By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
As our Bataan Death March toward Tuesday, November 8 continues — I won’t say progresses — we may find a measure of relief if we focus not on electoral outcomes, but on other lessons we can draw from the experience. In this post, I want to focus on the balloting systems we use in this country, which are so rickety and fraud-prone that each (major party) candidate is laying the groundwork to use charges of fraud to undermine the legitimacy of the other’s election come voting day. Well, any balloting system capable of producing — or even serving as a pretext for — a legitimacy crisis is, to say the least, problematic (except, perhaps, to whoever’s left standing after the crisis resolves itself, if anyone is). So, in this post I’ll look (again) at our election system, then look at how the candidates are preparing the ground for a legitimacy crisis, and finally consider the pros and cons of hand-marked paper ballots, counted in public. Such a system wouldn’t prevent a legitimacy crisis, which could happen for any number of reasons, but at least the country could be sure which Presidential candidate we voted for, and so a crisis wouldn’t happen for that reason.
Our Rickety, Fraud-Prone Election System
Here’s the hair-not-on-fire conventional wisdom on election systems in general. From the International Foundation for Electoral Systems on legitimacy crises as a tool for political actors to gain power:
In multiple countries, we have witnessed the emergence of a campaign strategy whereby candidates, often supported behind the scenes by international communications strategists, cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process and the institutions that manage it during the pre-election period, initiate post-election litigation challenging the results and take advantage of vulnerabilities in the process to derail or establish lasting doubts about the legitimacy of the outcome.
But it can’t happen here:
This challenge to electoral integrity is particularly acute in , where legal frameworks are often ambiguous, processes may be less resilient to manipulation and a climate of insecurity, impunity and unaccountability may exist.
By IFES standards, then, the United States is a “developing democracy,” since every single one of the characteristics they list applies to us. In Florida 2000, we had the voter roll cleansing debacle followed by Bush v. Gore; in Ohio 2004, we saw every trick in the book used (including what looked rather like a man-in-the-middle-attack on tabulation machines); in the Democratic Texas primary in 2008, we have prima facie evidence of caucus fraud; and in Ohio 2012, we have body language from Karl Rove, along with some technical evidence, that a fraudulent scheme was in play, but misfired (or possibly was foiled by Anonymous, or less possibly by a lawsuit filed by activists). This list shows, if it needed showing, that our election system is not “resilient to manipulation” at all. We might as well be a developing country, and call in UN observers.
This is just a mess. Now, to some extent the chaos protects us, because there’s no single vulnerable spot for evil-doers to attack:
One of the principal criticisms of the American election system is the topsy-turvy and sometimes inconsistent mix of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that govern the voting process in the more than 10,000 election districts around the country. But this very decentralization is actually the best bulwark against any large-scale, or even statewide, effort to skew the outcome.
Nevertheless, as the examples above show, it’s clearly possible for either major party to swing a close presidential primary or general election in the United States through election fraud in a few key districts in a few key states. Odds are, in fact, that each party has already done so.
Potential Legitimacy Crisis in 2016
Before we look at what the two (major) campaigns are doing, let’s glance at two straws in the wind. First, the election fraud issue spookily popped up in May 2016, with this Bloomberg article, with this piece of hagiography on one Andrés Sepúlveda:
How to Hack an Election
Andrés Sepúlveda rigged elections throughout Latin America for almost a decade. He tells his story for the first time.
For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Campaigns
Usually, he says, he was on the payroll of Juan José Rendón, a Miami-based political consultant who’s been called the Karl Rove of Latin America.
Now, when you read this story, I’m sure you thought, just as I thought, “Who’s hired this guy for campaign 2016? Trump, or Clinton?” Bloomberg is equivocal:
Last year, based on anonymous sources, the Colombian media reported that Rendón was working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Rendón calls the reports untrue. The campaign did approach him, he says, but he turned them down because he dislikes Trump. “To my knowledge we are not familiar with this individual,” says Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks. “I have never heard of him, and the same goes for other senior staff members.” But Rendón says he’s in talks with another leading U.S. presidential campaign—he wouldn’t say which—to begin working for it once the primaries wrap up and the general election begins.
Nothing can be inferred, then, since “based on anonymous sources” could well mean “planted by David Brock.” But that Sepúlveda’s kind of expertise is out there… And not used by anybody, would seem to go against the idea of a phishing equilibrium. Eh?
Looking at the electoral dispute resolution system, the U.S. legal system is in a uniquely vulnerable position due to the current 4-4 liberal-conservative split on the Supreme Court. If a candidate refuses to accept the election results for whatever reason, including claims of “rigging,” he or she will need to file cases in each state in which the results are contested. Given recent discourse on aging voting technology, voter-identification challenges and the vulnerability of mail-in ballots, this kind of litigation seems inevitable.
That could get ugly.
And speaking of ugly, let’s look at the two campaigns. First, Trump:
Donald Trump has taken to saying it over and over again: that the November election is that “crooked Hillary” and her scheming accomplices will somehow manage to steal a victory that should rightfully be his. He has said this in many ways, about the election nationwide and about the election in specific places. As he told his supporters at a recent rally in Altoona, “The only way we can lose . . . is if cheating goes on.”
(The problemss with dismissing Trump’s charges on a priori grounds are that fact, presidential elections have been rigged, as we have shown, and that “Vote for the crook! It’s important!” has been used by some Clinton supporters as a rationale for voting for her. The real reason Trump’s charges are wrong in detail, even if correct directionally, are that he claims elections are stolen through voter fraud:
Trump said law enforcement and his supporters have to be on the lookout for voter fraud to keep Trump from getting “cheated out of a win. “Without voter ID there’s no way you’re going to be able to check in properly,” [Trump] said.
This is as good a time as any to distinguish election fraud, where insider political actors manipulate the result, from voter fraud where people vote who have no right to vote cast a ballot. Trump is charging the latter, but there is no evidence of significant, systemic voter fraud. (On the other hand, there is evidence that voter ID requirements disenfranchise Democrat voters, a topic for another day.)
Trump, then is boldly lying outright. Democrat dis- and misinformation, as usual, takes a subtler and more complicated form. Harry Reid:
Democrats in Congress, including party Senate leader Harry Reid, asked the FBI to investigate concerns that the Russian government may be attempting to undermine the U.S. presidential election through cyber attacks that could include tampering with voting results.
“The prospect of a hostile government actively seeking to undermine our free and fair elections represents one of the gravest threats to our democracy since the Cold War,” Reid said in a letter to FBI Director James Comey.
Reid’s letter, dated Saturday, was first obtained by The New York Times and shared on its website on Monday.
It was followed on Tuesday by a letter from four Democrats asking Comey to assess whether campaign officials working for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump may be colluding with Russian interests to carry out recent hacks against the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in order to “interfere with the U.S. presidential election.”
Whatever. Let’s just look at one example of follow-on coverage of Reid — that is, of the Democrat nomenklatura‘s — charges. From McClatchy:
The Russian internet nodes used to hack into voting systems in Illinois and Arizona were also used in recent penetrations of Turkey’s ruling party, the Ukrainian Parliament and a political party in Germany, a U.S. cybersecurity firm said Friday.
Forensic analyses of the nodes led ThreatConnect to determine that some of the same nodes had been used for hosting a Russian cybercrime market and were the source of a takedown of the Ukrainian power grid in 2015, the company said
One particular node, it said, was the source of digital penetration “targeting Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, Ukrainian Parliament and German Freedom Party figures from March-August 2016 that fits a known Russian targeting focus and modus operandi.”
The attacks are “more suggestive of state-backed rather than criminally motivated activity, although we are unable to assess which actor or group might be behind the attacks based on the current evidence,” the firm said.
Read that carefully. First, if this were the Street, it would be obvious the “cybersecurity” firm is talking its book and fishing for clients (and “cyber” is an excellent bullshit tell. The guys and gals with beards and ponytails who cast The Great HTTP Runes don’t use that word). Second, and all these stories are like this, the qualifications paragraph follows the scare paragraph, and invariably totally undermines it. I mean, “we are unable to assess which actor or group might be behind the attacks based on the current evidence.” So if you don’t know that, what do you know? Nothing.
Anyhow, after the Democrats beat the Putin war drums, Jeh Johnson, Obama’s choice for head of the Department of Homeland Security jumped in:
In the wake of hacks that infiltrated Democratic campaign computer systems, Mr. Johnson said he was conducting high-level discussions about “election security,” a vastly complex effort given that there are 9,000 jurisdictions in the United States that have a hand in carrying out the balloting, many of them with different ways of collecting, tallying and reporting votes.
“We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid,” Mr. Johnson told reporters in Washington. “There’s a vital national interest in our electoral process.”
A national commission created as part of a voting overhaul enacted in 2002 in response to the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election “raised the bar” on security, Mr. Johnson said. “But ,” he added. “The nature of threats has evolved.”
(“More to do” is a Clinton catchphrase; see here, here, and here. To translate, “more to do” means more walking around money for insiders and an ever-receding horizon of actual accomplishment. Ka-ching.)
To sum up the state of play: We have both candidates preparing their supporters for charges that the election results are illegitimate, we have a Supreme Court that is unlikely to be able to arbitrate the result, and we have the Department of Homeland Security proposing to legitimate the electoral system by putting it under the control of the executive branch of the Federal government (and hence under a political appointee). It’s hard to see how this ends well. If only we had an alternative! If only there were a simple, rugged, and proven system we could adopt!
Advantages and Disadvantages of Paper Ballots
As it turns out, there is such a system: hand-marked paper ballots, counted by hand in public. These systems are far more likely to produce legitimate results than any electronic system, and they have been proven all over the world. These systems are the international standard for voting; see Naked Capitalism here for an extensive discussion with examples. To Jerri-Lynn’s example of India last week, I will add two more. First, the UK:
The lesson of Britain’s ‘Brexit’ referendum, like the hotly contested presidential election I witnessed and covered in Taiwan in 2004, both of which contests were conducted using paper ballots, and the latter which was subjected to a recount that returned an almost identical result after tons of paper and millions of ballots were painstakingly inspected and hand-counted all over again, is that democracy can only work if voting is scrupulously honest and absolutely verifiable. On both those counts the US fails miserably, meaning that besides all the other problems that make American democracy a joke — the grotesquely biased (and inane) media coverage, the widespread voter apathy and ignorance, a stultifying two-party political system that limits candidate choices to two virtually identical candidates and to two political positions that only differ in meaningless, but emotionally powerful ways, and a campaign-funding system that in reality is nothing but legalized bribery — American voters cannot really expect their votes to be honestly counted in the end.
We use the pencil & paper tech in Chile too, and fraud is not easy. I was a volunteer for Lagos in the last election, and personally counted each vote at my voting table before signing off the official vote tally (along with the other candidate’s volunteer and the randomly selected people in charge of the table). I then informed my party of the results and they double-checked it when the offical results came out. The vote boxes were sealed and stamped, and can be re-opened for a recount. Each person is assigned to one specific table, and the total number of votes in a box have to match the amount of people assigned to it. Counting it took about an hour. If any votes were in doubt, the other candidate’s volunteer and me discussed and agreed on what it said. How is fraud easy?
The main advantage of hand-marked paper ballots, counted by hand in public is that you get a reliable count perceived as legitimate:
For those who don’t understand how fully observable, precinct-based, Election Night hand-counting of hand-marked paper ballots works, one need look no further than those polling places in New Hampshire where the entire process is a matter of civic pride and community participation. We are not speaking about the centralized, behind-closed-doors, party-boss-counted paper ballots of the days of Boss Daley in Chicago or Landslide Lyndon in Texas.
In short, after polls close, a new, bi-partisan counting crew is typically brought in to relieve tired poll workers at each precinct. Each precinct’s crew counts its own ballots in carefully overseen, publicly observed groups of four – two calling out every vote, two marking each one down – as the citizenry watches, video tapes, and otherwise assures the process is on the up and up. The results are posted publicly before ballots are moved anywhere. They are never out of public oversight until the counting has been completed, which is usually done by enough counting groups to be completed before midnight on Election Night (often before some machine-counted precincts have finished!) It’s a very difficult system to game – at least without being easily caught.
Sounds hard to hack, no? Especially by evil Russkis?
To be fair, let’s consider the disadvantages. A little hysteria from Richard Clarke:
Beyond this 60-day crash to secure our democracy, when this election is over, Congress and the new president need to establish high security standards for the election of federal officials and to meet those standards. No Russian hackers or anyone else should be able to undermine the basis of our democracy by cyber election fraud.
Let me translate that: Paper ballots mean no subsidy to our bloated and incompetent IT sector. (Note that Clarke erases simple, rugged, and proven paper ballots entirely, rather like an ObamaCare advocate erasing simple, rugged, and proven single payer.)
A second disadvantage is that DHS will not be able to expand its budget and bureaucratic reach by providing “security” for our democracy. (The habits of thought here are also rather like ObamaCare advocacy, in that Johnson and Clarke are advocating complicated and expensive fixes for a system, like health care delivered through the private health insurance system, that shouldn’t exist in the first place.)
A third disadvantage is that you would have to print and store the paper ballots:
The disadvantages to a paper ballot would be the cost to produce, transport, store, and dispose of used and unused ballots. Depending on quantity, ballots cost from 25 cents to 31 cents each. The orders are delivered on pallets that weigh thousands of pounds per election. Once the election is completed, [paper] ballots are stored for 22 months. With the approval of the Florida Department of State, voted ballots are securely shredded and disposed of.
So, let me take a moment to break out my calculator: There are 146,311,000 registered voters, so 146,311,000. * $0.31 = $45,356,410.00. I think the country that built the F-35 can handle it.
How can any of these disadvantages outweig the advantages of being certain that elected officials are legitimately elected?
I don’t agree with the Archdruid on everything, but I think on the notion of “progress” he get it absolutely right:
I kept walking. Everything I saw around me—the horsedrawn cabs, the streetcars, the comfortable and attractive brick buildings, the clothing on the people—had been quarried out of the past and refitted for use in the present, because they worked better than the alternatives. … I’d been in the middle of the groupthink that made progress look like the only option even when progress was half a century into negative returns. Everyone I knew was well aware that “newer” had stopped meaning “better” a long time ago, that every upgrade meant more problems and fewer benefits, that the latest must-have technologies did less and cost more than the last round, but nobody seemed to be able to draw the obvious conclusion.
“Every” upgrade? Probably not. I mean, I don’t want go back to Macintosh System 7 even if the current crop of swipers and tappers at Apple is gradually crapifying OS X. That said, on elections, “progress” to more IT, more Homeland Security agents, more fearmongering just isn’t a good idea. We should go back to what we know works: Hand-marked paper ballots, counted by hand in public. That won’t help us avoid a legitimacy crisis this year; only the parties pulling back from the brink can do that. But paper ballots will prevent a legitimacy crisis in the future; at least one caused by election fraud. If you don’t want rigged elections, that is the way to go.
 Obviously, the headline is a joke. I blame Putin’s weather controllers for parking Hermine off the East Coast, but I think the Democrat charges that Putin is hacking our electoral system are overheated and tendentious (although, to be fair, they do help Clinton to gin up a war scare, kick the left and, and expose that wily, canny ex-KGB operative’s cunning plan to use a mentally unstable squillionaire who can’t keep to a script as a Russian agent of influence). Kidding!
 I’m not including a discussion of irregularities in the 2016 Democrat primaries to keep it simple.
 That’s why the Democrat party considers voter registration a 24/7/365 core party function, and operates voter registration drives year round, including a program to get IDs for people who need them in voter ID states. Oh, wait….
 Voter rolls, not voting systems.
 The Federal Election Commission defines paper ballots this way:
A Paper ballot systems employs uniform official ballots of various stock weight on which the names of all candidates and issues are printed. Voters record their choices, in private, by marking the boxes next to the candidate or issue choice they select and drop the voted ballot in a sealed ballot box./p>
This paper ballot system was first adopted in the Australian state of Victoria in 1856, and in the remaining Australian states over the next several years. The paper ballot system thereafter became known as the “Australian ballot.” New York became the first American State to adopt the paper ballot for statewide elections in 1889./p>
As of 1996, paper ballots were still used by 1.7% of the registered voters in the United States. They are used as the primary voting system in small communities and rural areas, and quite often for absentee balloting in other jurisdictions.
It’s unfortunate that the SEC, while giving information on paper stock, omits to mention that the ballots should also be counted by hand in public.
 There is also the argument that ballots can get complex, because of ballot initiatives, referenda, etc. That strikes me as an implementation detail.