Tulsi Gabbard' "Securing Our Elections" Bill Opens the Gates to Russians and Other Hackers
Once in a while in politics, politicians have a chance to do something almost revolutionary that could change the game for the better in immeasurable ways. Such an opportunity is at hand in Hawaii. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard's bill the "Securing Our Elections Act," is now winding its way through Congress.
But Gabbard seems to be getting bad advice. Although the HR5147 bill presents itself as a laudable move toward paper ballots, most US jurisdictions already use paper ballots, which are counted by optical scan vote-counting machines. This is good. But planted in the bill is a poison pill which could make elections less secure. It could be a Russian hacker's dream.
The critical text in HR5147 is:
"The voting system shall require the production of a voter-verified paper ballot of the voter’s vote that shall be created by or made available for inspection and verification by the individual voter before the voter’s vote is cast and counted. For purposes of this subclause, a voter-verified paper ballot includes (but is not limited to) a paper ballot marked by the voter for the purpose of being counted by hand or read by an optical scanner or other similar device, a paper ballot prepared by the voter to be mailed to an election official (whether from a domestic or overseas location), a paper ballot created through the use of a ballot marking device or system, or a paper ballot produced by a touch screen or other electronic voting machine, so long as in each case the voter is permitted to verify the ballot in a paper form"
The fly in the ointment here is the passage: "or a paper ballot created through the use of a ballot marking device or system, or a paper ballot produced by a touch screen or other electronic voting machine, so long as in each case the voter is permitted to verify the ballot in a paper form."
A "ballot marking device or system," like a touch screen which allows the voter to "verify the ballot in a paper form," means touch screen machines which generate a "receipt" on a paper roll, like a tape in a cash register. Voters can then examine it before casting their vote. Such systems are in use in far fewer US jurisdictions, and should be allowed to lapse into obsolescence.
The problem with such systems for general use is, a) studies show that voters rarely look at the receipt to ensure that it is accurate, and with many races on it, the receipt can be confusing and, b) the receipt tape could show the touch screen is recording the vote correctly to the voter, while the vote recorded by the machine's tabulation software is completely different, c) in the event of an audit, it would be a simple matter for an internal hacker to, with a few keystrokes, run another tape which matches the hacked vote, not the real one.
The DEF CON Hackers Conference cited by Gabbard in her webpage for the bill showed one thing: all vote-counting machines can be hacked. All of them. It does not require an Internet connection to access a vote-counting machine's software. One popular paper ballot vote-counting machine, the Accuvote OS made by the company formerly known as Diebold, can be accessed through its memory chip inserted before each election, about as big as the chip you put into your digital camera. Vote-counting instructions are on the chip, not in the machine. This was illustrated dramatically in the well-known HBO documentary Hacking Democracy. A computer programmer, Harry Hursti, showed how vote-counting instructions could be maliciously hacked in about 3 minutes.
In a recent conference call with the public held by Gabbard, staffers stressed that machines would be safe from hacking as long as they were "not connected to the Internet." This is flat out wrong.
Voter-hand-marked paper ballots of the kind we are familiar with - you fill in the bubble next to the candidate you like - are the clear consensus of independent election experts, meaning those not working for the government. Over the past 15 years of tireless work, including the making of the film Hacking Democracy, this can be considered settled law.
Voter hand-marked paper ballots, as most jurisdictions already use, leave an indelible paper trail of ballots with unique markings, by the voter's hand. It would be orders of magnitude more difficult, though not impossible, to access the voter-marked paper ballots, toss out a number of them, and replace them with fraudulent ballots, without affecting the results of numerous other races and referendums.
But hand-marked paper ballots are superior for another reason and here is where Gabbard's bill mystifies, and throws into question the true motives of its authors, probably a consortium of election officials and industry spokesmen. The last year in elections has been generating news, and generating outrage, as Gabbard's staffers charged with the bill surely know.
Why this bill now, with its particular provisions, which gives the illusion that something is being done when it is not? The bill smacks of window dressing which ensures the prerogatives of hackers, both inside the country and out.
In a hotly contested Florida race between Bernie Sanders protege Tim Canova and former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, after Wassserman won, Broward County officials simply illegally, incredibly, destroyed the paper ballots, making any effort by Canova to perform any recounts futile. So much for paper ballots.
The incident (after which no legal action has occurred despite Canova's referral to the DOJ) highlights that the true gist of any reform must be a transparent, public, and incorruptible audit trial, by which citizens can verify that the machine count matches the voter hand-marked paper ballots.
Fortunately, election activists have discovered such a remedy, but Gabbard's team seems deaf to their entreaties.
Broward County officials, headed by Election Commissioner Brenda Snipes, a Clinton acolyte, also destroyed one other key part of the audit trail, the one which holds the most promise and should be enshrined in the Gabbard bill: the digital ballot images.
Broward County uses as it's flagship vote-counting machine the ES&S DS200, common across the US. The DS200, like over half the vote-counting machines in the country, generate a digital image of each ballot at lightning speed as it is fed into the machine and scanned and the votes counted by an electronic "eye." The digital image of the ballot is then stored in permanent memory, unless someone deletes them. The makers of such machines tout the feature as another part of the "audit trail," yet election officials in the past year have proclaimed their authority to destroy the images. Now why would they want to do that?
It is an easy matter to post the images of all the ballots in a precinct online, as independent election experts are recommending, or to burn them onto a DVD, so that the public can examine them and count the votes for themselves. Because ballots are completely anonymous, the images are also anonymous. Each image is married to the paper ballot it comes from by a unique random number.
It would seem that election officials want to keep the doors open to hacking, by Russians or otherwise. In Massachusetts, Secretary of State William Galvin reportedly directed all local election authorities to destroy the digital ballot image audit trail.
This is according to the election chief of a large Massachusetts city. Calls to the Secretary's office to confirm or deny this have not been returned. In Arizona, citizens had to sue to prevent Pima County officials from destroying the ballot images, the only way short of opening and counting the boxes of paper ballots, that audits can be conducted. Pima County argued that posting the ballot images would violate voter privacy, revealing the bankruptcy of the official position. Like the paper ballots, the images are completely anonymous, and cannot be traced to any individual voter.
The willingness to stoop to such ridiculous argument should only heighten suspicions that election officials are trying to hide something.
Election authorities know well that it is notoriously difficult for citizens to obtain a court order to audit paper ballots, where any suspicions of a hacked vote may linger. Almost all states leave it entirely up to election officials to decide which precincts get audited.
Were Gabbard and her staffers to listen to the citizens election experts now swamping her office with calls, she could turn a horrible bill into one of positive historic impact, which would secure America's elections like never before. The key to secure elections is not in making machines hack-proof - they cannot be - but in making the machine vote-counts transparent and verifiable.
The requirements for a solid Secure Our Elections Act are simple.
1. Move to 100% voter-hand-marked paper ballots, except as provided for by law for handicap.
2. Preserve and post the ballot images, or make them available to citizens at nominal cost, by precinct, on DVD. This crowdsources the integrity of elections.
3. Require a minimum number of one voting station per 2,000 voters. There should never be lines outside the door as frequently takes place in poorer precincts.
4. Allow vote by mail only in cases of hardship or for good excuse. Ballots sitting in election officials' offices for weeks before the election is begging for mischief.
Gabbard is an interesting political figure, having shown the willingness to buck her party and to buck Washington, and having been punished for it. In 2016, Gabbard was disinvited by the DNC from a Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders after calling for more debates. She now has a chance to make an historic contribution, whether or not her securing elections act passes. Nearly two-thirds of the precincts in America vote on machines which generate ballot images, according to VerifiedVoting.org. All other technology is inferior or obsolete.
Gabbard at the moment has the opportunity to do either great damage or great good. She must shut the door on touch screen voting except as called for by disability.
And by letting the world know about the existence of ballot images, Gabbard will have blazed a trail to truly secure elections, by wresting control of elections from malicious American hackers, Russians, and corporations, and giving it back to the people.