Democracy is under attack, we now hear regularly. While Donald Trump, the GOP, and (if you ask Rachel Maddow) the weather have all been identified of late as “threats” to our democracy, the Great Satan is, of course, Russia, pop. 144,498,215. Vlad Putin directs, or winks and nods at, a Red Army of hackers who, according to the latest reports, infiltrated the computer systems of American state election boards roughly a year ago. “[T]he Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states,” says Bloomberg News. The current wisdom is that none of the November 2016 vote counts was altered. Nonetheless, the fact that our information was “compromised” should chill us to the bone, because the Russkies now have three years to perfect their plan to control America. Furthermore, “operations need not change votes to be effective.” All that is required is for the American people to hear—as often as possible, from the mainstream media—that their system was “compromised,” and they will no longer believe that their votes matter.
I can think of many reasons why the American people might already think that their votes don’t matter, including a bloated and intrusive federal bureaucracy that never stops growing no matter who is in office, oligarchical federal judges, the reduction of states to federal welfare dependents—the list goes on. But if we really, truly cared about stopping the Russians (who live in Russia) from undermining our sacred voting process, we could act decisively right now. We could solve the problem this moment simply by unplugging the dang computers from the internet.
In a way, it’s not that simple. State election-board computers are often connected to the internet and, like all computers, are vulnerable to viruses. But the voting machines and tabulators are not necessarily vulnerable in the same way. Yet as Andrew Appel, a Princeton professor of computer science who testified last September before the House Subcommittee on Information Technology, writes, “all voting machines must accept electronic input files from other computers: these ‘ballot definition files’ tell the vote-counting program which candidates are on the ballot.” The older electronic voting machines (designed in the 1980’s before the internet was open to the public) defined their ballots with EPROMs, the 8-tracks of voting technology, which are programmed by “burner” devices. But starting in the 90’s, voting machines were designed to be updated through flash memory, which provides a gateway for hackers because the flash cards are themselves updated by computers that are vulnerable to infection.
Add to this the fact that, in many states, the voting process is entirely electronic, using hacker buffets known as Direct-Recording Electronic voting machines (DRE, banned in the U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands) instead of paper ballots that can be recounted later by hand if any corruption of the “optical scanners” (the computers that count our paper votes) by hackers is suspected. Incidentally, given all of the folderol over Russian hacking of late, you’d think those very suspicions would have been raised. Yet despite the insistence by Homeland Security officials that “none of the votes were altered,” Obama’s DHS did not conduct a single federal audit of any of the voting machines that were vulnerable (“all of them,” according to Appel). A few states routinely conduct internal sample audits of paper ballots; most don’t. And with DRE, what is there to recount?
The rage for DRE was fomented by the great Hanging Chad controversy of Bush v. Gore in 2000, after which states began to enact expensive “reforms” that further computerized voting, sped up vote counts, and enriched the handful of private companies that manufacture and sell voting machines. If you think the cost and effort to update your computer is excessive, imagine what resources it would take to keep the thousands of state-owned voting machines protected from intruders living on our continent or some other one. Cash-strapped banana republics like Illinois are out of luck.
We love and are addicted to our electronic conveniences, those “labor-saving” devices that seemingly eliminate the barriers of time and space and the need for human contact and chad examination. We are desperate to see Megyn Kelly choke back her tears as soon as possible on Election Night, to know immediately what our forebears were content to wait for and work for.
We love immediacy more than our precious “democracy.”
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