Hacking the vote
"Something very strange happened on election night to Deborah Tannenbaum in Volusia County. At 10 pm she called the county elections department and learned that Al Gore was leading George W. Bush 83,000 votes to 62,000. But when she checked half an hour later, she found a startling development: Gore's count had dropped by 16,000 votes, while an obscure Socialist candidate had picked up 10,00 – all because of a single precinct with only 600 voters." – Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2000
"Anyone within a half mile of any machine could have modified every vote, undetected. I could teach you how to do it over the phone. It might require an administrator password, but that’s OK – the password is ‘admin’.” – Jeremy Epstein of SRI International on AVS WinVote machines, 2008
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we see high turnout because of vote-by-mail. It’s extremely convenient and accessible; it’s secure and cost-effective.” – Oregon Gov. Kate Brown
On Election Day, Oregon voters can feel reasonably sure that the paper ballots they dropped off or mailed in will be counted and an honest total will be announced. That's not true in states that rely on digital or electronic voting machines, where even after $3 billion spent in search of new technologies this century, recounts may not be possible because records are suspect – if they are kept at all.
Every state has voting booths open on Election Day except the civilized states of Oregon, Washington and Colorado, where mail-in ballots are used because they work better and cost less. Oddly, those same three states were also the first to legalize cannabis consumption; it remains to be seen if there's any direct connection there.
In addition to saving money, mail-in ballots encourage voters to actually vote. In every general election held since 2000, at least 70 percent of the ballots sent to Oregon voters were filled out and returned in time to be counted. In 2008 a solid 84 percent of Oregon voters did their civic duty in the November elections. That's well above our usual national turnout of 50-60 percent of registered voters, although it's still at the low end of what we need to have a truly representative democracy.
Only about half of all states allow absentee ballots to be mailed in. Every other American citizen who wants to vote must go to their local precinct station in order to participate. What they find when they enter the voting booth is the greatest threat to democracy America has ever faced – voting machines.
In 2008, Jeremy Epstein of SRI International warned the Virginia state legislature about the AVS WinVote machines they had just used to record the vote:
"Anyone within a half mile of any machine could have modified every vote, undetected. I could teach you how to do it over the phone. It might require an administrator password, but that’s OK – the password is ‘admin’. Bypassing the encrypted WEP wireless system also proved easy. The password turned out to be ABCDE. Bottom line is that if no Virginia elections were ever hacked, it’s because no one with even a modicum of skill has tried.”
Of particular concern are machines that don’t provide a paper printout to confirm your choices. According to computer scientist Richard Kemmerer at UC Santa Barbara, "If there's no paper trail, you can have corrupted software display on the screen whatever you want to display, then after the voter leaves, record something completely different inside."
The state of Ohio has become a case study in the problems with digital voting in the Age of the Hacker. Ohio shelled out $115 million in one recent year just to upgrade their software, but the result has been a sharp increase in counting errors and suspicious results. And just as in the 2004 presidential election that came down to Ohio's close vote, critical election records are likely to disappear in cyberspace even though they are required by law to be kept.
As Ohio voters watched live coverage of election returns in November of 2015, they actually saw hundreds of thousands of votes get switched in reports just 11 minutes apart. At one point a ballot measure to legalize cannabis was reported by election officials to have 969,000 "Yes" votes and 512,000 "no" votes. When the next set of numbers were released 11 minutes later, the total of "No" votes increased by 600,000 while the "Yes" votes actually dropped by 350,000.
In the fall of 2007, security researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania and WebWise Security of California were asked to examine Ohio's electronic voting systems. Here's some of what was written in their ﬁnal report:
"We found vulnerabilities that would allow voters and poll-workers to place multiple votes, to infect the precinct with virus software, or to corrupt previously cast votes – sometimes irrevocably. Further problems persist at the election headquarters, where election machines could be compromised by viruses arriving from precincts, or by an attacker with seconds at the controller terminal.
"Failures were present in almost every device and software module we investigated. Our review concludes that the systems lack basic technical protections necessary to guarantee a trustworthy election."
So on Election Day we can be grateful we live in Oregon and not in Ohio. We should do the right thing and spread the word all around the country about the joys and benefits of voting by mail. It's election reform at its most basic, and it brings the added benefit of drawing a few more citizens into the experiment in democracy that is America...
Rob Lafferty is a former newspaper editor and National Affairs columnist from Hawaii now living in the woods of Oregon's Coast Range.