It may come as a surprise to many people that we can now easily have elections that are virtually hack proof. The only reportage of this development has been not from any major media, but from alternative news sites such as Jonathan Alter's Alternet.
Local media has duly reported court fights over the central element of the solution: the digital images of all paper ballots taken in about half the country's voting jurisdictions..But they fail to place these stories in the greater context.
The context is this. Over the past two years, as all manner of problems with our elections have hit the news, activists have discovered a way to make elections virtually hack-proof by the use of these ballot images, which are made in milliseconds as paper ballots are fed into modern vote-counting machines. Yet legislators in the US Congress, along with their chosen "experts" in congressional staff committees, the industry, and large parts of academia, are circling over purported reforms which would make US elections even more insecure than they were before.
These citizen-activists, many of whom are well-known among people who study election integrity, concern themselves with making sure that every legal vote is counted, and with making sure that all who are eligible to vote get the chance to.
But before discussing the unreported story of how to get to hack-proof elections, it is necessary to understand how vote-counting in most of America works.
After the 2000 presidential fiasco, many states moved to voter hand-marked paper ballots, fed into an optical scan vote counting machine. This was a positive development, since a paper ballot hand-marked by the voter is the best permanent record of a voter's intentions. This is undisputed by the true experts not tainted by business or the corrupt political interests which rule us now.
The movement, often known as the Election Transparency Movement, consists of citizens and election software experts such as Harri Hursti, a Finnish computer programmer, who have been uncovering for years how Russians, or anyone else with average skills, can hack into US voting systems to alter the totals in an election, whether precincts and counties are linked by Internet or not.
This kind of fraud is called election fraud, as opposed to voter fraud, which is when an unqualified voter casts an illegal vote. Election fraud, or vote flipping, is the easiest manner by which an election's outcome can be altered, whether it is by one percent or twenty. It is also the hardest to detect, at present, and therefore the least risky.
Now, about half the counties in the US use a system in which a voter-hand-marked paper ballot is fed into an optical scan vote counting machine, which then does three things:
- As the paper ballot is fed into the machine, the machine takes an instant digital image of the ballot
- From that digital image, the machine discerns and "counts" the votes on the image, not the paper ballot
- The machine prints a serial number on the paper ballot matching to one on the digital image, which is then stored in electronic memory.
All this makes for a powerful matrix for verification of the actual vote, even if the machine's software has been hacked. Such hacking takes place when someone, either inside the country or outside, breaks into the software and inserts instructions to add or subtract votes from a candidate's total, regardless of what the paper ballots actually say.
Election Transparency activists, a name which invokes a key principle of honest elections, transparency, call this the voter-hand-marked paper ballot, ballot imaging system. Again, now already in use in about half of US voting jurisdictions.
So if half the US has this kind of strong system, what's the problem? Why isn't there more confidence in elections, which is at an all-time low?
For one thing, besides the fact that not all US jurisdictions have this system, to be discussed later, both the ballots and the ballot images in these districts are kept secret. In fact, since transparency activists have discovered and weighed the potential of this audit feature, election officials across the country have fought tooth and nail to keep the ballot images from ever seeing the light of day. This is not a good sign.
This is even though the industry has touted the value of the images as a feature by which machine vote counts can be initially verified, without breaking out the paper ballots. An example of this is a page from a pamphlet from Dominion Systems, a key maker of optical scan vote counting machines, below.
There may be good reasons to keep the public from pawing through the paper ballots at their leisure to verify machine counts for themselves, but not so the ballot images. They are entirely anonymous, do not require special handling, and all of them in a county could be posted online or burned onto a DVD at minimal cost. The grassroots election transparency community, in contrast to "experts" from government election departments, congressional committees, and academia, has coalesced around this best-of-breed solution. The only thing better, most agree, would be counting voter-hand-marked paper ballots by hand, in public.
If all ballot images were to be posted for public verification of vote-counting machines, which again can be easily hacked, whether they are on the Internet or not, then such hacks can be more easily detected. The votes on the images should add up to the same numbers reported out by the machines. If not, this warrants the paper ballots being brought out, and counted by hand, in public.
But now that the problem of hacking elections can be made vastly more difficult, what are the politicians trying to do? Enact an inferior system, under the guise of reform.
There are two other kinds of voting systems which use "voter verifiable paper trail," as the Trojan Horse language goes. DRE, Direct Recording Electronic device, and "ballot marking devices." These are the systems being pushed in Congress, no matter what congressman say, because they are more easily hackable. Transparency activists have been trying to alert congressmen of the vulnerabilities of these systems, but they have been ignored. The language which must be inserted to rule out these insecure systems would simply say: "voters must be offered a voter-hand-marked paper ballot, with exceptions for disability."
Never listen to what a politician says. Watch what a politician does.
Both DRE and ballot marking devices are touch-screen systems which do not give the voter the chance to hand mark a paper ballot, the way the rest of the advanced world does in its elections. In fact, most advanced countries count them by hand, in public, such as Germany, Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and Spain.
Any touch screen suffers from the fault that they are about as easy to hack votes from as a device using no paper at all. Without getting too much into detail, it is easy to re-run a roll of tape to reflect the vote totals that you want. Or to reprint a batch of machine-marked paper ballots to your liking.
It is far more difficult to duplicate tens of thousands of human-marked paper ballots without spending enormous amounts of time. The goal of system design is not to make election stealing impossible. That is unrealistic. It is to make it very difficult.
Until someday in the future, perhaps, when the US joins the rest of the advanced world, which actually does hand-count all ballots, all paper, in public, with strict rules of ballot custody which are followed, this is the best system. Citizens should be demanding that their jurisdictions upgrade to this system, which is fully evolved and readily available for purchase through HAVA (Help America Vote Act) funds.
Current efforts at "reforming" the system include Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's Securing Our Elections Act, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Secure Elections Act, and Sen. Ron Wyden's PAVE Act. None of these require that votes be taken on voter-hand-marked paper ballots (except for disability), and counted by ballot imaging systems.
Right now, according to election experts, the qualifying machines are the:
- ES&S (Election Systems and Software) DS200,
- ES&S DS850,
- Dominion ImageCast Precinct,
- Dominion ImageCast Central,
- Hart Intercivic Verity Scan,
- Hart Intercivic Verity Central,
- Unisyn Voting OpenElect OVO.
A free tool by the nonprofit VerifiedVoting.org lists the voting machines presently in use in all US counties.
However, implementing transparent systems in which vote counts can be verified by citizens presumes that the systems will be used as the law prescribes. This brings us to the second great principle of secure elections: accountability. The best designed system and laws in the world mean nothing, if election officials like Broward County Florida Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, simply thumb their noses at them, without consequence.
Secure, transparent, and verifiable elections are within reach. But you'll never hear about it on CNN.
(For more information on voter hand-marked paper ballot, ballot imaging election systems, go to AuditElectionsUSA.org.)