Earlier in the week I casually retweeted a note from the activist Bob Fitrakis. He'd posted a story about secret new software patches that had been rolled out to Ohio voting machines, with dark suggestions of shenanigans afoot in the counting of the votes there. Election maniacs may recall Fitrakis from the Ohio debacle of 2004, when he worked with Cliff Arnebeck to try to prove election fraud. (The questionability of the 2004 results is not quite in tinfoil territory; many not-outwardly-foaming observers do still believe that the Kerry-Bush election was stolen in Ohio.)
Soon a response came from one @JoeBeOne:
Please don't spread shaky voting machine rumors freepress.org/departments/di… , however tempting. Anything by Bello or Fritakis is conspiracy theory.
— Joseph Lorenzo Hall (@JoeBeOne) November 3, 2012
.@mariabustillos as a voting technology expert, I can tell you fears about the OH software are way overblown. tabulators are air-gapped.
— Joseph Lorenzo Hall (@JoeBeOne) November 3, 2012
Air-gapped! @JoeBeOne turned out to be Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology in D.C., and he is indeed a highly qualified voting expert. And like an answered prayer from the desperate, wild-eyed, bedraggled election-obsessed lunatic that I am, this election expert had miraculously appeared out of the clear blue in order to help me separate fact from fiction. Say on, I begged.
@mariabustillos Air gap = no contact between voting system and reporting software. Tabulation results are walked over to a different PC.
— Joseph Lorenzo Hall (@JoeBeOne) November 3, 2012
A few more tweets followed this (concatenated below):
So, this software doesn't touch the official system. The SoS could show results before and after to address concerns here. To be sure: voting systems are exceedingly vulnerable. But there are much more subtle ways to mess with them. And what we need are regular risk-limiting audits that can detect mischief or error.
If you have come down with Election Fever, as I have, talking with extremely qualified people who spend their whole workday on these matters is the best way to cause your bulging skull to return to its ordinary proportions.
So I arranged to speak with Joe later in the day, over email. (Lightly edited for clarity and punctuation.)
Maria Bustillos: I no longer know what to believe in media reports of electronic election tampering. What are professionals most worried about, at this point, in this election?
Joseph Lorenzo Hall: It's a very complex area and unfortunately one that lends itself to dearths of information and poor intuition… which is how Bello and Fitrakis get way out into left field. Extending email/fax voting to displaced NJ voters is making us very nervous… check out Matt Blaze here. What I think we expect to see a lot of—and it's not as sexy as conspiracy theory—is the aging of this machinery, as much of it is 10- to 15-year-old computer equipment. Another not-so-sexy source of problems will be from newer online voter registration systems, an electronic version of pollbooks. We may see strange reports of people not being registered or being marked down as already voted. Much of that will seem to some like fraud, but it is more likely poorly checked voter registration rolls. People don't like having to cast provisional ballots, but they need to understand that if you're registered and at the right location, the ballot will count.
Maria: Why do you think we haven't been able to solve these problems, given that we've had years in which to do so?
Joe: Two reasons: 1) no one cares about it until presidential election years, and mostly right before that election; and, 2) there is no regular source of federal funding for elections (when it comes to a state or local government choosing between spending money to fill potholes—which affect people every day—or making elections better, they will fill the potholes).
Maria: Which of the voting 'conspiracy theorists' are doing the most harm, in your view, and how?
Joe: Well, Fitrakis and Bello really seem to be getting widespread play this year for some reason. I can't tell you how many otherwise smart and discerning people have asked me about both their two recent stories on "Romney owns voting machines in Ohio" and this new "scary last-minute software update" one. The frustrating part is that in other times of the year people like myself would have time to carefully debunk this well-manufactured drivel, but at the moment I'm too concerned with real issues, like making sure voters on election day and volunteers in the field have the information they need, however mundane or technical, to make sure all registered, eligible voters can cast a ballot. Luckily, in the case of the "Romney owns voting machines" story, the reliable fact-checking site Snopes.com has really hit it out of the park.
As to who's doing the most damage… chalk up Naomi Wolf in that category as she seems to think that getting rid of the secret ballot would solve all our problems.
What an amazingly stupid idea! She probably doesn't know—why would she?—that voting before we instituted the secret ballot in the US (around 1900 for most states) was a payday for most voters, and that when we instituted the secret ballot voter turnout dropped like a rock since vote buyers could no longer be assured that they were getting what they paid for.
Also, I'm not a big fan of the Brad Blog, as he can be very sensational and ego-driven. However, he often has good facts and original analysis, so while I don't visit his site, I don't immediately write-off what he has to say, just his tone and likely his policy recommendations.
Maria: One last question, is there anything that you'd recommend voters should look out for in the way of irregularities? And is the phone number you tweeted this morning (866 OUR VOTE) the best place to report irregularities all over the country, or are there different places to report different irregularities?
Joe: The number-one recommendation I can make is make sure voters "check their work"; that is, if you're voting on a voting machine, it will usually summarize your selections on a final screen before you cast your vote (and if there is a paper trail—a printer on the side, be sure to carefully make sure it prints your choices correctly). Make sure this ballot summary reflects how you want to vote because this is the most likely step where voters would make a mistake or an attacker would try and take advantage of an inattentive voter and show something different on the screen versus the paper. If you have a problem, tell the poll workers and then call us at (non-partisan) Election Protection at 866-OUR-VOTE.
866-OUR-VOTE is the only number people need to know: find your polling place, report any kind of problem, from lines to registration problems to issues with voting machinery. I'll be at the DC command center as one of the voting tech geeks.
THE ONE ELECTION APP YOU SHOULD REALLY GET
After we spoke, Joe sent me along to Pam Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, who is just a walking treasury of clarity and helpful information. I spoke with her by telephone yesterday. She was en route to DC to join a coordinated group of voting rights experts, technologists and lawyers, including Joe Hall.
The best thing I learned from Pam: she helped me to find a free app called ElectProtect (Android version here), which can be used on all smartphones and iPads and will provide your polling place, tell you whether or not your registration at that address is active, and give the rules for your polling place based on where you live (such as, whether or not you need an ID). It will also let you know what kind of voting machine you'll be using. I tried it and it worked like a charm.
You can use ElectProtect to look up anyone's voter information, so if you have this app installed you can help anyone who might need it on Election Day.
I asked Pam specifically about Ohio, since that is where a lot of the rumors have been concentrated.
"Ohio is actually in reasonably good shape," she said. Throughout Ohio, there is a paper trail for votes; that is, even if you vote electronically you get a paper receipt, so that there can be recounts after. All the electronic machines, no matter which of the three voting machine companies they originate from, are required by law to provide paper receipts.
Another thing that people don't know, Pam said, is that there are paper ballots available for those who would prefer not to vote with the electronic machines. This is required by Ohio law. "Most people don't avail themselves of these, but they should know that they could." If there are long lines for machines, for example, or if the machines are down, you can ask for a paper ballot at your Ohio polling place.
The most important thing is that election results be auditable. Promising advances have been made in this area; Joe sent me to Cyrus Farivar's article at arstechnica about new, super accurate auditing methods that is freakishly interesting and involves Dungeons and Dragons dice.
In any case, a post-election audit is required by law in Ohio, whether the election is close or not. This audit can be observed by the public, by election observers, anyone. If there are discrepancies then a recommendation can be made to the Secretary of State, if there is a chance the audit could affect the outcome.
Verified Voting is strictly nonpartisan; their goal is simply that everyone should vote. (Which may or may not be the goal of some, but that is another kettle of fish.) "If I had my way," Smith said, "you'd be automatically registered to vote at age 18. Then we could concentrate on all the other problems," she said.
When I asked how someone in her position felt about partisanship, she replied with practiced ease. "There are differences in how people treat the rules," she said. For example, there are rules in certain states where a vote will be disqualified for having been cast at the wrong precinct, which in some cases might be a question of the wrong table in a big room; in those cases voter intent can very easily be determined, and there's no need to disqualify a ballot. "But most elections officials are trying to do the right thing," she concluded.
At the National Command Center, where Pam Smith and Joe Hall will be working, several hundred volunteers from different voting-rights organizations are gathering to help voters in real time to find polling places and to talk with attorneys to solve specific problems (and who can take action, if necessary). The hotline number, as we said before, is 866 OUR VOTE, and the website is ourvotelive.org. Here you can see complaints coming in in real time, so that problem areas can be identified as they are reported in.
Will you sleep? I asked Pam.
"No sleep until the 7th," she said wryly. "And then, we'll see."