One of the things I like to do is have a coffee and watch the Sunday news shows. Granted sometimes I run a bit behind like this week. Today was one of those occasions when I watched a segment of Face The Nation from Sunday, August 16, 2020. It was a segment in which Margaret Brennan interviewed Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former CTO of CrowdStrike, about his concerns about our election being “hacked.”
During the interview Breanan noted that Alperovitch appeared to stress … “that is the best option is to go old school, go paper.” He follow-up with the following:
Well, paper cannot be hacked, however, there is a legitimate concerns about logistics. I’m not so much concerned about foreign entities interfering in the paper process, but we do need to make sure that states are prepared to take in the huge number of mail-in ballots that will come in. They’ll be able to do the signature verification that is necessary to make sure that there is no fraud. It can be done.”
The thing that caught my attention is that “paper cannot be hacked.” I don’t like phrases that reflect such absolutes. Documents can be altered. They can be forged, duplicated, and counterfeited. The trick is to accomplish it so that it can be accepted as if it is a true original. Prime examples of where counterfeiting occurs are currency, identification documents (drivers license) and trademark labels on counterfeit goods.
As a result, governments and companies have incorporated increasing complex methods to make it easier to differentiate the fakes from the legitimate. However, even with methods it sometimes takes an “expert” to clearly identify which are fakes and which are not. This is one reason why law enforcement frequently has a company representative on hand when investigating counterfeit trademarks/goods.
Years ago in my career I worked with the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), which sometimes took on the role of supervising union officer elections. Union officer elections by federal law provide that members are able to cast their votes in “secret” in such elections. Many union officer elections were conducted solely by mail-in ballots. There had to be an accounting for all ballots printed and cast. A clear indication of fraud would be more ballots cast then printed.
The law required that only members could cast their vote without their actual choice being attributed specifically to them. Ballot numbering was sometimes a mistake for unions starting out with mail-in ballot elections. They would number the ballot and that number would coincide with the list names of who were sent a ballot. This they felt would insure integrity in the voting. However it violated the law as the vote was not cast in secret as the member’s votes could be specifically attributed to them via a comparison of the ballot number to the list of individuals sent particular ballot.
Members also for obvious reasons couldn’t case more than one vote. If for some reason they didn’t get a ballot they could request a second ballot. Predetermined procedures were in place to ensure if multiple ballots were returned from one member only one ballot, usually the last received was counted.
Mail-in ballots for elections face the same challenges. A citizen must be allowed to cast their vote in secret. However, steps must be taken to insure that only those legitimate voters can cast a ballot. Additionally, voters can’t cast more than one ballot successfully.
Currently there is much concern about mailing ballots to voters. There are legitimate arguments on both sides. Some argue it will lead to fraud. Those on the other side noted if we don’t allow mail-in voting we will disenfranchise the citizenry that is afraid to cast an in-person ballot due to Covid concerns. The truth is mail in ballots has worked for years for unions as well as in general elections and can be accomplished successfully provided fair and established rules are followed.
Now let’s go back to what started this discussion, specifically “paper cannot be hacked.” This implies to me that one can’t “hack” the system via paper. Having worked in law enforcement for over 30 years I know that any criminal committed to an endeavor will find a way to overcome the restrictions. Modern technology has made it possible for anyone with the criminal intent to make it possible. Granted they don’t always get away with it but they will try. Governments intent on illegal methods to gain their ends are no different, with the exception they have the resources to get away with it successfully.
I would agree that disrupting the election via “hacking” digital means is likely the cheapest method for those willing to attempt it. However, I would not discount the ability to “hack”paper, with the mail-in ballot being the most likely target of such attempts. The “voter’s signature” noted by Alperovitch as a verification method, is not something that is immune to forgery/counterfeiting, thanks to modern computers/printers. His assessment that “we do need to make sure that states are prepared to take in the huge number of mail-in ballots that will come in,” is the crux of the problem. Here is how I see it most likely happening:
- There will be a number of “lone wolf” actors of a variety of political beliefs/motivations with home computers, scanners, printers, etc. that will attempt to cast counterfeit mail ballots. They will most likely be caught, depending upon their abilities and the sophistication of the election process where the attempts are made.
- Countries with resources are likely looking at methods to interfere with mail-in ballot voting and have some plans in place already. They will look to not only cast mail-in ballots in specific races of their choice but more likely just to disrupt the overall election process. They have the means/resources to request and receive legitimate ballots for fraudulent purposes, either counterfeiting or casting. Additionally, they have the resources to produce and deliver those counterfeit ballots. I also wouldn’t discount criminal organizations for hire being involved in the process either via a country or organization/individual willing to pay for election interference/fraud.
These organizational attempt’s success will also be dependent upon the sophistication of the election process where the attempts are made. The issue noted by Alperovitch about the volume of mail-in ballots that officials have to deal with becomes my concern.
Officials will be tasked with how they handle these mail-in ballots, specifically differentiating counterfeit votes from legitimate votes. If organizations are successful in flooding particular jurisdictions with counterfeit votes, they may over tax those election officials, possibly dragging the vote tally out for weeks if not months. These counterfeit ballots don’t have to actually be counted if the goal is merely to task the system.
Granted this would call for significant resources to be expended. But is not likely going to involve the entire nation. To be more successful, it will target key battleground locations, i.e, those of importance for the electoral college. Remember the 2000 election of Bush vs. Gore and the confusion over the counting of chads and the aftermath of discord generated. Now imagine such confusion in this particular political environment and how much discord will be generated if it were to occur again. You get the picture.
Combining an attack of the mail-in ballots with digital hacking efforts would further maximize the negative effects. I seriously doubt a committed actor is only going to deploy one method to accomplish their objective, ie. chaos. These kind of acts are made possible due to technology. In the end if you don’t care about the results but want to generate discord you have met your goals.
As for me, I am not sure whether I will vote by mail or in person. If I vote in person I am reasonably certain it will be counted as cast. I know the mail-in ballot issues but may decide to mail it, weighing the pros/cons against my own personal Covid concerns. I know I will vote one way or the other.
Regardless, of the outcome, I sincerely hope that anyone, countries included, who are found to have mucked around in our election are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. On that note, I left a cigar smoking somewhere. Take care and get out and vote!