By Patricia H Kushlis
How easy would it be to rig an American presidential election in these days of electronic voting machines and nearly ubiquitous Internet connectivity?
A rigged election was one of Donald Trump’s latest charges but only after he saw his poll numbers decline precipitously last week and Hillary's move into as much as a 15 point lead. There are those who argue that it would be child’s play for a Kremlin sponsored hacker to break into US voting machines and skew the results - presumably in Donald’s favor since Moscow is known to despise Hillary - thereby handing him the election.
But the electoral system in this country doesn’t work that way.
There is no central computer that operates a national electoral system or even necessarily linked computer networks within each and every state. Each state runs its elections differently. In some states each county operates differently. And the states – and some counties – use different methods to tally votes.
The most vulnerable machines are the purely electronic ones which were in wide use in 2000 although Florida still had problems with "hanging chads" as a result of antiquated paper "Butterfly ballots." Presumably those have long fled the nest but don't think their departure has cleaned up all the problems there.
The problems with the purely electronic machines are, well, purely electronic. They leave no paper trail. This may save trees but there is also no way of a hand ballot recount in case of a challenge and some of these machines, I believe, are Internet connected.
Whereas the least vulnerable are the Optiscan ones: in which each voter marks a paper ballot, personally scans it into the machine and then the ballot drops into the well of the machine to be preserved as back-up. There are also several ways of cross checking to ensure the numbers of ballots used equals the number of voters - precinct by precinct. Moreover, the machines are not, repeat not, Internet connected. I've been a precinct level election official in New Mexico for several elections since Optiscan was adopted there and have had the opportunity, therefore, to see how they operate and use them myself.
One big problem is that not all counties in all states use Optiscan equipment and that includes in swing states like Pennsylvania and, dare I say it, Florida. All in all, I’ve read that 14 out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia do not have electronically tamper proof equipment. What makes it worse is that three swing states crucial to the path to winning the election operate electronically vulnerable voting machines in one or more of their counties.
But hacking of these electronic-only machines need not come from abroad floating in through the ether, they can be hacked by the technicians who set them up through the use of rigged software. This has happened before with the Diebolt machines and it could happen again.
National Elections are a National Security Issue
If the US really considers its elections for national office a national security issue – and I do – then it needs to provide not just funds for elections equipment but also regulate the kinds of voting machines that are used, mandate their lack of internet connectivity, and establish qualifications – including the ability to operate them properly and honestly - for the people operating them. I would feel a lot better going into these upcoming elections if election-deciding states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Michigan all lived up to high federal standards across the board.
On the ground not over through air
Yet because of the intensely local and disjointed nature of the US electoral process, chances are far better that a highly targeted ground operation to sway our elections results would be far more likely – and effective than any kind of hacking by a foreign government including Russia or China. Over the years both Republicans and Democrats have engaged in electoral shenanigans because the stakes are so high.
There was a story going around New Mexico in 2000 when I was state manager for Voter News Service. VNS was one of two electoral tabulating organizations that reported the vote. It was financed by the major news networks. The other was AP, still in operation, and through which most of us get our election night news today.
Here's the story: a number of years before the New Mexican Secretary of State had called the County Clerk in Rio Arriba County (north of Santa Fe) and asked for the county's final count: the clerk's response was “”what do you want it to be?” This was before electronic voting machines. By the time I became VNS state manager, Rio Arriba had cleaned up its act. Rio Arriba has also consistently voted Democrat – so the issue would not have been whether the party’s candidate would have won there – the question would have been did the county deliver enough votes to overcome Republican votes elsewhere.
Then there was 2000 when the Republican County Clerk of Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous, lost a ballot box for about a month. It ultimately turned up in a locked closet at one of the precincts. Since the Clerk had the reputation for never finishing the count (that was a long night let me tell you.) it might not have mattered – except that New Mexico was then not only a swing and bell weather state but also one of the few known paths to the White House. Was this rigging? More likely gross incompetence but nevertheless, the result could have changed a presidential election, if the Florida disaster had not intervened. A Wall Street Journal front page expose hastened the Clerk's departure.
"Rigging" an election Republican style
But the most effective way of “rigging” an American election at the national level, I think, is through voter suppression and gerrymandering of electoral districts. The Republicans have written that playbook. Just look at what they’ve done to North Carolina, for example, using these methods. The not so secret "secret" begins at the local level and is based on control of the state legislature at the time of the latest census. It’s an ingenious way for the minority party to gain and then enhance power making it ever more difficult for the majority to become a political majority again.
Federal court rulings this summer are just beginning to overturn the racially biased worst of these efforts. But will they be soon enough to counteract their effects? I don’t know.
But meanwhile, let’s face it, the Republican Party has done everything it could to “rig” the 2016 election in Trump’s favor even if the leadership deserts him en masse. He doesn’t need his silent supporter in the Kremlin to help.