U.S. Election Officials Fight to Keep True Vote Totals Secret

Updated on June 24, 2017
Citizens assisting with a provisional ballot count in California
Citizens assisting with a provisional ballot count in California

From Trump supporters who say that the establishment "rigs" elections, to Bernie Sanders supporters who say Hillary Clinton stole the Democratic nomination, to Clinton supporters and election integrity activists who sued for recounts in the critical swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, it seems no one is happy with the US election system these days. Except the people who run and control it.

Last summer, the Washington Post reported that in one long-term poll on Americans' confidence in their election system:

"the percentage of respondents who were very confident that the national vote...was counted as cast dropped by 30 percentage points, from around 50 percent in 2000 to around 20 percent in 2012."

Election authorities across the country insist that all is well, but firmly oppose any attempts by citizens to verify election results. In Arizona, Massachusetts, and all the swing states in which Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein asked for hand recounts of the ballots which made Donald Trump president, election officials fiercely resisted manual recounts in court.

In a recent paper by a team of statisticians, computer experts, and election experts, entitled "An Electoral System in Crisis," the task force writes:

"The lack of security and accuracy in our elections is truly a betrayal of our ancestors who fought and died for the democratic process. It is a betrayal of the soldiers who lost their feet to amputation in the Valley Forge winter. It is a betrayal of the women who went to prison and starved themselves to join the franchise. It is a betrayal of the civil rights workers who died for the right to register to vote."

One of experts on the team is Dr. Fritz Scheuren, the 100th president of the American Statistical Association.

The problem goes deeper than whether or not the Electoral College should exist, a debate which raged between Hillary and Trump supporters after the presidential election:. The problem comes down to the fundamental accuracy of vote counts in any race, from dogcatcher to president, and whether the public can with confidence say who really won any particular election. Almost all vote counting in America is done by machine, and machines are hackable.

In the last election cycle, although Trump won Wisconsin's electors by a razor-thin .75% margin, only 53% of the ballots in the state were recounted. Many of those "recounted" were simply run through the same optical scan vote-counting machines which were being questioned in the first place.

On the other hand, some Trump supporters doubt that Hillary actually won the popular vote. Missing the mark widely by invoking the specter of voter fraud, it is far more likely that there were instances of vote-counting fraud, of which there was abundant evidence in the Democratic primary.

In the Texas Republican primary, voters in Travis County complained of Trump to Rubio switching on voting machines.

The HBO documentary "Hacking Democracy" shockingly demonstrated how easy it is for hackers to change the results of an election on optical scan vote-counting machines, which is how most votes are counted. In optical scan machines, paper ballots are fed into a machine which "reads" votes by means of an electronic "eye." The documentary showed how a hacker can easily program a machine's instructions to falsely add votes to some candidates, and subtract votes from others.

Clip from documentary "Hacking Democracy"

Jumping into the vote-counting debate last November, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden remarked in a tweet:

"Hacking voting machines: not that difficult. Hiding a secret deviation in votes from after-the-fact statistical analysis: nearly impossible,"

What Snowden was saying is that it is nearly impossible to conceal a hacked election from statistical analysis. Once statistical anomalies have been discovered, the only way to resolve whether or not a machine has been hacked is to hand count the ballots.

Snowden tweet
Snowden tweet | Source

But election authorities have fought every effort by citizens to verify machine counts of ballots, even when confronted with statistical anomalies which indicate hacking. In Massachusetts, Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Linda Giles dismissed a lawsuit, on procedural grounds, which asked that supervised citizen volunteers be allowed to recount some precincts in the state's primary between Clinton and Sanders.

Statistics experts pointed out an unusual statistical pattern in which, in Massachusetts towns where the ballots are still counted by hand, Sanders won handily by nearly 20%. But in towns where the ballots are counted by optical scan machine, Clinton won by a little over 1%. Massachusetts was the state where Bill Clinton made news by illegally campaigning inside polling stations, with the Democratic Secretary of State William Galvin looking the other way and pronouncing that it was okay for Clinton to be inside polling stations, as long as he did not "approach voters." But there are numerous photos of Clinton shaking hands and having pictures taken with voters.

After the bruhaha, Sanders supporters circulated a petition which gathered 45,000 signatures calling for the arrest of Bill Clinton for the violation of Massachusetts campaign law.

Taking place on the first "Super Tuesday" of the primary season, Massachusetts was a critical state for Hillary to win, as it was considered a Clinton stronghold. A Sanders win in Massachusetts would have generated shock waves across the nation, and would have been devastating for Clinton.

Bill Clinton inside of polling station in Boston, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and a voter.
Bill Clinton inside of polling station in Boston, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and a voter.

State recount and audit laws, almost without exception, are onerous and entrust verification to the same authorities whose accuracy is being questioned. Even with the US presidency possibly hanging by a thread of .75% in the swing state of Wisconsin, the state's automatic recount laws were not triggered. Most state recount and audit laws are not triggered unless the margin between two candidates is .5% or even lower. Some states have no audit requirements at all. [To find your state's audit and recount laws go to VerifiedVoting.org.]

In Arizona, election officials are trying to destroy a critical piece of the documentation trail generated by most vote-counting machines in the US. That documentation is the digital images of the ballots which are created as the optical scan machines receive the ballots, much like an ordinary office scanner makes a digital image of a piece of paper, but much faster.

A digital image of each ballot is made as the ballot is fed into the machine and stored in memory, in a standard electronic format, like a "jpg" file, which can be easily examined by the public. Since all paper ballots are anonymous, the scanned images are anonymous as well, and cannot be traced back to any individual voter, thus preserving the sanctity the secret ballot.

But in the Arizona case, election officials have argued that publishing ballot images would compromise "voter privacy" because "the identity of the voter could be revealed due to the nature of the choices. The likelihood of a voter’s identity being revealed could be very high in small communities."

Thus the officials in Arizona, backed by the secretary of state, are desperate to maintain secrecy to the point of putting forth the absurd argument that in communities of hundreds, ballots could be traced back to voters by guessing who might have voted for whom.

After the 2016 Democratic primaries, some statisticians and election experts recommended some states' primary results be decertified by their secretary of state, until unusual voting patterns were resolved.

In the 96-page report "Democracy Lost: A Report on the Fatally Flawed 2016 Democratic Primaries," a panel of experts suggested there was evidence to support the "decertification" of Democratic primary results in Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee, until hand-counted paper ballot vote totals could be obtained.

In the general presidential election, an unusual statistical pattern favoring Trump was seen in Racine County, Wisconsin.


Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein famously called for a recount in Wisconsin, as well as in Pennsylvania and Michigan, swing states which could have changed the outcome of the Electoral College vote. However, Stein's efforts were opposed and successfully blocked in court by election authorities, to a degree that no conclusive determination could be made as to whether Trump had actually won the states.

In Florida, election experts called for a manual recount of the ballots, after contending that they had identified unusual voting patterns in the contest between former DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and Bernie Sanders protege Tim Canova.

And in Arizona, a strong challenge to Senator John McCain in the Republican primary went down in defeat when McCain gained an enormously disproportionate number of votes in one county, Maricopa County, which is also the largest by population.

McCain vs. Ward Republican Primary 2016, votes by county
McCain vs. Ward Republican Primary 2016, votes by county

In Arizona, citizens are attempting to force the state and county election authorities to preserve ballot images, which lawyers for the state and counties argue they are not obliged to preserve. Of course the obvious question is: why would election departments desire to destroy such a cheap and easy alternative to hand-counting paper ballots?

Election integrity activists have recommended that, in the short term, all states pass laws which preserve digital ballot images, and make them public. In Arizona, activists say that election authorities are "manipulating" the state legislature into passing a measure which does the opposite: allows authorities to destroy the digital ballot images.

Ballots should be secret, say election activists, but not ballot counts.

In the long term, election integrity experts say, the US should move to the system now in use by most of the industrialized democracies: paper ballots, counted by hand at the precinct, in public, as soon as polls close. US precincts run at an average size of about a thousand voters, with the largest being around 2,000 voters. Larger cities simply have more precincts, and thus more poll workers and resources. Hand-counting ballots is just as feasible in New York City as it is in a small town. In hand count systems results are usually not available until the early morning hours of the next day, but confidence in the results is much higher.

The latest country to switch to a system of 100% hand counted paper ballots, directly as a result of what was seen in the 2016 US presidential election, is Netherlands.

The 2018 midterm election promises to be a bruising slugfest of newcomers on all sides, as pro or anti-Trump forces seek to provide support for or block Trump initiatives in Congress. One 2018 congressional challenger has formed an "Impeach Trump Leadership PAC" to help candidates who promise to vote to impeach the president.

Already thousands of Sanders supporters have signed an expression of interest in running for office, at the state, local, and federal level. The question emerging for political activists and concerned citizens who will provide the energy and money for these campaigns is: How will they know who really won?

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