By Lambert Strether of Corrente
As readers know, I’m a strong advocate of hand-marked paper ballots (HMPB), hand-counted in public (HMPB-CP), and we’ve periodically written on this topic at NC; see HMPB-CP in Quebec (2012), paper ballots in India (2016), a review of the literaure (2018), Virginia’s return to paper ballots (2017), “ballot marking devices” and corruption when electronic voting machines are chosen (2019), and problems with the “cyber” approach to elections (2020).
Now a Bloomberg article, “Expensive, Glitchy Voting Machines Expose 2020 Hacking Risks,” gives me the chance to review the condition of our election macninery in 2019. Bloomberg is suitably appalled by the choice of voting machines, but a little wide-eyed and naive about the local officials making those choices, and covers two important players badly: First, the owners of the electronic voting machine compaines, to whom it gives only a passing glance; second, the intelligence community, at which it does not look at all.
First, the good in Bloomberg. The technical superiority of HMPBs is recognized:
Security experts say the cheapest, and to their minds, most reliable and hack-proof method to cast votes also happens to be the lowest tech: paper ballots marked by hand and fed through scanners (no chads) to tally the results. They have called for replacing computerized equipment—particularly paperless older models—with the decidedly Luddite alternative.
The devices have “raised far more security questions than paper ballots because you have a potentially hackable computer standing between the voter and the record,” said J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, adding that without sufficient research, these new machines could be “a waste of money.”
(Personally, I’m a strong advocate of the lowest tech solution of all: eliminating digital from the equation entirely with HMPB-CP, as in Quebec, since anything digital can be hacked, and that includes scanners. However, I recognize that scanners, being simpler, are easier to debug and to validate. Some scanners are programmable; others are not. Crossed fingers.)
Further, Bloomberg presents this handy chart to show that introducing HMPB’s save money:
(I’m a little amazed at seeing an institution with the word “cyber” in its name supporting a low-tech solution; that speaks very well of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security & Citizens for Better Elections.) One would like to think that cash-strapped localities would leap at the chance to save money, but apparently not. Still Bloomberg:
Cybersecurity experts are baffled by local election officials choosing the computerized voting machines. “It’s a mystery to me,” said Rich DeMillo, a Georgia Tech computer science professor and former Hewlett-Packard chief technology officer. “Does someone have 8 x 10 glossies? No one has been able to figure out the behavior of elections officials. It’s like they all drink the same Kool-Aid.”
The animus is mutual. At conferences, election administrators swap complaints about cyber experts treating them like idiots, said Dana DeBeauvoir, head of elections in Travis County, Texas, whose office purchased a computerized system DeMillo deplores. Hand-marked ballots are “a supremely horrible idea” cooked up by people in Washington “who have never had to really conduct an election,” she said.
Scientists, for whatever reason, seem to be doing about as well in the persuasion department here as they have done on climate. To be fair to them, some local officials clearly are idiots, at least if you take their words at face value. How does DeBeauvoir think that votes were counted before voting machines? By carving numbers on stone tablets?
Be that as it may, there’s a very simple explanation for our baffled scientists (and that they are baffled also speaks well of them): corruption. Bloomberg tiptoes up to this point, first writing:
Winning over the nation’s election administrators to [HMPB] is no simple task. They are splintered among thousands of state and local governments and by privately held election companies anxious for sales, as taxpayers tend to pay for new voting equipment only once a decade.
(Bloomberg also gingerly writes “privately held” instead of “private equity,” which we’ll get to in a moment.) Well, “lobbied” how, exactly? Bloomberg finally unwraps the veil a few more paragraphs down:
In Philadelphia, a three-person election commission discounted cybersecurity warnings and, in February, selected ExpressVote XL from [voting machine vendor Election Systems & Software (ES&S)] after a massive effort. It has a 32-inch touchscreen at a cost of $29 million, or $27.59 per voter, not including roughly $3.8 million over 10 years in fees.
But the decision raised suspicions. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale noted that the request for proposals appeared to favor equipment of the XL’s type and size. An investigation by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart later found that . The company paid a $2.9 million penalty—the highest in Philadelphia history—for failing to disclose lobbying on bid documents, according to the city controller’s office.
Half a million bucks buys a lot of steak dinners in Philly; I’m not surprised that ES&S got a happy resuit (and only had to give the city a 10% cut!). But this should not be surprising; see more examples from Pennsylvania, and a really spectacular example from Georgia, which Bloomberg fails to mention.
But here is the first place that Bloomberg falls down: It doesn’t put ES&S in context, institutionaly. Let’s do that now.
Private Equity and Voting Machines
This post from activist Jennifer Cohn at Medium is well-worth reading: “America’s Electronic Voting System is Corrupted to the Core“:
Just two vendors — Election Systems & Software, LLC (ES&S) and Dominion Voting — account for eighty percent of US election equipment. Thus, corrupt insiders or foreign hackers could wreak havoc on elections throughout the United States by infiltrating either of these vendors.
I know which threat I think is greater, and we should call a spade a bloody shovel, here: Corrupt insiders. The issues are all known; I’ve remember voting machine scandals going back to 2004, back when Diebold — remember Diebold? — and nothing has changed or been solved (except the technical advantages of HMPB-CP have gone from strong to overwhelming, because the science has gotten better). The real issue is this: Election fraud is a selling point for electronic voting machines. That’s why neither party wants to get rid of them. More:
A long list of horrid stuff follows, most, again, known since 2004, since election machines had been installed in many states after the debacle of Florida 2000, and HAVA. Here’s one highlight for ES&S:
ES&S, which by itself accounts for 44 percent of US election equipment, received its initial financing from the families of Nelson Bunker Hunt and Howard Ahmanson, Jr., right-wing billionaires who also contributed substantially to the Chalcedon Foundation, Christian Reconstruction’s main think tank.
Imagine if you were a conservative and 44% of the market was held by George Soros, working through the Center for American Progress (and I suppose if the liberal Democrats are anything but a pathetically dysfunctional gaggle of losers who just want to cash their checks and not govern, something like that would already have happened. As so often, conservatives are admirably simple and direct when they sense a chance for power.)
And as for Dominion:
Compared to ES&S, even less is known about Dominion, which accounts for 37 percent of US election equipment. Dominion was a Canadian company that became a major player in US elections when the Department of Justice forced ES&S to sell some of Diebold’s assets because the combined ES&S/Diebold company had accounted for a whopping 70 percent of US election equipment. It was Dominion that rose from obscurity to buy those Diebold assets in 2010. . What we do know is that Dominion does its programming in Serbia. And a former executive of GTech/IGT — an international gaming company and former Paul Manafort client — joined Dominion as a Senior Vice President in June 2016.
There isn’t anything about private equity controlling our election machinery that doesn’t smell.
The Intelligence Community and Elections
And now we come to the intelligence community. Here my concerns are not so much cheap and sleazy skullduggery at the local level, but Constitutional. Let me start with this Tweet:
Anne Neuberger on the recent joint statement about #Election security: "Hundreds of people across the IC, DHS, FBI, and the military will be securing our elections. There’s more that unites us than divides us." #WIRED25 pic.twitter.com/4ZERC3KnJH
— NSA/CSS (@NSAGov) November 8, 2019
Why am I not re-assured? Besides the fact that whenever I see anybody in front of one of those big screen-ready colored backdrops filled with logos, wearing one of those hands-free speakers mikes, and smiling, my back teeth start to itch. My back teeth itch even more when I read stuff like “Joint Statement from DOJ, DOD, DHS, DNI, FBI, NSA, and CISA on Ensuring Security of 2020 Elections.” Let me quote a great slab of this, adding helpful annotations:
In an unprecedented level of coordination, the U.S. government is working with all 50 states and U.S. territories, local officials, and private sector partners to identify threats, broadly share information, and protect the democratic process. We remain firm in our commitment to quickly share timely and actionable information, provide support and services, and to defend against any threats to our democracy.
Our adversaries want to undermine our democratic institutions, influence public sentiment and affect government policies. Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions. Adversaries may try to accomplish their goals through a variety of means, including social media campaigns, directing disinformation operations or conducting disruptive or destructive cyber-attacks on state and local infrastructure.
While at this time we have no evidence of a compromise or disruption to election infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt the ability to tally votes, we continue to vigilantly monitor any threats to U.S. elections.
The U.S. government will defend our democracy and maintain transparency with the American public about our efforts. An informed public is a resilient public. Americans should go to trusted sources for election information, such as their state and local election officials. We encourage every American to report any suspicious activity to their local officials, the FBI, or DHS. In past election cycles, reporting by Americans about suspicious activity provided valuable insight which has made our elections more secure. The greatest means to combat these threats is a whole-of-society effort.
 Private equity ES&S and Dominion? Amazon? Google? Facebook? Twitter? Who, exactly?
 I bet the national security apparatchiks have a definition for “the democratic process,” and I would love to see what it is. I mean, how can the intelligence community overthrow democratic governments if they don’t know what they are?
 Any? Billionaires? The DNC, or to be fair, the RNC?
 Josiah Bartlet would be very upset!
 Well, that’s globalization for ya. Information everywhere.
 This is actually good. Hardened voter rolls and HMPB-CP are good, and a small office, say in the Justice Department, could handle this. We certainly don’t need six three letter agencies (that we know of) and one four-letter agency to handle this. (You probably need a large effort to secure whatever crapified software Dominion’s Serbian body shop has come up with, but this is a self-inflicted problem. To revise Stalin: When there’s software, there’s a problem. When there’s no software, there’s no problem.” Or as Gordon Bell said: “The cheapest, fastest and most reliable components of a computer system are those that aren’t there.” Of course, there aren’t any government contracts either. So there’s that.
 Except for the ones corrupted by private equity, which is far more dangerous than the dastardly Russkis, both to our elections, and in general.
 You’d think the concept of the intelligence community mobilizing “the whole of society” would make any sane person scream and run. Even the Stasi and the KGB couldn’t do that. But no.
But horrid as the concerns enumerated above are, they are not my central concern. Suppose that in 2020, as in 2000 and 2004, we have one or more states where the vote is close, and electronic voting has led to a suspect and contested result. (This could happen on the day itself, or — putting on my tinfoil hat, here — through stories from the usual anonymous sources about hacking in the run-up to election day.) We would have in essence a penalty flag thrown, and it would be up to a referee to review the play and make an assessment. In 2004, there was no referee, because Kerry simply conceded the game. In 2000, the referees were the State of Florida, its election officials and Supreme Court, and then the United States Supreme Court, where Antonin Scalia, of blessed memory, picked the winner, George W. Bush. Who would the referee be in 2020? If “an unprecedented level of coordination” means what I think it means, the intelligence community — not necessarily limited to the agencies listed, either — would be the referee. I’m not sure I find that idea reassuring, and I deeply hope I’m being too paranoid.
Remember HR 1, the Democrat flagship, the “For the People Act of 2019”? We rewrite HR1 to mandate that state and local officials use HMPB, ideally HMPB-CP (fund the counters, if we must), and abolish electronic voting machines entirely. Private equity would squawk, but let ’em.
 From Cohn: “John Kerry has since said that his own campaign suspected electronic vote tally manipulation during the 2004 election in Ohio, but decided against ‘dividing the country’ with a court challenge.” With a decision like that, Kerry showed why he deserved not to be President. I remember that election well, because I live-blogged in when I lived in Philly. I went to bed thinking Kerry would challenge the Ohio result — see here for the horrid detail, the case was made contemporaneously — and got up in the morning, and he had decided he’d rather not. IIRC after he had raised money for the court challenge. See also here, from the local Ohio Press. Hilariously, as we see today, Kerry knew nothing of division.
APPENDIX: More Voting Machine Debacles from Election 2019
Here’s some cursory research:
Glitches with check-in pads and ballot selection screens that turned off on their own delayed voters Tuesday in six Georgia counties that pilot tested the state’s $107 million new voting machines.
Election officials in Bartow, Carroll, Catoosa, Decatur, Lowndes and Paulding counties reported technical issues with new equipment, either with electronic entry points or with the new ballot-marking machines themselves….
Voters in five counties experienced problems with new check-in devices, called “poll pads,” caused by a programming error that prevented them from using electronic ballot-marking machines. In three counties, some ballot-marking machines were pulled offline when they shut down and rebooted themselves.
The off-year election for cities and counties drew a light turnout Tuesday, which placed less pressure on county poll workers to resolve problems with the check-in devices or use paper ballots until technicians fixed the problem. Enough machines were on hand to replace equipment with the reboot malfunction.
New York. Some Election Day problems related to early voting system. Plenty of shenanigans here for those who remember how the Brooklyn voter rolls were purged in 2016, but for voting machines in particular:
[S]ome polling places upstate reported problems in connecting their electronic tablets to a secure internet service
“A secure internet service.” Are we [family blogging] children?
[P]eople all over the city have reported issues with voting via the new devices…. Among the issues: the font size on the printed ballot. Feinstein had trouble reviewing his selections because the voting booth was dimly lit, he said, and he couldn’t make out the small type…. ‘People’s puffy coats are causing them to select or deselect candidates when they rub against the screen,’ the inspector told WHYY.
C’mon, Philly in November. Who’s gonna be wearing a puffy coat?
Election results were delayed because of a shortage of ballot-counting scanners and technical glitches, which caused long lines, incorrect paper ballot sizes and many voters not knowing how to use the new machines, officials have said.
You shouldn’t even need a scanner. And you shouldn’t have to train voters to vote, ffs.
Some machines just didn’t seem to work. Others had glitches, such as paper jams when ballots were fed into scanners. In some cases, ballots didn’t print properly. And at least a few visually impaired voters found no audio or private way to cast their ballots.
These were among the problems reported in Tarrant County on Election Day, when more than 85,000 voters cast ballots for the first time on new $11 million election machines.
At some polling sites, some or all of the voting machines were down.
Not to worry. I’m sure the “down” voting machines were randomly distributed.
And just for fun, here’s a horrid scandal from Alberta, Canada. Voters had to use PINs. What could go wrong?