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Election-Stealing Voting Machines Theories: Secret Decoder Ring, Appendices

After Points

In my just concluded 3-part series, I provided some plain talk about the nonsense of several kinds of theories about elections stolen via voting machines. However, I didn’t cover two important related points: 1) what our adversaries can do to attack our democratic elections, and 2) what you, the reader can do to help.

Consider my 3 main points and then the remaining question:

  1. Part 1: “Evil Fellowship” of election officials stealing elections with fancy voting system technology? Nope.
  2. Part 2: Concerned about “Evil Software” invisibly stealing elections? Use the Two Pillars of real information about how elections work, plus your common sense to get the answer: Nope.
  3. Part 3: State sponsored adversaries with invisible wraith-like evil powers to hack elections? Nope. With “unhackable” paper ballots and audits, we can have the “Return of Common Sense.”

The remaining question is: We know our adversaries are real so, what kind of hacking can they really do?  And what can you do about it?  Surprisingly, you can do a lot. (OK, technically, that’s two questions.)

Appendix A: Concerning Enemies

Nation state adversaries of America have skilled cyber operatives who could hack our elections’ critical infrastructure, deploying “Evil Software” in their mission to weaken our democratic elections. However, when you worry about this Evil Software, there is one thing you really need to know:

It wants to be found.

If our adversaries did succeed in 1) hacking voting systems, 2) altering the vote totals, and 3) not getting caught, then the most effective attack on Americans’ confidence in a U.S. election would be to reveal the hack!  That’s right: the real attack would be to make sure you (and everyone else) knew about it.

That’s what we call a “perception hack” — that is, building on something that’s true or “sort of true” to drive a disinformation campaign to change the audience’s perception. The best timing would be right during a post-election frenzy of suspicion over fraud (like we just had) for the adversaries to basically say,

Yep, we did in fact hack your elections… right here, we caused you to certify this candidate as the winner, who actually lost — and now what are you going to do about it?”

Just like these zombie election fraud theories that keep shambling along, such a “perception hack” would be very powerful and impossible to unwind — millions would continue to believe this simple lie because the truth is inconveniently not simple, and requires some time and attention to understand.

Appendix B: Concerning You

But there is plenty that you can do individually, to help strengthen our elections:

  • Please don’t stop being concerned about security vulnerabilities in election technology!
  • Please don’t stop being “Missouri show-me” skeptical about election results!
  • Please do support the development of new election technology that’s built for security, and built to help election officials better “show you,” in order to prove that election results are correct.

To these points, a better approach that you can support starts here and results in this.

Regardless, right now, please do use this Secret Decoder Ring (series) to stop amplifying a bunch of ill-informed theories about technology used to steal elections.

Appendix C: On Language And People

And there’s one more really important thing that you can do to work against the disinformation attacks on our confidence in our elections:

Please help your friends and relatives stop feeding the “stolen election” stories that are based on Evil Technology. In doing so, you will be doing your patriotic duty to speak simple truth to conveniently complex lies, and you’ll be helping defuse the real attack on US elections — lies that de-legitimize our elections and weaken American democracy.

Your actions are important because the most important immediate issue isn’t the technology; the most important immediate thing is the work we all need to do to strengthen American democracy.  And having come full circle back to that starting point, I can only say:

Well, I’m back.”

EJS

Election-Stealing Voting Machines Theories: Secret Decoder Ring, Part 3

Part 3 of 3

I’m back again with my final entry in the Secret Decoder Ring series that you can use to decode and discard pretty much any theory along the lines of “Election 2020 Stolen via Fancy Technology.” Like all good trilogies, this Part 3 builds on the other two, and as a result is shorter! (But with an appendix, of course.)

  • In Part 1, I explained how it is reasonable to worry about conspiracies of election officials to steal an election, but not reasonable to worry about them using complicated tech as the means to do so. Much easier methods (methods less likely to get detected as well) are available.
  • In Part 2, we looked at the variation in which the election officials are honest, but the voting system software is crooked, built by Evil Software creators at voting system vendors, to intentionally steal elections under the noses of the honest election officials. In many walks of life, Evil Software is a real concern, but in the specific cases of elections, there are specific audit processes done specifically to detect and correct when Evil Software (or just buggy software, of which there is a lot) has produced a wrong election result.

Here in this final part, l cover the next variant: where the evil doers are neither election officials nor voting system vendors, but nation state adversaries who have the ability to hack the election technology and steal the election.

That’s probably the sexiest story, and in some ways the most credible, because we know that we really do have nation state adversaries intent on messing with US elections, and who have previously attacked election infrastructure (voter registration systems).

It’s also credible because it’s now widely understood that voting systems are in fact easy to hack. How not? The central brains of a voting system, the election management system (EMS) is just ordinary software running on a Windows PC.

Even if the voting system software were completely free of security vulnerabilities (which is not the case, as many tests and inspections have shown), the underlying Windows software has vulnerabilities that enable it to be hacked, and then attack the software running on it, whether EMS or ballot counting software.

Again, the issue is not the potential for such attacks, but the ability for attackers to succeed and not get caught, to succeed in stealthily stealing an election. Would those expert level hackers be able to do that?

Here is the common sense reason to be skeptical of these stories.

All these hypothetical hacks are just means to inject Evil Software into voting systems. Just as in Part 2, it’s really hard for Evil Software to not get caught, when honest election officials are checking the work of the software (from honest voting system vendors) by auditing the paper ballots, in order to detect malfunction whether Evil or otherwise.

Everything in Part 2 applies here as well. It just doesn’t matter whether the hypothetical Evil Software was built-in by evil voting system vendors, or injected later (via a successful hack, or cyber attack) by nefarious hackers of foreign nations. Either way, Evil Software has to read minds and predict the future, in order to not get caught during pre-election testing or post-tabulation audits.

Those pre- and post- checks do not protect us from the existence of Evil Software (there can always be Evil Software), but these checks do protect us from Evil Software not being detected even as it successfully steals an election. So yes, we face world class computer hackers; however, they cannot hack paper ballots (or the manual process of auditing those ballots.)  Given that extra fact from election-land, you can use your common sense to realize that when our election officials perform their paper-ballot duties properly, the best hackers in the world cannot get away with an undetected and uncorrected exploit.

And that’s it for the big three myths about elections stolen via technology.

But wait, there’s some more: an appendix (coming soon) with two more sober points: 1) what our adversaries can do to attack our democratic elections, and 2) what you, the reader can do to help.

EJS

Election-Stealing Voting Machines Theories: Secret Decoder Ring, Part 2

Part 2 of 3

I’m back again with another entry in the Secret Decoder Ring series that you can use to decode and discard pretty much any theory along the lines of “Election 2020 Stolen via Fancy Technology.”

In Part 1, I boiled down one whole family of theories to its essentials — a conspiracy of election officials (EOs) formed to steal the presidential election — and pointed out that such a conspiracy could do its work with less risk and a lot less hassle with basic dirty tricks that pre-date even the very first voting machines.

And I’ll add a one final point here before we move on.

Suppose you really are concerned about such a conspiracy, and you really think that the members of this evil fellowship really are intent on using detectable technology-based methods rather than undetectable paper ballot tampering. Well then, here’s a much more simple technology-based method that’s more believable than the complicated stories.

A bent EO does not need to mess with arcane voting system features and mathematical vote shifting and goodness knows what else has been imagined. All they need to do is tamper with the output of the voting system, which after all is not much more than a table of numbers, that ordinary tools like text editors and spreadsheets can tinker with to get the exact same results (i.e., some specific desired false vote totals) — with a lot less hassle.

So, please, forget about all the election management system software mumbo-jumbo — no sensible election fraud perpetrator would do it that way; and a really sensible crooked Election Official would go after the paper ballots that are in their custody, and not mess with the technology. (And again, in our experience “crooked election official” is an oxymoron.)

Now, let’s move on to another theory, in which it is not the election officials falsifying election results using digital tools, but rather shadowy technology people who have embedded some sneaky hidden code into voting machine software, and/or election management system (EMS) software to steal the election right under the noses of the honest hard working EOs.  Is this a more credible theory?

Slightly.

First, let’s be clear: there is plenty of evil software in the world, and plenty of evil-doers too: keyloggers in computer games that also steal your passwords; ransomware tools used by cyber criminals to extort money; the Solarwinds hack that put a “sniffer” on many thousands of sensitive networks, and more. Nearly every kind of software you use also has the possibility of containing malicious code; or if it doesn’t at first, it can have a bug that’s a security vulnerability that opens the door to inserting some malicious code into your copy of the software.

And of course, these basic facts of life in computing also apply to software in voting machines, ballot scanners, and EMSs. The scanners’ software could, for example, have hidden code that did get used to intentionally incorrectly record a vote for “candidate A” as a vote for “candidate B”. That’s as possible as any other software evil deed that you can imagine — it’s all software, it’s all possible, but that possibility doesn’t mean it actually happened (especially in this case of the 2020 election).

Part 2 of Using the Decoder Ring

You should not be persuaded by the “Evil Software” theory.

Here is why.  These basic facts of life in computing are not something new to elections. Quite the reverse!

Everybody in election technology land knows this.  That’s why we’ve been moving away from invisibly hackable all-computer paperless voting systems, to better systems with paper ballots, modern high speed scanners for rapid counts, and support for people to cross-check the computer’s work and detect when the software made mistakes (accidental or malicious, or anything else).

The fact that (in most of the US) elections are all-paper ballots, with computerized counts that can be cross-checked manually, makes the job of Evil Software pretty difficult, if the Evil Software’s developers want the software to do its evil work and not get caught.

It’s difficult because with honest election officials, the Evil Software needs to be able to “read minds” and “predict the future, in order to be effective.

I hope that broad statement convinces you that such election stealing Evil Software is unlikely, but let me explain what I mean.

  • Cheating software needs to know when to cheat and when not to cheat, in order to avoid detection — as the Volkswagen emissions testing software developers learned the hard way years ago.
  • In elections, every ballot counting machine is tested for errors, to ensure that during a controlled test with test ballots, the vote counts are exactly as expected from human counts of the same ballots.
  • Cheating software would have to know when the people operating them were testing or not — that is, reading the minds of the people using a voting system in test mode.
  • You might suppose that clever software could be more predictive, like cheating only when it can tell that it is Election Day; but the fact is that the machines are operated for a period of weeks, and both testing and real usage can happen on the same day.
  • And of course, the testing itself could include (for realism) setting the system clock to pretend to be Election Day.

So that’s what I meant by reading minds.  Now, here is why I said “predict the future.”

When ballot counting systems’ work is cross-checked by people, it’s done with a sample of real counted ballots that’s chosen randomly, after all the vote counting is complete.

  • If the post-tabulation selected ballots included some ballots that the Evil Software intentionally mis-counted, then that miscount would be detected when the auditors’ vote counts differed from the vote counts of the Evil Software.
  • So, the Evil Software would need to know ahead of time which ballots to not cheat the count of lest they be chosen in the post-tabulation selection.
  • Did I mention the ballot selection is particularly and intentionally random?  You see the issue.

Of course, a dedicated conspiracy theorist can always come up with additional theories to work around sensible explanations, so I am not going to venture down every possible rabbit hole.  Instead, I just want you to understand the point is to use common sense to see that beyond the claim of “vote stealing software” are details that are very hard for Evil Software developers to address.

However, I’ll tackle one more: the variant theory where it is not the tabulators with the Evil Software, but instead, the central brains of a voting system, what we call the “election management system” (EMS).

  • Sure, EMS software could be evil in its critical function of taking the ballot-counters’ tallies and adding them all up.
  • EMS Evil Software could just intentionally add up the tallies wrongly, to favor one candidate.

But remember the point about not getting caught?

  • The vote tally data itself is public, whether paper tapes posted publicly in voting places, or data posted during publicly observed central counting of ballots — all before an EMS swings to action to stack up all the vote tallies.
  • Anybody who wants to, can take the public raw data and add up the tallies themselves to get the true vote totals.

That’s a simple fact that makes all the Evil EMS theories look pretty silly. 

Yet, if you didn’t know the facts about how ballot counting is conducted for public transparency, then the stories sound possible.

The same is true when you don’t know about the very detailed activities in the “canvass” process that states do after all ballots are counted, but before certifying election results — a lot of cross checks to catch possible errors by election officials or election technology.

So, like I explained in Part 1, you don’t need to know a bunch of techie stuff to be skeptical of these election-stolen-by-technology stories; you just need to learn a few facts and apply your common sense.

A bit of new information, and your common sense:

The Two Pillars of the not-so-secret decoder ring.