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Election Nightmare: All the Reasons It’s Not Russia (It’s Us)

Image of voting machine.
Image from 24 hours news.

When I first tried talking to other people about election integrity concerns during the Democratic primaries, people were hesitant to listen or brushed me off, saying things about “conspiracy theories” or “how absurd” it was to question our democracy. But when the general election came around, suddenly talking about election integrity became the “cool” thing to do. Whether you were a Trump supporter yelling about illegal immigrants voting, voter fraud in general, and how the system “is rigged” or a Clinton supporter screaming “Russia!” and fretting about Russian hackers infiltrating our elections, it seemed like everyone was talking about election integrity.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Cory Booker’s tweets today completely miss the point. Even Bernie Sanders, who has generally stayed out of the “Russia did it” narrative, weighed in today, saying on Facebook: “It is now widely accepted that Russia and Putin played an active role in working to elect Trump as president.”

Like many prominent Democrats, these politicians are calling for a bipartisan effort to uncover Russia’s influence on the election when we really need a bipartisan effort to fix our f*cked up elections!

Malware

Most writers/news outlets/pundits still talking about election integrity are usually focused on Russia, so let’s start there. On October 7th, 2016 a Joint Statement from the Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security was released claiming not only was Russia the guilty party in the email hacks of the DNC, DCCC, and personal accounts of DNC personnel, it could only have been authorized by Russia’s senior-most officials. About two months later, DHS and FBI co-released “technical details” of how they reached the “Russian” conclusion.

The release of this report coincided with former President Obama’s executive order expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S., sanctions on Russian organizations believed to have been involved as well as four known Russian cyber operatives. Obama said these actions were “a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests,” including election interference.

An online blog run by WordFence specializing in WordPress and PHP security went through the technical details from the report, and found the PHP malware sample provided in the DHS and FBI report to be:

P.A.S. version 3.1.0 which is commonly available and the website that claims to have authored it says they are Ukrainian. It is also several versions behind the most current version of P.A.S which is 4.1.1b. One might reasonably expect Russian intelligence operatives to develop their own tools or at least use current malicious tools from outside sources.

Furthermore, WordFence examined the 876 IP addresses included in the report and found that the majority of them are from the United States and the remaining are distributed widely across the globe. They then used reverse DNS to locate the gateways associated with IP addresses and found that 15% of the gateways are anonymous Tor exit nodes and concluded:

The IP addresses that DHS provided may have been used for an attack by a state actor like Russia. But they don’t appear to provide any association with Russia. They are probably used by a wide range of other malicious actors, especially the 15% of IP addresses that are Tor exit nodes.

The malware sample is old, widely used and appears to be Ukrainian. It has no apparent relationship with Russian intelligence and it would be an indicator of compromise for any website.

Intermission

Beyond the email hacks/leaks and what information was released from them, the discourse surrounding “hacking the election” gets a little fuzzy. The neoliberal left has been throwing around Russia connections with everything related to Donald Trump, the general election, and his presidency. I’m not a Trump apologist, yet I see this hard Russia narrative as a distraction from the systematic problems that have been persisting for the last 30 years, while simultaneously creating an avenue for fundraising and control of power for the Democrats.

The distraction created by Russia as it relates to election integrity efforts is good when it makes people aware of election vulnerabilities they were previously unaware of but bad if those people only look into the stories as a way to oust Trump. There are systemic issues related to voting, regardless of Russia, that needs to be addressed.

Open Primary Debate

In closed primaries, only voters registered with a political party can vote in that party’s primary. Last week, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against an attempt to open the state’s primary elections to independent voters. The court left open the possibility for the state’s legislature to change the law but cited that the current rules were not overly burdensome if someone wanted to vote in the primary.

There are many arguments in favor of closed primaries (e.g., what if someone from an opposing party vote in the other party’s primary in order to sabotage that party by voting for the weakest candidate?), but we will not be looking at this aspect of the argument. We are looking strictly at the voting process and, as such, closed primaries might be a case of taxation without representation. Everyone in the country, regardless of political affiliation, pays taxes that ultimately fund primaries even if independents are excluded from voting. Independents now outnumber Democrats and Republicans, which means they contribute the most money to these elections but are not authorized to vote in primaries in states that have closed ones.

Closed primaries are a tool used for voter suppression. Political parties often have strange and complicated rules that vary from state to state. For instance, to vote in the New York state Democratic primary last year, voters had to register as a Democrat 193 days in advance. Yet, the percentage of voters who consider themselves to be Independent consistently hovers around 40%. 40% of voters are prevented from participating in the primaries unless they know, months in advance, who they want to support. Furthermore, why would you not want people who will make up 40% of the electorate to vote in your primary and weigh in on who they prefer?

Another key point for the Democratic primaries this year was that Bernie Sanders inspired a lot of young voters who had never voted before. Many of these voters were not registered to vote and certainly did not know about the deadlines to register for a party unless they were aware enough to look them up. Therefore closed primaries arguably suppressed the vote among this key voting bloc.

In conclusion, having open primaries with same-day registration would allow voters to vote for whomever they want and would allow our elections to be much more democratic as a result. Additionally, implementation of same day registration would alleviate a problem people from multiple states reported during the primary: that their party affiliation was mysteriously changed, which prevented them from voting.

Voter ID Laws

Voter ID laws are probably the most well-known voter suppression tactic. Republicans like to tout voter ID laws as responsible laws that protect our democracy from voter fraud, such as people pretending to be other people and voting or people voting on behalf of those that are dead. Both situations are very rare and do not merit the extreme measures that voter ID laws enact.

Instead, voter ID laws are actually excellent ways to suppress voters. They do this by targeting minority voters, those who would have more trouble obtaining IDs. This ACLU fact sheet does a good job of explaining the ways in which voter ID laws impact Americans and suppress the vote. As an example, the ACLU points out that Texas allows concealed weapons permits to be used as voter ID, but does not accept student ID cards.

Gerrymandering Voter Districts

If you live in Maryland and you wonder what district you’re in so you can call your local representative, you might have some trouble figuring it out. For many in Maryland (and other states), you can’t just put in your zip code and figure out your district. Instead, you must closely examine a map that looks like this:

Gerrymandering in Maryland
Gerrymandering in Maryland

According to Wikipedia,

[G]errymandering is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries…. Two principle tactics are used in gerrymandering: “cracking” (i.e. diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts) and “packing” (concentrating the the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts).

The result is a map such as the one shown above, which concentrates the power of one party within a state. Additionally, such districts create situations in which there are “safe” congressional seats, meaning it is almost impossible for the other party to win due to the demographics of the district. Thus, gerrymandering is another way that our election process is allowed to undermine democracy.

Fraction Magic

Benny Smith, a computer programmer from Memphis, found that the central tabulator used with the GEMS central tabulator has the ability to count votes as fractions. After finding this out, he created an overlay that would allow the user to pre-assign a given percentage of the vote to each candidate before the election occurs without detection. Watch the demonstration in the following clips.

Exit Polls

Now that you know a vote count can be tampered with, let’s look at two ways we might be able to tell something nefarious occurred.

An exit poll is when someone stands by a polling location and asks voters who they voted for as they leave the polls. Typically, exit poll workers are employed by major media outlets to assess the way an election is going so that they can predict the outcome and provide that information to their audience. Exit polls are also a way to obtain demographics of the voters.

Perhaps most importantly, however, exit polls function as a way to detect possible election fraud. In Was the 2004 Election Stolen, Robert Kennedy Jr. explains that exit polls offered the first clue that something was amiss:

The first indication that something was gravely amiss on November 2nd, 2004, was the inexplicable discrepancies between exit polls and actual vote counts. Polls in thirty states weren’t just off the mark — they deviated to an extent that cannot be accounted for by their margin of error. In all but four states, the discrepancy favored President Bush.


In the Democratic Primary of 2016, the exit polls demonstrated a number of instances where the discrepancy between the exit polls and the election results exceeded the margin of error. YouTuber Ms. Hearn made an excellent video discussing this scenario and explains that it is more likely for someone to win the Powerball lottery than it is for the 8 out of 18 results discussed in her video to have occurred the way they did.

All of that being said, exit polls aren’t perfect. You have to consider that not everyone is likely to stop and respond to an exit pollster. Additionally, exit polls have been criticized for not taking into account the absentee, early, or mail-in ballots. However, exit polls have been developed over time to accommodate for this missing information. This new methodology allows the exit pollsters to give a better indication of the actual results.

One way to make exit polling, which is one of the very few tools we have to assess unverifiable electronic voting machines, more robust would be to have the government commission the exit polls. This would allow the data/methodology used in the polls to be open to the public and looked at as an actual tool to verify election integrity. Currently, as mentioned above, private organizations such as Edison Research are commissioned by TV news networks to conduct these polls. The raw data is private. For example, Edison Research is a defendant in an Ohio court case by an election integrity group attempting to view the raw data.

Cumulative Vote Share Analysis

Another way to determine whether an election might have been tampered with is through Cumulative Vote Share (CVS) analysis.

John Laurits explains CVS on his blog:

As the votes accumulate, the vote shares (%) stabilize & approach a straight line, ending at the total % of the votes that each candidate won.

As the total votes increase, it takes larger & larger wins/losses to change the overall % of votes. That’s why the shape is bell-like.

Significant fluctuations on the right side (larger precincts) should be regarded as suspicious & warrant further investigation. This is because larger precincts are the most desirable targets for elections-rigging — there are more votes to steal from larger precincts & it’s harder to detect because you can change the end-result by altering a smaller number of precincts.

This theory is derived in large part from the law of large numbers, which is “a principle of probability and statistics which states that as a sample size grows, its mean will get closer and closer to the average of the whole population.”

Lulu Fries’dat and Anselmo Sampietro provide an in-depth look at CVS graphs in their report, An Electoral System in Crisis.

So, CVS graphs are a way for voters to determine whether an election may have been tampered with (via fractionation, vote flipping, or otherwise). But what is a voter or candidate to do once there is a reason to question the results?

Ineffective Recount Laws/Procedures

There are two main ways candidates can challenge the results of an election: by requesting a recount or an audit. Some states have mandatory post-election audits of randomly selected districts. These audits are intended to determine whether any errors in the original vote count occurred (whether human or machine error). If a mistake is found, then a full recount is conducted. A recount is just a full recount of the election results, either done by hand or by machine.

So, you’re a candidate that wants to file a petition and verify the vote in your given election. Depending on the state or jurisdiction a multitude of different procedures could theoretically take place. As with voter registration, I feel this is another area of election law that could benefit from sweeping federal regulation to simplify and organize recount procedure so that someone outside of the jurisdiction doesn’t have to read up for three weeks about the various degrees of unwarranted nuance.

A lot of different factors come into a recount. Election officials want to have more or less the same results in the recount as the original vote for job security so public oversight is key, yet is almost always an issue. Just recently, Roque (“Rocky”) De La Fuente received a partial recount in Nevada. Joe Gloria, Clark County Registrar of Voters, admitted to doing a private non-public recount. This alone is troubling on many levels, although issues persisted in the actual recount as well. Another point of frustration is that, according to Nevada state election law, the counting of votes during a recount must be done in the same manner as counting during election night. Since the ballots were counted by an optical scanner during election night, they had to be counted the same way during the recount. Thus, you can’t even do a hand count for the recount to see if the machines introduced errors.

We don’t want to drown you in recount issues in this specific article but wanted to make a mention of the need for recount rehabilitation and its importance for election integrity.

Conclusion

Election Justice, an election integrity advocacy group outlined their top three recommendations in their executive summary of the Democratic Primaries as follows:

  1. Exclusive use of hand-counted paper ballots in all future US elections.
  2. Automatic voter registration with same-day party affiliation switching as a mandatory condition for all elections that are publicly funded.
  3. Restoration of voting rights legislation which would ensure adequate access to polling sites.

Furthermore, given the possibility of networked systems becoming compromised, Election Justice recommends taking all election equipment offline and ensuring the strongest protection available for voter registration information to deter tampering.

There are plenty of ways in which internal actors can tamper with our vote and issues with the state and local laws in regard to elections and recounts that need to be addressed. All these outlets/pundits/authors that claim Russia hacked the election (and some are even pushing for a recount or revote) raise awareness but miss the ways in which our election system is already flawed. Even if Russia hacked the election, getting rid of or tying baggage onto President Trump because of it doesn’t even bring up the multiplicity of systemic problems with our election system. The outrage shouldn’t end with Trump being the president, but instead, such energy should be used to highlight and secure the vulnerabilities uncovered because of it. We must not be distracted.

Further Reading and Watching

Ohio Election Workers Convicted of Manipulating 2004 U.S. Presidential Recount

Florida ‘recounts’ make Gore winner

Hundreds of New York state voters to file suit, calling the closed primary ‘a threat to our democratic system,’ after claiming their party affiliation mysteriously changed.

Civil Rights groups applaud the New York Attorney General’s intervention in lawsuit against New York City Board of Elections.

New York City Board of Elections responds to Department of Justice lawsuit

Hacking Democracy, a documentary about voting machines and how they can be tampered with.

Video demonstrating a Diebold voting machine being “hacked” to allow results to be manipulated.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a documentary from Greg Palast about Crosscheck.

Written by Andre Roberge

Andre Roberge

Father, Husband. Went to school for philosophy (university of WA) and now I work for a train company -- Interests include Labor Law, TILA, Unions, Paid Family Leave, Healthcare, Philosophy of Science, Fantasy Football and Open Government-- Fanboy of The Take Down with Nick Nowlin and The Way with Anoa. Follow Andre on Twitter @SubvertingPower.

Andre Roberge is a Researcher and Writer for Progressive Army.

Written by Raven Payne

Raven Payne

Recently awakened progressive in pursuit of truth in all things.

Raven Payne is an Assistant Editor and Writer for Progressive Army.

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