Discover more from Outspoken with Dr Naomi Wolf
How Electronic Voting Machines Cheat and What to Do About This
Algorithms 101: Why the Secret Ballot -- In Made-for-Cheating Electronic Voting Systems - is a Recipe for Fraud
We think of the secret ballot as being fundamental to our rights, and indeed to our democratic system, and in many ways that belief is correct. Or it certainly would be correct, if those secret ballots were cast in a verifiable, accurately- tabulating voting system.
But the secret ballot became a sacred aspect of elections, in the days when ballots were cast in boxes, using paper. There was little risk run by those who cherished the secrecy of their choices in such a system, because the ballots could always be recounted. They were physical artefacts. They either existed or they did not.
People could steal elections in this “analog” technology of paper and locked ballot boxes, of course, by destroying or hiding votes, or by bribing voters, a la Tammany Hall, or by other forms of wrongdoing, so security and chain of custody, as well as anti-corruption scrutiny, were always needed in guaranteeing accurate election counts. But there was no reason, with analog physical processing of votes, to query the tradition of the secret ballot.
Before the digital scanning of votes, you could not hack a wooden ballot box; and you could not set an algorithm to misread a pile of paper ballots. So, at the end of the day, one way or another, you were counting physical documents.
Outspoken with Dr Naomi Wolf is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Those days are gone, obviously, and in many districts there are digital systems reading ballots. Both the Left and the Right have accused the other team of nefarious electronic chicanery.
And as a result, the sacred secret ballot tradition, with no other option permitted to voters for managing their votes, makes digitally-read elections horribly easy to steal. As Harper’s correctly warned a decade ago, “Old-school election fraud was limited in scope, but new electronic voting systems allow insiders to rig elections on a national scale.” [https://www.electiondefense.org/how-to-rig-an-election]
The Brennan Center for Justice points out that half of America is now voting on electronic machines that are near the end of their usable lives, and that thus are vulnerable to breaking down from missing or obsolete parts, or to viruses. The authors of the Brennan Center study also note that many districts use electronic machines that do not give a paper document for each vote [a “VVPAT”]. Their description of the issue is partisan, and it seems odd to malign voters for “viral videos” and “conspiracy theories” about touch screens flipping votes when they are in fact…flipping votes, but the core of the crisis is accurately described in the following paragraphs. Bottom line: electronic ( or “direct recording electronic” or “DRE”) machines suck and can be messed with eight million ways, and if they don’t also give you a “VVPAT,” or “voter-verified paper audit trail” — (these election audit experts love citizen-unfriendly jargon) they can cause havoc:
“Of particular concern are jurisdictions that still use DRE voting machines. These machines, which may or may not produce a VVPAT, generally require a voter to use a touch-screen monitor to vote. In recent years, a number of these models have “flipped” votes, with the touch screen incorrectly registering voters’ choices due to calibration errors associated with aging hardware. That, in turn, has led to viral videos and conspiracy theories of machines “stealing votes.”
While the number of jurisdictions using DREs has fallen dramatically in recent years, nearly 26 million registered voters in 16 states live in jurisdictions that still use DREs for some or all voters as of February 2022. And of those, more than 13 million registered voters live in six states (Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas) that use DREs without VVPAT as their principal polling place equipment for some or all voters.[ footnote1_tstxxlf1]
Four of these states have started to address their DRE vulnerability. Louisiana passed a bill last year requiring new voting systems to “produce an auditable voter-verified paper record.” The state is in the process of selecting new voting machines. A new Texas law requires the state to phase out DREs by September 1, 2026, although curbside voters may still vote on DREs without VVPAT. Indiana passed a bill in January requiring jurisdictions with DREs to add VVPAT printers by 2024. New Jersey has required VVPAT since 2009. Despite that deadline, many counties continue to use paperless systems, purportedly because of a lack of funding to replace them.
New voting machines that produce a paper ballot for each vote cast make it possible for election officials to conduct post-election audits. Approximately half of all states and the District of Columbia conduct post-election audits, which require a review of paper ballots to check the accuracy of the votes cast. With partisan actors fueled by the Big Lie conducting partisan reviews that undermine confidence in our elections, it is becoming increasingly important for qualified election officials to conduct legitimate audits of their own […]” [https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-machines-risk-2022#footnote1_tstxxlf]
You don’t have to believe that it is “partisan” to demand a verified paper trail for every election, to want a better assurance that your vote will be properly counted, than — the nothing at all you get when think that you have made your choice, and when you walk away from a “DRE” without a “VVPAT”.
It is hardly nonsensical for the public’s “confidence in our elections” to be undermined by the current state of play, a patchwork of digital machines ranging from touchscreen to scanners and other technologies, all of which the average voter thoroughly and correctly understands to be rackety and unverifiable.
People are not stupid; and they live with technology every single day. They know full well that it is not flawless. The ordinary hassles they experience when their PC laptop or HP printer or Fitbit or Android malfunctions in weird ways, or their emails don’t get though or their credit card shows a duplicate charge for a single payment, leads them to have the common sense to question how something as complex and important and delicate as the thousands of tabulations of millions of data points that make up a national election, or even a state-wide election, can possibly be handled adequately, electronically.
I remember vividly the longtime practice in my local polling place in the West Village, in a public school cafeteria. There was the uplifting ritual of filling in the little ovals, carefully, one by one on a thick paper ballot; and then the voter would be bidden to the voting booths by the bustling, elderly lady volunteers (with somehow always that one handsome elderly gentleman among them, looking pleased). These lovely, officious ladies, nicely dressed for this important occasion, always seem to emerge mysteriously, like Angels of Democracy, to perform this solemn duty.
You would enter a fabulously retro private booth with a hip-length curtain around it, and pull the 1950s-era-seeming thick metal arm solidly in an arc from left to right. The metal tooth locked into its groove at the end of the gesture with a satisfying ca-chunk, physically to register your physical vote. I always left the little schoolhouse at peace; knowing that it was there, my very own vote, executed in my own hand, to be reviewed alongside the physical votes of other citizens, if there were any question about the outcome.
And then one day — I went in and saw a banal row of digital machines, with little screens, like ATM machines, in a row, right in the middle of the room, under glaring fluorescent lights (the cool retro booths, now vanished, had been placed along the perimeters of the cafeteria, facing the walls, so each citizen could have his or her hallowed space).
The new machines had flimsy, gestural barriers “for privacy” on either side of the screen. Well, less like ATMs perhaps, and more like a row of digital urinals.
The elderly ladies, this time around, looked helpless, flustered and dejected, as they had nothing now to do. If there was something that went wrong, or a malfunction, and a citizen approached them — who could help? The issue would go up the chain of command to some harried official who surely was not a techie. The citizen would have to leave the once-sacred polling place with the same frustration one gets when one swipes a credit card at a vending machine and one’s Mars bar stays unmoving, right where it was before one had paid.
Everything now was that damn fragile.
I left the cafeteria, after I had vote, with nothing at all to show for it. There was nothing I could do to bring back my record of my vote, in the event of a contested outcome. It was an extraordinarily disempowering feeling.
So: It is ridiculous and dangerous that Americans by the millions are going to vote on Tuesday on electronic machines, whether with or without a “VVPAT”.
It is wonderful that voters at a grassroots level are watching the dropoff boxes for absentee ballots. It is wonderful that they are taking up their responsibilities to watch the voting process itself. The snide elitism in the Brennan Center’s description of “partisan actors […] conducting partisan reviews,” in contrast to what the authors see as the only right people to count the vote, the elite-sanctioned “qualified election officials”, elides the fact that citizens in our system are supposed to be the ones observing, protecting and guarding the counting of the vote.
These citizens are doing their duty.
And if there is a contested outcome, there should be citizen-verified audits of the ballots. That is how out system works.
It is stunning to me, as a former political consultant in Gore 2000, to hear those who demand audits, derided as “election deniers.”
Both Vice President Gore and George Bush Jr, along with all of their campaign teams and lawyers, by that standard, were also “election deniers,” because both rightly insisted that every single vote be counted and that the outcome be adjudicated up to the highest court in the land. That is exactly how our system is supposed to work.
We are not supposed to have the election “called” by major media, with their giant shareholder stakes held by our nation’s adversaries, and then to have those who say, “What, What? We need to audit” — be smeared, harassed or even criminalized.
The citizens are supposed to count every vote.
And in a contested situation, they are supposed to go to the recount rules of that state — every state has them — a process that is clearly spelled out, and that is supposed to be overseen not by CNN or MSNBC but by citizens, officials, and lawyers; and ultimately if needed, by judges.
As salutary as it is that the physical votes’ delivery is being observed by citizens — and it will help — it does not solve our whole problem.
For those damn machines’ inner workings are still outside the reach of observers. You can’t see an algorithm when you are watching a dropbox. The algorithms are not being posted. The code that made the algorithms is not being posted. Electronic voting is still utterly un-transparent, and vulnerable to abuse, no matter how many people are standing guard outside the polling places. Let me explain why. (See my book The Bodies of Others for a longer explanation of algorithms and digital databases, in the context of the COVID pandemic, and how easy it is to lie using digital counting).
I am explaining the following as the CEO of a successful civic tech company, one that creates tools for people to engage with electoral and legislative politics.
One of the things our code does, is count “votes.”
When you vote by using a digital interface, you are not “voting” at all, as the action has not in fact been completed at the point that you have entered your selection. It doesn’t really matter if it is a scanner or a touch screen, or some other user interface (“UI”). That’s not where the fraud takes place. Either way, or whatever the method that your state or district uses for to make your selection, if the reading is electronic, you are simply creating a data point.
The trouble is that the “counting” of these data points is the next step in the process, and you are not involved with that. And few to understand that it is the counting — the algorithm — that has to be watched and posted and transparent and verified and checked.
The counting of all of the votes is done by an algorithm. HOWEVER! An algorithm does not in any way need to count one vote as one vote. Or a hundred votes as a hundred votes.
The algorithm counts as a vote whatever the programmer told it to count as a vote.
So if the programmer tells the code to count ten votes as one vote, it will do so. Or if the programmer tells the code to skip counting every tenth vote, it will do so.
The analogy I use in The Bodies of Others to explain how easy it is to lie with algorithms and digital counting, is a supermarket. People assume that digital vote count is like a shipment of a specific number of apples being loaded into the back of a supermarket loading dock, unpacked, put on display in the supermarket; then selected by consumers, who then scan the apple at the checkout line. It may be an electronic system counting, but folks assume that these are one-for-one relationships.
This is not how the algorithm is counting anything.
The scanner can be set to count all apples as “apples”. Or it can be set to count all oranges too, as well as apples, as “apples.” If this happens, of course, “apples” will win out over “oranges,” if there is a competition. The scanner can be set to count meat or paper towels or cat food cans, as “apples.”
Then whatever was counted as “apples” will be displayed at the end as the tally — of “apples.”
And if those who are running this system announce, looking at the final tally, that “this XX is the total number of apples sold versus the total number of oranges sold” — then the world will think that the number of “apples” that were sold that day, is the same number as the total of all of the apples; but in fact it is also the total of all of the meat, and the oranges, and the paper towels, and the cat food, that were also sold, but scanned by the algorithm as “apples.”
It is incredible to me that we even have digital voting systems, given what any lowgrade techie knows about this.
Given this innate vulnerability, the fact that we don’t see the code, in an electronic system, means that we know nothing at all about how a machine is counting our vote.
But the danger does not stop there. In the last election, warnings were raised that some of the voting machines in use connected to the internet. The whole election should have been thrown out at that point and paper ballots presented for a recount.
Why? Because: a development team, or hacker, located anywhere in the world, can in twenty minutes change the way code behaves “on the backend”, where no one facing the platform can see this happen; they can change how the code counts users’ engagements, no matter that users may be in the United States; and I, a user, will not have any way to know this via what I see on my user interface, where I am situated in Upstate New York.
In other words, I won’t know that there is a change in how my engagement has been weighted.
You don’t have to be a mastermind hacker to do this. You just need access to the internet, and some basic coding skills, and you need to get access to the servers.
It is easy to change the backend counting algorithm if the hacker has access to the servers. Many big companies with big IT budgets had break-ins from Chinese or Russian hackers. Companies would hide the incidents, although they investigate internally, or with help from the FBI.
While it is not easy to gain admin or “root” access, as long as the machines are connected to the Internet, they are indeed vulnerable to cyberattacks, especially from state-sponsored cyber warfare. An insider from one US party or another can also give access to bad actors or hackers who are far away from the local election oversight officials, and whose fingerprints thus won’t show. The insider can easily give admin access to a bad actor elsewhere and thus introduce a virus.
If any of the voting machines connected to the internet — our election outcomes could have potentially been tampered with by Russia. Or China. Or some political operative, working out of his mom’s basement in Brooklyn or Houston.
I know how serious this situation is in part because DailyClout watched another corrupted election. I love Scotland and I used to live there. During the 2014 Scottish Referendum, which would have massive outcomes that the UK government did not want if the people of Scotland voted for independence, we heard hundreds of stories of people trying to vote (on paper ballots) but the ballots were blank. In other words, they did not have the key identifiers that would allow them to be entered properly and counted.
It happened that most of these accounts came from areas that were likely “yes” votes for independence. And most of the accounts all mirrored each other. People took pictures on their phones of the blank ballots, and the missing data on dozens of ballots was identical, compared with the appearance of the proper eligible ballots. Scottish citizens were distraught.
Since we are a platform that supports democracy, we tried to find out what to do in that situation. And we discovered that the Scottish Referendum was completely corrupted in a closed circle. The local Council sent agitated voters to the police; the police sent them to the Electoral Commission, which, despite its awesome name, was an agency of the same UK government against which these citizens were voting; the Electoral Commission said that they had no authority, and directed citizens back to the Council, who directed them back to the police, etc.
No one was accountable.
Only by contacting a friend at the Scottish Parliament (as the information was not easy to find publicly) did I learn that these citizens had by law a very brief window to file a hugely expensive action, costing thousands of pounds, to demand a Judicially-mandated audit.
It was a mess. There was not a proper way independently to validate the Scottish people’s vote.
And the referendum, of course, failed.
Or it “failed.”
But was that verdict in fact the will of the Scottish people? We will never know.
DailyClout, though, has a sad archive from that time: a spreadsheet of 400 eyewitness accounts of blank ballots, including names, time of day, and location. But no one ever took us up on our offer to hand it over to officials for them to undertake a proper audit of the Scottish vote.
I saw that the system was utterly rigged, at least then, against verifiable elections for that beautiful nation and its admirable people.
So I learned that it is not a “conspiracy theory” at all, to worry about systematically corrupted elections, even in advanced Western democracies.
Now turn again to our appallingly vulnerable electronic system in the US. The flaws in our existing voting systems are so egregious, that the tradition of the secret ballot should be re-examined; a secret ballot system, in the context of the porous digital machines reading them, puts every election at risk.
When the machine reading your vote can count it any way it wants, and record it any way it wants, and our only option is a secret ballot, this means we have zero method to enforce accuracy or accountability. Our secrecy in this case does not protect us but rather it counts against us.
(With a digital system, your “secret ballot” is not secret anyway. Those “on the backend” can match your numeric sequence to your name and address, and thus to your selection, with no problem. This is a huge national security threat if it is Russians or CCP members, or other adversaries, harvesting this data).
The secret ballot is sacred indeed in some ways — it goes back to classical antiquity — but it has not always existed in every democracy; and it does not even date to the founding of our own nation and system.
In Britain, ballots used to be public. But a movement for secret ballots arose in the mid-19th century, because landowners were pressuring (“bribing” and “treating”) their farmers or employees to vote in certain directions. It was not until the late 19th century that voting reforms resulted in a secret ballot in Britain. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/elections-and-voting-in-the-19th-century/
In America, until the 1890s, open voting was common; secrecy was not the benchmark. The secret “Australian ballot” was only developed in that decade, and then made use of in this country too. http://sociallogic.iath.virginia.edu/node/30
“To be sure, there were efforts in some places at some times (California in the 1870s and Massachusetts in the 1850s being the prime examples) to develop a more private manner of voting. But discovering what secrecy meant and how it could be institutionalized remained, even in reform-minded places, a great puzzle. The “secret-ballot,” a.k.a the “Australian ballot,” was an import (arriving only in the 1890s) from Australia via Britain […]. It transformed America’s Election Day by privatizing, but also bureaucratizing, sanitizing, and individualizing what had once been a dramatic public event. From that moment on:
· Elections would be indoors, run by government officials in a public building
· Instead of competing party tickets, there would be a single state-produced ballot
· The ballot would contain the names of all candidates (with room for write-ins)
· The voter would mark the ballot in a private booth and deposit it with no identifying marks.
But until that happened – in the 1890s – all American elections were conducted in one of two ways: by voice or by ticket. These methods of conducting elections were specifically designed NOT to be private, but unapologetically to reveal, especially to party operatives, each voter’s political choices. The party wanted the voter to know which ticket he was supporting, and the party wanted to know that too. The public dimension of voting was important to some political thinkers and many political operatives, alarming to a few reformers, and accepted by the many as the way elections had always been conducted.”
While secret voting has many advantages, in our digital context, the disadvantages grossly outweigh the advantages.
This does not mean you should not have the right to a secret ballot. Of course you should. You should have a paper ticket to take with you, too, for an audit.
But we should look anew at the secret ballot being our only option, as it is so easily erased and dropped down the memory hole, by digital technology.
Voters should have a voluntary option for an archived ballot record. Voters should have the option to photograph and archive their votes in a backup archive, so that no election can ever be contested or stolen, again.
Does this mean that their votes have to be public? Not at all.
Digital platforms can easily host a form in which the voter’s ballot image can be submitted by the voter, and no one else can see it. (With coded ballots no one would see the voter’s name anyway; or the voter can white out his or her name).
However if there is a contested election, the digital archive can be tabulated and matched to the original dataset in the voting machines. Citizens can also create a physical dropbox where printed out images of photographed ballots, can be tabulated physically as a backup record.
You would not get everyone to upload or drop off his or her digital or printed vote image, of course; but if enough people chose to make use of an independent archive of their votes, and if there were more votes in the archive for a specific candidate than the official machines had registered, that would trigger an audit. Over time, I would hope that most or all voters would choose to use an independent backup archive.
We should also reconsider the traditional pre-secret-ballot public option. The advantages of the secret ballot are many, as I keep repeating. But the advantage of the pre-1890 system in the US is that — when you shout out your choice in front of everyone, it is much harder to fudge the election.
I think those who wish to “shout out” their choices — perhaps via a public-facing digital archive — should have the option to do so. Those who choose privacy should choose privacy.
It may well be that millions of Americans will “shout” their choices publicly by posting a public image of their vote on a public platform; maybe not; but again, the fact that there will be independent verification, whether it is of public or private archives, or a mixture that is up to the choice of the citizens, will chill the plans of voting-day evildoers.
Then in time, God willing, we will all go back to paper. With receipts.
And yes, O elites, we’ll go back to doing our vote counting the way it has been done for most of our nation’s history: not with “experts” and “officials” alone counting the vote, not with corrupted media prematurely announcing the winner — but rather with citizens counting the verifiable votes — yes;
Down to the
Outspoken with Dr Naomi Wolf is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.