America’s Institutions are Broken — Including our Election System.
The vast number of “undervotes” and other irregularities are not new. But they are particularly American.
America likes to think of itself as an exceptional country, a unique political experiment, different from all the rest. For some, this is a good thing; the US stands apart but on high, that “shining city on a hill”.
For others, however, it is a land of exceptional inequality, violence, corruption and greed. And, for the past 4 years, an increasing number of Americans also see their country as being unique — at least in the developed world — for its lack of faith in its government, its broken and faithless institutions, its bumbling Administration and its ocean of competing conspiracy theories struggling to explain all the dysfunction on display.
The recent Presidential election has brought all of these issues to the fore.
Why can’t we have an honest election?
The US is exceptional in many ways when it comes to elections. First, we are the only industrialized country that disenfranchises so many of its citizens, denying them the right to vote. Second, of those that are allowed to vote, the US has the lowest rate of voter participation of any “first world” country.
The US is also unique in how we vote. Unlike most of the so-called “western democracies,” the US relies almost exclusively on electronic voting systems. In some cases this includes touch screens, in some cases marked paper ballots are scanned, and in some cases mail in ballots are processed by hand. Still, when it comes to tabulating the totals, every State uses automated, proprietary electronic systems to tell us who won.
Europe has scrapped electronic voting; why haven’t we?
When I moved to Ireland in 2005, I arrived right on the heels of a scandal that was embarrassing the Irish government. It seems Ireland had decided to emulate its role model, the USA, and “modernize” its election system with electronic voting machines (EVMs). The Irish taxpayers shelled out 55 million euros (around 60 million dollars) to buy enough machines to outfit every polling station in the country.
After piloting the EVMs in a few constituencies during the 2002 national election, the government decided to abort their plan to move to e-voting for the 2004 election. All the machines were literally sold for scrap.
Why did they do this? Because Ireland, like virtually every other industrialized country on the planet, has realized that entrusting your democracy to a black-box proprietary system that is subject to hacking, glitches and errors, but NOT subject to scrutiny, analysis or independent verification, is the surest and quickest way to lose your democracy.
Electronic voting is actually a third world voting system
I am sure many Americans think that electronic voting is the “modern” way to vote. In fact, the opposite is true. When it comes to voting systems, the US is the backwards example.
Indeed, the only countries that use electronic voting like that of the US on a national level are Brazil, Namibia, The Philippines, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, India and Iraq (thanks to us). Nice company, eh?
In Europe and the Asian economies, votes are cast using paper ballots and hand-counted by poll workers and tabulated by real people using hack-proof tools. There is no electronic voting system in Europe that is similar to what we have in the US.
In the past, some six EU countries tried electronic voting systems, including Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Norway. But they, like Ireland, all abandoned the machines in favor of returning to paper ballots. The only EU country currently considering using electronic voting is Bulgaria. But you need to know that Bulgaria is a kleptocracy and is commonly known to be Europe’s most corrupt country.
What’s wrong with electronic voting systems?
Well, everything. Here is just a short list of some of the problems:
Hacking and tampering: the EVM, like every electronic machine, is subject to physical hacks. The software that runs the machines is subject to either Internet-based attacks, physical tampering through corrupted firmware. Every year at the DEF CON Hacking Conference, so-called “white hat” hackers prove just how easy it is to hack US voting machines and voting systems.
“Black Box” secrecy and unaccountability: the companies that sell these systems are private, for-profit companies. As such, they can claim that the software and systems that they use are “trade secrets” and thus not subject to any kind of analysis or verification by government authorities. In fact, they even refuse to let White Hat hackers help them to make their systems more secure, citing the trade secret defense.
The Guardian recently published a great article detailing the ridiculous nature of the privatized control of the US election system.
The fact is that democracy in the United States is now largely a secretive and privately-run affair conducted out of the public eye with little oversight. The corporations that run every aspect of American elections, from voter registration to casting and counting votes by machine, are subject to limited state and federal regulation.
Public distrust of the system
A major factor in Europe’s turn away from electronic voting was the distrust that people have (and rightly so) of the black box voting systems.
Indeed, we have seen this distrust play out in America over two election cycles now. After the 2016 elections, a majority of Democrats believed that Russians had hacked the elections and actually changed the vote tallies in order to make Trump the winner. By 2017, almost 70% of Democrats believed that Trump had won because Russian hackers had changed the vote totals.
Now we see Republicans questioning the veracity of the vote totals in the 2020 elections. And why should they not? For four years we have all heard about how people have “hacked” into our election systems. The only difference between the Democrat and Republican hacking theories is that while Democrats blamed foreign actors for doing the hacking, the Republicans are blaming their political opponents.
America is exceptional — even in electronic voting
The US political system makes it uniquely vulnerable to manipulation of a system based on electronic voting. While other countries, like Ireland, could decide on one national supplier and thus negotiate transparency and enforce uniform guidelines, standard and protocols, the US Constitution gives the power and responsibility to run elections to the individual States.
As POLITICO explained in article from 2016 entitled “How to Hack an Election in 7 Minutes”:
“There is no singular national body that regulates the security or even execution of what happens on Election Day, and there never has been. It’s a process regulated state by state. Technical standards for voting are devised by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Election Assistance Commission…but the guidelines are voluntary.
Policy on voting is decided by each state and, in some cases, each county — a system illustrated vividly by the trench warfare of voter ID laws that pockmark the country. In total, more than 8,000 jurisdictions of varying size and authority administer the country’s elections, almost entirely at the hands of an army of middle-age volunteers.”
That uniquely American system of “devolved” oversight of elections has left the door open to create a profit-based competitive market for voting systems, with the purchasing decisions left to the state, country or even municipal officials — depending on how the State legislature decided.
As the Guardian article points out:
The market for election vendors is small and the “customer base” mostly limited to North America and centered on the US, meaning that competition is fierce. The result is a small network of companies that have near-monopolies on election services…
Indeed, just as the American political system is built around a duopoly, so is the market for running American elections. For whether the voting system vendor is selected at the state, county or municipal level, in each case, the person making the purchase decision is either a Democrat or a Republican.
The US “two party system” is unassailable because it has filtered down to infiltrate all aspects of American life. The US obsession with unfettered capitalism, and the free flow of money into the political system from corporate interests, has led to political polarization in all aspects of society, including industry.
Walmart for example, is closely aligned with the Republican Party, while Costco leans decidedly Democratic. For every liberal-leaning Starbucks, there is a conservative Chik-Fil-A. For every Whole Foods a Hobby Lobby. And the same is true for the electronic voting systems market.
Red machines, blue machines
The US electronic voting system market, like the political landscape, is dominated by two major players: Electronic Systems and Software (ES&S) and Dominion Voting Systems.
Together, these two companies supply more than 80% of the nation’s voting machines. The companies have run extensive lobbying operations in states for years, and both companies recently hired new lobbyists to represent them at the federal level, according to Truthout.
ES&S and Dominion each employ 6 lobbyists, all of which are former Congressional staffers. ES&S lobbyists are comprised of 5 former GOP staffers and one former Democratic staffer. For Dominion, it is the reverse: their lobbyists are comprised of 5 former Democratic staffers and one former GOP staffer.
And so the battle lines are drawn, the champions girded for battle. America’s famous “two party system” has subsumed the country’s actual election system itself into the struggle for power.
How did we get here?
To understand how we arrived at a place where the two major political parties are in a position to use electronic voting machine vendors as proxies to control the outcome of the vote, we need to go back to the year 2002 and Congress’s passing of the Help America Vote Act.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002
This Orwellian named act of Congress came on the heels of the debacle of “hanging chads” in the Florida election of 2000. “Never again!” came the cry from Congress. Further impetus came from the events of 9/11, and the HAVA was passed almost exactly one year after the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act had given the government unprecedented powers of surveillance and control over American life. Why should something as important as voting now be left to chance?
The HAVA was a giant pork-barrel give-away to the electronic voting industry. Congress allocated over $3.9 Billion to the States to be used for upgrading their voting systems away from the old punch card, lever-based and other systems, and to replace them with shiny new electronic voting systems.
It was a gold rush.
The electronic voting market was more diverse then, but ES&S, thanks to their Republican ties under the Bush Administration and a GOP-controlled Congress, was by far the market leader, controlling over 50% of the electronic voting market. Diebold Election Systems, another company run by GOP heavyweights, controlled most of the other 50%.
Omaha-based ES&S had started lobbying Congress in 2000, and so it was the “first mover”in this market. And its Board of Directors was a who’s who of GOP heavyweights, including Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel. Hagel also served as CEO, quitting just days before announcing his candidacy for the Senate. (Amazingly, Hagel was able to come from a 70 point deficit to trounce the incumbent by a 15% margin. Nebraska used ES&S voting machines.)
Ohio 2004 and the Diebold Debacle
The first national election to take place after electronic voting systems had been installed under the 2002 Help America Vote Act was the Presidential election of 2004, before Dominion had even staked out a share of the market. Just as the 2000 race had turned on Florida, the 2004 race came down to Ohio. The Buckeye State would decide whether George W. Bush or John Kerry would be the next President.
Bush overcame all polls to pull out a significant win.
In the crucial state of Ohio, we see Kerry with a steady lead all day. When the polls close, all eyes are on Ohio, and the unauthorized numbers on the internet have Kerry ahead by 2 points. Then CNN posts exit poll data showing Kerry up by a good 4 points. Somehow, Bush pulls off a mysterious 6 point gain and wins by 2 points.
In 2004, the US market for electronic voting systems was dominated by two companies: ES&S and Diebold Election Systems. Diebold was based in Canton, Ohio. Not only that, Diebold’s top management, like that of ES&S and Sequoia, were staunch GOP donors. Diebold Chairman and CEO Walden “Wally” O’Dell, a Bush “Pioneer” level donor, even wrote a fund-raising letter pledging his commitment “to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President.”
Diebold successfully lobbied Ohio’s Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, to award Diebold contracts to let its touch-screen voting systems handle the Presidential election in Ohio. Blackwell, who was later found to own significant stock in Diebold, awarded Diebold a series of contracts for several counties, including Toledo and the surrounding area, by the time the election was held.
Those Diebold machines that were there on Election Day 2004 were enough to cause a huge scandal. Almost immediately, voters reported seeing their votes “flip” from Kerry to Bush — right before their eyes. Indeed, rumors about the vulnerability of Diebold software had been swirling during the year leading up to the election.
In early 2003, activists found a version of Diebold’s secret software on the Internet. The code had so many security flaws that one group would later post a video of a chimpanzee changing votes.
“Incredibly, this software keeps not one, but two Microsoft Access data tables of voting results. It’s like a business keeping two sets of account books. The two tables are notionally identical copies of the votes collated from all polling stations. The software uses the first table for on-demand reports which might uncover alteration of the data — such as spot checks of results from individual polling stations.
The second of the two tables is the one used to determine the election result. But the second table can be hacked and altered to produce fake election totals without affecting spot check reports derived from the first table.”
After the election, activists went into overdrive and Diebold was publicly pilloried as a corrupt system. Everyone learned about O’Dell’s promise to “deliver Ohio” for Bush, and it looked like that was what happened.
Diebold Election Systems never recovered from the scandal, and Diebold eventually had to spin off the business (more on that later).
In 2007, after an exhaustive 3 year, $1,9 million study, Ohio’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, who succeeded Blackwell, confirmed that the 2004 election in Ohio could have been easily stolen. The study revealed “critical security failures” that could have rendered Ohio’s vote counts “vulnerable” to manipulation and theft by “fairly simple techniques.”
The final official tally for Bush …varied by 6.7% from exit poll results, which showed a Kerry victory. Exit polls in 2004 were designed to have a margin of error of about 1%.
Ah, those were the days, when a deviance of 5.7% above the margin of error in the exit poll could trigger a multi-million dollar investigation. Nowadays such egregious red flags merit only outrage from Leftists and crickets from the media and the authorities themselves.
It’s almost as if everyone has just agreed to say that the Emperor does indeed have clothes, very fine clothes, and our elections are legitimate and secure, and only naive children say otherwise.
The Democrats peer into the abyss
Imagine if you were a Democratic leader in 2005 and you witnessed how the use of electronic voting systems could swing an election in a state like Ohio. Imagine too that the Help America Vote Act meant that such systems were now mandated for every district in the country.
Now imagine the sense of foreboding you would have, knowing that 4 out of 5 of those voting systems were owned and operated by a “Republican” company, a vendor that was absolutely dominating the market, and one that was donating mountains of cash to the GOP candidates whose votes they were counting in every election.
What would you do?
The Democrats answer was to get a systems vendor of their own. And that vendor was Dominion Voting Systems.
The Count Every Vote Act
In response to the disaster in Ohio in 2004, the Democrats introduced the Count Every Vote Act of 2005.
The Republicans who had large majorities in both the Senate and the House, were dominant in the realm of electronic voting. Their industry stalwarts ES&S, Sequoia and Diebold controlled almost the entire EVS market. They made sure that the electronic systems that had helped them “deliver Ohio” would would not be subject to too much scrutiny.
So while Democrats were assuaged with funding to reduce voter suppression, the Republicans made sure that the electronic voting industry would be protected from scrutiny by government authorities.
The industry was granted sweeping protections under the name of protecting trade secrets and intellectual property (“security through obscurity”). This cloak of secrecy included not just their systems and software, but also the people or entities that owned them.
The Democrats did not have much to say in the final legislation, due to the fact that they were in a minority, but I assume they were willing to let the electronic voting systems go mostly unscathed because now they had their own horse in the race, in the form of Dominion Voting Systems.
Dominion rises and restores the balance of power
In 2009, disgraced and beleaguered by the Ohio fraud findings, Diebold sold off it’s voting system business and 30% market share to fellow GOP stalwart, ES&S, thereby giving ES&S an overall market share of 70%.
Enter the Obama Administration and it’s Justice Department.
Obama Attorney General Eric Holder charged ES&S with violating antitrust rules and voided the Diebold deal. In May 2010, the Obama DOJ forced ES&S to resell their Diebold assets to … a small unknown Canadian company called Dominion Voting Systems.
Dominion at that time had no presence in the US market. But the Democrats had high hopes. By acquiring the Diebold technology and installed footprint, Dominion instantly went from 0% to 30% share of the US electronic voting market.
And they were just getting started.
In June 2010, just a month after facilitating Dominion’s purchase of Diebold, the Obama DOJ allowed Dominion to also acquire Sequoia Voting Systems — along with that company’s 20% share of the market. The DOJ would not allow ES&S to bid because acquiring Sequoia would have incurred the same antitrust violations as had Diebold.
And so, in the space of just a few weeks, Dominion Voting Systems went from NOTHING to controlling HALF of the US electronic voting systems market — and rivaling the GOP juggernaut that had been ES&S.
All thanks to the Obama Justice Department — and the Democratic Party.
Still, one needs to ask: why did the Obama Administration choose Dominion? There were, after all, American companies that could have taken on Diebold’s troubled assets. Texas-based Hart Intercivic, for example, had been handling US elections systems since 1912 and had a robust manufacturing capability in the US. Instead, the DOJ approved the sales to Dominion, who was starting from less than zero in the US market.
The DOJ press release at the time explained how they were forcing ES&S to help give their new competitor a helping hand:
“The department also required that ES&S grant the divestiture buyer an opportunity to compete to provide services to Premier customers currently under contract with ES&S, giving customers the option to switch to the divestiture buyer or to remain with ES&S … ES&S also must…agree to offer a supply agreement to allow the divestiture buyer time to establish its own manufacturing of voting equipment systems.”
Why choose a foreign company that was only founded in 2003, with no US presence, no US manufacturing base, and entrust them to handle 50% of Americans’ votes?
Here’s why: the 2004 debacle in Ohio had shown that electronic voting systems could be used to steal elections. The fact that all the e-voting vendors were in bed with the GOP was unacceptable. Democrats needed their own “trusted” vendor.
In “creating” Dominion Voting Systems in the US market and giving it a 50% market share, the Obama Administration restored the balance of power. The two party system would prevail, buttressed by the two-vendor system for secretly and opaquely counting the votes in the great American “democracy.”
The Democrats, who had been so vocal in calling for accountability and transparency in e-voting, fell silent. The outrage that had followed Ohio 2004, the suspicion, the calls for a return to paper ballots — all these things disappeared after 2010. There would be no more questioning of the black box voting systems that each side now supported.
This situation was, of course, an absolute disaster for the GOP, who no doubt had dreamed of using electronic voting to retain power even in the face of shifting demographics. They had found themselves outmaneuvered by that wily Obama. They could never again pull off another Ohio.
For the Democrats, it was a time to celebrate. They now had an alternative voting systems vendor to use in all the voting districts they controlled. The state and county officials who, thanks to the peculiar US system, were tasked with implementing the HAVA, were not expert in the field of voting system technology (an “army of volunteers”). But now the Party was there to help them.
Any county or state election board that was controlled by Democrats could now simply choose Dominion Voting Systems and know that the Republicans at ES&S would not be able to steal their election, as they had done in Toledo.
It is no wonder, then, that Dominion Voting Systems, in the five years from 2005 to 2010, posted a staggering growth rate of 10,356 per cent.
Mutual Assured Destruction
What made the Cold War survivable with just two superpowers battling for dominance was the concept of “MAD” — short for “mutually assured destruction.” Once the USSR get the atom bomb, it meant that a certain stability would have to ensue, lest the two rivals destroy the world and themselves.
So it became with electronic voting systems in America. The peculiarly American “two party system” actually made the use of totally corrupt and vulnerable EVS practicable, because each side had their own system provider— one which they controlled, and one which they could use as a threat against the other, so that no one Party could have dominance.
This, I believe, is why electronic systems were rejected by the Europeans. The multi-party systems that exist in other developed countries meant that the vulnerabilities inherent in EVS systems posed a threat not only to democracy, but to the political system itself.
With so many opposing and competing factions, there would simply be too much scrutiny and investigation going on to get away with stealing an election. Too many other parties would have a vested interest in exposing the theft.
But in America, both Parties could simply agree to agree that the system is safe, secure and accurate. Oh, sure — there could be some minor skirmishes, stolen Primaries or occasional power plays to win a “battleground” state, but there would be no all-out war, and everyone would agree to agree that the Emperor did, after all, have nice clothes.
The detailed and exhaustive examination of the corrupt electronic voting in Ohio is probably the last time there will ever be a real investigation into vote counting irregularities stemming from the use of electronic voting systems in America.
That is because with the meteoric rise of Dominion Voting Systems, the Democrats were able to acquire their own voting systems vendor to counter the GOP controlled dominance of ES&S. The balance of power was restored, and neither side had an interest in exposing a corrupt system that helped them maintain power.
Maintaining the balance of power
So it is that for the past several years there has been a balance of power and a status quo that both sides seemed interested in preserving — not least perhaps because lawmakers get tons of cash from electronic voting system lobbyists. Mitch McConnell, for example, has blocked several bills to make e-voting more secure and accountable.
While neither Party wanted to tempt fate with a blatant rigging of a national general election, both Parties had no problem enlisting the help of their minions in the EVS industry in order to affect Primary elections.
For example, in South Carolina, where ES&S owns the EVS systems counting the votes, the GOP wanted to ensure that they faced a weak challenger in the 2010 Senate election. ES&S obliged their political patrons by ensuring that Alvin Greene, an unemployed vet with cognitive issues, no money and not even a website, defeated Vic Rawl, a political veteran, a former judge and legislator, to become the Democratic nominee to face Sen. Jim Demint in the general election. Greene won the Primary by a 17 point margin, despite doing no fundraising or campaigning. While Congressman Jim Clyburn called foul, no real action was taken to investigate.
Likewise did Dominion Voting Systems help their political patron, the DNC, by ensuring that Hillary won the South in the 2016 Democratic Primary. In Louisiana, for example, where Dominion controls all the voting machines, Hillary defeated Bernie Sanders in a surprisingly massive landslide. A paper published by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Tilburg (NL) showed that while the Dominion systems produced results for the simultaneous GOP primary that were in line with the exit polls taken, the results for the Democratic Primary were wildly divergent from what the exit polls indicated. Sanders supporters complained, but it didn’t rise to the level of scandal.
The end of Mutually Assured Destruction?
Since 2010, the two American political Parties have found themselves in a Mexican standoff, with each side having the power to steal elections through their own stealth voting system vendor.
There was just one obstacle to be overcome: those pesky exit polls, such as the ones that triggered the investigation in Ohio.
Exit Polls — the problem, the solution
The discrepancy between the exit polls and the final vote tally was one of the main factors that triggered the scandal and the investigation in Ohio. Indeed, these were early days in “e-voting” and so the politicians and the machine vendors had not yet figured out a way to get around the fact that if they were to alter the vote tally substantially, it would deviate from the exit poll results.
Instead, Ohio’s corrupt Secretary of State was using the exit poll results as a reliable guide to figure out how many votes he needed in order to overcome a Kerry win. As Ohio’s Free Press Reported:
An eyewitness ally of Blackwell told a small gathering of Bush supporters, with a Free Press reporter present, that Blackwell was in a frenzy on Election Day, writing percentages and vote totals on maps of rural Republican counties, attempting to figure out how many votes, real or manufactured, Bush would need to overcome the exit poll results in Cleveland and Columbus.
We know that Blackwell succeeded — maybe a little too well. So well, in fact he attracted the attention and then the outrage of election observers, which triggered that investigation.
How to solve the problem? The answer was simple: get the polling companies to “adjust” the exit poll results to match the numbers that the electronic voting system was reporting.
Jonathan Simon is a longtime exit poll sleuth and author of Code Red: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century. He was one of the observers who called foul on the Ohio 2004 election based on the exit polls.
Simon gave a very interesting interview to AlterNet in 2016 in which he explained how exit polls work now in the wake of the 2004 scandal.
There’s raw data, which is the actual questionnaires and the simple numerical toting up of answers on the questionnaire. That is never publicly released.
Then there is the weighted exit poll data and that’s what the exit pollsters put out as soon as the polls close. This has been demographically weighted to their best approximation of what the electorate looked like and it is very valuable information.
Then you have adjusted exit polls and what happens is they take the vote counts as they come in and — they use the term of art “forcing” — they force the exit polls to congruence with that vote count data so that by the end of the night or by the next morning when you have your final vote counts and final exit polls, the exit polls and the vote counts will match, but that’s only because in essence they’ve been forced to match the vote counts.
“Forcing” is what has changed in the exit polling business. People who want to really get the actual “weighted” exit poll results are forced to do screen captures in real time before the pollsters (Edison Research) have a chance to “force” the exit polls to match the final published vote counts.
Simon goes on to explain that — even if you do suspect foul play — it has become nearly impossible today to analyze an election thoroughly due to deliberate obstacles raise by both the system vendors and the Parties themselves.
The fact is, we are denied — when I say “we,” the candidates, the public, very often election administrators by the rules of their states — are denied access to the actual “hard” evidence, as we call it, that would allow a determination of whether the election has been accurately counted or perhaps has been illegitimately counted and manipulated.
As a matter of fact, in quite a few states — and these are usually under Republican control, but the Democrats have not been tremendously cooperative about this either — the trend has been for ballots to be removed from public record status so that they are no longer susceptible to Freedom of Information Act requests and similar public information requests. They are getting less transparent, not more so.
Below is an extract from Dominion’s contract with the State of Michigan, outlining the way vote tallies are transmitted via Internet to the centralized counting and reporting servers. These are the kinds of systems that can be easily hacked.
Jonathan Simon sums up the sad, sad state of affairs thusly:
Across the spectrum, private vendors have long histories of errors that affected elections, of obstructing politicians and the public from seeking information, of corruption, suspect foreign influence, false statements of security and business dishonesty.