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Political Parties Don’t Count Votes As Well As Government Officials

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Here’s the takeaway from the Iowa fiasco: Beware of caucuses run by political parties. But don’t panic about the integrity of most primaries and the general election, which are run by state and county election administrators.

As Tuesday morning wore on without results from Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, the long-awaited first test of the strength of President Donald Trump’s would-be challengers, both public officials and enraged commentators stoked fears that Iowa was a harbinger of chaos for the rest of the 2020 campaign. Some said it raises alarms about the broader condition of election security and the reliability of computer systems that record, tally and publish the votes. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale even suggested on Twitter Monday, without evidence, that the process was “rigged.”

But there’s a marked difference between the Iowa caucuses and the upcoming primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as the 14 state primaries on Super Tuesday. The Iowa Democratic Party ran the caucuses, much as its counterparts in Nevada, Wyoming and several territories will do in the next few months. Party officials have less training and experience in administering the vote than do state and local election administrators who oversee most of the primaries.

Reflecting such concerns, the Democratic nominating process includes fewer caucuses this year than it did in 2016. The Democratic National Committee has called for using government-run primaries rather than party-run caucuses.

“Caucuses are run by rank amateurs. Even though we have concerns about the capacity of election officials, at least this is what they do a lot of,” said Charles Stewart, who runs MIT’s election data and science lab. “Even in the smallest of jurisdictions you run a lot of elections — you have contingency plans. The parties, bless their hearts, they don’t do this very much and that’s the bottom line.”

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, whose office will oversee the state’s primary in April, said, “The Iowa caucus is an excellent reminder of why important elections should be run by trained, skilled and experienced state and local election administrators, not political parties.” Connecticut’s results undergo a post-election audit, and all votes there are on paper.

“Connecticut’s voters should be confident that they can trust the results of our elections,” she said.

In retrospect, Iowa’s Democratic Party made one mistake after another. It introduced a new app, widely reported to have been made by a company called Shadow Inc., without sufficient testing, training of precinct captains or transparency. At the same time, it made reporting requirements more complex, so that the 1,600 Democratic volunteers who manage individual precincts were required to provide three times as many data points as in past caucuses on a brand new app many had never been trained to use. (There were also many more candidates this year, further multiplying the amount of information to be reported.) Party officials didn’t hire enough people to take reports by phone in case the system failed. And they managed expectations poorly, assuring the public that results would be published faster than ever before.

“These are probably the most prepared we’ve ever been as a party for these caucuses,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told CBS on Monday morning, while shrugging off concerns about the possibility of technical problems. “We’re ready.”

This is not the first time that administrative problems have plagued the Iowa caucuses. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucuses shortly after 1:30 a.m. by eight votes over Rick Santorum. Two weeks later, a recount showed Santorum had actually won. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign declared victory after 2:30 a.m., even though official counting was not completed until that afternoon.

This year, the brand-new technology, lack of training and overconfidence by the state party amounted to a perfect storm. Government officials said they became aware of problems in the late afternoon, when precinct chairs began to report problems logging into the app. Many gave up on the app and began calling results in — as they’d done in past elections — but the reduced number of staff meant wait times so long that precinct leaders went home before they could report the results.

“Everyone was having the same problem,” said one Des Moines official who declined to be named. “Early on, it was obvious there were going to be problems.”

The receptionist at a WeWork office building in Washington, D.C., where Shadow Inc. listed its office in campaign finance filings, told a ProPublica reporter Tuesday that the company had recently moved out. Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira did not respond to a text message seeking comment Tuesday, and the voicemail box on his cellphone was full. An email to ACRONYM — an affiliated company — went unreturned.

One reason that caucus results are difficult to count is because they have multiple tallies. If a candidate doesn’t get 15% of the vote the first time, his or her supporters can switch to a rival. Delegates are apportioned by a mathematical formula. Now, the party is going through the painstaking process of verifying three datasets: the first expression of preference, the realignment and the overall delegate numbers. Verifying each number from each precinct takes several minutes, and the process must be repeated for more than 1,600 precincts. Because the Democratic Party did take the precaution of backing up counts on paper ballots, the final results should be verifiable. State party and federal officials have expressed confidence that the outcome will be accurate and trustworthy.

In a two-minute call just after 1 a.m. with the media, Price said the party was “validating every piece of data we have within that paper trail” and would “report results with full confidence.”

“We have said all along: We had backups in place for exactly this reason,” he said.

In a statement, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said he was “glad to hear [the Iowa Democratic Party has ] a paper trail for their votes, just as we use paper ballots in all official elections in the state of Iowa.”

“I support IDP while they take their time and conduct checks and balances to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the votes,” he said.

Records show the state’s Democratic Party paid $60,000 to Shadow Inc. in two installments in November and December. The app was introduced with the intent of speeding up reporting. While local and national media began asking about the app weeks ago, the party was largely silent about its mechanics and said little about testing or training. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, said that the Iowa Democratic Party had declined to allow DHS to conduct vulnerability testing on the app, though he said DHS saw no signs of malicious activity. The party has put out a statement that it has confirmed there were no intrusions and that the problems were the result of a “coding issue in the reporting system.”

The confusion in Iowa does raise concerns about the rest of 2020’s caucuses, as well as states — such as Hawaii and Alaska — where parties run primaries. The Nevada State Democratic Party, which paid Shadow Inc. $58,000 in August for “technology services,” will hold its caucuses on Feb. 22. The state party did not return a call for comment about the payment or whether it is using Shadow to report returns.

Experts said that using little-tested apps can raise the risk of security breaches because hackers could take advantage of an app’s poor computer coding. Some criticized the secrecy that shrouded the app itself.

“For critical software, I always look for documented, third-party security validation and transparency into the testing process the vendor used,” said Chris Wysopal, the chief technology officer at security firm Veracode and a prominent computer security expert. “It is a big, red flag if there is secrecy about the development process used to create and test an app.”

Election observers said one lesson of Iowa is that accuracy and clarity should be valued over speed. “It’s not about election integrity — the results will be verified with paper — it’s about satisfying our need to know immediately who won,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “When we balance out what’s more important, speed or accuracy, it’s not even a close call. We should be expecting accuracy and adjusting our expectations in regards to speed.”

Photo Credit: Phil Roeder

Report: Russian 2016 Election Hacking Flashes Warning For 2020

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

A new report from Politico on Thursday highlighted the persistent and troubling concerns about the security of U.S. elections, diving deep into some of the still unresolved mysteries about Russia’s efforts to hack the 2016 election.

Much of the discussion of Russian election interference has focused on two separate prongs of the 2016 interference: the social media troll farms pushing propaganda and disinformation, and the hacking and dumping of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair. But journalist Kim Zetter focused in Politico on the third, less-discussed and yet even more disturbing tactic — the hacking of U.S. election infrastructure.

We’ve known for years that U.S. intelligence believes Russian agents tried to — and in some cases were successful — hack into key aspects of the decentralized American voting infrastructure in the run-up to the 2016 Election Day. But there hasn’t been any solid evidence that Russia was actually able to affect the election result in any way at this vector. Some have speculated that they were just poking around, seeing what they could access, without risking a truly thunderous response from the U.S. by literally tampering with voter tallies.

Because it’s unclear whether this interference tactic actually produced any tangible consequences — unlike social media propaganda and hacked emails, which reached many millions of voters — it hasn’t garnered as much attention. But Zetter’s piece highlights that the risks posed by these kinds of cyberattacks are extreme, and many unanswered questions from 2016 leave open the possibility that the hacking influenced who ended up voting.

She recounts an incident in Durham County, North Carolina — a swing state — that pushed some people away from the polls on Election Day. County officials struggled to load voter roll data onto the necessary laptops ahead of the vote, data that confirms the voters who show up are registered. Officials contacted the Florida company VR Systems that managed the software, and they tried to help fix the problem. While the data was eventually loaded, problems emerged on Election Day:

Almost immediately, though, a number of [the county laptops] exhibited problems. Some crashed or froze. Others indicated that voters had already voted when they hadn’t. Others displayed an alert saying voters had to show ID before they could vote, even though a recent court case in North Carolina had made that unnecessary.

State officials immediately ordered Durham County to abandon the laptops in favor of paper printouts of the voter list to check in voters. But the switch caused extensive delays at some precincts, leading an unknown number of frustrated voters to leave without casting ballots.

To this day, no one knows definitively what happened with Durham’s poll books. And one important fact about the incident still worries election integrity activists three years later: VR Systems had been targeted by Russian hackers in a phishing campaign three months before the election. The hackers had sent malicious emails both to VR Systems and to some of its election customers, attempting to trick the recipients into revealing usernames and passwords for their email accounts. The Russians had also visited VR Systems’ website, presumably looking for vulnerabilities they could use to get into the company’s network, as the hackers had done with Illinois’ state voter registration system months earlier.

As has previously been reported, Zetter noted that hackers also successfully penetrated to country voters systems in Florida in 2016 — another swing state — though it’s unclear what they achieved.

The unanswered questions should disturb us. It’s more than three years on from that monumental election, and we still don’t have a comprehensive accounting of what happened. This is particularly problematic because, whatever happened in 2016, we’re heading for yet another high-stakes election in 2020. The results of the election are highly important, and so is the public’s confidence in the results, no matter who wins.

But under President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, election security has been grossly neglected. Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to implement a robust response to the 2016 hacking and fortify U.S. voting infrastructure. Not only that, but Trump has been so obsessed with defending his shaky 2016 win and Russian President Vladimir Putin that he consistently casts doubt on the fact of the election interference. This means both that his supporters are less willing to do what it takes to counter the threat and, that should a repeat performance take place to swing the election in his favor, they’ll be predisposed to dismiss any allegations about the corruption of the election out of hand.

New Federal Money Will Lock In Next Wave Of Voting Technology

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A bill awaiting the president’s signature with $425 million in new funding for voting machine and infrastructure upgrades has drawn mixed responses in elections circles—victory claims, tempered praise, and renewed worry.

The federal funds build on $380 million allocated in 2018 for cybersecurity, which included training state and local election staff, modernizing state voter registration systems, and joining a federal program that constantly monitors election system computers for attacks that could disrupt or corrupt voting.

Election administrators welcome any new funds to upgrade their systems, as congressional appropriations are a historic rarity. But the appropriations bill omits new security requirements, even as the new funds will be spent on voting machines and systems to be used for many years.

“Let’s be very clear about this. More money for election security is good, but it is *not* a substitute for passing election security reform legislation that Senate GOP leadership has been blocking all year,” tweeted Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat and Intelligence Committee vice chair.

Election transparency activists are particularly skeptical—not because many states and counties need new and better voting systems, but because federal funds will be helping to buy expensive and problematic systems where computer-generated ballot summary cards replace hand-marked paper ballots.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” wrote lawyer-turned-activist Jennifer Cohn in the New York Review of Books. “Voting machines that make it difficult or impossible to detect hacking can leave voters susceptible not only to stolen elections, but also to false claims of election-rigging. That is a high price to pay for unnecessary electronic pens.”

What concerns her and like-minded activists is not just that new ballot-casting processes may lead to ballot-counting controversies, but also that the new voting machines—called ballot-marking devices—take longer for people to vote. Many states and counties will debut these systems in 2020’s presidential primaries and use them again in November’s state and federal elections.

“All of the BMDs [ballot-marking devices] have led to much longer lines,” said Susan Pynchon, Florida Fair Elections Coalition executive director, citing delays in recent elections in Georgia and Pennsylvania. “It’s a civil rights issue. People waiting for a voting machine instead of a [marking a ballot in a voting booth]… I don’t know how many people will leave.”

When Michigan debuted BMDs in its 2018 primaries, up to 25 percent of the machines in some precincts jammed during the first hours of voting, the Michigan Election Reform Alliance’s Jan BenDor recalled.

In other 2019 debuts and test runs, other issues surfaced, Voting Booth has reported. Computer touch screens recorded wrong votes. There were sudden voting machine shutdowns. In one Pennsylvania county, the vote-counting software omitted most of one candidate’s votes at the tabulation stage.

The new federal appropriation allows states and counties to spend funds on new voting systems as long as they create a paper record of the votes cast. However, the legislation ducks the question over what constitutes a paper record: a hand-marked ballot or ballot summary card that’s printed out.

A Case Study: North Carolina

Thus the debate over what’s the best record of a voter’s intent continues. In voting, there are many stages in the process and debate about the fairness of those steps. But the controversy over what constitutes the best record of a voter’s intent directly affects how the most disputed results are resolved.

With the president’s impeachment pending, as well as an incumbent president who routinely says that votes have been stolen unless he wins, introducing problematic ballots could increase the risks of a post-November crisis.

However, decisions on what new voting machines to buy are often made at the local level—far below the national political landscape or evidence trail debates. There, sales representatives for a handful of voting system manufacturers, or their subcontractors, have been pushing local officials to buy their wares.

In North Carolina, where a third of the state’s counties are poised to install new voting systems before the March 3 presidential primary, the nation’s biggest voting machine vendor, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), recently told statewide election officials that it could not deliver enough BMDs (its ExpressVote model) to satisfy some big counties’ orders.

ES&S suggested that those counties buy a more expensive model—one that combines the ballot-marking device with a vote-count tabulator—and sought approval from the state Board of Elections (BOE). The approval was needed because the board’s rules require it to evaluate and certify new systems.

The substitute has a different computer operating system, modified software, nearly 90,000 additional lines of computer code and stacked ballot summary cards in chronological order—which could identify the voter, noted Kevin Skoglund, chief technologist for Citizens for Better Elections, in a letter to one state BOE member who later voted against the change.

It is substantively different and embodied what activists who oppose BMDs contend: that there are too many layers of opaque software between a voter’s fingers and the record of their vote—layers that can be altered by hackers or political insiders. They were upset that North Carolina’s state BOE was poised to subvert its rules to accommodate a major vendor.

“Administratively approving a new system with different hardware, software and functionality would negate the entire certification process,” said Lynn Bernstein, an aerospace engineer who founded Transparent Elections North Carolina. “Legislators wisely put into place strict certification laws that help protect our votes, and circumventing this process damages the integrity of our elections.”

But the BOE—with a chair appointed by a Democratic governor in a state with a recent record of GOP-led voter suppression—sided with ES&S, even though it heard from other activists that acquiring hand-marked ballot systems could save counties millions. (Managing volumes of paper ballots poses other challenges, but it is indisputably linked to human actions—and is less costly because far fewer computerized voting stations are needed.)

“We have projected that in the 26 counties that were mainly using the iVotronic DREs [the current system], about $30 million could be saved if these counties were to go with hand-marked paper ballots counted on the ES&S DS200 Digital Scanner and the ADA-compliant AutoMark,” wrote John Brakey, director of Audit-USA, in a letter to the BOE.

Brakey’s analysis was not speculative, but supported by a remarkable and unexpected development in a county with a deep civil rights history—one where lunch-counter protests in 1960 helped spark a national movement.

In Guilford County, where the state’s NAACP chapter president sits on its election board, commissioners approved the system referenced in Brakey’s letter and found that they had more than $5.8 million left in their budget. Those funds were then used to raise the wages of county workers to $15 an hour—including 500 school bus drivers—and to replace public school heating and cooling systems.

“It is practical and it is reasonable,” said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, the Guilford BOE member and state NAACP president. “When vendors are given oversight of elections, the cost will always be prohibitive. When the people have oversight, they will be more secure.”

2020 and Beyond

The infusion of $425 million in new federal funds will still not be sufficient to update voting systems across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School estimates that cost at $2.15 billion over the next five years. But the new federal subsidies will undoubtedly help local officials who are still trying to pay for costly new voting systems.

In Alamance County, North Carolina, county commissioners recently held a hearing and approved borrowing $1.1 million to buy BMDs from ES&S. It is too early to tell if counties like Alamance would see local costs shrink as the new federal funds are disbursed through election agencies.

But Alamance County was not inclined to return to hand-marked ballots, its elections director, Kathy Holland, had told local reporters. She worried that voters would be unfamiliar with marking paper ballots after using touch-screen voting machines for many years. She also said that poll workers would watch for any voters who walked with the ballot summary cards instead of putting them in a scanner. (That happened in Travis County, Texas—home to the state capital of Austin—this past November, delaying the vote count.)

Holland told Voting Booth that ES&S had assured her that there were sufficient BMD machines to fill her county’s order, when asked if the supply issues elsewhere in the state would affect Alamance County.

These rationales and decisions frustrated activists like North Carolina’s Bernstein and Audit-USA’s Brakey, who are posing new arguments to persuade officials to buy voting systems that use hand-marked ballots—and are more secure.

“They could have saved $1.1 million by going with HMPBs [hand-marked paper ballots],” Brakey said in an email, referring to Alamance County.

Nonetheless, local decisions like these will determine what voting looks like across many states for years to come, as voting machinery historically gets replaced every 15 or so years. That’s why the latest infusion of $425 million in federal funds has drawn mixed reactions.

On one hand, officials and allies in policy and vendor circles welcome any new appropriation. On the other hand, activists and others seeking better ways to safeguard the process and resolve vote-counting disputes are seeing missed opportunities.

“When will we learn?” tweeted Ion Sancho, in response to these trends.

Sancho was supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, for 28 years, was named technical adviser to the 2000 Florida presidential recount by the state’s Supreme Court and found flaws in electronic voting machines in 2005.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Former GOP Speakers Join To Defend Gerrymandering

The Republican State Leadership Committee says that three of the four living former Republican speakers of the House of Representatives will advise its efforts to push for GOP-friendly gerrymandered legislative maps after the 2020 elections.

Former speakers Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and Newt Gingrich will lead the committee’s Speakers Advisory Council. “In these key advisory roles,” the group said in a press release, “each of the Speakers will provide critical support to the RSLC’s recently-launched ‘Right Lines 2020’ initiative to protect Republican legislative majorities ahead of the decennial redrawing of federal and state district maps.

A Democratic group, backed by Barack Obama and Eric Holder, has been pushing to ensure fair maps in the next redistricting. But rather than follow their lead to independent redistricting commissions and maps that accurately match the partisan composition of the states, the RSLC is focused on ensuring Republicans get to draw Republican-friendly maps.

In many states, the 2020 legislative and gubernatorial elections will determine who draws both state legislative maps and congressional district lines for the next decade. The RSLC hopes to ensure that — as they did in 2010 — they put Republicans in a position to gerrymander themselves into the majority for years to come. “Expert, public estimates have revealed that winning as few as 49 state legislative seats could determine as much as a 146-seat swing in the U.S. House for the next 10 years,” the argue, so they plan to push to hold the majorities legislatures in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin. The group has pledged to spend millions on this project.

In the 2012 election, a majority of Americans voted for Democratic congressional candidates. But with the help of Republican gerrymanders in states in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other states Obama carried, the GOP won the overwhelming majority of those House districts and kept its majority. One estimate found that Democrats would have needed to win the popular vote by more than 7 points to gain a House majority. The RSLC bragged openly that its 2010 efforts made that happen.

The maps allowed Republicans to easily hold House majorities until the 2018 elections — after courts struck down some of the GOP gerrymanders in places like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. But even as the blue wave helped Democrats gain 41 seats, none came in still-gerrymandered swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

“The RSLC is leading the fight to protect state and congressional districts from liberal gerrymandering, and I am proud to lend my full support to their mission of winning races up-and-down the ballot,” Ryan said in the press release.

Boehner warned that “President Obama and Eric Holder failed to transform America into a socialist utopia when they were in office, but they’ve clearly not given up just yet. They’ve recruited liberal billionaires, labor unions, and left-wing activist groups to join them in a coordinated program to rig our nation’s legislative boundaries in favor of Democrats.”

Gingrich predicted that if “Republicans don’t win in the states next year, the keys to Congressional majorities for the next ten years will be in the hands of the same do-nothing Democrats that are there right now — it’s just that simple.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore