What will happen when election hackers get to Wisconsin? A black comedy

Last week, a reporter and I were discussing election hacks that might happen in Wisconsin. He has done his research and understands the threats. He posed an interesting question: What if hackers wanted only to create chaos and distrust, rather than change the outcome of a statewide election?

Hmmm…what would happen? I thought through the likely chain of events and realized it is not possible to create distrust by hacking a Wisconsin election — but not for the reason you would hope.

If this was a movie, it would be a black comedy with a twist ending. The big gasp would come when the election thieves (along with the viewers) realize the fatal flaw in the plan …

Scene 1 opens in the messy office of computer hackers. They are working for a foreign government that has its eyes on the US presidential election. They are celebrating because they just succeeded in compromising a small voting-machine service company in eastern Minnesota.   

Scene 2 takes place in the Intelligence Headquarters of the foreign capital. The hackers are reporting their progress to the chief.

“The good news,” they say, “is that we know how to make that company provide compromised software to all its customers. Local election clerks will never know. They never inspect the software and their cute pre-election tests cannot detect hacks that activate only on Election Day.”

“The bad news is that the company controls only some of Wisconsin’s voting machines. They don’t have enough votes to deliver a statewide race.”

The hackers are surprised when the intelligence chief doesn’t care.

“No worries,” he says. “If we show we can hack the machines, we will destroy trust in the process. Whoever wins won’t have legitimacy.”

“Go for it,” he says. “Pick whoever you want to win. Just as long as it’s not the candidate the voters want.”

Scene 3 is back in the hackers’ office. The hackers are gleefully developing their plan.

As voters cast their ballots, the hackers will let the voting machines count their votes correctly.

But on Election Night, when the poll workers push “tabulate,” the computer will quickly flip the vote totals of the top two candidates in each primary. The voting machines will give the biggest vote total to the second-place finisher, and make the voters’ choice come in second. Not a single polling place in the entire area will report accurate results. 

Scene 4 takes place on Election Night, April 7, 2020. Poll workers are gathered around a voting machine in a small city in western Wisconsin. The chief inspector pushes a button on the back as others eagerly watch the poll tape emerge. Expressions of surprise.

Cut to the Associated Press Election-Night newsroom. Much excitement. An editor shouts to a reporter: “Go figure out what’s up with Wisconsin’s rural voters! That’s not what anyone predicted they would do, in either party primary.”

Scene 5 consists of a montage of cable-news soundbites on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Questions abound:  “What’s going on in rural Wisconsin? Why did the voters in both major-party primaries confound expectations?”  

Guesses tumble out: Maybe voters lied to the pollsters about who they would vote for, or whether they would vote at all. Maybe hostile cross-over voting went both ways…maybe the leading candidates were too confident…

In Scene 6, viewers get the shocking revelation.

It’s now two weeks after the primary. A county clerk and two senior citizens sit in a drab conference room in a small county courthouse. They are finishing up the official canvass. The clerk says: “I printed out the certification statement. This is one election we won’t forget.”

They pass the paper around. Each one signs it. The hacked results are now official.

One of the board of canvass members remarks: “I’ve been doing elections work for 35 years, and voters still surprise me. Well, let’s go for a beer.”

Cut to the Intelligence HQ in the foreign capital. The Chief is furious; the hackers stare at their shoes. 

The Chief slams his fist on the table: “You idiots chose a state where no one would even notice an election hack!!! Why didn’t you do this in Colorado or New Mexico?

“Are you nuts? How did you expect your hack to be noticed when Wisconsin’s paper ballots are sealed up on Election Night and never seen again?

“Didn’t you know that Wisconsin election officials never audit the primary elections?

“Didn’t you bother to notice that Wisconsin never recounts unless results are virtually tied?

“You bozos! Get out of my sight!”

The hackers leave. The chief smiles and picks up the phone.

“Mr. Secretary, good news. We just confirmed the people in Wisconsin trust whatever their computers tell them. No one will notice — not officials, not reporters, no one. Senate, Governor, President, whatever you want. ”

He hangs up the phone and calls his assistant in. “Contact the team who has compromised that big company, ES&S. Tell them to add Wisconsin to the list for November.”

* * *

Wisconsin’s local election officials do not stand a chance against sophisticated international cybercriminals. Too much is outside their control. Too many vulnerabilities, known and unknown, threaten the tabulators. Securing Election-Night results is a wishful fantasy.

But Election-Night results are preliminary and unofficial. Final results are the ones that matter and that could be secured — relatively easily, too. County clerks could use the paper ballots and their administrative authority to order hand counts. Simple audits could verify the winners while the clerks still have time to correct any miscounts.

But Wisconsin county clerks refuse to do that, so our elections continue largely on an honor system.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission orders scattered audits of individual voting machines after November elections. That’s grounds for some hope. But even with improvements made in 2018, if these audits ever detect a miscount, they are as likely to cause chaos as to prevent it. They are not rigorous enough to verify the correct winners and are not binding on final results. Officials have no agreed-upon procedures for what they will do if auditors detect that the Election-Night results were miscounted.

Contact your Wisconsin County Clerk. Tell him or her to develop written canvass procedures — NOW — to verify the correct winners in the 2020 elections before they certify the final results.

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