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Could our Presidential election be “rigged”? Five things you need to know

Headlines (and tweets) have sounded scary, from Feds believe Russians hacked Florida election-systems vendor to Media vulnerable to Election Night cyber attack. And then there was Friday’s DDoS attack.

Rigged is one of Donald Trump’s favorite adjectives.

There has been a flurry of response, from experts, from state elections officials, from columnists. The claims they are trying to refute are as vague as an out-of-focus selfie and as broad as the proverbial barn door.

My goal with “five things you need to know” about the risk of our election being “rigged” is to arm you against agitprop and FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).


1. What does it mean to “rig” an election?

To say that an election was “rigged” has, historically, been a claim that the result was tainted because of vote buying or “stuffing” the ballot box.

Voter fraud, on the other hand, usually refers to either (1) someone voting who is not eligible to vote or who votes more than once or (2) the presence of nonexistent voters on the voting rolls.

When Republicans disparage our voting system, they’re trying to stir up fear that election results are tainted because people who should not be allowed to vote are being allowed to vote. Republicans have been making unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud — and the media have amplified those claims — since the nail-biter that was the 2000 election.

Yes, there’s a chance someone who isn’t eligible will try to vote. Possible does not mean probable, nor does it mean successful. Statistically, you are more likely to be struck by lightning.

Read more about “rigging” elections


2. Voting in America is a distributed, not centralized, system

We are a nation of 50 states, about 3,100 counties (or county-like jurisdictions – hello, Louisiana) and 200,000 or so local voting precincts. For comparison, there are about 14,000 public school districts.

To organize system-wide “rigging” with 200,000 precincts would be a Herculean task.

This highly decentralized system is a strength and a weakness. It is why this year news media could report that some counties in Virginia had (still) been using extremely vulnerable direct recording machines (DRMs).

But it is also why there is no “central computer” with official voting results that can be hacked, whether at the state or federal level.

Even if every precinct used computers without a paper trail — which they don’t — we’d be talking about millions of computers that would need to be networked and “hacked” in order to change the machine’s tally.

Bloomberg took a humorous pop-culture-laden tack with this video, but it makes this point well:

See where federally-certified voting systems are deployed across the country.


3. Voting – and tabulation – happen under watchful eyes

First, voter intimidation is a felony. If you see or suspect someone of intimidating voters, report it: 866-OUR-VOTE is led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and 888-API-VOTE is led by APIAVote & Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.

Washington State votes by mail (along with Oregon; Colorado is initiating VBM this year) supplemented with accessible voting centers for anyone who needs help voting. Some members of the Republican Party have stated that they will monitor the 24-hour ballot drop boxes (there are 43) in King County.

King County is the largest jurisdiction in the United States to conduct all elections by mail. We operate webcams once we begin processing ballots. Political parties have observers on-site.

Once ballots have been mailed, anyone — staff, observers, visitors, media — who is inside our keycard access area (everything except the lobby) must be credentialed and wear a badge at all times. We use color-coded lanyards for at-a-glance identification of security clearance.

Our ballots and ballot processing areas are safeguarded by tiered key card access. In other words, a key card that works for the office area may not allow the bearer access to the second floor ballot processing area.

Our tabulation computer has additional biometric controls that check fingerprints. It is not connected to the Internet.

But each jurisdiction establishes its own procedures under that state’s law. Thus King County is a model for Washington but it is not the model for the state or the nation.

Finally, election night reporting is preliminary. Official (certified) election results are based on reports from the voting system that have been tested and certified.

Read more about voting and tabulation


4. Safeguards prevent voters from casting two ballots

In Washington, ballots are returned in an envelope that contains the voter’s signature on the outside. It’s the equivalent of signing a register at a polling station. Staff, working in pairs, compare that signature to the one on file before the ballot is removed from the external envelope. Once the system records that the ballot has moved on to be counted, any additional ballots under that name would be rejected.

This system is how any Washington voter can track her ballot — from when it is mailed to her house to when it is received and counted at her county’s Elections department.

In states with polling stations, a voter has to go to the precinct where she is registered. If her name is not on the rolls, then she would have to vote with a provisional ballot. States have systems in place to ensure that a provisional ballot is a valid ballot; only then would it be counted.

Here’s the full tweet storm from Ashby Law.


UPDATE: On October 29, Donald Trump told Colorado voters: “I have real problems with ballots being sent.” He seemed to recommend that his supporters who had voted by mail to get multiple ballots at the polls:

They’ll give you a ballot, a new ballot. They’ll void your old ballot, they will give you a new ballot. And you can go out and make sure it gets in.

See the safeguards in the Colorado voting system.

5. Primaries are different from elections

In the run-up to party convention, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters claimed that some primary and caucus results had been “rigged.”

Even though party primaries use the machinery of the electoral system, these are political party events. You have to declare affiliation with a party to be given a ballot (sometimes many months in advance: see New York). Votes are, generally, non-binding because you are indirectly voting for the delegates who will attend the national convention.

Caucuses are even further removed from primaries in terms of process. In caucuses, you vote with your feet. So not only is your political affiliation public, so is the candidate you support.

The party process is the antithesis of our secret-ballot system of voting in elections.


Democrats are worried about people who have a right to vote not being allowed to vote. Democrats have argued that unsubstantiated claims — the very definition of fear-mongering — have led to substantial voting restrictions across a country dominated by the Republican party at the state level.

Those fears are grounded in reality. Republican agitprop about “voter fraud” has resulted in “the biggest rollback to voting rights since the Jim Crow era.”

Rather than worry about something unlikely to happen (and over which you have no control), do something you can control: vote. Encourage your friends to vote. Volunteer to drive people to the polls (if you live in Washington, the destination is an accessible voting center not a polling place). If you see voter intimidation, speak up and report it.

But don’t lose sleep over “rigged election” agitprop.


Bonus: Questions to ask your voting officials

  • If your jurisdiction uses computers to cast ballots and there is no paper trail (a printed copy for you to review), ask for a paper ballot.
  • If your jurisdiction uses computers to cast ballots, ask if the computers are networked. If so, is the network wired or wireless. Is the network isolated from the Internet? What kind of security protocols are in place to prevent the computers from being accessed from outside?
  • If your jurisdiction allows observers, ask about the security protocols regarding their movements.
  • Find out how your jurisdiction tabulates votes.
  • Ask about the policy regarding provisional ballots.


Bonus 2: How King County Elections manages your ballots

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

5 replies on “Could our Presidential election be “rigged”? Five things you need to know”

Do you think that fraud is unlikely in states like Pennsylvania where voting machines without paper audit trails are commonly used?
Washington State has a much better system with human-readable paper ballots and video auditing of the counting. Yet, it is operationally impossible to verify that one’s ballot has been correctly counted under the current system. You may trust but you cannot verify.

Convictions for voting fraud are not financially rewarding. So it is not surprising that these convictions are rare. This does not mean that the infractions are rare. In this election where voters are emotionally fraught and financially interested in the result, and the opportunity is obvious in voting machines, why think fraudulent counting is less likely than a lightning strike? Are you confusing this with the probability that your personal vote would determine the outcome of a statewide election?

Here’s another example of an elections official sowing confusion and violating state directives on how to communicate with voters:

“Pierce County will be sued unless it moves immediately to correct County Auditor Julie Anderson’s printed insert telling voters to mail their ballots by Nov. 4, four days before the Nov. 8 election.”

The auditor position is a non-partisan one, but the incumbent Julie Anderson, has supported the Republican Secretary of State incumbent in her re-election bid.

Here is an example of how government officials “rig” elections by suppressing voters:

“The state of Florida has categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters arguably for no reason other than they have poor handwriting or their handwriting has changed over time,” Walker wrote. “This court knows disenfranchisement when it sees it and it is obscene.”

Fortunately, the Democratic party filed a lawsuit and a federal judge ordered local election officials to “give voters who cast ballots by mail the chance to match their signatures to the ones on file”

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