Democrats Must Be Prepared to Contest Poll-Defying Election Results

Democrats may win big on Tuesday. I hope they do. But if they instead suffer poll-defying or otherwise suspect losses, they must challenge those results.

Contrary to popular belief, all voting machines can be hacked via the internet because they all receive programming from centralized computers, that connect to the internet themselves. Those centralized computers are called election management systems and are typically kept in county election offices.

Election management systems also receive and aggregate precinct vote tallies for each county. Memory cards or flash drives then send the aggregated totals to online reporting systems, creating another hacking opportunity. Sometimes, the same flash drive goes back and forth between the online reporting system and the central tabulator as results are updated throughout the night.

And while election officials insist our elections are too decentralized to allow an outcome altering hack, the reality is that just two vendors account for about 80 percent of US election equipment: Election Systems & Software, LLC and Dominion Voting.

ES&S recently admitted that it has installed remote access software in election management systems used in about 300 jurisdictions that it won’t identify. And both Wisconsin and Florida approved the use of cellular modems in ES&S ballot scanners in 2015. Illinois and Michigan use cellular modems as well. According to computer science professor Andrew Appel, hackers could use fake cellular towers to intercept vote tallies as they are transmitted over these modems.

Meanwhile, USA Today reported in August last year that ES&S, which by itself accounts for about 44 percent of U.S. election equipment, had left database files online and publicly available on an Amazon AWS cloud server for an “undetermined amount of time,” including “encrypted versions of passwords for ES&S employee accounts.” The database was found by a cybersecurity company called Upguard, whose director of strategy stated that “the encryption was strong enough to keep out a casual hacker but by no means impenetrable.” USA Today further reported that, “configuring the security settings for Amazon’s AWS cloud service is up to the user,” and the “default for all of AWS’ cloud storage is to be secure, so someone within ES&S would have had to choose to configure it as public.”

In a similar vein, ProPublica reported that, as recently as Monday, the “computer servers powering Kentucky’s online voter registration and Wisconsin’s reporting of election results” used a service called FTP.  According to Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., “‘Every communication sent via FTP is not secure, meaning anyone in the hotel, airport or coffee shop on the same public Wi-Fi network that you are on can see everything sent and received. And malicious attackers can change the contents of a transmission without either side detecting the change.’”

And yet many Americans still cannot wrap their heads around the possibility that America’s elections might not always produce legitimate outcomes. We were, after all, raised to believe that America is the best democracy in the world. Surely someone is guarding the hen house?

Citizens of other countries are not so naïve. The Orange Revolution was a series of protests and political events that took place in Ukraine after the 2004 presidential runoff between pro-Putin Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yuschenko. The official tally showed that Yanukovych had won by almost 3 percent, but exit polls had put Yuschenko well ahead. Yuschenko challenged the result, and his supporters took to the streets.  Even the U.S. demanded a full review of the tallying of results. The Ukrainian court ultimately invalidated the election and ordered a new runoff, which Yuschenko won.

By contrast, in the United States, the public does not protest poll-defying or otherwise suspect election outcomes, and “losing” candidates are pressured to concede for the sake of “unifying” the country or to avoid seeming like sore losers or (worse) conspiracy theorists. If we Americans have learned anything over the past two years, it is that our democracy is more fragile than we realized. And the electronic equipment used to count our votes is no exception. Should Democrats suffer unexpected election losses this Tuesday, they must challenge the results, like Yuschenko in 2004, not concede defeat as they have done too often in the past. And the American public must support them, with protests if necessary, when those challenges are asserted. With democracy already hanging by a thread, we can no longer afford to be complacent about the integrity of our elections.

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