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Oct 22, 2016

How to (really) steal an election

Co-produced with PRX Logo

With the presidential race in the homestretch, it seems like we hear talk about rigged elections and threats of cyberattacks just about every day. So, how safe are our votes? Is it possible to steal an American election? Reveal looks at the technology we’ll be using to vote next month, and whether the trend toward internet voting makes our ballots more vulnerable.

But first, we take a look back: Few people remember the chaos and confusion of the 2000 election better than balloting officials in Broward County, Florida. We speak with two people who directed the vote recount there after voting machines failed, leaving behind a trail of dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads. In the end, their new tally was ignored when the U.S. Supreme Court halted the recount in Florida, and declared George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore.  Could the election be thrown up in the air again? The voting officials we spoke to say yes.

Fast forward to today: Donald Trump has insisted for months that if he loses, it’ll be because of “cheating.” So, we go to Philadelphia and Northern California to see if cheating is even possible on the voting machines those areas use.

Then, on to the web. Most security experts agree that internet voting is a bad idea, and they’ve spent the past decade-and-a half writing damning reports, testifying at public meetings, and even hacking systems themselves to demonstrate the dangers. Yet 32 states have adopted the technology, including several swing states. As Election Day approaches and Russia continues to demonstrate a willingness to meddle with American politics, there’s reason to believe internet voting may be a target.

While some places have made high-tech changes, others are using more old-school methods to make voting easier – like the U.S. postal service. Voting by mail is getting more and more popular because for most people, it’s more convenient. But on the Navajo reservation in rural southern Utah, it’s creating some unique problems, and members of the tribe are suing their county to go back to the old system. Reporter Rachel Quester from the Scripps News podcast DecodeDC brings us the story.

Dig deeper

  • Watch: Native Americans still fight for voting equality

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Thanks to WHYY for production help on this week's show.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Ry Cooder, “She's Leaving the Bank” from “Paris, Texas” (Warner Bros. Records)
  • pretochines, “So Thick” from “LOVV KEY” (Monster Jinx)
  • Dabrye, “Tell Dem” from “Two/Three” (Ghostly International)
  • SUBSET, “NLD2016 SIDE D” from “SUBSET meets Netlabel DAy 2016 at The Dub Factory
  • SUBSET, “NLD2016 SIDE A” from “SUBSET meets Netlabel DAy 2016 at The Dub Factory”
  • Visager, “Haunted Forest” from “Songs From An Unmade World 2”
  • RoccoW, “Echiptian Swaggeh” (EINDBAAS)
  • RoccoW, “Fuck Sidechain Compression on Gameboy” (EINDBAAS)
  • Nihil Limit, “Search on” from “17 Sons Records - Vol. 1” (Murmure Intemporel)
  • Mobyl, “Q1” from “17 Sons Records - Vol. 1” (Murmure Intemporel)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Selective Periphera” from “The Many Moods of Ben Benjamin Vol. 1” (Ghostly International)
  • Banks, “Goddess (Instrumental)” from “Goddess” (Harvest Records)
  • ERAAS, “The Dream (Instrumental)” from “Initiation” (felte)
  • Louis Elbel, “Michigan Fight Song”
  • Dabrye, “My Life (Instrumental)” from “Two/Three” (Ghostly International)
  • Dabrye, “Bloop” from “Two/Three” (Ghostly International)
  • ERAAS, “Splitting (Instrumental)” from “Initiation” (felte)
  • Dabrye, “My Life (Instrumental)” from “Two/Three” (Ghostly International)
  • Banks, “Change (Instrumental)” from “Goddess” (Harvest Records)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Silent Flock” from “Migration”
  • Robin Allender, “Bude” from “Foxes in the Foyer” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Nick Jaina, “The Dinner Party (Instrumental)” from “Brutal Lives (Instrumentals)” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Axletree, “Vervain” from “Seed EP”
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Silent Flock” from “Migration”

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This long, bizarre election is almost over. Thank God. As we get closer to the finish line, Donald Trump is casting doubt on the whole system.

Donald Trump:

I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged, I have to be honest.

Al Letson:

He's dead wrong. Rigging an election is nearly impossible. Over 14 years, there were only 31 cases of fraud out of 1 billion votes. Now, what you should be worried about are the glitches with our voting technology.

Speaker 3:

There have been a number of sort of high-profile failures where computer software did go awry and votes were added or votes were lost.

Al Letson:

On this episode of Reveal, how will you know your vote counted?

Speaker 4:

Support for Reveal comes from the Scholars Strategy Network and their podcast, No Jargon. No Jargon is a weekly interview with top researchers. It covers the politics, the policy problems and social issues facing our nation today in a half hour or less. Powerful research, intriguing perspectives and no jargon. Find No Jargon on iTunes or wherever you get your favorite shows.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Early voting has barely begun and Donald Trump is already calling this year's election a fraud. He claims large scale voter fraud is happening. Now, Republicans and Democrats alike say he's wrong. There is no conspiracy to steal the election, but Trump seems to be setting the stage to question the election results. Suzanne Gunzburger remembers the last time a presidential race was in limbo back in 2000, George W. Bush versus Al Gore.

Suzanne:

We sat and checked the election results-

Speaker 6:

Decision 2000, election month.

Suzanne:

As they came in from the different places where the results were collected.

Speaker 6:

Live from our election headquarters. Stay with us, we're about to take you on an exciting and bumpy ride.

Al Letson:

See, Suzanne lives in Florida and back in 2000, she was the Democratic mayor of Broward County and also served on the canvassing board, which oversees elections. Now, I'm from Florida, too, and I remember these days vividly. Everything felt so tense as election time in a swing state always does. By the evening, it looked like it was a done deal.

Speaker 7:

Excuse me one second, I'm so sorry to interrupt you. Mike, you know I wouldn't do this if it weren't big. Florida goes for Al Gore.

Al Letson:

It wasn't over. Like a lot of us, Suzanne was sensing that things weren't right.

Suzanne:

There's something wrong when we weren't even getting all of our election results from the different precincts.

Speaker 8:

Broward County in Florida, they're going to hold the polls open later.

Suzanne:

It was 2 in the morning. Usually, we're done before midnight.

Al Letson:

Just a few minutes later, Florida, the state that had been called for Gore, went to Governor George W. Bush.

Speaker 7:

What the networks give us, the networks taketh away.

Speaker 9:

George Bush is the president-elect of the United States. He has won the state of Florida, according to our projections.

Al Letson:

It had been a wild ride and in Broward, they weren't done counting votes, but Suzanne and her team had to rest up.

Suzanne:

We decided to call it a night. We were exhausted.

Al Letson:

Not long after, Vice President Gore picked up the phone and called Governor Bush, conceding the race, but that wasn't the end of it. While Suzanne and most of America were sleeping, the election confusion-

Speaker 10:

We may have to bring some expert in algebra in here if it gets any more complicated.

Al Letson:

Kept-

Speaker 10:

Good grief.

Al Letson:

Getting-

Speaker 10:

Look at that.

Al Letson:

Worse.

Speaker 11:

That means automatic recount.

Speaker 10:

I'm curious about why we're not seeing the governor yet and we haven't seen Vice President Al Gore. Perhaps they're waiting for all the votes to be counted.

Al Letson:

The next morning, Suzanne and the rest of us woke up to a jaw dropper. During the night, Vice President Gore called Bush again to take his concession back. Bush was still in the lead, but by less than 1%. That triggered an automatic machine recount of the whole state. The next day, Gore called for a recount by hand in four counties.

Suzanne:

We were one of the lucky four.

Al Letson:

It looked like determining the next president had fallen into the lap of the Broward County Canvassing Board.

Robert:

I didn't ask for this job. I didn't want this job. I tried to get out of this job.

Al Letson:

Judge Robert Rosenberg, a registered Republican was appointed to the canvassing board after the election supervisor left town for vacation and never came back. The judge joined Suzanne in the emergency operations center where they examined every contested ballot. Maybe you remember the chads? The doughnut holes of the ballots. The tiny flecks of paper that should have been punched clean through the voting card to indicate a positive vote. In Broward County, in a lot of cases, they weren't.

Robert:

Sometimes you got a partial punch through. Sometimes you got a pregnant chad, which you couldn't completely punch through. That's what's caused the problem.

Al Letson:

Judge Rosenberg traced the ballot crisis back to the voting machines which had become clogged with chads.

Robert:

Had those machines been cleaned out, the build-ups removed, you never would have had a chad problem. You would have had a complete punch through.

Al Letson:

Judge Rosenberg was in the thick of it. It wasn't a particularly safe place to be.

Robert:

If you look downstairs, there's people in the street on both sides of America here. It's strange to see them, police barricades and different groups here in the street. I mean, that doesn't happen here.

Al Letson:

It got so bad that in Miami-Dade, the next county over, a band of Bush supporters charged the electoral offices and shut down their recount for good. It's now known as the Brooks Brothers Riot. Suzanne Gunzburger felt threatened, too.

Suzanne:

Well, after the death threats, how could you not?

Al Letson:

It was really bad. This is just one message posted on the website.

Suzanne:

People should go and kill my grandchildren. In Long Island, the FBI was called in. That was the only time during the whole process that I cried. I'm pretty tough. You can attack me, but not my grandchildren.

Al Letson:

Still, Suzanne and the canvassing board kept counting votes for almost two weeks trying to meet a deadline imposed by Florida's secretary of state and Bush supporter, Katherine Harris. Broward County finished their count even though two of the other counties didn't finish by the deadline.

Speaker 13:

In accordance with the laws of the state of Florida, I hereby declare Governor George W. Bush the winner.

Al Letson:

In the end, Bush had 537 more votes than Gore.

Speaker 13:

Of Florida's 25 electoral votes for the president of the United States.

Al Letson:

It still wasn't over though. The Florida Supreme Court came back with demands for another recount across the entire state, but that quickly came to an end. In stepped the final authority, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Speaker 14:

We'll hear argument now number 00949 George W. Bush and Richard Cheney versus Albert Gore.

Al Letson:

Bringing the recounts and the election to a definitive end.

Suzanne:

I was sitting in my living room watching the result come out and that was the second time I cried.

Al Letson:

For Suzanne, it was devastating.

Suzanne:

I felt I had worked so hard, tried to be so objective, tried to find out what the truth was in terms of voting and this ended up being decided ... This election was decided by five people. The votes of the country didn't matter.

Al Letson:

After 2000, the federal government set new standards on how elections should be run, so no more hanging chads. States turned to new voting technologies. Problem solved, right? Not exactly according to Judge Rosenberg and Suzanne Gunzburger.

Suzanne:

To me, it's frightening.

Robert:

You could have some mischief in any system. Even the current system could have some mischief.

Al Letson:

Mischief or, in the words of Donald Trump, cheating.

Donald Trump:

We're not going to lose. The only way we could lose, in my opinion, I really mean this Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on.

Al Letson:

That's Trump at a rally in Altoona, Pennsylvania, this summer and here he is again just a few weeks ago.

Donald Trump:

You've got to go out and you've got to get your friends and you've got to get everybody you know and you've got to watch your polling booths because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas.

Al Letson:

Certain areas like Philadelphia, a blue city with a large black population. Our reporter Laura Starecheski lives there. We sent her to find out if this so-called cheating is possible and what the city will do if Trump claims the election was stolen from him.

Laura:

Ryan Godfrey is an election inspector who lives just a couple blocks from me. I meet him early one morning at a trolley stop up the street. Hey Ryan.

Ryan:

Yes, [inaudible 00:09:22] Laura. Nice to meet you.

Laura:

Nice to meet you too. How's it going?

Ryan:

Great. How are you?

Laura:

Ryan's a software guy who decided to run for election inspector because he's a patriot and a numbers geek. On election day, he mans the polls and makes sure every vote gets counted. We just missed one, I guess.

Ryan:

Got another one right behind it.

Laura:

Yeah, let's grab it.

Ryan:

Perfect.

Laura:

We hop on the trolley and head to city hall. Inside, three big, old voting machines are lined up right outside the election commissioner's offices. The machines are here for voters to practice on before election day.

Ryan:

I think the machine's called a Shouptronic, which is a pretty cool name.

Laura:

The Shouptronic.

Ryan:

Or just the Shoup. We'll call it just the Shoup.

Laura:

Here's how the Shoup works. You duck behind a royal blue curtain and there's a big list of candidates laid over a panel of buttons. When you push a button, a red dot lights up by your candidates name. The machine looks like it's from around 1984, which is when the Shoup first came on the market.

Ryan:

I think of this as essentially an appliance, rather than a computer.

Laura:

It's like a big calculator. It tallies all the votes and dumps the data onto a cartridge that pops out of the back of the machine at the end of election day.

Ryan:

It's like an external hard drive or think of it almost more like a Nintendo cartridge.

Laura:

Ryan was about to show me the cartridge itself when a big burly guy who'd been standing next to the machine came over. I thought he was some kind of security guard.

Tim:

There's no way these machines can be hacked. No way.

Ryan:

I would say, it's not no way, but you would have to have a very organized government-level conspiracy involved to get that to happen.

Tim:

Basically, what you're doing is you're throwing crap on the wall and hoping something sticks.

Ryan:

Yeah, that's the idea.

Tim:

You're basically saying, let me throw this shit on the wall, see if it sticks. That's what you're saying, right?

Laura:

Can you introduce yourself?

Tim:

My name's Tim Dowling. I'm deputy City Commissioner.

Laura:

Deputy Commissioner Dowling has been working elections in Philly for 30 years. He's personally offended by the rumors Trump is spreading about elections tampering in his city. Just this summer, Fox's Sean Hannity threw fuel on the fire. He claimed there was cheating here back in 2012.

Speaker 18:

In 59 separate precincts in inner city Philadelphia, Mitt Romney did not get a single vote, not one.

Laura:

These were 59 overwhelmingly black, Democratic divisions in Philly. When the city and the Philadelphia Inquirer investigated, the explanation was simple. No one in those divisions had voted for Romney. Philly has been using the Shouptronic for about 15 years and there's never been a major problem. Trump insists, though, that people in Philly can and will cheat this November, so Dowling pops open the back of the voting machine to show me and Ryan the cartridge.

Ryan:

How do you hack that?

Tim:

This is the cartridge here. You would have to take the cartridge out and physically replace it.

Ryan:

Replace it with what?

Tim:

Well, some other cartridge that you have. It's kind of ridiculous. I agree.

Laura:

Even Ryan admits, tampering with these cartridges would be tough. There's a chain of custody, so at the end of election night a poll worker hands the cartridge to a police officer who personally escorts it to a counting facility. If Trump does question the results, the real challenge for Philly will be proving he's wrong. How do we know that a vote counted with the Shouptronic?

Ryan:

The short answer is we can't be 100% sure.

Laura:

That's because the Shouptronic can tell you how many votes Trump got and how many votes Clinton got, but that's it.

Ryan:

We have no way of knowing how any individual voted. We just know the total at the end.

Laura:

This is the problem. That's according to Susannah Goodman, who's an expert on voting technology, at the non-profit Common Cause. She says one key ingredient is missing in Philly's elections.

Susannah:

My biggest concern about voting systems that are out there today are the ones that don't have that built in fail safe. The ones without a voter-verified paper record or paper ballot.

Laura:

Some kind of paper back up. In Philly, if something does go wrong with the cartridge in the back of the voting machine, there's no way to reconstruct each vote.

Susannah:

There have been a number of high-profile failures where the computer software did go awry and votes were added or votes were lost.

Laura:

Data can get messed up no matter what kind of voting machine you're using, but if there's a paper trail, you can do a recount.

Susannah:

In the cases where there wasn't anything like that, they had to have an election do-over or the outcome of the election was just left in limbo for months.

Laura:

Which is Susannah's concern for Philadelphia. If Trump insists the voting machines were hacked, how could the city prove they hadn't been.

Susannah:

I don't know. That's why we ... I don't know how they would do it, but that's theirs to figure out.

Al Letson:

Philadelphia isn't alone. In parts of Florida, another key battleground state, many voters use electronic touch screen machines that don't have any way for the voter to verify that the button they pushed is what's being recorded. That's the same story for about one in four Americans, but don't panic just yet. Most states are more like California, where Reveal's Michael Corey is based.

Scott:

Hey Michael.

Michael:

Hey Scott. How's it going?

Scott:

Pretty good. How are you? Come on back.

Michael:

If you want to rig an election in my neck of the woods, you're going to have to go through Scott Konopasek.

Scott:

I'm responsible for managing all the aspects of elections.

Michael:

Scott is the Assistant Registrar of Voters in Contra Costa County in the suburbs of San Francisco. He used to be an Army Intelligence Officer. We're sitting in your office right now and one of the first things I notice is you have two license plates up above your desk. What do they say?

Scott:

They say, "No Chads."

Michael:

No chads?

Scott:

As a result of the Florida 2000 election, hanging chads, pregnant chads, dangling chads made all the headlines. To me, chads represent ambiguity. My slogan as an election official is, "No Chads."

Michael:

Scott punches in a code and leads me into a secure room with eight big metal machines that look like holdovers from the Cold War.

Scott:

It has input hopper and an output hopper and in between the two is a scanner, an optical scanner that actually reads the marks that the voter made on the ballot as it passes through.

Michael:

We do a test run by feeding in a stack of paper ballots. This is the key to California's election security. It's pretty hard to hack paper.

Scott:

It takes that long to count 26 perfect ballots. There is no hesitation at all. It's not very high tech. In fact, our printers that we have hooked up to this machine were actually dot matrix printers. One of our biggest challenges in maintaining these machines is keeping an adequate supply of track fed paper and printer ribbons. We have to go to ebay sometimes to find them.

Michael:

This is how the county's vote by mail ballots are counted. If you vote in person, you feed your own ballot into a small scanner right at your precinct. The vote is saved on a memory card which goes back to Scott at election headquarters along with your original paper ballot.

Scott:

The memory card comes back to us and we upload that on election night. As long as there are no issues or problems with the memory card, we don't run the paper ballots through again, but if we did notice a discrepancy, all of the ballots that have been cast all day long are now in our possession. We will just zero out the old results and rerun the cards through again to correct any problem.

Michael:

It's not all doom and gloom in the world of voting technology, 34 states either use all paper ballots or all electronic voting machines with a paper backup voters can see. Another 12 states use these methods in at least some counties, but Scott says, even with the best technology there is still one more variable to consider.

Scott:

This is one of the most human endeavors that we ever do and when human beings are involved, if it can happen, it does happen.

Al Letson:

If something does go wrong when you're out voting on election day, tweet us. We're @reveal. Laura Starecheski, Mike Corey and a whole team of Reveal reporters will be out across the country covering the election. We just heard that when it comes to voting machines, low tech is safer, more secure, so with all the news these days about hackers, why are some states plunging into internet voting. That story comes up next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. On an October morning back in 2010 a member of Washington D.C.'s city council held a public meeting to assess the city's readiness for the upcoming general election.

Mary:

I'm Mary Cheh. I'm the Ward 3 council member and also the chair of the committee on government operations and the environment.

Al Letson:

The focus of the meeting? The city's plan to try out internet voting. D.C. had opened up its system for security experts to check for potential problems. Attendance was sparse and honestly, it got off to a pretty mind-numbing start. Councilwoman Cheh admits as much as she calls the scheduled speakers. Some had just blown it off.

Mary:

[inaudible 00:19:50] Glover, public witness? [inaudible 00:19:54] Glover, public witness? They find a more exciting hearing, do you think?

Al Letson:

Then, about an hour in, something kind of astonishing happens. A small team sits down in front of Cheh. One of them is a polite-looking guy with rimless glasses and a timid smile. His name? Alex Halderman.

Mary:

Basically, you're a hacker. Is that what we're to understand?

Alex:

No, I'm a professor of computer science.

Mary:

Just checking, but just remember that I have to have things simple to be able to understand it, so despite how technical or sophisticated it is in reality, if you could just make it available to folks like myself and of course-

Al Letson:

Alex lays it all out. When he heard that D.C. was inviting people to test its internet voting system, he put together a team of computer science graduate students from the University of Michigan. Alex tells the council what he and his team were able to do.

Alex:

We modified all the ballots stored on the system that had already been cast by voters and we changed the votes so that the votes would be counted for candidates we selected. Mostly, they were evil science fiction robots. We also rigged the system to replace any future ballots that were cast in just the same way.

Al Letson:

Alex says, it didn't take long, about one day, to hijack the whole system. At this point, Councilwoman Cheh is staring at him like he dragged a key across her BMW. Remember, this is the program D.C. was hoping to start using in a couple weeks.

Mary:

You're a funny bunch over there.

Alex:

Well, we're a pretty serious bunch, too, but-

Al Letson:

There was a cherry on top, too. A little inside joke on the confirmation screen after you voted.

Alex:

After 15 seconds, that screen would start playing music. The University of Michigan fight song. This was my students' idea.

Al Letson:

Think about that. It took some college kids a day to hack into the foundation of our democracy. A day, but I guess that's the world we live in. A world in which the Obama administration recently accused Russia of stealing emails from Democrats to interfere in the election process. There are few things that we do on the internet that are totally safe from hacking, so why are more states relying on internet voting? That's where Reveal's Byard Duncan picks up the story.

Byard:

Here's where it all starts, right after the 2000 election. Bush v Gore, hanging chads, as we heard earlier in the show. Florida's recount in 2000 was thanks in part to unpredictable and outmoded election technology. In the end, the presidency was decided by just 537 votes. Around this time, the government began hiring experts to study a way of voting that they hoped would be even easier than trudging to the polls, internet voting.

Barbara:

My name is Barbara Simons.

Byard:

Barbara was one of those experts.

Barbara:

I've been working on issues related to insecure voting technologies for well over a decade.

Byard:

She co-authored several studies on internet voting in the early 2000s including one about a program called The Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment. Government types call it by its acronym, SERVE. SERVE was an internet-based voting system built for the department of defense. It was set up to make voting easier for military personnel and American citizens living abroad, 6 million people. Before it was launched, Barbara and the other auditors tested it and-

Barbara:

We produced this report after examining the system, looking at the security risks and we came out with a very strong recommendation not to move forward.

Byard:

She's being charitable. In fact, there isn't really a dainty way of saying this. Their study was a ruthless take down of SERVE. I had her read an excerpt.

Barbara:

We must consider the obvious fact that a US General Election offers one of the most tempting targets for cyber attacks in the history of the internet. Because the danger of successful large-scale attacks is so great, we reluctantly recommend shutting down the development of SERVE immediately and not attempting anything like it in the future until both the internet and the world's home computer infrastructure has been fundamentally redesigned or some other unforeseen security breakthrough appears.

Byard:

Just nine days after the SERVE report came out, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz pulled the plug. In a memo to his undersecretary, he said the system brought into doubt the integrity of the election results. Immediate steps needed to be taken to ensure no one used it to vote over the internet. It all could have ended there, but it didn't.

 

As we get close to the presidential election, some form of internet voting is allowed in 32 states. That's despite a pile of research raising red flags. It's despite a recent study that shows most Americans are against the technology. It's despite warnings from the government and strong indications that Russia is interested in messing with our election, so why is it allowed in more than half the country?

 

For one thing, there are good intentions. In most cases, internet voting is reserved for military and overseas voters. People who might run into trouble mailing their ballot the old-fashioned way. More importantly, though, it's not up to the federal government to decide how elections are run. It's up to the states, counties and cities, more than 9,000 jurisdictions all making their own calls and taking their own risks. We recently got a glimpse of how that's playing out in the state of Washington. There, they already allow internet votes to count for the military and residents living overseas. Now, they want to expand it to everyone.

Kim:

The use of this technology to vote and return ballots electronically is so relatively new. If you look in the world of elections. I'm concerned that the simple change, we haven't had time to think through what the possible things we're going to need to defend in the heat of a close election.

Byard:

That's the secretary of state, Kim Wyman. She's one of a bunch of lawmakers and public officials jammed into this conference room in Olympia last year. She's officially neutral and what she just said is the closest thing you'll hear to dissent at this meeting. Later, a guy from the company that sells internet voting software speaks in favor of the bill and so does a guy from the Department of Defense. Now, remember, that's the same place that scrapped its internet voting plans because of all the warnings it got from experts.

Speaker 27:

My name is Mark San Souci. I am the department of defense regional liaison for military families.

Byard:

He's got long hair pulled back and a neatly trimmed beard.

Speaker 27:

Thank you for the opportunity to present and speak in favor of this measure. Since reading this bill, I've spoken to a couple of auditors who feel like this would increase efficiencies in their office and also, 10% of our population are veterans.

Byard:

There are no cyber security experts here. If there were, they'd be pulling their hair out. All you've got is a company salesman and another company rep advocating for it. The secretary of state offering tepid warnings. Lawmakers haven't passed the bill yet, but it seems to be moving forward. Decisions about America's voting technology, in some ways our democracy, are being shaped in a series of small, boring conference rooms like this one all over the country. What does all this mean for this year's presidential election?

Speaker 28:

An election in turmoil. A presidency in the balance. A nation waits. Who will emerge the winner in the historic Florida recount?

Byard:

Remember back in 2000, how it was just 537 votes in Florida that decided the presidency? To affect an election, you don't need to hack every state. You just need good aim and an idea of the right spot to hit. Just one state could do it. Florida doesn't have that hanging chad issue anymore, but the state does have internet voting, so do 31 other states including four other swing states, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Colorado.

Speaker 29:

Evidently, there's a government official in Colorado who is on a mission to bring more common sense to government. His name is Wayne Williams, have you heard of him?

Wayne:

I have. In fact, that's me.

Byard:

This is from a jaunty YouTube video that Colorado secretary of state put together. He's the one in charge of elections. Here he is again, being faux interviewed by a faux reporter.

Wayne:

We like to look for common sense solutions to problems and that's what we're trying to do in elections and businesses, with non-profits, with the charitable organizations that we work with on a regular basis. We've made all of those things available online so it's easier for Coloradans to access, to use.

Byard:

One thing that some Coloradans can do online is submit their ballot. It's open to residents living overseas or in the military. If someone hacked their system, Colorado's 9 electoral college votes would be at risk. Since Colorado is a swing state, it's particularly important. I called up the secretary of state's office in Colorado to raise some of these concerns. I got a hold of Dwight Shellman, a manager in the elections division.

Speaker 31:

The need to enable military and overseas voters to participate meaningfully in the election outweighs the security concerns of electronic return.

Byard:

He has a lot of confidence in the security of Colorado's system. Voters, he says, have to jump through plenty of hoops before sending their ballot via e-mail. Print it out. Sign it. Scan it. Upload it. Hit send. In fact, he says, this isn't even internet voting.

Speaker 31:

Colorado law authorized military and overseas voters to obtain their ballots electronically and to return them electronically. We do not regard this as internet voting in the sense that somebody is casting a vote electronically, sending it to a server where the vote is then tabulated.

Byard:

The cyber security experts I talked to, they think this distinction is ridiculous. Here's Barbara Simons again, who warned DOD against internet voting.

Barbara:

The fact of the matter is, any time you send a voted ballot over the internet, it is internet voting and email goes over the internet. Email voting is, if anything, even more insecure than web-based voting because there are a great many ways in which email ballots could be interfered with, changed, hacked.

Byard:

There's a number of ways this could play out with votes cast over email. Hackers could gain control of the state's server, intercept voters' emails and delete them or change votes to favor one candidate over another. They could even write a program to do this automatically on a large scale. I brought these concerns back to Dwight Shellman. So is the Colorado secretary of state's official opinion that returning ballots over email is a completely safe, completely un-hackable process?

Lynn:

This is Lynn here.

Byard:

Lynn Bartels, the office's communications director jumps in here.

Lynn:

The secretary just spoke at a group today and he said when it comes to security and that sort of thing, never say never, but we believe our system right now is as safe as we can possibly make it.

Byard:

As safe as we can possibly make it. That's internet voting's main compromise, but it's a dangerous one. Remember how Florida was decided in 2000 by a little more than 500 votes. Colorado is expecting to get 8,500 votes over the internet this November. Colorado probably won't decide the election this year. A lot of experts say hackers don't actually want to steal the election, they just want to throw the country into political chaos.

 

I still haven't shown you exactly how someone could mess with an election. To understand that, there's maybe no better case study than the D.C. test. We told you earlier that University of Michigan professor Alex Halderman and his team were able to hack D.C.'s internet voting pilot. Now, you're going to hear how they did it.

Alex:

Everyone get excited. Is everyone ready for excitement?

Byard:

His team sets up in his office, orders pizza and gets to work. You've got to understand, this pilot is a bit of a golden egg for cybersecurity folks, a first of its kind chance to pop the hood and see how our elections could be run in the future. Alex describes it this way.

Alex:

There's never been another case where there's been such a realistic opportunity for people to simulate what a real attacker would do. It's not every day that you're invited to hack into government computers without going to jail.

Byard:

The team has 36 hours to break into D.C.'s system. Within the first day, they find a critical vulnerability. Behind everything we normal internet users see on our screen is a hidden string of code. It's like the instructions that tell the computer what to do. The team begins looking at that code and they find a small mistake.

Alex:

There was a certain place where the programmer had used double quotation marks when they should have used single quotation marks.

Byard:

Wait, wait, wait. That was it?

Alex:

That was it. That was the only problem and yet it turned out to be enough to let us get into the system, take full control of the servers and change all the votes.

Byard:

This is what's called a shell injection vulnerability. Hackers look for a weakness then inject their own commands, their own strings of code and start steering the ship. People using the program, in this case, pilot voters can't tell the difference.

Alex:

Let's steal things. Let's steal.

Byard:

Once they're in, the Michigan team casts a huge net through D.C.'s systems, stealing and storing every piece of information they can find. Passwords, files, addresses.

Alex:

Oh, that basically told us everything. We don't even really need to read the code.

Byard:

It's a real hoot to watch. The students are so excited, they can barely stand themselves, tugging at their hair, cracking their knuckles, flashing goofy smiles. They even get access to the election office's security cameras. They watch the night guard mosey around the facilities after hours and in true nerd fashion-

Alex:

We went in and replaced all of the ballots that had been voted with our own ballots which, instead of any of the candidates, just had write-in votes for evil robots and AI from sci-fi and the movies.

Byard:

As the test period is about to end, they check their work. There would be no paper trail. No way for users to know they're delivering their votes on a silver platter to the hackers. Unlike traditional ballot box stuffing, this cyber tampering works on a large scale. It could affect thousands of voters simultaneously, but from a normal citizen's standpoint, everything looks exactly as it ought to except for one thing. Yeah, that Michigan fight song.

Alex:

Well, guys, what does this mean about internet voting.

Speaker 33:

In its current state, it probably shouldn't be deployed.

Alex:

Beyond much doubt for me. Small mistakes, huge problems.

Al Letson:

That was Reveal's Byard Duncan. I want to go back to a couple points we made quickly about who's behind the recent political hacks and what hackers could actually do with the vote.

Herbert:

I believe, personally, that Russia is behind the recent anomalies in the U.S. election system.

Al Letson:

That's Herbert Lin. He's a Senior Research Scholar for Cyber Security and Policy at Stanford University and a former staff scientist for the House Armed Services Committee. He's another one of those experts that's worried about what could happen this November. He says if Russia targeted our election, they wouldn't necessarily need to swing the results, they'd just need to sow doubt. Let a sore loser do the rest.

Herbert:

They certainly do have the motive, means and opportunities here and they certainly have a preferred candidate. There's just no question about that.

Al Letson:

Meaning, Donald Trump. With all of this in mind, should internet voting help decide who's going to become the next president of the United States?

Herbert:

To decide who's going to be president of the ski club is fine. Internet voting to decide who's going to become president of the United States, uhn-huh [negative].

Al Letson:

That pretty much says it all. How about an old-school solution to voting? The U.S. postal service. There are problems there too. That's next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. There's a new podcast out by PRX and Honolulu Civic Beat, it's called Offshore and I love this podcast because it looks at paradise with a completely different lens. Most of us think about Hawaii as a place that we go to vacation and party, have a good time, but just like everywhere else, paradise has its problems. Hawaii is one of the most diverse places in the world, but it's also a place where many of the native islanders look at America with resentment. They feel that the United States just came in and took away their sovereign nation. You take those issues, power struggles and race and the friction that's borne from those things rubbing up against each other, you create stories that you get to hear every week in Offshore. Check it out. Subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

 

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. While some places have made high-tech changes to voting, others are using low tech, more old-school methods to cast ballots like the U.S. postal service. Voting by mail is getting more popular because it's more convenient and it seems to make a lot of sense, unless you live in a place like the Navajo reservation in San Jan County, Utah. One of the most rural, remote corners of the United States. Early one morning, reporter Rachel Quester from Scripps News podcast Decode DC and two colleagues from Arizona State University's News 21 Project set off in the pitch dark to find out why switching to ballot by mail has thrown a monkey wrench into the voting system in this part of the reservation.

Rachel Quester:

It's 5:30 in the morning and we're driving across San Juan County to a place called Navajo Mountain. San Juan County is in southern Utah and it's enormous, almost 8,000 square miles, which is about the size of Massachusetts. For all that land, only about 15,000 people live here. A little more than half are members of the Navajo Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States. After a while, it starts to feel like we're driving into another world as the highway wraps around massive red rock formations. It's stunning. It's also completely desolate.

Speaker 36:

Holy Sh-

Rachel Quester:

Whoa. Suddenly, we come up on a group of crows or maybe ravens eating road kill and one decides not to get out of the way and ends up crashing into our windshield.

Speaker 36:

Whoops. I think he's okay.

Rachel Quester:

We think he flew away. There weren't any signs of feathers on the car. Finally, after driving more than 150 miles, we make it to Navajo Mountain. We pull up to a small, old building. We've come to meat Terry Whitehat who grew up here. By now, the desert sun in intense, so he leads us to the shade of a cotton wood tree.

Terry:

My younger sister, baby sister, was born under that tree, a natural birth.

Rachel Quester:

Terry is soft spoken with dark eyes, an easy smile and a thick crop of short black hair. He left the reservation years ago, went to college, then he got a job collecting child support in Phoenix, but now he's come back home to take care of his aging parents who are both sick. Terry's also come back home to take care of his people. Right now, the Navajo people in San Juan County are worried about next month's election. They're not really sure where they can vote or how. See, for as long as Terry can remember, there were six places spread across the reservation where people could vote. Right now, it's looking like there will only be three. Until recently, they'd all disappeared.

Terry:

I'm just simply asking that the polling place be available and that we have interpreters available like we had in the past before the mail-in ballot became what it is. I'm just simply asking for that. I don't believe it's a huge request.

Rachel Quester:

The confusions started back in 2014, when Terry opened his mail and learned the news that San Juan County had decided to switch to mail-in ballots only. This plan called for shutting down all the reservation's polling places.

Terry:

My reaction was, where's equity? That was my initial response to how they were going to go mail-in ballot. Basically, it's impossible.

Rachel Quester:

If it's impossible to vote, Terry says Navajos won't be able to elect people who will help them deal with problems on their reservation.

Terry:

A lot of the homes out here, we don't have running pipe waters, so it would be nice to have water in homes and during winter time it can be a travesty. Those are services that I want.

Rachel Quester:

There's a lot at stake on the reservation. Nearly a third of Navajo households in San Juan County make less than $10,000 a year and that's led to other huge problems like alcoholism, diabetes and suicide. Problems that elected officials can address.

Terry:

I believe casting a vote would, at least, for someone who advocates for American Indian would make those sort of decisions.

Rachel Quester:

This is what's motivating Terry and other tribal members along with the ACLU to sue San Juan County over that switch to mail-in voting, which they say is a problem for three reasons. The first is the postal service itself. It just doesn't look like what most Americans experience. According to the lawsuit, some people on the reservation have to travel as many as 30 or 40 miles to pick up their mail and a lot of that drive can be on rough dirt roads, so many of them go to the post office once a month. In 2014, the county sent voters their ballots just three weeks before the election and a lot of tribal members didn't have enough time to fill them out and mail them in. Even if the mail weren't an issue, there's a second obstacle. You might not be able to read the ballot.

Terry:

What about those people that don't speak English?

Rachel Quester:

That's Terry again.

Terry:

What happens to those people? How are they going to cast their vote? Who's going to help them? I was irate.

Rachel Quester:

According to the census bureau, almost one in 10 eligible voters in San Juan County is not fluent in English. Under the Voting Rights Act, the county is required to provide all voting materials in both English and Navajo. The plaintiffs say that didn't happen in 2014 because here's the thing, Navajo is pretty much just a spoken language. The ballots are written in English. Some voters, especially the elderly, need translators.

Speaker 38:

[Navajo 00:44:54]

Rachel Quester:

This is what the Navajo language sounds like.

Speaker 38:

[Navajo 00:45:02]

Rachel Quester:

We're at a chapter house meeting in Red Mesa, Utah. Chapter houses are like community centers for the tribe. English occasionally gets sprinkled in when there isn't a Navajo word that works.

[00:45:15]
Speaker 38:

 

Utah Water Rights [Navajo 00:45:17].

Rachel Quester:

When English is spoken, the elderly in the room kind of zone out. Before the changes to voting in 2014, when a Navajo speaker showed up to vote, there was someone to help them translate the ballot. Now, problem number three. When the county switched to mail-in ballots, it did keep one place open where tribal members and other county residents could vote in person, but it was off the reservation at the clerk's office in the county seat of Monticello a town that's about 85% white.

Terry:

Traveling from here to Monticello, I believe it is six hour drive one direction, depending on which route you take.

Rachel Quester:

According to the lawsuit, only one in 10 Native American households in San Juan County has a car. I decided to make the drive to Monticello, to get a first hand look at the county seat where all the decisions get made. It's a little town nestled between mountains and rolling plains. Oh, here's a sign. Welcome to Monticello, home of the Hideout. I'm not sure what the Hideout is. Everything here is centered around Main Street. There are little shops and restaurants, a grocer store, red brick schools that look pretty new. This feels about as far away from the reservation as you can get. I decide to go to the Hideout, which as it turns out, is a golf course. I want to get an idea of what people here think of voting by mail.

Tyler:

It's good. It's easier to vote that way.

Rachel Quester:

This is Tyler Ivans, he's the head golf pro for the Hideout course. He lives about 20 miles down the road in a town called Blanding, which is the one place in the county where mail is delivered to your home. Tyler says, he voted by mail in 2014.

Tyler:

Yeah, more convenient for us where we work, we're busy. Family, life gets going and just don't have time to vote unless it comes right to your house. It's easier.

Rachel Quester:

In a place like Monticello, even though everyone uses a PO Box, the post office is within walking distance to people's homes.

Jesse:

I think that vote by mail is the future. It gives people better access to voting.

Rachel Quester:

That's Jesse Trentadue. He's an attorney based in Salt Lake City and he's defending the county in the lawsuit. He says in 2014 was a huge success.

Jesse:

Turnout, in the primary races, I recall went from 25% participation by Navajo voters to over 54% with vote by mail.

Rachel Quester:

The plaintiffs, they point to different numbers. They say, if you look at the general election results for 2014, Navajo voting went down. Even though the county says vote by mail was a big success, in March of this year, after the Navajo lawsuit was filed, the county announced it was reopening three of the six voting precincts on the reservation. They were open in time for the presidential primary in June, so Jesse Trentadue just doesn't understand why the Navajo are continuing with this lawsuit.

Jesse:

This lawsuit was [comissed 00:48:28] by the ACLU based upon the 2014 procedures. They never bothered to find out what the procedure were currently. That's an insult. What they're saying is ... The county has told the court what it's going to do, and the county's not going to do it.

Rachel Quester:

Yeah, that's basically what people on the reservation think. There's so little trust that the tribe even asked the Department of Justice to come out in October of 2015 and investigate vote by mail. Jesse says, the DOJ looked at the procedures and said they were fine, but a DOJ spokesman told us that the department has never approved the procedures. A federal court has told both the county and the tribe that it won't make a final ruling on the lawsuit until after the election. In the meantime, the tribe asked for a temporary injunction to restore all six polling places for November and lay out marching orders for the county and with less than a month to go, some people preparing for the election are really confused.

Edith:

My name is Edith [taw-hee 00:49:34] and this past election, I was the interpreter.

Rachel Quester:

Edith has lived on the reservation her whole life. This past June, she was the interpreter for the Oljato Senior Center. That's one of the precincts that was reopened by the county.

Edith:

That would be the San Juan County school district.

Rachel Quester:

She says things didn't go so well.

Edith:

This past year, they didn't provide us with any translation stuff.

Rachel Quester:

Edith says she didn't get any training on how to translate the primary ballot and she hasn't gotten any for the upcoming election either. In the past, she says, there used to be formal training from the county.

Edith:

That's what we did then, but now there's nothing.

Rachel Quester:

Then you haven't gotten any information for the upcoming election?

Edith:

No, no information, so ...

Rachel Quester:

You don't know if you'll be working or not?

Edith:

Yep. I don't know if I'm going to be working or not.

Rachel Quester:

Then, just days ago, a federal court denied the tribe's request for an injunction. This means that just three polling places will be open on the reservation. The same ones that were open for the primary. Terry Whitehat and the other plaintiffs, they'll have to wait until after the election for a final ruling from the court, but Terry says it's worth it because lawsuits are the only way the Navajo people in San Juan County have ever made progress.

Terry:

Lawsuits are not easy and they're costly is my point and they're time consuming. Everything that we've been fighting for from health care to road maintenance to education to voting rights, we are fighting for these issues. It's daunting. It really is. Sorry.

Al Letson:

Thanks to reporter Rachel Quester from Scripps News and Arizona State University's News 21 for helping out with this story. Check out Rachel's reporting on Decode DC, a podcast that breaks down how politics actually affects your life. This is our second show looking at potential problems on election day. A couple weeks ago, we looked at what's happened since the Supreme Court gutted key parts of the Voting Rights Act. If you missed it, you can download that show called Voting Rights and Wrongs at revealnews.org/podcast. A reminder, we will have reporters across the country on election day, so if you run into any problems at your polling place, tweet us @reveal.

 

Today's show was edited by Taki Telonidis and Andy Donohue. Amy Walters and Laura Starecheski were our lead producers. Thanks to Ellen Weiss from Scripps News and Pamela Smith from Verified Voting. We also want to thank WHYY in Philadelphia for providing production support for this week's show. Our sound design team is the Wonder Twins, my man J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire "C-note" Mullen. This week they had extra help from Paul [vi-cas 00:52:38]. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is the co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.