Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Keep that in mind as you read stories about possible hacking in this year’s presidential election. They have reached a fever pitch as deadlines for recounts are fast approaching.
The facts are these: Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump by a relatively small number of votes in critical swing states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Also, Russian interference in the election — including attacks on state voting systems — has been acknowledged by the U.S. government.
Several sources have written to me with the obvious question, “Why wouldn’t we presume that whoever hacked during the campaign also hacked during the election?” And it’s true, it wouldn’t take much to nudge totals in those swing states in one direction or another. Plenty of amateur statisticians have set forth theories alleging that narrow surprise Trump wins in all the necessary places are mathematically suspicious.
But again, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The simpler answer is that Clinton received fewer votes in these places.
The theories all got a huge boost Tuesday night when New York Magazine reported on something many of us had heard about for days: Voter hacking experts are talking about audits and recounts in swing states.
“(The group of computer scientists) believes they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked,” NYMag wrote. “The group is so far not speaking on the record about their findings and is focused on lobbying the Clinton team in private.”
Well, that’s one way to describe what’s happening. Here’s another way: Every four years, experts point out that our voting system is horribly flawed, it needs fixing immediately, and post-voting audits of paper trails are the only sane way to be sure the count isn’t wrong. This election is no different.
Somewhere in between lies today’s truth.
America’s voting system is terrible. Like, third-world terrible. There are thousands of types of ballots. There is voter registration purging. Collections of votes are transmitted, or hand carried, or carrier pigeon-ed, using a hodge-podge of technologies that all need to be independently secured. So, of course, they are not secured.
And while voting experts have largely won the day by convincing most jurisdictions to insist on a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, even when electronic voting is involved, there are still plenty places in America where there is no paper trail at all.
Every four years, the best and brightest minds in voting call out the folly of this, and urge America to modernize its voting systems. This isn’t a matter of accounting. It’s a matter of legitimizing democracy. Anyone who’s taken a cursory glance at our process will scream that it’s terribly flawed. At a bare minimum, post election sampling should be done to see if there were any kind of systematic problems. This could detect patterns that suggest nation-state hacking; or, more likely, could detect strong-man tactics or tampering in local precincts.
Since local capers have traditionally been pulled off by…everyone, on all sides… lots of folks aren’t too keen on any kind systematic vote checking. Plenty of folks would end up with blood on their hands. So, dithering has won the day in U.S. election processes. Every four years, someone screams this, but then we largely forget about it.
The screaming is louder, of course, when an election is close. And since Wisconsin’s recount deadline is Friday, the noise is reaching deafening levels. Listen carefully, however, and you will hear the usual call to FIX OUR VOTING SYSTEM far more clearly than the claim (deeply wished for by many Americans) that clear evidence shows Clinton would have won, but for Russian hacking.
J. Alex Halderman, computer science professor at Michigan University, is among the leading voices on the voter hacking issue. He is part of the group that NY Mag wrote about Tuesday night. And he said this morning that his feelings on the issue have been misconstrued. If you want to know what’s really going on, read his Medium post. Here’s a taste of it.
“Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not. I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked,” he said. “But I don’t believe that either one of these seemingly unlikely explanations is overwhelmingly more likely than the other. The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence — paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania….There’s just one problem, and it might come as a surprise even to many security experts: no state is planning to actually check the paper in a way that would reliably detect that the computer-based outcome was wrong.”
Halderman is a critical voice of reason at this juncture.
A vote “audit,” even a small-scale sampling effort, sounds like a recount, and that sounds like Gore v. Bush. That’s a tragedy, because there are hundreds of ways mistakes can be made when counting votes using our arcane tactics. We should stare them down, not cover them up. Sadly, doing so would open a nationwide Pandora’s box that would probably leave science far in the dust.
The Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal is also a voice of reason in this discussion. The NY Mag story was based on part on an analysis that Clinton got far fewer votes in Wisconsin counties using electronic voting machines, suggesting they were hacked. The Journal wrote Wednesday that wasn’t quite right.
“The New York article contended Clinton received 7% fewer votes in counties with electronic voting compared to those with paper ballots. But the types of voting machines used in Wisconsin vary by municipality, not county,” it said. “In some smaller counties, touch-screen voting accounts for a majority of the vote, while in others it represents a very small portion of the vote. So any analysis that seeks to tie countywide voting patterns to the voting systems used is problematic because of the lack of uniformity in voting machines within counties…Touch screen voting is also disproportionately found in small counties and rural communities, which happen to be the kind of places — in Wisconsin and elsewhere — where Democrats saw the biggest erosion of support in this presidential race.”
The details show the difficulty with doing from-afar statistical analysis of voting patterns. That’s why a real audit — one that is simply an expected part of the voting process, not a partisan battle cry — is needed.
America, fix this problem. It’s embarrassing. It erodes confidence in our entire system of governing, which will have long-term consequences for the nation. I know it’s hard to see it now, but this goes beyond Trump vs. Clinton. We just can’t keep ignoring this problem.
I’ll let Halderman have the last word.
“Examining the physical evidence in these states — even if it finds nothing amiss — will help allay doubt and give voters justified confidence that the results are accurate. It will also set a precedent for routinely examining paper ballots, which will provide an important deterrent against cyberattacks on future elections…Recounting the ballots now can only lead to strengthened electoral integrity, but the window for candidates to act is closing fast.”
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