There have been a rash of recent reports in national magazines like Harpers, websites like FreePress.org and BradBlog.com, articles in The New York Times and activists briefings that suggest a range of scenarios where votes could be cast and disappear—or fabricated to steal the White House. Most of these scenarios are not just far-fetched or worse, but they distract from more visible and widespread issues that could impact the 2012 results. If you're nervous, vote early and help others to vote on Election Day.
The activists and authors who are raising fears about electronic voting rarely talk to activists focused on more traditional civil rights issues—such as overcoming barriers at the polls. That makes it harder for the public to understand what is and isn’t a real worry. As a reporter, I've been involved with both camps since 2004.
What I’m seeing in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign from the electronic side of this spectrum is not helpful. There are things to worry about, but they’re not what’s breathlessly flying around in the lefty media. Let’s go through what's out there and then you can decide.
My biggest filter to judging scenarios, apart from what’s not a theoretically possibility but is also technically probable, is how many votes are affected. Too often headlines scream about 100 votes and ignore something much bigger—because it’s less sexy and less conspiratorial, but actually far more real.
1. Is Mitt Romney’s son going to hijack Ohio’s vote count?
In recent weeks, Columbus-based FreePress.org—where I wrote many articles after 2004 examining what happened in that election—has been reporting that Mitt Romney’s son Tagg is an owner in a voting machinery company whose equipment will be used to scan and count paper ballots in Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, and another small rural county up north. The implication is that the company’s employees will pre-program high-speed scanners to register more votes for Romney than Obama.
Is this likely? The short answer is no. The longer answer is there are many more serious things to worry about in Ohio. Obviously, a candidate’s family having an ownership stake in a voting technology firm is a conflict of interest and discouraging to voters. It is not the first time that a voting machine company owner has sided with a Republican presidential candidate in Ohio. Having a partisan GOP secretary of state is another conflict of interest—a bigger one, actually. But that doesn’t mean these votes are goners.
Even if an investment (which is fairly hands-off) led to some sort of manipulative scanning (which is far-fetched) that wasn’t caught in pre-election audit testing (even more far-fetched), the problem with this theory is that any significant deviation from the expected turnout models and exit polls (and pre-election polls) will lead to an examination and audit of the paper ballots. Any real deviation would not just be noticed; it would be quarantined and examined. If you’re planning to steal an election, leaving a paper trail is not how to do it.
This is a guilt-by-association theory. Too many eyes are on every step of the voting process this year. It’s not 2004. And the machines in question are no better or worse than optical scan systems from other manufacturers, Ohio's former Democratic secretary of state found in independent testing. In contrast, other electronic voting machines used across Ohio don't leave as extensive a record of actual balloting as the optical scan systems, as they rely on cash register-like tape rolls to record every vote.
If you want to worry about Ohio, look elsewhere. This report from the Cincinnati Inquirer suggests that there could be quite a vote-counting quagmire due to the provisional ballot tally after Election Day. GOP Secretary of State John Husted sent absentee ballot applications to every Ohio voter, so how several hundred thousand Ohioans might vote—by mail or at polls—is up in the air.
Finally, Ohio’s GOP Legislature did pass a 2006 law saying the results in federal elections could not be contested after the ‘official count’ is certified. But that law only applies to Ohio courts. That doesn’t stop campaigns from going into federal court to pursue a presidential result. Bottom line: it’s difficult but possible to challenge any dubious or suspect vote count in Ohio this year.
2. Will Republicans hack into voter rolls and delete Democrats?
Two other new scenarios depend on altering electronic voter information. The first, reported in The New York Times, suggested that partisans in Washington state and Maryland could use those state’s online voter registration portals and hack into electronic statewide voter registration databases—and alter voter files. This would be a high-tech version of registering someone on the street, but only turning in applications for one party (which is what GOP operative Nathan Sproul did in several states). Brad Friedman’s blog has led that coverage.
A former top election official I spoke to from a state next to Washington said that the Times interviewed him and ignored what he said—that this scenario would not be possible in Washington, because the voter registration file created by accessing the motor vehicle website was separate from the statewide voter database. He didn’t know about Maryland’s system, but neither are presidential swing states.
Other ex-top state election officials said there's always potential for hacking, as both Ohio's and Minnesota's state election websites have been hacked. But in both cases the underlying statewide voter registration database was not touched. This is something to fix after Election Day, but not a realistic threat now.
3. Will the GOP stuff ballot boxes with overseas military votes?
This is another version of electronic ballot box stuffing. In 2009, Congress passed the MOVE Act, which was designed to help troops overseas to vote. It allows ballots to be sent from overseas by e-mail in some circumstances. Normally, PDF images are printed, filled out, signed and mostly sent back by mail or express delivery. If there are delivery snafus, however, they may be returned by e-mail.
The concern from activists such as Jim March, who did pioneering work with BlackBoxVoting.org to uncover big security flaws in the first paperless voting machines sold to states following a congressional appropriation in 2002, is that the GOP will fabricate Internet-delivered votes. He has spoken about this in recent forums and has gathered some coverage on blogs.
The fear is that the GOP will fabricate enough votes to push Romney over the top in military-heavy swing states, such as Virginia. There’s no denying that Internet voting is an easy pathway for tampering, but there actually is very little Internet voting under the MOVE Act. Most ballots are printed and mailed in or sent by Fed-Ex.
The sad truth about the MOVE Act is that is has been poorly implemented. This editorial notes that in Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, “less than 2 percent of eligible military voters (5,411 out of 288,961) have requested  absentee ballots.” With a small number of votes at issue, the scope of this ballot box-stuffing scenario is not going to be a big threat in 2012.
4. Will millions of votes disappear on paperless machines?
That’s the thesis of Harper’s November cover story. It posits that voting machines that rely on computer touch screens and memory cards in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Virginia might massively fail—losing big blocks of votes. These worries are compounded because these computers are getting old, which, as everyone knows, means they are less reliable.
It's true that there’s no recount possible with most of the voting machines in these two states (you can look up what voting technology is used in your state here), which is not good. But there's a bunch of newer stuff that Harpers doesn't say, making things seem more dark than necessary. Also, the Harper’s piece completely ignores two other far-less-sexy issues that have led to millions of votes being lost across the country in recent elections: bungled voter registration bureaucracy and poll worker error. (This new CalTech-MIT report discusses all of these trends).
What’s missing from Harper’s? First, the use of paperless voting machines for nearly a decade has lead election officials, poll workers and voters to know what can go wrong in various phases of their use: from calibrating and testing before being deployed; to problems that a voter might face—such as choosing the wrong candidate, to recovering votes from digital memory cards. Most issues are known, as are the fixes to be taken.
Moreover, in some states—like California—paperless machines have been segregated to help people with disabilities, or replaced by optical-scanners using a paper ballot that can be recounted. The Harper’s report does not give readers any idea that election observers know these pitfalls and problems, and can take corrective steps. It suggests there might be massive voting failures, but cannot point to one in recent years where millions of votes vanished.
Finally, consider this counterpoint at CountingVotes.org. This summer, three respected voting rights organizations, Common Cause, the Verified Voting Foundation and Rutgers University School of Law/Newark issued a report grading states on their readiness for the 2012 election. It's notable that Ohio was among the six states earning its top rating. Florida was in the second-best tier.
5. Will old-school voter intimidation and suppression come into play?
This refers to all the steps that have been taken by the GOP in recent years to complicate the voting process, discourage participation and scare off new voters. As this recent report on Florida by DEMOS’ Tova Wang describes, these threats are real and have had an impact in 2012—in the Sunshine States and elsewhere.
But it’s also important to note that the GOP’s systematic interference—from new voter ID laws, to curbs on voter registration groups, to attempts to roll back early voting—have largely been beaten back in court this year. While there has been some thuggish behavior by GOP partisans—billboards to scare non-white voters, mailings and calls giving wrong information—the spectrum and scope of these vigilante and deceptive activities is sporadic and does not appear to be well-coordinated.
Moreover, people are watching—from voters themselves, to election protection groups staffed by lawyers, to political parties and presidential campaigns. The media has covered the GOP’s myriad voter suppression efforts and warned of obstacles that voters will face. In Florida, that includes one of the longest ballots in years—taking more time and likely causing waiting lines at polls. It includes changed polling locations and early voting hours.
That is not to say these worries are unfounded—but they are problems with the politics and legal fine print, not with the machinery. Florida’s GOP changed that state’s recount law—saying a recount can come only after the official count is turned in. Ion Sancho, the longtime county election supervisor in Leon County where the state capital is located, gave Florida an “F” for its testing, recount and audit process in this recent Miami CBS-TV report. But it’s also true that Florida election supervisors have stood up for voters against their GOP governor this year. They don’t want a repeat of 2000.
Don’t panic. Know your rights. Give yourself time to vote.
There’s another big difference between 2012 and recent presidential elections. This year, as in 2008, there are more extensive election protection and GOTV efforts than in 2004. This is nationwide, not just in battleground states.
This doesn’t mean that voting will be perfect and every vote cast will count. That doesn't mean that the GOP's voting vigilantes will not make uninvited trouble. But the fearful reports suggesting that the election will be stolen are over-hyped.
The best way to guard against the cuts that can undermine or shift the results is high voter turnout. This year has been a good one for defenders of the right to vote. Does that mean Obama gets re-elected if he wins 50 percent plus one vote in Ohio or Florida? No, he needs a cushion because other problems will mar any process with 100 million or more participants.
So if you really are worried about the GOP stealing the 2012 election, make plans to vote early and then help any get-out-the-vote effort on November 6.