Last week, a reporter and I were discussing possible election hacks as they might happen in Wisconsin. He has done enough research to understand the technological threats. He posed an interesting question: What if hackers wanted only to cause chaos and distrust, rather than change the outcome of a statewide election?
Hmmm…what would happen? I thought through the most likely chain of events and realized the scheme would fail–but not for the reason you might think.
It would make a good movie — a black comedy with a twist ending. The big laugh comes when the election thieves (along with the viewers) realize the fatal flaw in their plan…
Scene 1 opens in the messy office of some 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 bad news is that the company services only some of the voting machines in Wisconsin. There are not enough votes there to deliver a statewide victory.”
They are surprised when the intelligence chief doesn’t seem to care.
“No worries,” he says. “If we do no more than prove we can hack the machines, we will sow chaos. We’ll destroy trust in the process. Whoever wins won’t have legitimacy.”
“Go for it,” he says. “Pick whoever you want to win, and give them the victory in only some areas. 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 the 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 identify the true winner.
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 primaries confound expectations?”
Guesses tumble over each other: 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.
Two weeks after the primary, a county clerk and two senior citizens sit in a drab conference room in a small county courthouse, finishing up the official county canvass. The county clerk says: “I printed out the certification statement and papers. 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 were supposed to get caught! Why didn’t you do this in Colorado or New Mexico? You idiots hacked an election in a state where no one bothers to look for problems!!!!
“Are you nuts? How did you expect to be noticed when Wisconsin’s paper ballots are sealed up on Election Night and never seen again?
“How did you overlook the fact that Wisconsin election officials never audit the primary elections?
“How could you not ignore the fact that Wisconsin never recounts unless results are virtually tied?
“You bozos! Get out of my sight!”
The hackers leave. The intelligence chief smiles and picks up the phone.
“Mr. Secretary, good news. We can add Wisconsin to the list. We just confirmed they trust whatever their computers tell them. No one will notice — not officials, not media, 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 Wisconsin is a go 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 only a pretty 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 they 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 general elections. That’s cause for some hope. But even with improvements made in 2018, these audits are as likely to cause, rather than prevent, chaos if they ever detect a miscount. They are not rigorous enough to verify the correct winners and are not binding on final election results. Officials have no agreed-upon procedures for correcting the official results if auditors detect miscounts in the preliminary results.
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.