New Foreign Computer Threats Add to Old Fashioned Ballot Fraud Techniques
WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 22, 2016): Donald Trump’s claim that the presidential election could be rigged is all too true, with new computer threats being added to both old fashioned and new electronic ballot fraud techniques, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
Banzhaf addresses these issues because he developed the widely-accepted computer technique – now called the Banzhaf Index – for determining the chance that any particular voter or small group of voters could change the outcome of presidential elections under the Electoral College, and showed that voters in some states have far more such voting power than others.
Under our Electoral College system, fraud resulting in a change in even a very small number of votes, and perhaps even in only one state, could change the outcome of the presidential election, something very unlikely to occur were there to be a direct presidential election, says Banzhaf.
He reminds us of how the 2000 presidential election was decided by fewer than 600 votes out of almost 6 million cast in Florida. That election, with its hanging chads and long delays, focused public attention on the many problems of using punch card ballots.
Traditional techniques for rigging an election, including stuffing ballot boxes and permitting those who are not eligible to nevertheless cast votes – because they are dead, felons, or illegal aliens – still exist, notes Banzhaf, and their impact could be increased by challenges to voter ID laws and other measures designed to insure that only those legally entitled to vote in fact do so.
Today, hackers can also stuff electronic voting machines by altering voting cards to permit them to cast hundreds of votes at one sitting.
More generally, the threat of a rigged presidential election – and the possibility that it could be accomplished by only a few determined individuals or even by a foreign power – has been dramatically enlarged by the increased use of electronic voting machines (especially in states where they leave no paper trail), by the escalating use of computers and data processing techniques to count or transmit data about votes, and the ever growing ability of hackers both here and abroad to penetrate virtually any computer, even those computers and other electronic devices not connected to the Internet.
Interestingly, Banzhaf himself was a hacker in the late 1950s, and one of his articles helped influence how both hackers and legitimate programmers write computer code today. “If there is no computer trail of ballots, it may be near impossible to ever determine if the outcome of a close presidential election was changed by hackers, much less whether they were domestic or foreign,” says Banzhaf.
Indeed, the hacking of the Pentagon, the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party by the Russians, and the hacking of many large corporations such as Sony by North Korea, has led some commentators to suggest that the 2016 presidential election could even be hacked by a foreign power.
Richard Clarke, for example, has said that sophisticated hackers can now get into any computer, even if it’s not connected to the Internet. CNN reluctantly reports that “we’ve officially entered the era of the hackable election.” This election may not be close enough to be successfully attacked, but those in the future are even more likely to be hacked, particularly if we ignore the growing threat, says Banzhaf.
One of the most vulnerable targets are electronic voting machines. While some do generate paper records so that some type of audit trail is available if hacking is suspected, too many do not. This can create what Wired’s Brian Barrett terms a “technological train wreck” because, if some one tampered with the machine’s software, there would be no way to prove it by comparing real votes with machine tallies.
Reportedly, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina use voting machines which leave no paper trail. The same is true in some parts of Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Another on-line vulnerability is that some states permit residents to cast their votes from home over the Internet.
Computers involved in voting are also vulnerable to many of the same kinds of hacks which have bedeviled so many major corporations, including the implantation of various kinds of malware. The difference is that – unlike their corporate cousins – these computers are much less likely to have malware detection software and people who regularly use it, and more likely to have porous firewalls.
If we had direct election for the president, it would probably be hard for any small group to change enough votes to significantly change national totals. But, under the Electoral College system, even small changes to voting totals in only one or two states could alter the outcome of the election. If the changes were small enough, and spread out over different precincts, they might not stand out, and would hardly be noticeable, suggests Banzhaf.