The voting machines in 43 states are at least a decade old and in danger of malfunctioning
The technology voters will use in more than 80 percent of states to cast their ballots this coming Election Day is wildly outmoded, according to a new reportfrom New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.
The center's researchers "surveyed more than 100 specialists familiar with voting technology, including voting machine vendors, independent technology experts, and election officials in all 50 states" to find that in 43 out of 50 states, the voting machines in use are at least 10 years old. This places the majority of them close to or even past their expected lifetime, and it also means they're running on software and security measures that are long out of date. Beyond software concerns, many machines still in use also require repairs using parts that are no longer manufactured.
At least 22 of the 31 states that will need new machines before 2020 have no plan for how to fund the purchase. As Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler commented in a hearing on voting machines, "It’s getting a little scary out there." Bonnie Kristian
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What are the digital images?
Two types of voting machines approved for use in Wisconsin--the ES&S DS200 and the Dominion Imagecast system--preserve a digital image of each ballot at the moment it is cast. The votes, in fact, are read and counted as the machine 'looks at' the digital image, not the ballot.
The machines can be set up to discard the digital images or preserve them. GAB has wisely required Wisconsin election officials to preserve them.
How are they stored?
We haven't yet worked with the Dominion images, but the DS200 images are stored on flashdrives--the same flashdrive that contains the set-up coding for the ballot. After polls close, the flashdrives should be transported securely to the county clerk. In Dane County, they are downloaded into a central computer, and copies can be made for any individual or group filing an open-records request. Dane County charges about $18, mostly to cover the cost of the new flashdrive they use for the copy.
Are the images clear?
The DS200 images are .pbm files with an impressive resolution: 3,856,896 pixels per each side of the ballot. The pixels are either black or white; there's no gray, so some of the gray-shaded areas can show up as funny patterns, but the votes themselves and things like the poll workers' initials show up clearly and precisely.
Can the digital images be hacked?
Yes, of course. Data created or processed by a computer can be altered by a computer. The computer professionals we work with--John Washburn of Washburn Research, Prof. Douglas Jones of the University of Iowa, and Paul Lindquist, a Microsoft programmer who works with our group--all agree, however, that altering digital images would present multiple significant challenges that traditional electronic vote-flipping does not. Washburn likened hacking only vote totals to climbing over a three-foot garden retaining wall, and hacking digital images to climbing over a castle wall.
These difficulties include:
- Preparing ballot images before the election to substitute them for images of actual ballots would be highly detectable. You'd have to be able to duplicate the poll workers' initials; predict the turnout; and invent outcomes in every race, not just the one you want to hack.
- If an insider--say at the voting machine company--wanted to write a hack that would simply move a few pixels around (that is, moving the image of the voter's mark from one candidate to another), he or she would need to know the ballot layout before writing the hack. Because ballot layouts differ by jurisdiction and are not finalized until 6-8 weeks before each election, this both complicates the hack and reduces the window of opportunity for writing and distributing it.
- The processing power of voting machines is not great. They are usually designed to be as cheap as possible, and so are built with only enough processing power to do the relatively simple tasks they are designed to do. Altering digital images may (we don't know for sure until a truly independent professional assesses it) take more processing power than the machines possess. If someone did insert programming that made the machines alter the images before detecting votes and storing the image, that programming could noticeably slow the machine down or cause it to freeze up.
- The digital images could easily be altered, one by one, after the election. Based only on my own pretty-darn-good Photoshop skills, I'm guessing I could change the votes at a rate of 3-4 seconds per ballot, once I loaded them and the digital-image-editing software into my computer. Personally, I wouldn't know how to prevent evidence of the edit from being saved with the file, but I'm sure someone does. If someone was going to alter the outcome of an election using this method, however, he or she would need to have the access and skills to both hack the machines before Election Day to manipulate the vote totals, and then have access to the digital image files after Election Day to manipulate the images to match the totals he or she hacked into the machine. The best way to make sure a records custodian with hacking skills doesn't do this is to quickly make and distribute copies of the digital-image files after the polls close.
If the digital images can be hacked, what's the point in using them in verification?
Neither human error nor unintentional malfunction would move pixels on a digital image from Candidate A to Candidate B, so any miscounts caused by unintentional error or malfunction will be detectable in a digital-image audit. In addition, no one will be trying to cover them up.
And we lose the deterrence value of the digital images if we don't use them in routine verification. If hackers know no one is ever going to look at the digital images, they won't need to bother with altering them; they will be able to use the easier vote-total-altering hacks.
How can digital images be used in verification?
The Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team has written read-only software (open source, provided for free to any clerk or citizen's group that wants to use it) that allows the digital images to be projected as a slide show. The images can be projected at a rate of 1, 1.5, or 2 seconds per ballot, and the projected image can zoom in on any section of the ballot. The slide show pauses after each 25 images to allow counters to verify subtotals. If you want to see what a vote-counting slide show looks like, check out this video, and skip to 19:40.
Without the need to sort, stack, straighten out, and flip over paper ballots, counting votes from a slide show is breathtakingly fast. A precinct with 1,200 ballots can easily be counted in under 45 minutes. The process is also fully transparent: Every observer can see exactly what the official counters see, and can count right along with them.
Can the digital images be checked against the paper ballots to make sure they are true copies?
They can and they should, but getting that done is going to take a lot of work--logistical work and psychological work. We'll have to get back to this after we get a few counties up and running with digital-image verification.
Logistical issue: The DS200 images don't contain any marks (that we know of) that would allow them to be matched to individual paper ballots. However, every ballot is unique in the placement and style of poll workers' initials, irregularities of stamps, and the voters' marks themselves. With careful, time-consuming work, I'm thinking you could match enough of the ballots from one precinct to that precinct's digital images to achieve confidence that they are the same or gather enough evidence to indicate a need to discard the digital images as flawed and verify the outcomes with the paper ballots instead.
Psychological issue: Wisconsin's election officials, providing comfort and joy to potential election thieves everywhere, are terrified of unsealing ballot bags once they've been sealed on Election Night. They would much, much, much rather risk certifying the wrong winner than risk opening a sealed ballot bag for verification purposes. There's no question that they have the legal authority to open ballot bags for verification purposes if they choose to; it's only folklore that they don't. But they are convinced--down to their bone marrow--that irrational angry partisans will charge them with tampering with the ballots if they unseal the ballot bags, even if they do so in the presence of witnesses while religiously following instructions for maintaining a clear chain of custody.
I'd rather stay away from bullying our public officials, but any clerk who makes that argument is telling us, loud and clear: "I make my policy decisions only in deference to irrational angry bullying; I don't respond to reason and polite requests." Let's work with them cordially for as long as we can, but if any clerk continues to use this excuse as his or her reason for refusing to ensure election results are accurate, responsible citizens will need to criticize and bully them harder than the irrational partisans do.
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Recently, WORT radio invited me and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell to be interviewed during the same noon-hour program. I came prepared to talk about the need to verify voting-machine output; McDonell was prepared to talk about voter suppression; and call-in questions took the conversation in even other directions.
Despite the nature of the conversation, McDonell got across the point that he maintains pre-election security for our voting machines—when they and the software are in his control—as well as any county clerk in the state. I agreed he could be right about that.
I got across the point that routinely checking the accuracy of computer output is a universal, basic IT management practice—one that is not now done for Dane County’s voting machines, and needs to be.
Nevertheless, sitting across the desk from host Yuri Rashkin, I got the feeling I wasn’t making much sense to him. Our short conversation after the show confirmed that.
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Kathleen Michel, working with the Grassroots Northshore, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, is organizing a "rapid response team" to protect Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board from attacks designed to exert partisan control over Wisconsin's elections.
Poetically (and accurately), she characterizes the GAB as a "vital, non-partisan brick in the architecture of fair elections and clean government."
The group's webpage contains a useful summary of the history of the GAB and a list of useful links for more information.
Even if you don't live anywhere near Milwaukee's North Shore communities, theirs is a good lead to follow. I'm joining their effort in this, and encourage you to do so, too.
Please share their link widely!
--Karen McKim, Coordinator, Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team
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(Updated after publication; see note at end.) When Jon Stewart signed off last night, his parting gift was a bit of sound advice. “Bullshit is everywhere,” he said. “So if you smell something, say something.”
Political bullshit, Stewart explained, comes in three flavors. First, it's used to make bad things sound like good things, like when politicians call it "The Patriot Act" instead of the "We're Going To Read All Your Email Act." Second, politicians use bullshit to hide bad things under piles of complexity, like using reams of complex regulations to make it look as if Congress is trying to control the bankers. Third is the 'bullshit of infinite complexity,' when they try to pretend action is impossible until we get more information, like when climate-change deniers pretend more research is needed.
Okay, Jon, this is for you: I smell something, and I'm saying something.
Take a look at this recent public-information memo from Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and tell me what you smell. I’m pretty sure anyone with basic knowledge of elections administration or computers will, as I do, detect a distinct odor of...complexity. Technical and procedural details are being used to avoid acknowledging a simple fact: No one routinely checks the accuracy of our voting machines' output before the county board of canvass declares election results final.
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If we want citizens to come out and vote, they need to have confidence, not trust. To build confidence, we need to produce evidence.
In the past two weeks, many of the comments and questions I've encountered have had to do with voters' trust in elections. The first question from Mike Crute in the Devil’s Advocates radio interview was “So tell me. Can we trust the voting machines?” More recently, a county board supervisor wrote an email declaring his “complete trust” in the county clerk, in an attempt to persuade his constituents they should trust the unverified output of their voting machines.
Well, can we trust? Heck, let’s dig deeper: Should we try to trust? What is trust, anyway?
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On Monday night, July 20, the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team gave our second public demonstration of a method our local elections officials could use to quickly, transparently, and reliably check the accuracy of voting-machine output during the local canvass period that follows every election--before the computer output is certified as our final, uncorrectable election results.
More than a few elections inspectors (poll workers) were on hand but despite our mailed, emailed, and social media invitations, no municipal or county elections officials attended. Two elections officials, however, did come out to hear what we citizens had to say and to engage in constructive, problem-solving discussion about effective, legal ways we might more reliably ensure accurate election results: Kevin Kennedy, Director of the Government Accountability Board and David Buerger, Elections Administration Specialist.
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This weekend, the Wisconsin Grassroots Network allowed the Election Integrity Action Team to use part of its booth at the annual state Democratic Convention to promote election integrity. With a colorful pamphlet titled “How to Steal Wisconsin Elections” on one side, and “How to Protect Wisconsin Elections” on the other, I was able to start good conversations with more than 100 people, a large number of them involved in local elections administration in some capacity—mostly as poll workers or board of canvass members.
In general, the Democrats were skeptical whenever I offered the pamphlet with the “How to Steal” side up asking, “Want to know how to hack voting machines? The Republicans know, so you should, too.”
The Facebook group Wisconsin Election Integrity has lately been dominated by two people: me and an advocate for hand-counted paper ballots. That school of election-integrity activists advocates for junking voting machines entirely. They believe verification would be as thoroughly fraudulent as they believe electronically counted elections to be and would therefore serve only to create even more voter complacency.
Advocating exclusive reliance on hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB), they demand that public, transparent hand counts be conducted in every polling place immediately after polls close. That speed is necessary to provide as little window of opportunity for tampering as possible. Electronic tabulators must not be used, they argue, because they count the votes inside a black box—that is, by one computer programmer acting alone in secret.
I usually try not to argue with HCPB-only advocates for two reasons. First, they are correct that their vision could produce accurate election results every time, and second, we all need to keep our eyes on the prize. We share the same goal—verified accurate election results—so this is an argument over means, not ends. As Bill Moyer explained in “Doing Democracy,” in every successful social reform movement, you can see people playing at least four different roles ('citizen,' 'rebel', 'change agent', and 'reformer'), and “dissension among them…reduces the movement’s power and effectiveness. Activists need to become allies with those playing other roles, since cooperation and mutual support will enhance the likelihood of success.”
Avoiding fights with people who are (or should be) big-picture allies is one thing. Refusing to explain yourself is another, and I think it’s past time that someone clearly laid out the rational case for demanding post-election verification of voting-machine output instead of demanding HCPB alone. So here goes.
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Pay an hour’s attention to the debate about vote-counting and you’ll probably hear several myths. From defenders of the status quo, you'll hear that the IT security systems of voting-machine companies like ES&S and Command Central are reliably able to stump hackers. (That must be why Sony, Anthem, and Target have been begging them to work as their IT security consultants, right?)
From critics, you'll hear that widespread flaws indicate widespread fraud, even though those flaws look and sound exactly like the predictable errors of lightly trained nonprofessionals who run complex election procedures four days a year with little supervision or corrective coaching from professionals.
But those myths are easily debunked with a moment’s serious thought. All you have to do is raise an eyebrow and an otherwise sensible county board supervisor will realize our elections software is not safer with a Minnesota strip-mall voting-machine service company than our medical records are with Anthem. No dedicated League of Women Voters member has trouble understanding the issues because of her blind confidence in the infallibility of an elderly, 32-hour-a-year poll worker--particularly if the LWV member is an elderly, 32-hour-a-year poll worker.
However, there are other myths that truly do seem to keep otherwise intelligent people from thinking sensibly about vote-counting issues. I’m sure others can suggest more, but these are my top three.