Everyone is rightly outraged by Trump’s claims that the US election is being “rigged” by dead immigrants and live CNN anchors. But in attempting to rebut Trump’s classic FUD campaign, the Democrats and their media allies may be making a very serious error, one that could play right into Trump’s tiny hands.
The problem is this: Obama and the many pundits who’ve responded to Trump’s election rigging claims are too quick to dismiss longstanding concerns about the dangers of paperless e-voting machines. Such concerns are either ignored entirely, as in this recent Slate piece, or dismissed as overblown, as in Obama’s mistaken assertion that it’s not possible to rig a national election because the system is “too decentralized.”
But what if our election system is vulnerable, and the Russians were to hack the vote and hand what polls indicated to be a clear Hillary win over to Trump? At that point, all of the folks who’ve been going on about the unassailability of our voting system would have a very hard time making the case to the public that the election was, in fact, rigged. They would have walked right into a trap, and when they attempt to climb out of it, Trump supporters and Putin’s online troll army would keep them down by bludgeoning them silly with their own quotes.
My point here is not to scare people about November, but merely to insist that there has to be a way to counter traditional GOP scare tactics around The Voting Dead and suchlike while still inserting the very important caveat that our election system is vulnerable to electronic manipulation and will remain so until every last paperless e-voting machine is replaced with a machine that leaves a voter-verified paper audit trail. Everyone who rebuts Trump needs to give a nod to the realistic possibility of electronic election fraud, in case they need to revisit the issue come November.
So, the TL;DR is this: the way to respond to Trump is not to claim that our system is immune to manipulation, any more than, say, the way to respond to anti-vaxxers is to insist that there is no replicability crisis. As annoying as it is, we have to debunk specific claims while maintaining the crucial caveat that our system still needs work.
Appendix: Still Hackable
Many of the folks writing about Trump’s claims are technically clueless, and they seem to view the vote hacking issue through the lens of Y2K —i.e., something that academics and UNIX graybeards stressed about a long time ago and that turned out to be nothing.
Of course, it may well be nothing. I’m certainly not predicting a Russian hack and a Trump victory in November. Yet it’s important that everyone is clear that our election system remains shamefully unfixed nearly a decade after it was electronically overhauled by the Help America Vote Act.
There are still voting districts that use electronic voting machines that produce no voter-verified paper audit trail. What do I mean by “voter-verified paper audit trail”? A proper electronic voting system would allow a voter to make his or her choices electronically, then spit out a paper receipt that records those choices and that can be examined, verified, and handed over to poll workers for secure storage in case the election needs to be audited.
An electronic voting machine that does not produce a voter-verifiable paper record for audit purposes cannot be audited, and if it cannot be audited then there is no way to positively verify that its results were not tampered with.
(On a related note, whenever you hear someone like Obama claim that there has never been a verified case of large-scale voter fraud here in the US, you should understand that this is technically true, but it’s true because the existence of such fraud is currently impossible to verify. QED, I guess.)
As for Obama’s point that our election system is too decentralized to rig, this is, unfortunately, wrong.
First, thanks to the electoral college, you only have to rig key districts in swing states to turn the election. Furthermore, you don’t need access to each individual machine in those districts in order to tamper with them. Rather, these machines all run firmware that comes from a central vendor repository. If you can infect the vendor’s firmware with a bit of vote-flipping malware that wipes all trace of itself after the election, then you can infect all of the machines via the update mechanism.
It’s also the case that paperless voting systems usually upload their votes to a central tabulation computer to be counted. So you don’t even need to get malware onto the voting machines — you just need to hack that central tabulator, which I would guess is typically maintained by elite infosec ninjas on the level of the guy who ran Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
But I could go on about this, and at one point, I did. Here are some more recent links, in case you’re interested in learning more:
- The Security of Our Election Systems. Bruce Schneier has been on top of this for years, and his hair is still on fire because it’s still not fixed.
- How to Hack an Election in 7 Minutes. A Politico piece that details the exploits of the Princeton team that has also been on this for over a decade. They are gravely concerned about 2016.
- Officials: Hackers breach election systems in Illinois, Arizona. I throw this out there in case you’ve forgotten that parts of our election system were already hacked this past summer. We still don’t know who did it, or why.
- Obama Considers ‘Proportional’ Response to Russian Hacking in U.S. Election. Despite his aforementioned bluster, Obama is evidently concerned enough about the possibility that the Russians might hack our election that he had Joe Biden go on TV and actually threaten them over it.
For more info, I recommend spending some time with Google, or following the links in the above articles. These concerns are real, the people raising them are serious professionals, and this stuff should have been fixed a decade ago.
I dunno. Hopefully, November 8, 2016 will be like January 1, 2000 — the source of many dire warnings from computer geeks, but otherwise unremarkable and apocalypse-free. But hope is not a plan, although at this late stage it’s all we have left.