Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How Many Ways Are There To Steal An Election? And Why Doesn't Anyone Care?

Americans have long taken pride in their free elections and think of voter fraud in the US as something part of history (Such as Chicago's slogan "Vote early and vote often" and stories of people voting using the names of dead voters.)

We are even proud to send observers to countries where democracy is new and governments untrustworthy.  But we have plenty of stories of problems in the US.

Alaska has a primary election today.  Given Anchorage's municipal election fiasco in April, voting machine expert and blogger Brad Friedman has posted about our voting machines and the elections practices that make them vulnerable to fraud in today's election:
Of course, there are "tamper-evident" security seals placed over some of the most vulnerable parts of the optical-scan systems, and those could never be defeated without leaving visual clues behind, right?

Well, funny thing. In Alaska, when a security seal is discovered broken on their tabulation computers --- if they are discovered broken --- poll workers are instructed to simply replace it with another one and start the voting, as both several poll workers, as well as an Alaska election official (who has now been fired) confirmed with The BRAD BLOG. Several seals, the now former Alaska election official told us when she still had a job, are provided to poll workers to make replacing broken seals very simple, as seen in this next photo...

So why would Election Officials in the Last Frontier instruct poll workers to simply replace broken seals before the election, which would seem to defeat the entire point of using "tamper-evident" seals in the first place? It's a good question, especially when these machines --- which will be used once again in more than 1,000 jurisdictions in all or parts of 24 different states during this November's Presidential Election --- have been shown by many many official studies over the last decade to be incredibly vulnerable to nearly undetectable manipulation.
I would note that this is not a case of local bloggers being asleep, they have helped Friedman get information for this post.

 The Economist has an article about stealing elections that lists several ways to steal an election.   First a few based on a study by a University of Essex researcher.

  1.  blatant ballot stuffing (is declining)
  2. alter election laws (increasing)
    [Republicans have used 'voter fraud' as an excuse to require photo id's to vote in a number of critical states.  We know that a large proportion of people without photo id's are likely to vote Democratic (and student id's with photos are not allowed in some states).  Documented cases of voter fraud are almost non-existent in these states.  Critics are calling this 'election-fraud' NOT voter fraud. See NY Times "The Myth of Voter Fraud.]
  3. gerrymandering unlosable constituencies
    [The Alaska Redistricting Board, while more careful than past boards, has managed to endanger seats of members of the Senate coalition and Fairbanks Democratic Senators and representatives by how they drew the lines.]
  4. vote-buying, using state resources in campaigning, and exploiting partisan media.
    [More common outside the US, however the Citizens United Supreme Court decision appears to have had a similar effect by unleashing unlimited private money, in some case undisclosed, that can be spent influencing voters.  And Fox News was already doing this without contributions.]
  5. Some fraud masquerades as incompetence.  From a Duke study by Judith Kelly (also in the Economist article)
    1. "Too few voting slips, patchy voter lists, and long queues at polling stations distort elections as surely as burnt ballot boxes and bribes. Yet election observers are likely to withhold their worst scoldings if the line between cock-up and corruption is unclear."
      [This is a large part of the problem we had in Anchorage in April] 
  6. "intimidation, sabotage (doors being glued shut, for example, in Russia) or manipulation" of poll watchers.
  7.  "Another dodge is to invite more than one mission" of poll watchers (external groups coming to verify elections.) 

    Then there's a whole new way to steal elections in the last 20 years:
  8.  Tampering with Voting Machines
    Here is a video from Princeton University showing how to steal an election by messing with the software.

We use Diebold machines in Anchorage.  Our last election showed a number of irregularities, including seals that can easily be tampered with.  Our election officials allow voting machines to overnight with election workers and election workers are told not to worry about broken seals.  [SEE, I CAN JUST WRITE THAT WITHOUT BOLD PRINT OR EXCLAMATION POINTS, BECAUSE I TOO NOW TAKE IT FOR GRANTED.  We're like the slowly boiling frogs.  Wow, finding a boiling frog link even explodes that myth.]

If I were going to steal an election by tampering with the machines, I'd try out some things in elections before I wanted to strike.  Maybe someplace remote, like Alaska.  Test things out, lull the public into believing that, "well there are problems, but no one actually fixed the election."  That happened in Anchorage in April.  Few seemed to care about all the well documented problems, "because none of the races was close."  Then I would try it out on a specific race.  There's a perfect one to try this on today.

In today's election, international mining interests and other resource developers like Shell ($150,000 contribution)  had raised, by the end of July, over $700,000 to defeat proposition 2.  (Those supporting proposition 2 had only raised $150,000.)  The resource exploitation industry has an obvious interest in preventing the reactivation of the Coastal Zone Management program that existed for over 25 years in Alaska until the governor and the legislature could not agree on legislation to extend it.  The video shows how little it would take to manipulate the voting machines.

We do have the advantage of having back up hard copies of ballots.  But the Anchorage election in April showed how those hard copies could be mishandled.  There were many, many questions  about what happened to the hundreds and hundreds of questioned ballots.  If any of the races had been decided by less than several hundred votes, there would have been no way to verify who was really elected.

Alaskans,   elections are the foundation of democracy.  Are we going to hold state election officials and legislators accountable for making our elections incorruptible?

And what happens here is happening in different scenarios around the country.  So all you non-Alaskans have work to do as well.  And if anyone thinks that last sentence ignored my international readers, you're included.  The Irish threw out €54 million in voting machines because they weren't safe from tampering.   [Mac users, you can get the Euro symbol (€) by typing Option+Shift+2]

Do we need to call the UN to send election observers to the US in November? 

Other sources on stealing elections:

Foreign Policy has an article on how to steal elections that's quite similar, though it is focused on  countries with few checks and balances.

The vulnerablility of voting machines from ars technica.

A long Alternet piece on stealing elections has this subtitle:
Americans cling to an idealized image of our political integrity, but a look at how we run our elections tells a very different tale.
Gallup Poll senior editor David Moore has written a couple of books on this topic as specifically relates to polling and public opinion.  

I realize the title promises something on why we don't care about this.  I could change the title, but I think it's probably as important as the part on stealing elections.  Let me start a list of things that make sense to me.

  1. People commiting election fraud have gotten the media to focus on VOTER fraud.
    1. OK, I'm guessing about who is doing this, but googling the question comes up with stories about VOTER fraud, not election fraud. 
    2. Those making money off voting machines have a vested interest in people believing they are safe.  
  2. People don't know there's a problem because we don't change our basic beliefs easily.  Americans have been taught that American democracy is untouchable.  That's in part what the Republican platform title "American Exceptionalism" is all about.
  3. Some people don't care as long as it benefits their side.
  4. Americans are overwhelmed by things they should be worried about and so they do nothing about any of them.  (Or pick an issue and work on just that one.) 

    Readers, you have to supply the rest.

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