Steal an Election without Tampering with Votes

Most major tech news outlets reported about a last minute, untested software change to voting machines in Ohio before the 2012 Presidential Election. The change was made by a Republican. Since the Republicans lost this election in Ohio, the story is likely to fade without interest.

Whether this was a case of tampering or not, it points toward a vulnerability in electronic voting systems different than what you might guess. An election could be rigged by altering real-time reports about votes rather than the votes themselves.

Elections are finalized when one candidate concedes, the winner confirmed. The actual votes can take weeks or months to count, but those counts are usually a formality. Even a in state with electronic voting, many absentee and provisional ballots are cast on paper by mail. In 2000, a recount of Florida was halted by the Supreme Court resulting in the state tipping the election to Bush over Gore by a single electoral college vote. The members of the electoral college could theoretically cast a dissenting vote, but even in Florida where a small gust of wind could have changed the count in either direction, not one did. In fact, 24 states have laws to punish dissenting or “faithless” electors.

In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted, added a patch to electronic polls. The patch was to tabulating machines, not the voting machines. If the hack was nefarious, it would not have the capacity to alter anyone’s vote or the final count. It could have, however,  easily modify the tabulations sent from the polls to the networks. It could adjust the numbers in real-time, and according to patterns in the real data. It could fudge carefully. The fake results could be kept within a range that maintained statistical validity so that any tests against exit polls or earlier results would not trigger any alarms. It could do this and nobody would know for weeks or months. If the numbers later proved inaccurate, would it matter? Husted could argue that the software wasn’t test, but that the votes themselves were not disrupted.

In the 21st century, a candidate often concedes after the news networks report the likely winner. The networks call an election after enough votes have been counted to reach a statistically clear conclusion that if all votes are counted the results would not change. It’s a complex task. The numbers are based on real-time reporting from individual polling places. In 2000, Karl Rove threw a fit when Fox News reported that Gore won Florida. The network reversed their report eventually, making Bush the de facto victor. Gore did not immediately concede, but the election results were his to contest or accept. He could only become president with a complaint and a fight, regardless of the final vote count. Karl Rove threw another fit in Ohio this year, but with or without Ohio, Obama could not lose this election.

So why is this important? Maybe it could affect the next presidential election. More likely, it could be used to tilt elections for congress or school boards, contests with too little attention or resources to detect or dissect an anomaly.

Shouldn’t there be a law against last minute software changes? There is and it wasn’t applied. Couldn’t we look at the software now to see what it was written to do? Yes and no. You can run numbers through it to see what it yields, but code is “compiled” before it is used by computers and you can’t truly reverse that process to read the code that someone wrote. If it makes a mistake there would not be a way to point to the cause.

References:

From Salon:

The story included a copy of the contract [PDF] between Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office and ES&S, the nation’s largest e-voting system manufacturer, for a new, last-minute piece of software created to the custom specifications of the secretary of state. The contract itself describes the software as “High-level enhancements to ES&S’ election reporting software that extend beyond the current features and functionality of the software to facilitate a custom-developed State Election Results Reporting File.”

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