Politics & Policy

Hack Journalism about an Unhacked Election

Early voting in Cleveland, Ohio, October 12, 2016. (Reuters photo: Aaron Josefczyk)
There is no plausible way that any state’s presidential vote could have been hacked.

With the presidential-vote recount under way in Wisconsin, hopeful leftists would have us believe that the Russians, or some other unknown entity, hacked electronic voting machines in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. (Michigan doesn’t use electronic voting; it is being included in the recount efforts because Wisconsin and Pennsylvania alone wouldn’t take enough electoral votes from Trump to swing the election. Trump won Michigan by only about 11,000 votes.)

Ironically, after the 2000 election, which revealed deficiencies in ballot design and counting procedures in Florida and elsewhere, Democrats almost uniformly wanted to force states to spend billions of dollars on electronic voting machines. Now those electronic voting machines are being blamed for what Green-party presidential nominee Jill Stein calls last month’s “hack-riddled election.” Never mind that Stein and her Democratic allies, including the Clinton campaign, admit they have no evidence of vote fraud or hacking in this year’s vote.

This conspiracy theory started with a report in New York magazine that a group including “voting-rights attorney John Bonifaz [a longtime leftist activist] and J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, believes they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked. The group is so far not speaking on the record. . . . ” (When Halderman finally did go on the record, he said that the U.S. election was “probably not” hacked and he had no evidence that it was.) Fanning the flames were people such as Edward Snowden, who explained on Twitter how an electronic voting machine can be hacked for as little as $30.

All the scary stories about electronic voting have one major problem: They are based on an inaccurate understanding of how electronic voting systems work. First of all, none of the systems are hooked up to the Internet. Electronic voting machines are stand-alone units; results from them are recorded and compiled by humans. Hacking them from Russia would be as difficult as hacking into your computer when it’s not connected to the Internet.

Electronic voting machines are stand-alone units; hacking them from Russia would be as difficult as hacking into your computer when it’s not connected to the Internet.

When computer scientists warn of possible tampering with voting machines, they are talking not about hacking but about someone physically breaking into and reprogramming individual machines. Even if one could evade the 24-hour security and overcome the tamper-resistant seals without being noticed, trying to fiddle with one computer at a time hardly seems like an efficient way of stealing an election.

Even if machines were broken into before the election, precinct election workers would discover this when they use sample votes to check the machines for accuracy before and after the election. Some machines are even randomly tested during Election Day, just in case their programs were set to miscount votes during only voting hours.

But let’s set aside the virtual impossibility of successfully hacking a machine so that it miscounts votes. Even if that were doable, an awful lot of voting machines would need to have been hacked in Pennsylvania — where Trump won by 70,638 votes, or 1.17 percent of the total votes cast — in order for the election to have been stolen.

Obviously, you can’t set voting machines to give Trump all of their votes; that would just be too obvious. You would have to make subtle changes to a lot of machines. Let’s say that a tampered machine is programmed to deduct 1 percent of the total Hillary votes it records from Hillary’s column and add them to Trump’s. You would have to tamper with almost all of the state’s 25,000 voting machines, which were made by several different companies, in order to account for the margin Trump recorded. If you shifted 2 percent of the tampered machine’s total Hillary vote from Hillary to Trump, which would almost certainly attract suspicion, you would still need to tamper with about half of the state’s machines.

The media has openly lambasted Trump for his unsupported complaints about vote fraud, yet have no such qualms about this Democratic conspiracy theory. Does anyone seriously think that such a degree of conspiracy could have gone unnoticed?

— John R. Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center. He served as a statistical expert for the minority report produced by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the 2000 Florida election, for Senator Mitch McConnell’s court challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, and for the state of Ohio in 2004 on voting machines.


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