As I See It: History Repeating
December 12, 2016 Victor Rozek
It was a known problem 16 years ago. And for 16 years it was largely ignored, even though it poses a direct threat to representative democracy. It is a problem well understood by IT professionals and cyber security experts, and it haunts the entire spectrum of computer-dependent users from the military and political establishment, to corporations and the public. It was the subject of debate, accusation, and investigation during the recent election, and it has the power to cast doubt on its legitimacy.
The problem: Through neglect or deliberate intent, computers that decide elections have been allowed to remain vulnerable to hacking.
Given the ubiquitous nature of computing, it was inevitable that voting would be subjected to it. But as Stalin is said to have realized, “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” Enter, voting machines.
Back in 2000 when the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush president, there were numerous reports of voting machines flipping votes and generating results wildly divergent from normally reliable exit polling. This prompted a series of independent assessments to test and document the vulnerabilities of voting machines.
In one such legendary experiment, programmers staged a mock election between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. In testimony before a Congressional committee, they demonstrated casting three votes for George Washington on a touchscreen Diebold voting machine, of a type used extensively in the 2000 election. After the votes were cast, they swiped an administrator card through the reader, and told the machine to tally the votes and print the results. With one swipe of the card they had infected the Diebold with self-replicating software able to infect other machines. When the results were printed, the machine reported that Benedict Arnold won the election by a tally of two votes to one. The entire process took less than a minute.
Unlike ballot stuffing, the old-fashioned way to rig elections, which can add votes in limited locations and thus have limited impact, the infection of a single machine has the potential to swing an entire election.
Security experts wanted to examine the software that controlled these machines, but vendors hid behind proprietary protections. The issue was adjudicated and, astonishingly, the courts sided with the vendors, declaring that the veracity of public elections was allowed to rest in the hands of private corporations. Stalin would have been pleased, but Reagan would not: It was a decision mandating trust, without verification.
The computerization and privatization of voting machines created a lack of transparency and accountability. Amazingly, many voting machines lacked what any rudimentary accounting program is required to have: an audit trail. Without one, the suspicion of inaccuracy would haunt future elections.
The solution from Congress was to throw money at the problem. Lots of it. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which allocated nearly $4 billion to help states upgrade their electoral systems. But there was a systemic problem Congress failed to address: the electoral system suffers from a complete absence of standardization.
There is no federal regulatory body to oversee elections. That function was passed down to the states. And in many cases, the states pass the responsibility on to individual counties. Thus, we have a tangle of more than 8,000 separate jurisdictions, doing things their own way, with no process consistency.
Congress did throw a headfake to oversight in the form of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Election Assistance Commission. These were hastily formed after the disastrous 2000 election, but their provisions, including technical standards for voting, are strictly voluntary, which is to say all but worthless.
If the states weren’t interested in being told how to run their elections, they were interested in the money Congress allocated. Every state grabbed its share of the $4 billion and most of them did exactly what IT and cyber security professionals warned them not to do: they bought touchscreen voting machines.
Notoriously easy to hack, as early as 2003, 10 machines in Fairfax County, Virginia, used in a school board race, were found to subtract votes for one candidate.
But, as TS Eliot noted: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” So, after a short time the hubbub and outrage died down and here we are 16 years later with another closely contested election in which one side is demanding recounts and the other is intent on preventing them.
We also have the bizarre specter of two presidential elections in which the loser won the popular vote, most recently by over 2 million ballots. Which highlights the problem with machine voting. It is relatively easy to highjack a closely contested election in which a handful of swing states will decide the outcome. The political preferences in those states can be tracked to individual counties and precincts. Flipping the vote in just a handful of precincts can hand a candidate that state’s electoral votes.
In the first few days of early voting in the 2016 election, there were already scattered reports of vote-flipping machines in North Carolina, Texas, and Nevada. More would follow. But without proper audit trails, we’ll never know. According to Wired magazine, America’s electronic voting machines remain “scarily easy targets.”
And some would reasonably argue that they have produced scary results.
Forty years ago, Paddy Chayefsky wrote a satirical screenplay for the movie Network in which news broadcaster Howard Beale (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”) has an on-air breakdown and announces that he will kill himself on TV in two weeks time. Seeing a ratings bonanza, an ambitious producer offers Beale a show of his own, and he becomes The Mad Prophet of the Airways. When saner minds object, the producer allows that Howard may not be particularly coherent, or even necessarily sane, but he is “articulating the popular rage.”
Re-watching Network is instructive. All of its outrageous excesses and satirical flourishes are today’s normal media fare. The movie ceases to incense us because we are living the outrage. Of course most politicians would take offense at being compared to Howard Beale, but anyone who works so hard at appearing unhinged should not take offense at being recognized as such.
For now, the best we can say is that we got what the minority wanted, or at least what the voting machines claim they wanted. Perhaps in another 16 years we will have greater assurance in regard to who is actually counting the votes.
In the meantime, let’s hope the entire planet doesn’t choke on the results.