Election 2016

A Fair Election? Serious, Hard-to-Explain Questions Arise About Trump Vote Totals in 3 Key States

Voting rights advocates are scrambling to see if recounts are feasible in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

Photo Credit: CNN Screen Capture, via @AmandaMarcotte / Twitter

A series of explanation-defying questions surrounding Donald Trump’s victories in key 2016 swing states has prompted a cadre of voting rights attorneys and electronic voting machine experts to consider formally filing for presidential recounts in coming days.

These recount-justifying anomalies go beyond the discrepancies in media exit polls predicting a Hillary Clinton victory on November 8 and subsequent vote counts where Trump won states that have not backed Republican presidents for decades. Recounts could clarify or verify whether several different forms of electronic hacking could have padded state voter rolls and altered resulting counts.

Former state election directors contacted by AlterNet were extremely skeptical of the election theft theories that accompanied the troubling vote-count patterns. They added that the courts would not change election results unless there was overwhelming proof. Spokespeople for election departments in possible recount states also said their voting systems were designed to block hacking, especially after federal intelligence officials this summer said Russia hacked into two state voter registration databases (Illinois was named) and warned states to be vigilant. Russia also was reportedly behind hacks of DNC and Clinton campaign emails.

The count anomalies and possible explanations cited by the team of voting rights attorneys and electronic voting machine experts, whose experience in these issues dates back to the 2000 and 2004 elections, combined a mix of old and new threats. In some cases, known electronic voting machine vulnerabilities may have been tapped to inflate county-level vote tabulations, they said, suggesting those machines should be impounded and examined. Where Russia may have been involved, their theory goes beyond anything imagined in past elections. They posited that last summer’s Russia hacks of voter registration databases could have yielded sufficient information to create large numbers of phantom absentee ballot voters, inflating the Trump vote in certain swing states that helped win the Electoral College.

Recounts and related litigation could explore if either happened, they said. Obtaining and comparing pre- and post-election logic and accuracy reports of voting machinery might begin to trace the “older school” vote-count tampering, where countywide totals are calculated. (American elections are run by county officials.) Similarly, comparing voter lists from states hacked by Russians, such as Illinois where more than 200,000 voter files were taken, to states with very high numbers of absentee ballots, could reveal if phantom voters were put into those state’s databases, they said.

“The theory here rests not on the claim that the hackers used data from Illinois to apply for registration status and absentee ballots,” one attorney explained. “Rather, the theory is that the hackers used the data from Illinois to place fake voters into voter registration databases which they also hacked… A leading computer scientist agreed this is how it could be done.”   

While other election administration experts contacted dismissed this scenario, saying post-election audits in swing states would find discrepancies between the number of paper absentee ballots cast and electronic totals assigned to that ballot category, the anomalies cited by the election integrity team represent their basis to pursue possible recounts in several midwestern states.    

What follows are summaries of the scenarios and states they are studying, starting with provocative vote counts, their theories and then hurdles faced if a recount is filed.

North Carolina

Election night’s official returns had Trump beating Clinton by 178,000 votes and the Democratic Senate candidate also losing by roughy the same margin. In other races in the state, however, such as governor and attorney general, the GOP lost and there is a controversial gubernatorial recount underway in which the Republican incumbent, Gov. Pat McCrory, has accused Democrats of voter fraud.

But beyond that predictably partisan finger-pointing, what happened across the state on Election Day has become the focus of serious concern for the election integrity experts. In one Democratic epicenter, Durham County, the state’s voter registration database and e-poll books tied into it were down, prompting long lines, delays and necessitating people fill out provisional ballots. The data was also scrambled, with voter rolls in the wrong locations, people tagged as voting when they had not, and people not on lists even though they had their state registration cards. Those snafus were reported to election protection call centers.

Computer experts who have tracked electronic voting issues subsequently noticed the Florida-based contractor who managed North Carolina’s voter registration database was VR Systems. Earlier this fall, CNN reported that an unnamed Florida-based voting system vendor was hacked by the Russians. To the best of these experts’ knowledge, VR is the only Florida-based voting system vendor. It also has contracts in Virginia, New York, Illinois, Indiana, California and other states, according to the company’s website.

“Was the shut-down of the electronic poll book system in Durham County the result of a benign malfunction or an intentional hack?” one attorney asked. “And, if it was the latter, who was behind the cyberattack? These questions must be answered immediately, especially if the answers lead to questions about the integrity of the election process in other jurisdictions.”   

Florida

Clinton was ahead in many pre-election polls, but lost in the results reported after Election Day by 120,000 votes. (Each state has a process where counties officially tally all categories of ballots and then the state certifies the results, which can take several weeks.)

As one attorney said, “Tallahassee-based VR Systems was also allegedly hacked. The company provides electronic poll books for a number of jurisdictions which communicate in real time with each county’s voter registration system. According to the company's web site VR Systems serves almost all of Florida's counties and 14 other states."

Wisconsin

Election night’s unofficial returns found Trump ahead of Clinton by 27,000 votes. But Clinton won only counties using all-paper ballots, the computer voting experts said. In the counties using a mix of electronic and paper-based voting systems that President Obama won in 2012, Clinton lost by 1-2 percent. In the Obama counties using all paperless machines, she lost by 10 to 15 percent. (Five percent of the state’s 4.6 million voters, or 230,000 people, cast their ballots on paperless machines, state officials said Wednesday.)

Wisconsin also saw a record numbers of absentee ballots, with 831,000 ballots cast, which was about 30 percent of this fall’s vote. In past years, it was about 20 percent. Of that overall amount, about 134,000 were from people who mailed them in, instead of turning them in at polling places, state officials said.

The questions raised by the election integrity team are twofold. First, did old-school hacking pad Trump’s margin in counties with all-electronic voting systems? Under that scenario, paperless voting systems would be breached and totals changed. Second, was there a sizable effort to pad the absentee ballot voting with phantom voters, created from last summer’s Russian hacks into voter registration databases in other states?

Both of these scenarios would require sophisticated operations, a skeptical former state election director from another state said. Wisconsin’s paperless voting machinery is not online and isn’t programmed online, as a security precaution, meaning someone would have to access the system in key counties from the inside. Second, if hackers put fake voters into Wisconsin’s database and boosted Trump’s absentee totals, the discrepancy between returned paper ballots and electronic totals would be found in a post-election audit. On background, Wisconsin state election officials did not believe these scenarios were possible, describing many intricate steps they take to prevent election tampering.  

Should any recount go forward, it is likely the first recount would be in Wisconsin, because its three-day legal window to file for a recount is expected to start in about nine days—once its 72 counties finished their tallies. Those filing would have to pay for the recount, which could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, apart from the litigation team costs and deploying trained observers.

Michigan

Election night’s unofficial returns found Trump ahead by 11,000 votes. But 87,000 ballots did not show a presidential vote, the election integrity team said, which broke a 49,000 empty-vote record from previous presidential elections. A recount could clarify if all those ballots were improperly read by the state’s optical scan voting systems, in which computers process ink-marked paper ballots. In addition, about 25 percent of Michigan voted by mail, which they said said also could have been padded with phantom voters via the Russian hack.

Michigan Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodham dismissed these scenarios. He said the 2016 missing-vote figure came from the Associated Press in New York City, not his office, and was not credible. He also said his agency, which oversees the state’s voter file and drivers’ license records, compared signatures on absentee ballots to voter registrations to validate the ballots before counting them. There was “no indication” the agency’s records had been hacked or compromised, Woodham said.      

It also could be very expensive to conduct a Michigan recount, he said. The state has the most election jurisdictions in the country, with 1,500 local clerks managing 4,800 precincts. The state would charge any candidate seeing the recount, including any third-party candidate up to $125 per precinct to recount the presidential vote. There also is a two-day window to file for recounts after a state canvassing board meets November 28.

Pennsylvania

Election night returns found Trump beating Clinton by 68,000 votes. The state mostly uses older electronic voting machines with no paper trail (unlike Wisconsin, where a cash register-like paper receipt is printed). The concern is that 16 counties are still using aging countywide tabulators which Finnish computer security specialist Harry Hursti has shown can be easily hacked to change the reported results. These computers use old versions of Microsoft operating systems, which have security vulnerabilities that have never been fixed.

In Pennsylvania, November 23 is the last day the Secretary of the Commonwealth can order a recount. It’s also possible to initiate a recount on a precinct-by-precinct basis, as long as a petition is prepared with at least three electors for that precinct, said Marybeth Kuznik of VotePA.us, and a $50 per precinct fee is paid. The window for that petition, however, is within the five days after the counties complete their official canvass. In rural counties, that is quickly approaching.  

Next Steps?

The election integrity team understands that any recounts will require the assembling of the necessary funds and infrastructure under an extremely tight time frame. They know their efforts may not pan out, but feel they have no choice but to try to find ways to explain what happened on November 8, especially in states where what they're seeing doesn’t seem right based on their years of tracking the machinery of elections.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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