisis in US democracy – a silent coup of sorts. Over many decades, US elections have been quietly outsourced to a small group of private voting machine companies, some with extreme partisan ties and criminal records. They have now almost entirely replaced our publicly counted paper ballots with their secretly programmed, easily hacked electronic voting technology.

For example, the Diebold AccuVote-TS Touchscreen voting machine was recently analyzed by Princeton computer security professors. They found that malicious software running on a single voting machine can be installed in as little as one minute, spreading invisibly from machine to machine through a virus, while stealing votes with little risk of detection.

While recent laws have limited essential hand-counting audits – in some cases making them actually illegal – in 18 states voting machines are used that produce no paper ballot at all, making verification of the results impossible.

Threats to the 2016 Elections

In 2016, Americans will once again cast their votes into this lawless electronic void, and no, we can’t solve the problem before these game-changing primary elections. But shining a light on our voting systems does make a difference – as does getting out to vote: Voter apathy and ignorance create the ideal conditions for election rigging. Huge turnout makes election rigging less feasible, particularly when the pre-election polls or exit polls diverge more than 10 percent from actual vote returns. Manipulations usually happen when the spread between candidates is smaller than 10 percent.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

What evidence do we have that any election rigging has already taken place? As it happens, extensive documentation exists, compiled over decades by researchers, cyber-security professionals, statistical analysts and even government agencies.

If you haven’t heard about it until now, thank the press. A longstanding mainstream media blackout on this issue has prevented the evidence from reaching the public and vulnerable candidates.

While the investigations into rigging are mostly nonpartisan, the results typically are not. Time and again, the beneficiaries of suspicious primary elections are establishment-favored candidates. In general elections, far-right and extremist Republicans have overwhelmingly raked in the “surprise upset” wins.

Why Watch the Primaries?

The primaries in particular should be a major focal point of scrutiny by all democracy advocates and supporters of grassroots, populist and insurgent candidates in both parties.

See the eye-opening statistical analysis of vote results from 2008 to 2012 compiled by citizen watchdog team Francois Choquette and James Johnson. Results showed a highly suspect, so far inexplicable gain of votes, only in larger precincts, only for Republicans (and in the primaries, only for Mitt Romney), and only when votes are counted by computers.

Choquette, an aerospace engineer and Republican, writes, “This substantial effect exceeds reasonable statistical bounds and we calculate that the probability of such election results happening by chance is beyond typical or even extreme.”

The potential smoking gun is that the votes gained by Republicans or “chosen” candidates in each precinct increase as a function of precinct size (vote tally), not the precinct location, whether in cities or rural areas. This makes no obvious sense based on any known demographic. Once you factor in rigging, however, it starts to make a lot of sense; stealing votes from a bigger pool is less likely to be detected.

According to Choquette and Johnson’s findings, Mitt Romney’s ill-gotten gains in 2012 amounted to over 1 million votes “siphoned” or “flipped” from other GOP candidates.

Instead of the flat line expected for each candidate, this chart shows the votes gained by Mitt Romney in a 2012 California primary race, by siphoning votes from other candidates. This “Vote Flipping” is an exchange of votes between candidates, while keeping the total number of votes intact to deter detection. (Chart: Francois Choquette)(Chart: Francois Choquette)

Instead of the flat line expected for each candidate, this chart shows the votes gained by Mitt Romney in a California primary race, by siphoning votes from other candidates. This “vote flipping” is an exchange of votes between candidates, while keeping the total number of votes intact to deter detection.

Figure 6 charts the Vote Gained / Votes Lost results for all 50 states in the 2012 GOP primaries. Because candidate Romney has gained votes in the process, his count is shown in green. The other eight candidates who have lost votes to Romney are shown in red. The total number of votes exchanged between the candidates is approximately 1,233,576 votes. (Chart: Francois Choquette)Figure 6 charts the Vote Gained / Votes Lost results for all 50 states in the 2012 GOP primaries. Because candidate Romney has gained votes in the process, his count is shown in green. The other eight candidates who have lost votes to Romney are shown in red. The total number of votes exchanged between the candidates is approximately 1,233,576 votes. (Chart: Francois Choquette)

Even for the mathematically challenged, the anomalies are evident when you read the report, and certainly lead to some serious head scratching. Choquette, who also co-authored “Republican Primary Election 2012 Results: Amazing Statistical Anomalies,” says any high school student with a basic understanding of statistics could verify the work, and he welcomes anyone to run the numbers themselves.

Recently, a Ph.D. statistician took up the challenge. Beth Clarkson of Wichita State University was skeptical at first, but finally announced that she can find no other explanation besides voting machines being used to rig elections to benefit Republicans in the races she analyzed: the 2012 Ohio presidential election, the 2014 Wisconsin gubernatorial election and the Kansas Senate elections. Less often, Clarkson found that votes appear to be shifted to Democrats as well, depending on the state and type of voting machine used.

Clarkson is now building a media campaign and suing her county election commissioner in an attempt to audit her county’s 2014 paper voting records, which so far has been denied.

All this new information only bolsters the long-held position of the Election Defense Alliance (EDA), a nonpartisan citizen watchdog organization. EDA finally coined the term “red shift” to describe the persistent pattern of anomalous vote results predominantly benefitting the right wing, as described in the 2014 book Code Red: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century.

Recent History of Early Primary Rigging

Iowa Caucus 2012:

In the 2012 Iowa caucus, Mitt Romney, the favored candidate of the Republican Party’s business elite, was declared the winner after a party-controlled vote count.

However, the true winner turned out to be Rick Santorum, an establishment outsider but the favorite of the party’s evangelical and far-right wings.

Romney actually received fewer votes than were posted online by the state GOP, enough to swing the election. The wrong number was exposed by precinct vote counter Edward True. His protest garnered media attention and ultimately overturned the results, but it was too late for Santorum; Romney’s momentum coming out of Iowa made him the “man to beat” going into New Hampshire.

The right-wing libertarian citizen group Watch the Vote was involved in overturning the Iowa caucus results, and was not convinced it was purely human error. They pledge to keep their eye on Iowa in 2016, stating on their website:

Clearly … the Iowa GOP will be trying to cheat Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee. They will be trying to make Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich “win” or “do well” … but we will be focusing on getting a fair count for everyone.

South Carolina 2010:

South Carolina’s bizarre and clearly fraudulent US Senate race in 2010 is the subject of a new documentary on rigged elections, I Voted?

The winner, Tea Party-supported Christian evangelical Jim DeMint, won by a landslide thanks to his implausible Democratic opponent, Alvin Greene, whom it seems was served up by the Democratic primary as the ultimate fail-safe opponent.

Greene, described by the press as “incoherent,” was unemployed, accused of a sex offense and living in his father’s basement. He had run no visible campaign, posted not one yard sign, appeared at no Democratic events and couldn’t even explain where he got the $10,400 needed to file as a candidate.

Yet that same Greene had miraculously flayed his opponent in the Democratic primary, a respected former judge, four-term state legislator and National Guardsman, Vic Rawl, by a whopping 18 percent margin.

Voters and campaign workers reported that the ES&S iVotronic Touchscreen voting machines “flipped” votes to Greene all day long.

A glaring 10 percent pro-Rawl disparity was found between the paper absentee ballots, which were hand-counted, and electronic votes counted by the secretly programmed machines.

Rawl’s formal protest and request for a new primary was denied by the executive committee of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Cynics have attributed this to surreptitious support for DeMint from evangelical Democrats.

However, a disinterest in pursuing justice for candidates whose election might have been stolen has become common practice for the Democratic establishment.

Perhaps, fearing to discourage voters with ugly talk of election rigging, Democratic Party wisdom has consistently valued getting out the vote as a priority over ensuring those votes are actually counted.

New Hampshire 2008:

In 2008, election experts, candidates and conspiracy theorists questioned the vote results for both parties, particularly Hillary Clinton’s victory.

In the GOP primary, for example, the campaign for popular libertarian crusader Ron Paul found these discrepancies between hand-counted ballots and machine-counted results to be a red flag:

  • Mitt Romney, Diebold AccuVote Optical Scan: 33.075 percent
  • Mitt Romney, Hand-Counted Paper Ballots: 25.483 percent
  • Ron Paul, Diebold AccuVote Optical Scan: 7.109 percent
  • Ron Paul, Hand-Counted Paper Ballots: 9.221 percent

Again in 2012, Paul’s supporters made a strong case that he was being systemically and egregiously rigged out in the primaries by the Republican National Committee (RNC) and widely broadcast their accusations. Their protest had merit; the RNC apparently even went so far as to change the rules of the nomination process in midstream to block Paul.

In 2008, establishment candidate Clinton was pitted against insurgent Barack Obama, who had won in Iowa and was clearly leading in New Hampshire by a wide margin in pre-election polls, as well as in the exit polls on election night.

Yet the final Democratic results showed a 10 percent variation from the polls, every one of which had Obama winning for an overall average lead of 8.3 percent. But Clinton won by 2.6 percent, unaccountably gaining 10 points overnight.

New Hampshire Democratic Primary 2008.New Hampshire Democratic Primary 2008.

A range of professional pre-election polls had been fairly spot-on in their predictions for all other candidates in the same race but had mysteriously miscalled the numbers for Clinton and Obama.

Again, the hand-counted paper ballot results favored Obama, while Clinton won in the districts where electronic voting machines secretly counted ballots.

  • Clinton: statewide optical scan tally: 52.73 percent
  • Obama: statewide optical scan tally: 47.27 percent
  • Clinton: statewide hand-count tally: 46.75 percent
  • Obama: statewide hand-count tally: 53.25 percent

Of course, conspiracy theories proliferated in the void where a public, transparent election should have occurred.

Hillary Clinton’s upset win was imagined by some as a fix perpetrated by rogue elements among her more conservative New Hampshire Democratic backers. Others pointed the finger at Republican operatives who they believe may have orchestrated her victory, judging Obama the stronger horse against Romney (or any other GOP candidate).

As it happens, the Premier Voting Machine company, which controlled over three-quarters of the New Hampshire primary, was actually the same Republican-friendly Diebold Voting Machine Company involved in the controversial upset victory by President George W. Bush over John Kerry in Ohio in 2004. (The company had just switched names.)

Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell, who had publicly pledged to deliver Ohio to Bush in 2004, was later mired in widespread accusations of a conspiracy to rig out Kerry late on election night in Ohio. Top cyber-security experts charged that Karl Rove’s online vote-gathering apparatus used a “man in the middle” hack to alter the results, in collusion with the ultra partisan Ohio secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Committee to Re-Elect George W. Bush.

The man who built the vote-tabulating system, GOP tech guru Michael Connell, died in a suspicious private plane crash after being subpoenaed and then compelled to testify against Rove. Two election officials were eventually convicted of rigging the Ohio recount.

Programming the counting for the 2008 New Hampshire primary was a little known company called LHS Associates, which used the same infamous GEMS software long proven to be easily manipulated by insiders to alter the outcome of the election and produce a matching, fraudulent poll tape report.

And the New Hampshire election officials knew. Computer expert Harri Hursti publicly demonstrated this fraud capacity to the New Hampshire State House Subcommittee on Election Equipment before the 2008 primary. The officials chose to use the fraudulent software anyway.

According to the Election Defense Alliance, had New Hampshire simply chosen to count a 10 percent sample of their ballots in precinct on election night, they could have avoided the need to recount all the Republican and more than half of the Democratic primary ballots by hand a week later, “in adversarial circumstances, and under a cloud of suspicion about chain of custody and the legitimacy of secret vote counting.”

How to Protect the 2016 Primaries

In two of the three early primaries, some steps can be taken to deter or detect fraud.

Iowa 2016:

Monitoring the vote count at the Iowa caucus is essential as the parties are piloting a new online cloud-based app for reporting results.

Any new electronic voting system carries a risk of error or malfunction, and online reporting offers the opportunity for rigging the results en route if not carefully compared to the original vote counts at the precinct.

Iowa voters can ensure their votes don’t get lost (or rigged) in the cloud by having many eyes on the ground at the precincts. Take pictures of how many people are present and get a physical count at each location. Use cell phones, video, pen and paper, anything to record the original precinct vote totals, and verify that they match the reported results.

New Hampshire 2016:

According to Verified Voting, New Hampshire widely uses the AccuVote-OS optical scanner to count paper ballots. Security concerns listed include quick-to-pick locks, “sensitive” memory cards, and easily introduced viruses causing the server to crash and falsify votes.

But New Hampshire is one of the rare states where hand counting is still a choice available to all towns and cities. Combined with a minimal 10 percent audit of the AccuVote-tallied ballots, machine fraud is likely to be detected or even deterred – but voters would have to demand it.

South Carolina 2016:

South Carolina continues to use the infamously riggable ES&S iVotronic Touchscreens, which produce no ballot or paper receipt, and cannot be audited. iVotronic machines were used to rig elections by a conspiracy of government insiders and election officials convicted in Kentucky in 2010, just one example out of many in which these machines were involved in fraud.

Some of the iVotronic machines that will be used in the primary are possibly the same physical machines that were used in Florida’s highly contested Congressional District 13 race for the US Congress in 2006, when they inexplicably lost some 18,000 votes. After that election, Florida sent many of their faulty voting machines to the landfill. Others were sold to the State of South Carolina.

In sum, the 2016 primary in South Carolina cannot be protected. Democracy advocates in the Palmetto State have little recourse except to make these 100 percent non-verifiable systems illegal for future elections.

The good news is that voting machines are failing nationwide, 14 years after states bought most of them with $3.9 billion from the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

Most counties no longer have HAVA funds to replace their aged and malfunctioning machines. Citizens now have the chance to examine their voting systems anew, hopefully with the will not to repeat past mistakes.

Concerned voters and public officials should form task forces in every state and election jurisdiction to push for reforms that secure our elections. Only publicly controlled, transparent vote counting fulfills the conditions of democracy – if democracy is what we want.

Visit the National Election Defense Coalition’s website to learn more about how to reform our elections process.

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