Part I of how to win an election covered some of the basics of manipulating voters during an election. But ultimately, you can only manipulate voters so much before an election: a good campaign can sway independent voters, but is unlikely to convert a die hard republican into a democrat or vice versa. So basic manipulation may be enough to win, but what if you really, really want to win, and you’re not a big believer in that whole “one-man, one vote” thing?
Well, step 1 is to stop supporters of your opponent from voting. You can do that in any number of ways, as it turns out, as both Democrats and Republicans have amply demonstrated during this campaign.
Republicans, for example, have made the news quite a bit for passing (or trying to pass) voter ID laws in the states that they control. Voter ID laws, ostensibly, are designed to prevent voter fraud, by asking voters to present an ID of some sort when voting, and as such should be a Good Thing. In practice, however, they are largely manipulative initiatives designed to suppress a certain type of vote. For one thing, the type of fraud that could be addressed with ID laws is really not an issue in the US. Most proponents of ID laws admit that they don’t know of a single instance of ID fraud of that type. That is just common sense, in fact. To change an election using this type of fraud, you would need tens of thousands of impersonators showing up at voting booths on election day, all with stolen identities – how likely is that particular project likely to remain secret? Impersonation of voters – which ID laws attempt to curb – just is not an effective way to manipulate elections, and the voter ID laws passed by Republicans are mostly an attempt to make sure that folks without ID cards – the elderly, the infirm, the poor – are deterred from voting; getting a driving license for a 25 year old male is not too hard. Getting a federal ID card for a retired 70-year old citizen who doesn’t drive since the 1970s is a lot harder. So Republicans have been passing voter ID laws where they can (and where the courts have not yet told them to stop it) in an attempt to make sure that some Democratic supporters can’t vote.
Democrats, on the other hand, also have their pet voter suppression projects. For example, Democrats have opposed attempts to clear non-citizens off the voter records. Unlike impersonation, non-citizen vote fraud can be an issue in some districts: there are many immigrants, both legal and non-legal, in certain states, and since they skew Democratic, Democrats are not in favor of efforts that would clear non-citizens of record rolls (voter ID laws do nothing to combat non-citizen voter fraud: when a non-citizen votes, the person is who they claim to be, and have lots of ID to prove that – they just are not full US citizens, and shouldn’t be able to vote in that specific election).
Another type of voting manipulation has to do with absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are cast by state residents who cannot cast their own ballot on election day – members of the military, citizens living abroad, the disabled, and others. This is a group particularly easy to manipulate, mostly because the people voting are hundreds of miles from the ballot box, and most of them do not know how to cast an absentee ballot accurately. In fact, in Florida (where absentee ballots are very common), there is even a name for folks who, in exchange for a fee, will ensure that the absentees will vote they way you want: the Boleteros. The Boleteros will pick up the absentee ballots, help the absentee fill it out, and make sure that they get brought back to be counted. If, along that whole chain, the boleteros ‘influences’ the voter, or even fills out the form himself, who is to know? This kind of manipulation is ideal in many ways: it is difficult to prove, and it can affect large number of voters. In a swing state, such as Florida, boleteros could play an important part in the election next week.
Or consider early voting. Early voting allows people to vote a few days before the official voting day, which by law is set as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (this was originally done because Tuesday didn’t interfere with the Sabbath nor market day, which used to be Wednesday). The trouble is that most citizens work on a Tuesday, and so being able to vote earlier is desirable for many, so states have passed different laws allowing voting up to several weeks before the actual Tuesday. Republicans, taking a leaf from their Simpsons caricatures, decided that early voting was detrimental to their interests – after all, the working poor are most likely to have trouble getting time off on voting Tuesday, and they are predominantly Democrats – and thus have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to shut down early voting in important states.
In Florida, for example, half of all black votes were cast in early voting, which has made several Republican election officials push for curtailing early voting. This may seem trivial, but 22% of voters now vote early, so even tiny changes in these kinds of laws can affect large groups of voters, and change election results.
All of these are admirable manipulations, but let’s push the needle to 11. Despite your best attempts, people insisted on voting, and, even worse, they voted for your opponent, the fools! Is it all over?
Well, maybe not. It depends on how they voted. Did they use an electronic voting booth? If so, you still have a chance.
60% of voting is now done on electronic machines. These are basically computers that record your vote, mark the name of the voter off (so that they don’t vote again), and, at the end of the day, tabulate the results and forward them onto election officials. It’s a simple system, and one which is ridiculously easy to tamper with: you can tamper with the machine itself, for example, or tamper with the final tally count, or inject it with a virus or…
Let’s take a real example. Researchers have successfully hacked a Diebold voting machine with around $25 worth of electronics. After their modification, which took a few seconds, they could basically control the machine and ‘flip’ votes from Democrat to Republican at will. Most importantly, since there is no paper trail in electronic voting, it is all but impossible to show that the votes were tampered with.
Other researchers looked at the code that runs the machines and were shocked at what they found. When technical researchers and computer geeks conclude that your code has “stunning, stunning flaws”, you may have an issue. The researchers found ways to cast multiple ballots, or to change votes, or to interfere with the vote tally that could be “carried out by teenagers.”
Any electronic voting system would have vulnerabilities, but here in the US there is an added twist – the company making most of these systems, Diebold.
Diebold is a company that makes several automated machines, most of them ATMs. One of its division also makes the automated voting machines used at more than 1,400 jurisdiction. And as such, it has consistently played the role of villain in terms of voting transparency. The CEO of the company, for example, was a top fund-raiser for George Bush, and announced to various GOP members that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” When the letters went public, he claimed that it was a poor choice of words and later stepped down amid investigations of both fraud and insider trading.
Despite this, the company continued to demonstrate what not to do when accused of voter manipulation. When researchers found that they could hack a Diebold machine in a few simple steps, and posted the video to their blog sites, the company replied that “information on a blog site is not credible or viable” (which hurts a little, I won’t lie). When other researchers (this time not on a blog) found that the attacks on Diebold machines were even easier than previously thought, the company replied that all one had to do to avoid problems was “to keep a close eye on the machine“.
Even HBO showed that hacking a Diebold machine is ridiculously easy in its documentary “Hacking Democracy“. The company response was to ask HBO to label the documentary ‘fiction’ rather than show it as a documentary (HBO declined).
The company itself seems to have consciously acted the part of a Bond villain more than once. In January 2007, the company posted a picture of the key needed to open the machine’s inner compartment on its website. Of course, within hours, people had duplicated the key and could now access the guts of the Diebold machines for fun and profit. Or, when several internal memos from the company were leaked to the Internet, Diebold decided to threaten to sue anyone posting the memos – triggering a Streisand Effect of epic scale. The memos discussed a patch, or small program, that the company’s COO personally applied to machines in just two Democratic districts just days prior to election day, for no obvious reason. It also contains internal emails from the company, with such gems as “if voting could change things, it would be made illegal”. These are not words you wish to hear from folks whose machines are counting millions of votes…
Despite its best efforts, some states (such as California) have now blacklisted Diebolds, and are moving towards scanners that can count votes automatically but leave a paper trail. Many, many other states have not, though, and those machines (and whatever modifications were made to them) still lurk in many voting offices, to be used next week.
And, amusingly enough, a few days ago, several newspapers reported that one of the competitors of Diebold, Hart Intercivic, is now owned by H.I.G capital, a fund whose founder is a major Romney supporter, and, in fact, two of the directors on the 5-person board of the company were at the infamous dinner where Romney made the “47%” comments.
In fact, one of them, Mr. Bohl, gave $4,000 to the Romney campaign, and a few days later, when he presumably realized that the director of a company that could count millions of votes in an election should probably not be so overt in funding one candidate, decided to give Obama $250. HIG is, in fact, Romney’s 11th largest contributor. And Hart’s machines are the ones that will count votes in the state of Ohio, which is likely to receive some attention come election day…
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It’s relatively easy to manipulates voters before, during, and now after they vote, especially here in the US where voting is actually managed by the states, not by the federal government. These manipulations are tremendously difficult to spot, and even harder to reverse – what would we do, for example, if a court had concrete evidence that the voting machines in a swing state were tampered with (or even designed to) change election day results? Do a do-over? This election will have cost $5.8B – do we declare it null and ask for another one, or simply ignore the manipulation and hope for the best? The best manipulations are the ones that can’t be easily spotted, but election manipulations are even better – they can’t be undone.