Election fraud: How worried should we be?

Are mail-in ballots subject to widespread fraud? Did Russia hack our election in 2016? Are voting machines secure? Will we even be able to trust the election results?

The answers are no, not directly, no and yes! In this video, APN examines different ways our elections could be compromised.

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There is a lot of visual information presented in the video that’s not included in the transcript below, so we recommend watching instead of reading. But, we’ve got the transcript if you prefer to read, as well:

Election meddling is probably as old as democracy itself. There are many examples in American history, from ballot-box stuffing to selling votes to voter intimidation, all of which have become less common since the implementation of the secret ballot around 1890. How about today? When you go to the polls, do you trust that your vote will be counted accurately? Should you? How secure is the American election system? Let’s find out.

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There’s a lot of ways an election could be influenced or even rigged, including disinformation, voter suppression or outright fraud. In this video, I’m going to focus on the most extreme method — actually changing the vote totals. Does that happen? Let’s take a look at three possibilities for how our elections could be compromised: voter fraud, foreign interference and voting machine insecurity.

If you listen to President Trump, voter fraud is a big deal.

President Donald Trump: “It is a rigged system!”

He claims millions of people voted illegally in 2016 and are likely to do so again through the mail this year. Of course, this didn’t happen. Even Trump’s own voting integrity commission could find no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

So, voter fraud by impersonation is not really a thing – I mean yeah, it happens sometimes, but it’s very rare. The Brennan Center for Justice says that someone is more likely to be struck by lightning than impersonate another voter. Despite this, states like Georgia have gone out of their way to put a stop to this nonexistent voter fraud. They’ve passed voter ID laws, exact match laws and held voter registration purges. Although exact match was abandoned in Georgia last year, we also purged almost 200,000 people from the voter rolls wrongly in 2019 according to the Georgia ACLU. The cure is worse than the disease! Voter fraud is not a thing. Okay.

Moving on to something that’s a bigger deal — foreign interference in our elections. Everyone knows by now that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election.

Vladimir Putin parody: This is fake news. Do not believe the lies of the Western media!

They did it in three ways:

First, Russia used online propaganda and fake news. Second, they hacked the DNC servers, and finally they made attempts to penetrate our election security with more hacking. By far the most consequential of these was their propaganda and disinformation effort, but… for the purposes of this video, I mean, it didn’t physically change the vote totals. And neither did the DNC hack. What I’m interested in is the last one – did they actually manage to penetrate our election systems?

In some cases, it appears yes. Russian hackers gained access to an Illinois voter registration database and, by using spearfishing emails, they also gained access to the government network of one Florida county. Hey, if something looks suspicious, don’t click on the link, okay, especially if you’re an elections official. Also, Russia scanned many other elections websites across the country looking for vulnerabilities. But, I don’t want to scare you. For all their efforts, the Russians weren’t able to change a single vote in 2016, at least not directly. I don’t think they’ll be able to in 2020 either. According to the office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Our election system is resilient. Although the threat of foreign interference is real, Americans can have confidence that a vote cast will be a vote counted.”

Russia may have some skilled hackers, but they’re not omnipotent, so I can see no reason to contradict what he’s saying here. Although I do have concerns, regarding insecurities in our election systems, especially our voting machines.

Georgia switched to computerized voting machines after the infamous 2000 election exposed some serious problems with paper-based systems. Just last year, we spent over $100 million dollars on a completely new set of voting machines. How does the average Georgian feel about that? Do they even trust these new machines?

Georgia Voter #1: “Yes, sir. Yes, I do. 100%.”

APN: “You think they’ll give an accurate…”

Georgia Voter #1: “Yes, sir, I have used them.”

Georgia Voter #2: “I do. I have faith that it would be, nowadays you could say at least mostly accurate. My fear is us rejecting the results.”

Georgia Voter #3: “No. Just because I don’t trust the government to update anything and keep things secure.”

Georgia Voter #4 “I think there’s going to be shenanigans either way.”

Georgia Voter #5: “I think that it’s more accurate to have paper and pen than it is to have a machine running the elections.”

Let’s dive into this. Our new voting machines are also called “ballot marking devices” and here’s a quick explanation of how they work: when we vote, we’ll pick out our choices on a touch-screen, and then we’ll print them out on a ballot. Finally, we’ll feed the ballot through a scanner, which records our votes. If we were using hand-marked paper ballots, the process would be exactly the same, except we’d fill out the ballot by hand instead of using a printer.

Having a device to print out the ballot for us does actually have some advantages. For example, printers make standardized markings, unlike people, who sometimes get creative or don’t fill the bubble in all the way. This can cause the scanner to miss some votes. Also, the ballot marking device is helpful for people with a variety of disabilities.

Nearly every polling place in the country has at least one or two ballot marking devices handy to help people with disabilities. What’s unusual about how Georgia uses these machines is that we have them in every county for all voters. Why?

Well, many states allow their counties to each decide their own election system, and that results in a patchwork voting system across those states. In Georgia, counties don’t have this kind of freedom – we’re all required to use one state system. A second thing to notice about the map onscreen is that most counties across the country are shaded green, meaning they use hand-marked paper ballots, and not voting machines for most voters. So Georgia is odd in both respects; not only do we use voting machines, but each county is also forced to use them.

According to Jeanne Dufort from the Coalition for Good Governance, this makes elections in Georgia insecure and vulnerable to hacking or computer glitches.

Jeanne Dufort: “The bigger the network is, you have more to defend. And if one problem infiltrates at one point, it can spread throughout the entire system. So, if Georgia was a more diverse state – if Atlanta metro used one system and the southeast coast used another system, a penetration would be bad, but it would only affect a portion of Georgia’s vote.”

If there’s a problem though, won’t we be able to catch it?

Jeanne Dufort: “In Georgia, for example, the state actually owns all this equipment that’s out in the counties. So, the counties don’t get to say ‘I would like to bring an expert in to check my equipment out to debug it, to see if there’s a problem. Right? They don’t get to say that because it’s not their equipment. The state says you can’t look.”

Even so, we do have the ability to audit our election results to help us catch these kinds of problems.

For example, we can compare the printed ballots with the result we get after putting them through the scanner. If there’s a problem, we could use a different scanner or even count the ballots by hand. With a risk-limiting audit, we’ll definitely catch any problems with the scanner. So far so good, but what if there’s an issue with the printer or touch screen?

Well, after printing your ballot, you should make sure to review it thoroughly before putting it in the scanner. By doing so, we can catch any potential issues before the votes are recorded. Unfortunately, research shows that most people don’t do this. Research from the University of Michigan shows that when one vote was changed at random during an experiment, only 6.6% of voters both noticed the error and told a poll worker about it. Only 40% of voters even checked their ballots for errors at all.

And sometimes, checking your ballot might not help, because we of course can’t read the barcode, which is what the scanner is actually reading. That’s a major issue.

Paper ballots eliminate the need for both the touch screen and the printer, and that would eliminate the main source of these potential problems. Any other problems could be found during an audit.

So, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news here, but I have to report that our voting system in Georgia does have major potential insecurities, even after spending over $100 million dollars. How concerned should we be about that? Is there any evidence that computer trouble is likely?

We don’t know if this potential insecurity will actually affect the election results or not. Hopefully not! But the sad truth is that our voting machines have already experienced major issues this year.

Less than two weeks before early voting started, election officials decided to swap out the software of all Georgia’s voting machines because of some serious display errors.

There are real concerns about the security of using voting machines. The most common argument I’ve heard in their favor is that paper ballots caused us a real headache in Florida in the 2000 election. However, the paper ballots advocates in Georgia have been asking for are very different from the punch-card ballots used during the 2000 election. Hand-marked paper ballots are undeniably more secure and also cheaper than ballot marking devices. This is why most of the rest of the country uses them.

But that being said, voters should absolutely have confidence that their votes will be counted – and that only those votes will be counted. Regardless of whether you use the touch screens or vote by mail, we have a very resilient system nationwide. There is no evidence at all that the voting machines have been compromised, or that mail-in ballots are subject to fraud. So please! Go vote – and vote with confidence.

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