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Election Fraud Concerns Extend Beyond Conspiracy Theorists

The integrity of the U.S. electoral system is under scrutiny after controversies with recent elections. (Seth Perlman / AP)

Most of you are already sick of this election and are looking forward to Nov. 8. But don’t count on it being over after Election Day.

Donald Trump is already crying fraud. People with Cold War memories are warning of Russian hackers disrupting the election. Vote-counting systems are antiquated and often poorly run. All this adds up to investigations and lawsuits alleging miscounted votes and fraud stretching far beyond Election Day, and making doubters even more skeptical of the results.

The combination of Trump’s paranoia and fears of mysterious hackers are fuel for conspiracy theorists. But with the rapid advance in computer technology and Russian hackers’ suspected penetration of Democratic National Committee (DNC) files, even people who don’t buy the conspiracy theories are alarmed.

The Department of Homeland Security said 25 states have asked for federal help in assessing vulnerabilities and fighting computer attacks on their voting systems, Politico reported Wednesday.

I spoke with attorney and election expert Robert Stern, who co-authored the California Political Reform Act and was chief counsel for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Stern, definitely not a conspiracy theorist, is also concerned.

“People don’t trust anything anymore, and the people who lost the election will say it was rigged,” he said. “I think now [that] we have learned Russians hacked the DNC … anything is possible. We did not anticipate all these hacks.” Stern pointed out that state election offices are often less sophisticated than federal agencies, such as the State Department and the FBI. “So,” he said, “it is much more a source of concern. … A large number of citizens will say ‘revote, revote,’ and that’s what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants. He wants mistrust, and probably the Chinese and [North] Koreans do, too.”

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in August: “In the last two weeks, there have been credible reports that Russia is attempting to influence our elections by hacking into the Democratic Party’s email server and other campaign files. These reports are troubling. But an attack on our country’s voting machines, once deemed far-fetched, is even more disturbing.”

Norden and other election experts cited dangers in the use of voting machines, which don’t leave a countable paper record of the votes cast. One threat could involve hackers changing the count on machines, with no way to check the results after the election. “In November, tens of millions of voters in 14 states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia [battleground states], will vote on paperless electronic voting machines,” Norden wrote.

“The threats to the integrity of our elections go beyond potential hacks to change the vote count on polling place voting machines,” he said. “Attackers could attempt a ‘denial of service’ attack, where machines simply crash more often. In those cases, voters could be forced to wait in line for hours while technicians work to fix the machines or replace them. Many would give up and never vote. Alternatively, the systems could be attacked after voting is complete, when results from individual machines are tallied at a central location.”

Election Justice USA, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization fighting election fraud, examined the possibility of attacks on the machines. It issued “Democracy Lost: A Report on the Fatally Flawed 2016 Democratic Primaries” and collaborated on another report, “An Electoral System In Crisis.”

The organization alleges that hackers installed algorithms (a set of instructions) in electronic vote-counting machines. This would “have increased [Hillary] Clinton’s share of the vote and decreased [Bernie] Sanders share of the vote” enough to deny Sanders the Democratic presidential nomination. The group would like a rerun of the Clinton-Sanders race.

Election Justice’s researchers also said they found evidence that the Clinton and Ted Cruz campaigns manipulated results in Wisconsin, where Cruz defeated Donald Trump in the primary.

The theory doesn’t make sense to me. Every crime needs a perpetrator and a victim. If both Clinton and Cruz were suspected perpetrators, did their campaigns work together on this scheme? Or did each have separate algorithm-installation operations? If it was a joint operation, why target two such diverse victims as Trump and Sanders?

The “Electoral System in Crisis” report admits the fraud-hunters don’t have a perpetrator.

“At this point, we are unable to say who might be responsible for any data breaches to the voting equipment. There could be any number of independent players who would benefit from the victory of a particular candidate and would be willing to take action to influence the results. Our research also indicates that in some elections the footprint of more than one unofficial player is evident,” the report said.

While Cruz beat Trump in Wisconsin, Clinton overwhelmed Sanders in California (2,713,259 to 2,326,030) and in New York (1,054,083 to 763,469.) That’s a lot of votes to fix.

My first thought was to dismiss Election Justice USA.

But this is 2016, the year of doubt and suspicion, and if Election Day is followed by months of lawsuits and investigation, the Election Justice USA reports no doubt will take their place in the evidence cited by those litigating the results.

In addition, Trump has taken up long-standing—and unproved—Republican accusations of voting fraud. These allegations have inspired Republican legislatures around the country to impose limits on voting hours and demands for all-but-impossible voter identification. The moves are designed to reduce the turnout of Democratic-leaning African-American and Latino voters and students of all ethnicities.

Trump, in fact, is urging his supporters to act as Election Day vigilantes in battleground states. “You’ve gotta go out, and you’ve gotta get your friends, and you’ve gotta get everyone you know and you’ve gotta watch your polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas,” he said at a recent rally. “I hear too many bad stories, and we can’t lose an election because of you know what I’m talking about. So go and vote, and go check out areas, because a lot of bad things happen and we don’t wanna lose for that reason.”

Trump adviser Roger Stone said, “The issue here is both voter fraud, which is limited but does happen, and election theft through the manipulation of the computerized voting machines.”

A nationwide hack of American election machinery is probably impossible. Elections are run by thousands of local governments, loosely supervised by state governments. Each has its own system, ranging from well-run to incompetent. But a hack of electronic voting machines in a few crucial counties in key states is not impossible. And that could affect a close presidential election.

Controversy—remember Florida 2000?—will follow fraud charges by Trump and others. This will sow even more doubt about the electoral process among voters ready to believe the worst about government, and inspire demands for a recount.

Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

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