Archives For election rigging

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Political parties don’t take well to losing. They’re in the business of winning elections because a winner attracts money and attention, money and attention they can use to grow stronger. So in the fallout from this presidential election, one wing of the Republican party is calling for a much needed and long overdue period of self-reflection in which the GOP swings close to the center and becomes much more libertarian but without the borderline anarchist overtones, and another is mourning the death of traditional America thanks to liberal freeloaders and spinning constant conspiracy theories. This reaction is not too dissimilar from what you could see after 2004, when swarms of liberal bloggers sighed heavily about the end of the America they knew to bloodthirsty, Bible-thumping theocrats, and tossed out conspiracy theories about voting machines. But in the conservative blogosphere, a conspiracy theory about voting and technology that doesn’t target voting machines is now trying to get some traction by accusing coders of political sabotage.

Basically, the theory goes as follows. Romney’s campaign created an app called Orca to track the Republican vote and give conservative voters a tool to submit what they saw as obstructions to voting on the spot via their smartphones. One of the companies employed a developer once contracted for some unspecified work with the Gore campaign, and another Orca developer was black and therefore, a likely Obama supporter. And so, they and all their likeminded friends who were working on this project intentionally sabotaged it, making it difficult to really crank up a get out the vote effort and report voting incidents and mishaps in a timely manner; the app was too slow, frustrating too many users, and you can see that in the low turnout for Republicans. That’s a little odd to say the least when you consider that hundreds of millions have been spent on ads, canvassing, robocalls, mass mailings, and every other known effort to get people to vote during the last two years. Being slammed with election talk for a year didn’t get enough Republicans to the polls but a vote-tracking app would’ve made a multi-million vote difference?

Now this is an interesting election conspiracy theory because it’s the first one I’ve heard going after developers and campaign tools rather than the classic allegation that voting machines are being rigged. It’s true that voting machines were rigged in some cities, but they were rigged for Romney and the GOP so that angle wouldn’t have worked. Going after Orca shows that there’s some original thought happening here, even though the original thought is holding a stint more than a decade old against a developer who can easily end up working on a campaign he would rather not support and whose code will be reviewed before being added into the final product, and indulges in playing the race card. The odds that a couple of developers snuck some sort of malicious code into Orca aren’t all that high because delivering a bad product means that you’ll have a black mark on your track record and the developers in question didn’t simply volunteer to work on code for a campaign. They’re employees who were assigned some units of work, not a small team of tech-savvy political activists who volunteered to create Orca for Romney.

But if the developers can’t be held liable without a lot more proof and source code to back it up, why would Orca suddenly fail on election night? The data points to a simple but pressing issue that has little to do with the code: infrastructure. Or rather a lack of it. If you’re going to collect a lot of data in a very short amount of time, you better be ready for it. When just ten servers were hit with 1,200 or so requests per minute and the mobile part of the system was housed on only one server, it was just a question of when the system would either crash or jam so badly that for all intents and purposes it appeared dead to the outside world. If Orca was built with the proper scale in mind, it would’ve lived on a hundred servers and the mobile end would take up half of all that capacity. There would’ve been special agreements with ISPs to get the most throughput on election night. None of that seems to have been done according to reports across the web. And when we pause to consider that Romney staffers could’ve counted the number of servers then ask "are you sure that’s enough?" to catch the issue, calling this sabotage seems hyperbolic.

What seems far more likely is that Romney dropped the ball and those in key positions of all his campaign activities failed to do their research and follow up with the Orca team. Even if it was a perfectly working app, it was unlikely to make all that much of a difference because it could only track who voted and where, not spring into action and get more people to the polls. When at the end of the day we’re talking about a difference of nearly 3.4 million votes, Orca would’ve needed to get more than 1.8 million Republican voters into the booths within several hours. Romney had spent almost a decade campaigning. If all the hundreds of millions he and the GOP spent, along with the barrage of exhortations to vote from talk shows, Fox News, and right wing blogs made little difference, what exactly would a tracking app do? If anything, the campaign did what many techies like me see on a daily basis in the business world. The boss went after a buzzword, then threw a lot of money and effort into a tool he didn’t know quite how to use but which he can show to reporters as something very comparable to something used by his main competitor…

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ctrl, alt, change votes

October 24, 2008

Lately, reports of malfunctioning voting machines and registration fraud have been stoking fears of election rigging conspiracies. Many voters are nervous whether their votes will be counted or not and if the new electronic machines being rapidly adopted will make it easy for someone with enough power and access to sway an election and override millions of votes with the click of a button. Sadly, their fears are well justified since our voting machines are well… not exactly secure. Or all that accurate.

One of the most frequent scenarios proposed by the critics of computerized voting is a hacker working on behalf of a political party infecting voting machines with a virus to manipulate how the votes are counted. The virus is then uninstalled and with a lack of a paper trail, no one can prove who voted and how or even if there was any tampering. Not even a paper trail could save the integrity of the vote count. You voted for Jack Johnson. Your printed receipt says you voted for John Jackson. You say that machine is malfunctioning so could it print the wrong name on the paper? Who to trust? In the imminent ass covering that will follow, no one will want to touch this mess.

Could hackers sway a national election? It’s possible, but to make the kind of change necessary, one would need a team of thousands of hackers in swing states working in the right counties and adding just enough votes here and there to put a candidate just over the edge in electoral points as each voting machine counts votes on its own. But there are a few problems with this theory. The first rule of any conspiracy is to keep it small. The less people are involved, the less communication has to take place and less of a chance that someone will talk. A covert staff of thousands of hackers is almost unmanageable and very risky as far as the villain in charge is concerned. A small group of hackers flying around the country would take too much time.

There are also limitations as to when and by how much one could rig an election. It has to be a very subtle nudge. If two candidates are separated by a wide margin and the hopelessly trailing candidate suddenly wins in a landslide thanks to a dozen counties, a lot of people are going to smell a giant sewer rat. The rigged election would have to be so close, its anybodys game and if over a few key states, a hundred thousand or so swing voters cast their ballots for the other guy Eh, theyre swing voters, totally unpredictable and all. But of course theres also a chance that the very same swing voters youre trying to emulate will negate your rigging by the end of the voting day so your timing has to be impeccable. Rigging a national election is possible but its a very delicate balancing act that choreographs thousands of people across the country, a task risky enough to make would-be conspirators cringe.

Now if a national vote counting system was ever created, then a person with access to whatever back doors the system will need for maintenance and administration could change the result of and election in the privacy of his or her own home with a few clicks of a mouse, making election rigging much easier and far more tempting. And dont get me started on Internet ballots. The very idea should give voters nightmares. But I would hope that our elected officials would never be dim enough to approve a system like this since it will come back to bite them and bite them hard.

In the big picture, our votes are relatively safe. For now…

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