Did a Tea Party hacker defeat Eric Cantor? We can never know.

Cantor.jpgNews coverage of Eric Cantor’s defeat in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District primary provides one of the most dramatic displays of psychological denial you are ever likely to witness.

After declaring the 56%-44% results to be “astonishing”, “a shocker”, “stunning”, and “historically unprecedented” the pundits go on to make dozens of guesses about how unknown Tea Party challenger Dave Brat knocked off the sitting House Majority Leader.

But if you check the dozens of hypotheticals floated by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, on and on, —you will find no mention of the possibility of electronic miscount.

The pundits grasp at every straw--except one. Maybe Cantor's support for immigration reform doomed him. Well, no, most of the 7th District voters support reform. Okay, maybe a crossover Democratic vote? Over-confident Cantor voters staying home? No evidence of those, either. It certainly wasn’t that Brat spent more money. The Tea Party itself didn’t invest in that race. Pundits offer dozens more guesses; you can peruse some of them here, here, and here

What is never discussed--not even mentioned--is a possible electronic miscount—something that has already happened in many elections elsewhere and that IT professionals consider a routine occurrence, given the inadequate IT management practices of America’s election officials.

The pre-election voting-machine security maintained by Virginia and its vendors is no better than other states’, and certainly far less rigorous than that used by, say, Target and eBay. Is any pundit so naïve and trusting to think that not even one Tea Party sympathizer (it would take only one) has the ability to hack rural Virginia’s electronic elections technology?

And unlike Target and eBay, which routinely audit to discover whether their computers' operations were affected by mistakes, malfunctions, or deliberate manipulation, Virginia (like most other states, including Wisconsin) treats the vote-tabulators as if they were Greek Oracles, providing raw output too sacred to be questioned or reviewed by mere humans before it is acted upon. Brad Friedman, a national commentator who concentrates on voting machine integrity, reports that 60 percent of the votes in Cantor’s primary were cast on touch-screen voting machines designed to leave no auditable record of the votes cast on those machines. (That type of machine is illegal in Wisconsin.) Got that? If a hacker succeeded in tampering with the vote-recording or vote-tabulating software in those machines, the truth cannot now be discovered. Would-be hackers know this, even if the pundits shield their eyes from these facts and journalists withhold them from voters.  

What is the cause of the blindness to a clear and simple possibility that would routinely be investigated first if any other IT system produced such dramatically unexpected output?

Your guess is as good as mine. My most charitable guess is that political journalists and pundits are not inclined to lead the national discussion into areas they know little about, which include elections administration and prudent management of information technology.  They want to talk about only those things they like to talk about.

But it’s hard to be charitable when all it really takes is common sense, not specialized knowledge. The pundits know enough about IT management that they’d immediately recognize a scandal if a grocery store chain never audited its checkout scanners and refused to verify its computers' output unless the customer paid for a rescan. Can you imagine the headlines if a bank set its ATMs up to be completely unauditable?

This surprising result in Virginia provides a perfect opening to educate our fellow citizens. Chances are, in the next couple weeks, each of us will find ourselves in discussions about Eric Cantor’s defeat. Use the opportunity to point out the common sense about prudent management of elections technology:

  • Point out how ridiculous it is that elections are the one and only application of computer technology in business or government where major, consequential decisions are made on the basis of unaudited--often unauditable--computer output.
  • Point out that our voting machines are programmed in secret by private vendors, who are accountable to no one for their IT security procedures.
  • Point out that the voting machines are managed by local elected officials, none of whom is required to have any specialized expertise in IT security.
  • And above all, point out that the output of those poorly managed computers is nearly universally certified as our final election results before being checked for accuracy, and rarely verified even after that.

Make sure they understand that with our current lack of post-election audits, we can never know whether anyone hacked Virginia’s 7th District primary.

Make sure they understand it is just as bad that we can never know as it would be if we knew for sure it had been rigged.

At least if we knew that the election was rigged, we could fix it. If we have no way even to notice fraud when it occurs, all the pre-election security measures are mere decoration--and those who have the motive, ability, and opportunity to steal our elections know that.

Update, June 2015: Less than a year after Cantor lost his seat, poll workers in one Virginia polling place noticed that voting machines would crash whenever someone tried to download music using an iPhone. The investigation was wisely taken away from the election officials and given to the state's IT office. It resulted in emergency decertification and replacement of the machines. Investigators determined, too late for Eric Cantor, that Virginians had been voting on "the worst voting machine in the US." 


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