Our resident American takes us through the different ways to potentially steal the US election.
With another American election and a slate of less than desirable candidates, you might be wondering how you might be able to increase your influence regardless of whether or not you can vote. Don’t worry, you’re not alone; Russia, Iran, and China have already started trying to hack the vote this cycle.
Congrats! If you’ve shared anything about Trump or Biden and you’re not American, you technically interfered with the election. It’s not technically illegal unless you coordinated with the official campaign, but still technically interference. China is notorious for doing this on a massive scale by hiring an army of trolls to comment and share their opinions on everything to sway opinions of those on the internet through peer pressure. Russia also was doing this by suppressing the Black vote in 2016. They created fake Black activist pages on social media, @blackstagram on Instagram and Blacktivist on Facebook, and the latter had more hits than the actual Black Lives Matter page during the election. They then encouraged Black people to vote, but gave them deliberately false information about eligibility and how to vote so they would miss deadlines and crucial steps to vote.
Spreading fake news
This is also an easy one to do. Even with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram fact-checking software, you can get away with sharing a fake post for a few days before someone reports it or it gets checked. That’s enough time to go viral and get it reshared in different forms across the web. If you’re lucky, it might actually be reported on the real news! While this gets hyped up all the time, it has very little impact, as people tend to believe fake news within an echo chamber that they were already committed to. It’s no wonder, according to Pew Research, that a majority of Americans in both parties think fake news is a problem within journalism rather than associating it with social media. While we might be concerned with the spread of false information online, its election impact seems to be minimal as people tend to just use it to reinforce their own beliefs.
Now we step up to felonies and things that require actual skills. This is the main one we saw people concerned with in 2016, as Russia has successfully hacked the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, and gathered thousands of private emails, with damning evidence of improper meddling against Bernie Sanders on the part of the committee and anti-Catholic sentiment within the Clinton campaign from Podesta’s private conversations. This kind of hack is what Iran had allegedly attempted to do to Trump earlier this year, but supposedly failed. Obviously, this one is more difficult as with each attack – both parties tend to get more secure servers and have additional security measures to prevent attacks. Microsoft and Google have both expressed concerns as they have seen attempts by foreign actors to gather this information, but it appears that no one has been able to pull off an effective hack this cycle, yet…
Voting booth hacking
This one is perhaps the most straightforward and also the most illegal, but the execution is pretty difficult. Many British people tend to worry about American voting booths being able to be hacked as they’re electronic. The problem is that they’re not as complex as people think and are instead more like glorified calculators. Obviously, there’s some variation state to state, but in general, these are what most states have as safeguards. Tally machines don’t use wifi, the connection ports are physically sealed with tape, so inserting a remote disk would not work as if the tape is removed the machine is taken out of service. The biggest prevention of election hacking though is the parties actively checking to make sure the other is not cheating them. From the moment an election machine is programmed at the county board of elections to the moment votes are tallied, there is at least one Republican and one Democrat watching the machines to make sure there is no hacking by an election official or the public. They both assist voters with problems, mark them against the list of registered voters, and transport the ballots. There is also a physical copy of each ballot which is printed like a receipt that the voter can verify their vote was tallied accurately. According to the New York Times This will be the method in 95% of polling stations this year.The electronic ballots are stored in a cartridge which makes it easier for counties to declare a winner quickly, but often a candidate can ask for each of the physical receipts to be counted which were certified by the voters themselves. This one is really difficult and not likely to make a difference as there are thousands of voting machines and multiple party reps at any location; you would have to organise a statewide internal party coup to pull this off.
While Trump likes to hype this one up, it’s actually really hard. He claims that dead people and those not entitled to vote will do so, but each mail-in ballot is checked against the list of registered voters. Each ballot is also sealed in such a way that if it’s tampered with after the voter has sealed the envelope, it is automatically disqualified, so the only way a person at the postal service would have any incentive to throw away or tamper your ballot is if they suspected you would vote for a candidate they did not support. This is really difficult to figure out based simply on your postal information, and also is a federal offence on top of a state felony. It’s not impossible, but if several mailed-in ballots are missing an investigation is likely to happen. This has already been the case with a handful of military voters in Pennsylvania. Since voters can usually check on their state’s election website to see if their ballots have been counted, you have to hope you have some voters who aren’t checking and take a gamble for each ballot you tamper with or throw away.
Voter fraud is perhaps the most common form of election hacking that changes the outcome of ballots, but the actual success rate is very low and rarely changes the outcome of the election. My home state of Ohio has the highest amount of reported voter fraud – and out of 4.5m ballots, only 77 were fraudulent. None of those ballots changed the outcome of any election, and most were done by accident. Out of those 77 ballots, only seven resulted in criminal convictions according to the Heritage Foundation, a lobbying group who supports higher voter restrictions. Voter fraud usually results from people voting when they are ineligible, be it previous criminal convictions or simply not notifying the board of elections that they changed address. More sinister voter frauds that result in convictions usually entail pretending to be someone else, both living or dead, and deliberately falsifying your information to vote in closer races and contested districts. These often are spotted after the election when officials review the registration list.