Serendipity strikes: Two great stories on one day

Rick Hasen’s indispensable Election Law blog provided a great juxtaposition of two stories yesterday that, when read in parallel, frame some very interesting issues about ensuring the integrity of elections.

The first story is about how a group of researchers at Argonne National Labs used some cheap equipment to fashion a voting machine hack that would allow bad guys to change votes via remote control.  Of course, the hack would require unfettered access to secure voting machines; a hack of a lot of equipment would probably required unfettered access for days.  And, to implement it would require a conspiracy of mammoth proportions.

I would normally view this as a sensational stunt, abetted by a reporter looking to freak people out, not educate about the problems facing election administration that are right below our noses.  (As an alternative, I’m thinking about Pam Fessler’s very fine NPR report the other day.)

Not so fast.  Close to this posting on Rick’s site is this great, must-read essay by Lorraine Minnite, which deconstructs Hans von Spakovsky’s use of a 1984 Brooklyn Grand Jury report in defense of voter id laws.  The actual facts of the case, as recounted by Minnite, revolve around a massive conspiracy to defraud the election count, perpetuated as an inside job by election officials themselves.  They used their unfettered access to paper records to frame opponents and rig outcomes.  One outcome of the grand jury probe was a much tighter set of restrictions, including greater surveillance and record keeping surrounding sensitive parts of the elections department.

Putting these two stories together suggests the following three points, at the very least:

  1. The history of American elections shows that there are conditions under which an Argonne-like hack could be perpetuated.  We can argue about whether this is the most effective way to hack an election — the Argonne hack cost $26 per machine, whereas the Brooklyn hack probably cost pennies per machine — but it’s not hard to think of a plausible scenario.
  2. Both paper and electronic systems are subject to being hijacked by crooked election workers.  Transparency, surveillance of sensitive sites, and chain-of-custody procedures are wonky policy issues that need more attention from the public.
  3. We need balance in reporting of risks to the voting system.  The core of Minnite’s posting is about how von Spakovsky’s use of the grand jury report shifts our attention from problems that could easily mushroom if not corrected (with real, enforceable solutions) to solutions-in-search-of-a problem.  The actual story in Brooklyn is in fact a story of balancing the totality of the evidence, coming to a balanced solution.  The Argonne story is entirely unbalanced.  Yes, there is a vulnerability.  How likely is it?  How likely is it compared to other ways of hacking electronic systems?  How likely is it compared to ways of hacking paper systems?  How likely is it compared to hacking other parts of the election system?  These aren’t sexy questions.  No surprisingly, there’s no reporter clamoring to write that story.