Fixing a Presidential Election
It is impossible to have representative government without honest elections, which makes it astonishing how little we invest in securing our elections, and that includes the Presidential election. Our greatest deterrent to fixing a Presidential election is not that the security is impressive — it is actually quite woeful — but that the ramifications of getting caught are so disastrous for the organizations that might be tempted to try it. If it were a domestic organization getting caught, the actual legal punishments would not rise to the level of treason. The law does not take us there … yet. But a sense of treason would be the level of perception and treatment from others, and that often means more to an organization than the penalties heaped on its actors. And if it were a foreign nation caught fixing our Presidential election, the fallout would be even more severe. If the proof were beyond question, it could be taken as an act of war. At a minimum it would invoke the most serious and comprehensive sanctions our nation has ever mustered, and with that would come whatever action our allies and any other offended nation would take.
To say that a key point in a conspiracy is to avoid detection seems so obvious that it doesn’t warrant mentioning, but firmly bearing that point in mind is actually important in anticipating how a Presidential election would be fixed. So, let me say it again, the strategic imperative in fixing a Presidential election is not to get caught. That means taking the utmost precautions to avoid detection, and to do it in such a manner that if the fix is detected, that it is as hard as possible to track back to the actors and directors of the conspiracy. That will be especially important later on when I go on to explain how the choices would likely be made in the actual mechanics of fixing a Presidential election. But it is important, too, in explaining why it "looks" like the 2016 Presidential election was fixed.
How the Electoral College Facilitates Fixing a Presidential Election
When a conspiracy has a strategic imperative of "don’t get caught," you want to do it with as few actors as possible. That generally means doing it on as small a scale as will accomplish the goal, for every actor in a conspiracy is a vulnerability to that conspiracy.
Because nearly all the states distribute their Electoral votes under a "winner-take-all" formula — Nebraska and Maine are the only exceptions — that makes it possible to use precision to leverage a large result. Rather than having to figure out how to flip millions of votes across several states, you can pull it off by focusing on just a few states where the voting is close, and flip about 600,000 votes.
Pretend for a moment that the exit polls for the 2016 Presidential campaign were perfectly in line with the actual vote. Then the Democratic candidate, henceforth referred to as [D], was going to win Pennsylvania by 4.4 points over the Republican candidate, henceforth referred to as [R], and win Florida by 1.4 points. The equivalent of those margins is about 390,000 votes. In theory then, you could give those same margins of victory to [R] in those states by merely flipping 390.000 votes.
That alone, just rigging Pennsylvania and Florida in the "winner-take-all" formula of the Electoral College, is going to swing 49 Electoral votes, enough to reverse the outcome of the election. But that’s still pretty close (281-257) and a fixer would not know how the rest of the states were playing out. A conspiracy to fix the election would probably look for another vulnerable state or two to ensure the result. But again, being able to fix an election by focusing on just 3 or 4 states and flipping 600,000 votes, is a tremendous boon to an organization seeking to rig an election without being detected, or if detected, having it traced back to them.
How the Electoral College Makes It Easier to Recognize a Fix
The same thing that makes the format of the Electoral College such an advantage for an organization trying to fix a Presidential election also creates the fix’s greatest danger in raising suspicion that the vote was rigged. This enhanced ability to use precision to leverage the election increases the chances of a noticeable disconnect between the popular vote and the Electoral vote. If that disconnect goes off the chart of reasonable probability, then it is going to raise a red flag with someone like me, who is going to look harder at it, and then write an article like this one.
In evaluating a divergence between the popular vote and the Electoral vote, one has to weigh the small disconnect already built into the system. The Electoral vote is designed to mirror what we do in Congress. Our 100 Senators are distributed with no connection to population. Every state gets two, whether the state is Wyoming or California. But the distribution among the states of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is all about population, and so California gets 53 seats to Wyoming’s one. The number of Electoral votes for a state is the sum of its Senators and its members of the House. In whole, that is the Electoral College with the addition of 3 votes for the District of Columbia. (The decision to treat D.C. like a small state was made in 1961 when D.C. had a population more than double that of the least populated state.)
With the addition of treating D.C. like a small state, that means that 19% of the Electoral vote (102 of 538) is independent of population and 81% synchs with population. That’s why the decision of the Electoral vote is almost always going to match the decision of the popular vote. When there is an exception, the margin of the Electoral vote victory is likely be covered by the difference between the candidates in the 102 Electoral votes not based on population.
This is exactly what happened in the Presidential Election of 2000, which was the first time in 112 years that the result of the popular vote and the Electoral vote disagreed. [R] won the Electoral vote 271 to 266, and that 5-vote margin of victory was less than the 18-vote edge that [R] ran up in the 102 votes not based on population. That is, [R] carried 30 states for 60 of those votes and [D] carried 20 states plus D.C. for the other 42. Or to put it another way, the result of the popular vote actually did agree with the portion of the Electoral vote tied to population, with [D] leading 224-211.
The same was also true in the Presidential election of 1876. [R] beat [D] in the narrowest Electoral vote ever, a single vote, and also trailed in the popular vote. But that was actually a normal result because [R], not [D], was the candidate who led in the Electoral votes not based on population, an 8-vote edge. Again, there was nothing unusual in the popular vote differing from the Electoral vote in 1876.
How things came out in the 2016 Presidential election is nothing like that. [R] did have an edge in the electoral votes not related to population, but it was not a gigantic margin, in fact it was exactly what it was in the 2000 Presidential election — an extra 18 votes. But unlike the 2000 election being decided by 5 electoral votes, in 2016 we have [R] winning by a margin of 74 Electoral votes, or over four times the margin in votes not related to population. To do that without winning the popular vote would be pretty incredible.
But that’s what happened. As I write this, with 97% of the vote counted [D] has a 1.34 million lead in the popular vote and it is expected to skyrocket from there and finish around 2.2 million. That’s because almost all — about 85% — of the 4 million votes yet to be counted are coming from California where [D] is highly favored, almost 2-to-1, over [R]. (The delay in processing the final vote in California is due to it being the rare state that does not require receipt of mail-in ballots by election day. Instead, they must simply be postmarked by election day and received within 3 days of election day.)
Sidebar on the Popular Vote: Some are bothered that [D]’s lead in the popular vote is traceable solely to California. Outside of California, [R] is the leader in the popular vote. Folks, California is a big state — a huge state. Suggesting there is merit in considering the popular vote without California is like saying let’s toss out Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming. [R] dominated the vote in that block of states about the same as [D] dominated in California, and you can total up the voters from those 13 states and still have slightly fewer voters than in California! It makes just as much sense to toss out that block of states. And, if you do, you will find that outside that block of states [D] wins the popular vote.
[R] has also argued that the only reason he did not win the popular vote is that his campaign did not focus on California because it was not a swing state. But [D] also did not focus on California for the same reason — just as [R] and [D] both declined to focus on the block of 13 states previously mentioned. There is no reason to believe the results would differ significantly if both had campaigned in these states.
The point remains that [D] won the popular vote and yet still lost the portion of the Electorate vote tied to population. By itself that would be highly unusual, but making it really startling is the size of the margin of that loss, a stunning 46 votes, more than 10% of the total (246-200).
What are the Precedents for this Outcome?
This incredible disconnect between the 2016 popular vote and the Electoral vote is lost on many reporters and the public because it gets presented as the 5th time the winner of the popular vote did not win the Presidency. Let me take you through the other four times to help you understand that only one of them is a true precedent — and that one is nothing we would want to repeat.
The first in 1824 is not remotely similar. The truth is that Andrew Jackson, the winner of the popular vote, actually did get the most Electoral votes! He did not win the Presidency because there were four major candidates who so split the Electoral vote that no one got a majority, and so the vote was decided in the House of Representatives. The fourth strongest candidate threw his support behind the #2 candidate, and thus my cousin John Q. Adams became President. Adding to the lack of precedence from this election is that there wasn’t even a nation-wide popular vote in 1824. Several states had their state legislature decide their Electoral vote and did not conduct a popular vote.
I’ve already touched on the cases of the 1876 and 2000 elections and how their results were not abnormal at all once the slight disconnect already built into the system is weighed in.
That leaves us with the unusual Presidential election of 1888 which provides the only real precedent for the oddball outcome in the 2016 election. In 1888 Benjamin Harrison won a strong Electoral victory of 233-168 despite trailing in the popular vote by about 100,000 votes, which proportionally would be equivalent to 1.2 million votes in the 2016 election. The 1888 election was perhaps the most corrupt election in our history. It was essentially a rigged election but historians prefer to say "bought" because it sounds better and more accurately captures what happened. It was the first Presidential campaign in which big business sought to control the outcome by throwing boatloads of money into the campaign. "Robber barons," to use the term of historian S.J. Ackerman, flooded the coffers of Harrison’s party with massive donations, and that war chest was used to take advantage of the vulnerabilities in that ancient election system to literally buy votes in key states, including financing "repeat" voters. Besides the fact that some states made little to no effort to stop someone from voting multiple times, the era of open ballots had not yet died. There were still some states where you had to vote in an open room and sign your ballot, and in at least one state you still had to announce your vote orally. There were states that professed to have secret ballots but then in some of their polling places the voter had to place his ballot in a glass ballot box, precisely to allow those who had bought votes to see that they had gotten their money’s worth.
At one point a railway postal agent intercepted and revealed a directive from an official of the Republican National Committee that gave highly explicit instructions for buying votes in Indiana. Among the oddities in that 1888 election is that incumbent President Grover Cleveland managed to lose his home state of New York, even though he had carried it in winning the White House in 1884 and would do so again in 1892. With 36 Electoral votes, the loss of New York alone was enough to send Cleveland to his significant Electoral defeat despite his strong showing in the overall popular vote. If you want to learn more, an interesting article on the 1888 election was published in Smithsonian Magazine in Nov-1998 titled "The Vote that Failed."
Looking at the Exit Polls of the 2016 Swing States
With my suspicions raised by an extreme abnormality last seen 128 years ago, and even then only in a sinister context, I decided to look closer at the swing states in the 2016 Presidential election, which I saw as being: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, and New Hampshire. [R] took five of the eight and they were the five with the most electoral votes.
Exit polls are no longer just polls of voters exiting polling places. Edison Research, which conducts the exit polling for the major news outlets, also polls voters by phone prior to election day, looking for feedback from the rising group of early voters to be added proportionally to their polling place data.
The CNN exit polls — which were done by Edison Research — covered 28 states that accounted for 411 of the Electoral votes. Their exit polls correctly predicted the winner in the recorded vote in 24 of the 28 states. All four misses were swing states, and in all four cases the exit polls had indicated that [D] had won, but then the official vote count went to [R]. The four states were Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, a group that accounts for 74 Electoral votes. While the official vote count gave [R] a whopping 90 Electoral votes in the swing states, if the exit polls were translated into Electoral votes, that would have completely turned that result around with 93 Electoral votes of the swing states going to [D].
The Nuts and Bolts of Our Vulnerabilities
To better understand the most likely targets in rigging an election, I tried to educate myself a bit about the vulnerabilities in our voting process. It was some of the most depressing and distressing research I’ve ever done. The simple truth is that our guard is way down on protecting the security of our elections. The Homeland Security Department is charged with prioritizing threats to critical infrastructure related to transportation, communication, energy, financial services, food and healthcare systems. The infrastructure of our voting system is not even on the list. We have huge numbers of outdated voting machines that have been criticized up one side and down the other for their proven vulnerability to sinister manipulation. Many of those machines still use the Windows XP operating system, which got its final security patch in the spring of 2014 and is no longer supported by Microsoft. There are many articles you could read on the subject of the security of our voting systems, but if you are going to read just one article, I recommend this one by Ben Wofford from August 5, 2016 in Politico Magazine. It’s long, but worth it if you have the interest … and it will scare the bejesus out of you.
Historically, our primary protection against rigging an election at the level of the initial processing of the vote — our scanners of paper ballots and our voting machines — has been that such a "fix" would be labor intensive and involve so many actors that it would make it too easy to detect the conspiracy and, if detected, too easy to track back to the conspirators.
In September of 2016 FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Judiciary Committee that our voting system is "very, very hard to hack." He explained: "The beauty of the American voting system is that it is dispersed among the 50 states and it is clunky as heck. … it’s Mary and Fred putting a machine under the basketball hoop at the gym."
The point Comey was making is that even though a Princeton professor can physically demonstrate he can very effectively rig a common voting machine in just seven minutes, our voting process is so decentralized that even a very precise fix would still require getting to a whole lot of voting machines spread across a whole lot of different locations — although I am not even sure that last point is valid, as I suspect there are many cases where a lot of voting machines are stored in the same location between elections.
A Digression into a Comey Story to Make a Point
James Comey’s point about the decentralized nature of our voting process being a major advantage in our armor of security is one that is becoming increasingly antiquated and irrelevant, and he appears to understand this better than the average American.
Comey is, of course, the rascal who is under fire to resign for abuse of power to manipulate the 2016 Presidential election. Eleven days before the election, he announced the FBI had new material that appeared to relate to the investigation settled months ago about [D] and her aides mishandling classified information. Comey took this highly prejudicial step even though, by his own admission, the FBI had not yet assessed "whether or not this material may be significant." After letting the innuendo stew for more than a week, Comey released a second letter on November 6th that was meant to make him look like less of a prick trying to manipulate the election, and shared the investigative conclusion that the new material was not significant after all. Central to my point here is the apparent careful timing of Comey’s second letter.
What most Americans do not realize is that the timing of Comey’s letters carefully fit an intent to influence roughly a third of the electorate with the innuendo in his first letter without exposing them at all to his second letter admitting it was a false alarm. The world is often changing faster than we can keep up with it. Most of us assume that only a small portion of us vote early rather than in person on election day. Even those who realize the number of early voters is on the rise have trouble comprehending how fast it has accelerated. Twenty years ago 10% of the electorate voted early. By 2012 the percentage had jumped to a little less than a third. It is estimated that for 2016 the percentage of early voters will come out between 35 and 40%, and given that the experts have consistently underestimated the gain in past elections, it is pretty safe to say it will probably be closer to 40%. More and more states now allow "no excuse necessary" mail-in ballots, and Colorado became the third state to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter.
Most mail-in voters — especially those open to a change of heart — do not rush to mail in their ballot, and so they were exposed to Comey’s first letter and all the commentary it generated for several days. But these mail-in voters can only wait so long to send their ballot in. In nearly all states the mail-in ballots have to be received by election day, which was November 8th. By the time Comey issued his weak "my bad" letter of November 6th, nearly all the mail-in ballots around the nation were completed and in the mail.
If you need a moment to take that in and pass whatever judgment you care to on Comey, go ahead, but the real point you have to master is what Comey apparently knows so well. Despite his song and dance about Mary and Fred putting a voting machine under the basketball net, this is no longer a nation with a decentralized initial processing of the vote. In most states the voting is no longer evenly spread across thousands of polling places, where each processes no more than a minuscule portion of the vote — on average, far south of 1000 votes per polling place. Instead, picture this: a single room doing the initial processing of 150,000 votes with seven machines and a workforce swelled by about 80 temporary workers. That’s a very real room, processing the mail-in votes for Hennepin County in Minnesota. The growing number of these massive centers of vote processing can facilitate a fix by making a hack more efficient and reducing the number of actors, which in turn helps minimizes the chance of getting caught.
The Real Primary Targets for a 2016 Hack
As it turned out, the more I learned about the current security of our voting process, the less I thought these centers of massive vote counts would have been a primary target for fixers in 2016. This step toward centralization is a potential area of vulnerability that I expect was probed by would-be fixers, but there was a far more egregious point of vulnerability that I think almost certainly would have led a fixer to say, "Let’s start over here."
Even before these centralized processing centers created an opportunity for a more efficient hack, there was a way to match that efficiency in dealing with the army of voting machines. You didn’t hack the army, you hacked further up the tabulation path — working the rigging around the USB drives and flash cards moving the tallies up the chain. There is a tendency to think that the lack of online connectivity in the processing of the votes is an effective safeguard but as security researcher Tony Cole recently noted in an article for International Business Times, "We see air gapped systems compromised relatively frequently now through the use of exchangeable media like USBs and flash drives."
The great drawback in manipulating data further up the chain of tabulation is the very real risk of the manipulation getting exposed in comparison with the paper trail also moving up the chain for auditing purposes.
But what if there were no a paper trail running up the tabulation path that would otherwise force you to shift your fix down into the initial processing of the vote, the army of voting machines? It was rather shocking to me to discover that this basic safeguard does not exist for many states — not a majority, but still way more than enough to excite a conspiracy by dangling in front of them not just the opportunity to pull off an efficient hack but to do it with next to no chance of getting caught.
While 60% of the states (30 of 50) have some sort of audit procedure that checks the paper trails upwards from the voting machines, among the twenty other states, most of them could not do a sufficient paper trail audit even if they wanted to. Why? Because in their fleet of voting machines there are too many outdated, poorly designed voting machines that do not produce a paper trail of any kind! By my count we had 223 electoral votes in play in 2016 that were a fixer’s dream. If you managed to rig the vote at certain places up the tabulation path, it would be nearly impossible to detect or track it backwards.
That’s much more attractive to a conspiracy with an imperative of "Don’t get caught" than going after the new wave of centralized processing centers. Those centers use ballot scanners which are tougher to hack than other types of voting machines. And because these centers are working with paper ballots and high-speed scanners, if push came to shove — even if it were a daunting monumental task to do a full recount — it would not be beyond the realm of possibility.
These old voting machines without VVPAT (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail Printers) are on their way out. In fact, there already is a proposed bill to make it flat-out illegal to continue to use them. But that’s the future and this is now. Fortunately, among the seventeen states using a high enough percentage of voting machines without VVPAT that an effective paper audit cannot be done, only two are swing states. Unfortunately, they were the two swing states with the most Electoral votes, Florida and Pennsylvania.
There is no doubt in my mind that if the 2016 Presidential election was rigged, those two states were primary targets. After those two states, the decision of which swing states a fixer would take on would probably be driven by the results of probing for situation-specific vulnerabilities.
The Thick Cloud of Suspicion Around Pennsylvania
Even though the polls predicted the vote in Pennsylvania would be close enough to consider it a swing state, the repeated consistency of the polls showing [D] ahead made it quite likely that [D] would indeed win the state. Particularly suspicious was that the last ten polls still showed [D] ahead of [R], even though all the respondents to those polls had a chance to be aware of Comey’s prejudicial letter, but most of those polls were done before the respondents could also be aware of Comey’s second statement retracting the innuendo. Logically that should have given [D] a boost between those final polls and the actual vote.
Furthermore, Comey’s timing scheme of his letters in regard to the mail-in votes would had next to zero effect in Pennsylvania. It is one of the states that does not allow early voting without a significant excuse. Nearly every voter in Pennsylvania votes on election day. That would have maximized the impact of Comey’s second letter favoring [D]. The exit poll data actually did show that expected upward bump for [D] off the last polls … but that bump not only wasn’t there in the vote count, [D] actually lost significant ground.
That’s all highly suspicious just by itself. Now add in the likelihood that if a fix were on, that Pennsylvania’s swing state status would make it potential target. And then the cloud really thickens when it is understood that Pennsylvania would have been a primary target due to the opportunity to insert a fix up the tabulation chain where it would be most efficient but also without the worry of the fix being detected in a paper audit. How prevalent was Pennsylvania’s use of voting machines without VVPAT? It was among the worst in the nation, with those damnable machines being used in almost 90% of the precincts, and being used exclusively in 79% of the precincts.
If It Was Done, Who Did It?
Added to the cloud of indicators pointing to the 2016 Presidential election being rigged to elect [R] is that we know someone employed a sophisticated hack during the campaign that clearly was intended to benefit [R]. I am talking about the hack of the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee. The media gave most of their attention to the breach of the email server, but the hack also included the DNC’s voter analytic program used to strategize [D]’s campaign. Our intelligence agencies traced the hack as originating in Russia and those same agencies have said they have "high confidence" that the hack came from Russian intelligence agencies. So, it’s the "Rooskies," right?
Probably. But I am far from fully convinced on that point. I keep coming back to a guiding principle in my trying to understand all this, which is that the conspirators are going to do everything they can to avoid detection. If I were doing it, and I wasn’t the Russians, I’d use them as a red herring to protect myself. And if I were [R], I’d have made a lot of noise before the election about the election being rigged, getting [D]’s side to commit to arguing that it is not rigged. Does that mean I think [R] was involved? Personally, no I don’t. I do not see him as the kind of guy a conspiracy like this would trust. He is more the guy you would convince and encourage to make that kind of noise. Do I think it is possible the Republican National Committee was behind this fix? Well, yeah, it would be kind of silly to deny that possibility for an organization with such a clear and direct motivation. If this situation were turned around, I’d be just as quick to say it was possible that the Democratic National Committee was behind it.
For what it is worth, there is a smattering of evidence I have not delved deeper into that gives an appearance of prior small-scale tinkering around elections in states with below average security measures in their voting process. That "impression" of tinkering has pretty much leaned to the side of the Republican party, but again, there is not a lot to support that. At this point it is like trying to judge an object by seeing a small part of its shadow from around a corner.
I’ll say it again. While I’m not fully convinced, if the 2016 Presidential election was fixed, I believe the most likely culprit was Russia.
Could an investigation find convincing evidence of the fix? I think so, but I would not start out sniffing around the Pennsylvania and Florida vote. The detectable slip-ups will be elsewhere, and then we might be able to use that as a platform to break someone in regard to the vote in Pennsylvania and Florida. I’d say more, but the last thing I want to do is give tips to the fixers in cleaning up or protecting their most vulnerable points of detection.
I do believe it is far more likely than not that our 2016 Presidential election was stolen from us. That’s "us" as in it doesn’t matter whether we are Democrat or Republican or Independent, or whether we voted for [R] or [D] or any of the [I]’s. If it happened, — and I estimate it as 3-to-1 that it did — the election of our President was stolen from us.
I don’t really think there will be an opportunity to do anything about that, although my ears are open. I am more realistically focused on the future. I have been a big backer of campaign reform laws that will help rein in some of the nonsense that goes on, but this is something new. We need to seriously take up the issue of making our elections more secure. The threat is there, and this was not the way I wanted to become aware of it.
It would not be that hard to make it hugely more difficult to rig an election. Here are seven suggestions.
1) Pass the bill outlawing voting machines without VVPAT.
2) Give financial incentives to states to move to paper ballots and scanners.
3) Require each state to have an audit process in place, and I’ll add that the best model for this is in New Mexico.
4) Strengthen security measures in these new centers for mass processing of initial votes. Odds are they will become the new primary targets for future hacks as we close off the other holes.
5) Improve security of voter registration data. It particularly creates a vulnerability for fraud in mail-in votes.
6) Stop making an imperative out of getting a fast vote count. If we kill that impulse, than a host of new ideas can be employed to detect a fix. Remember, a key deterrent to a conspiracy to fix an election is to convince the conspirators the risk is too high that they will be caught.
7) Eliminate the Electoral College, replacing it with a weighted national vote that mirrors our current mix of emphasis on population and state. Trying to rig that kind of vote would not just be tremendously hard to pull off, it would be very difficult to hide. A nice plus for that change is that it would encourage everyone to vote. Everyone’s vote will actually matter even if they are completely out of step with the rest of their state.
Representational government does not work without honest elections.
Craig R. Wright