By Brad Friedman on 10/24/2014, 6:05am PT  

And so begins our traditional, biennial (if not more frequent) coverage of partisans understandably freaking out when their 100% unverifiable touch-screen votes are seen flipping on screen from a candidate or candidates of their preferred party to a candidate or candidates from a different party.

Historically, over the past decade since we've been covering it (and related issues), this issue has occurred far more often for Democratic voters seeing their votes flip to Republicans. Nonetheless, the opposite phenomenon (as well the scenario involving third party or independent candidates) is not entirely uncommon. And, in all cases, voters should be concerned, election officials should be embarrassed and elected officials who continue to allow the use of these unverifiable secret vote-counting systems --- antithetical to American democracy and public elections as they are --- should beg forgiveness from their constituents, rather than begging for more money and more unverifiable votes.

As Early Voting is now under way in much of the country, we are, predictably, beginning to receive our first reports from voters seeing their votes flipped before their eyes on touch-screen voting systems. One such case involves a tip we received about straight-party Democratic votes reportedly flipping to Republican straight-party votes in Collin County, TX. Another case, reported widely on Thursday in the rightwing media, concerns a similar incident in Cook County, IL, where a GOP candidate says that his attempted Republican votes flipped before his very eyes to Democratic ones on that county's unverifiable touch-screen voting systems.

There is good and bad news here. And there are a number of myths and truths about these systems and these sorts of incidents which we've documented almost non-stop over the past ten years at The BRAD BLOG. So let's review a few key points about what actually occurred and didn't, what you should be concerned about in both the TX and IL cases and what you should do if it happens to you, as these occurrences are almost certainly going to continue between now and Election Day on November 4th...

Diebold touch-screen failure in Collin County, TX

We received a tip from a reader who reports that a woman she knows in Collin County, Texas "tried to vote a straight Dem ticket and the machine flipped her votes to all-Republican straight ticket. When she complained, they unplugged the machine, put her on a second one, and THE SAME THING HAPPENED."

The reader reports that the voter, who voted on Tuesday this week after the start of early voting in Texas on Monday, finally "manually voted for each race," rather than using the straight ticket option available to voters in the Lone Star State. We've asked for a number of additional details, but have only received a few of them, so we won't go into great detail on those yet.

In any event, we checked in with Sharon Rowe, the Election Administrator in Collin County, a well-populated, middle-class area of Texas just outside of Dallas, encompassing the cities of Plano and McKinney, the county seat.

Rowe says she received a similar report. She said that it came from someone claiming to be a friend of the voter, as did our tip, but that she asked for more details and for the actual voter to file an official report. (Reporting such incidents to county election headquarters and the Sec. of State --- as well as independent election integrity organizations and media --- is very important and helpful in all such cases.) Rowe said she hadn't yet received the additional information either, and we don't yet know if there are two different incidents or the same one being reported to both her and us.

Nonetheless, Rowe said what while she has yet to receive any other similar reports in Collin County so far this year, incidents like this (or these) have occurred at various times in the past.

We can confirm such similar incidents happening all across the country, in every single election year, as we've reported on many of them over the years. Straight-ticket voting on these systems, in particular, has been a notorious point of failure and vote-flipping over the years in states where the straight-ticket option is made available to voters.

Rowe explained that "if your finger is too close to one box, for one party, if you hit it too high or too low, it may select the other party." The incident, as she came to understand it based on the facts known so far, "tells me her selection was a little too high in the box," since the active part of the screen is "not just the box itself, it's the whole line."

Sadly, that is the best-case explanation for what happened. It's entirely possible, as in the incident in Illinois that we'll get to in a second, that the entire touch-screen was knocked out of calibration during transport. "It's equipment that gets carefully transported," Rowe told The BRAD BLOG, "but it gets transported in trucks" and can get jostled around and knocked out of calibration.

None of that is particular unusual, unfortunately. These systems are garbage, frankly, designed and manufactured incredibly cheaply (see Part 1 of this 2007 report for some jaw-dropping examples) and, in the case of the specific 100% unverifiable e-voting systems used in Collin County, pretty old at this point.

The Collin County seat, McKinney, is immediately next door to Allen, TX, which is where the headquarters for Diebold Election Systems, Inc. was based before the parent company, Diebold, Inc., first split off the division to become its own company called Premier, and then Premier was purchased outright by other e-voting companies. [See photos from our fun/disturbing visit to the Diebold Election Systems headquarters in Allen some years ago!]

The heavily-Republican county still uses those old Diebold touch-screen systems, without the paper-roll add-on system called "Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trails" or VVPATs. But it makes no difference. Whether or not touch-screen systems offer VVPATs, it is still 100% impossible to know that any vote ever cast on one of them during an election for any candidate or initiative on the ballot was ever registered accurately as to any voters' intent. That is why we regard such systems --- even with the VVPAT paper tape rolls that are found on some of them in other states --- as 100% unverifiable voting. The public can never know if any vote cast on them was recorded accurately for any voter after the election.

Bottom line: Even when these systems have not malfunctioned or been manipulated, it's impossible for the public to ever know that's the case. That, in itself, threatens the very core of democracy, confidence in public elections.

Still, those types of 100% unverifiable systems are still used in many parts of TX, IL and, similarly shamefully, parts or all of several other states, including VA, NJ, PA, NC, SC, GA, TN and elsewhere.

"We tell people to look at your summary screen" near the end of the voting process, Rowe warns, "to make sure the ballot is the way you want it."

Examining the summary screen is important, of course, as often-inexplicable errors have been discovered on them by voters over the years, including Oprah in 2008! Nonetheless, even if the summary screen displays the selections the voter had hoped to choose, it remains 100% impossible to know that the tabulator will actually register the vote that way.

For voters in counties that allow only touch-screen voting on Election Day or during Early Voting, you are wise to ask for a paper, absentee ballot that you can hand-mark with your own selections. If allowable (check with your County Clerk), deliver the hand-marked paper ballot to your precinct or county headquarters on Election Day itself, to maximize the likelihood of your vote being counted and counted accurately, even though it will most likely be tabulated in secret on a computer tabulator.

If we receive noteworthy updates or verifiable information on the Collin County incident, we'll let you know.

Sequoia touch-screen failure in Cook County, IL

In a report from the rightwing Illinois Review, as echoed by the rightwing Illinois Watchdog, as echoed by the rightwing Fox "News", Jim Moynihan, an Illinois Republican State Representative candidate, reports that he too saw votes flip --- even his own --- from Republican to Democratic on the 100% unverifiable Cook County touch-screen voting systems in Illinois on Monday.

"While early voting at the Schaumburg Public Library today, I tried to cast a vote for myself and instead it cast the vote for my opponent," the Review reports Moynihan saying. "You could imagine my surprise as the same thing happened with a number of races when I tried to vote for a Republican and the machine registered a vote for a Democrat."

The story is very similar to many we've heard, including from voters and candidates alike, such as Carolyn Goodman, the victorious mayoral candidate in Las Vegas in 2011. She too saw her vote for herself flip before her eyes on Nevada's touch-screen systems, made by Sequoia, the same company who makes the systems used by Moynihan in the Cook County incident.

The Watchdog confirmed Moynihan's vote-flipping report with the Cook County Clerk's Deputy Communications Director Jim Scalzitti who said there was "a calibration error of the touch-screen on the machine". It was then taken out of service. Moynihan reportedly cast his vote, without a problem, on a different one.

Those are the same unverifiable touch-screen voting systems, in the same county where President Obama recently cast his Early Vote, just as he did in 2012 when he quipped in response to a reporter's question: "I can't tell you who I voted for". Given the type of system he foolishly chose to vote on, his joke was more true than perhaps even he realized.

Scalzitti, in heavily-Democratic Cook County (Chicago), stressed that Moynihan's errant votes were not actually registered at anytime by the system, but he warned, as did Rowe in Collin County, TX, "that voters are always asked to make sure the votes they cast are correct before they are counted," according to the Watchdog.

We haven't confirmed the IL report ourselves, but as in TX, it's all too familiar to hundreds of similar confirmed reports in years past.

Whether the problem was simply a calibration issue is hard to know for certain. (Here's video of an election official in West Virginia explaining how touch-screens need to be recalibrated from time to time, only to see votes flip again on the same machine even after he's recalibrated it.) Though the "good news" that most voters should take away from these types of reports is that this type of an incident is most likely not part of a scheme to defraud the voter. We'll explain why that is in a moment.

The 100% unverifiable touch-screens used in Cook County are made by Sequoia Voting Systems which, like Diebold, was also sold off to another e-voting company. In fact, both Diebold (once run by a rightwinger who promised to help "Ohio deliver its electoral votes to" George W. Bush in 2004) and Sequoia (spun off from parent company Smartmatic, a Venezuelan firm once tied to Hugo Chavez) have now both been sold off to a Canadian-based firm named Dominion Voting.

Before the sale, Sequoia's then CEO Jack Blaine had lied to Cook County officials about the fact that, as The BRAD BLOG revealed exclusively in 2008, the Venezuelan parent company actually owned the intellectual property rights to those systems. As we revealed after Sequoia was sold to Dominion, the Venezuelan firm still controls those IP rights.

[Update: Touch-screen systems made by yet a different manufacturer, ES&S, the nation's largest e-voting company, now reportedly flipping votes on a abortion amendment to the state constitution in Tennessee.]

Why worry?

In both of these cases, whether they involved possible "voter error", as described in Republican Collin County, TX or a calibration problem, as claimed in Democratic Cook County, IL, it is most likely not the result of nefariousness. Here's why that is. These systems are incredibly easy, particularly for insiders, to hack and/or flip results with very little possibility of detection. California's Top-to-Bottom Review of both of these exact same touch-screen systems some years ago found that each --- along with every other computer voting or paper-ballot computer tabulation system they tested --- could be manipulated down to the tabulator level in a matter of seconds.

But touch-screen vote-flipping is usually not a sign of manipulated elections. Any inside manipulator or outside hacker would be foolish to display a flipped vote on the screen. Instead, they'd simply allow the voter to think they voted one way, but record the vote differently inside the system for a much smaller chance of being detected. Signaling to the voter that you are flipping their vote is as dumb as hacking Pac-Man onto the screen, which, yes, one computer scientist did on a Sequoia touch-screen system back in 2010.

Still, outside hacks that could reveal themselves to actual voters are not that difficult to pull off and very cheap, as we reported in 2011 after scientists from the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois discovered. They showed how to remotely take control of a Diebold touch-screen system with, "basically an 8th grade science shop" education and about $26 worth of parts from Radio Shack, as the scientists demonstrated on video at the time. So, it's not impossible. It would just be stupid. Gaming the system from the inside is much safer for someone trying to hijack an election.

(We are attempting to not barrage you with dozens of more links to articles here detailing these systems being hacked, being vulnerable to manipulation, failing in election after election and all manner other problems which you can find on the pages of The BRAD BLOG if you're interested in searching through the archives. Don't even ask us about that little yellow button on the back of the Sequoia touch-screens! You're welcome.)

In any event, partisans are once again screaming: "THE REPUBLICANS/DEMOCRATS ARE STEALING THIS ELECTION!" (Even where it may not be true, they have every right to shout that, given the continuing use of these types of systems. See more details as to why in our own detailing of similar concerns in the Harry Reid/Sharron Angel U.S. Senate race back in 2012). Nonetheless, touch-screen vote-flipping is usually not evidence of such a theft.

It is, however, more evidence, and a stark reminder, that votes tabulated in secret --- whether cast on touch-screens or on hand-marked paper ballots tabulated by secret vote-counting computers --- are antithetical to what used to be the American ideal of publicly-owned and publicly-tabulated elections. We have now privatized and outsourced our system of democracy to proprietary equipment made private corporations which tally almost all of our votes in complete secret.

While hand-marked paper ballots, publicly hand-counted at the precinct in front of all parties and video cameras, with results posted at the precinct before ballots are moved anywhere, remains "Democracy's Gold Standard" (while also being the most difficult system to game), the vast majority of votes in the U.S.A. are now tallied, either correctly or incorrectly, on computer systems. Without counting hand-marked paper ballots by hand, there is no way to know whether the tabulators tallied them correctly.

On the other hand, there is never any way to know that any touch-screen votes --- like the ones cast in Collin County, TX and Cook County, IL --- were tallied as the voters intended, no matter what is shown to them on the summary screen or even the VVPAT, if there is one.

The plague of the spread of touch-screen e-voting systems had largely been stopped in the U.S. some years ago after mountains of these types of reports, complete failures during election after election (failure to start up at all, thousands of unexplained "lost" votes, etc.), and both public and private industry studies by computer scientists and security experts confirming them all to be exceedingly vulnerable to both failure and fraud, to manipulation and malfunction.

Unfortunately, voters are still required to vote on many of these same failed systems on Election Day and during Early Voting around the country. (Making matters worse --- and reversing the otherwise slow demise of the touch-screen voting system in the U.S. --- is Los Angeles County, the largest voting jurisdiction in the nation, which is now working on developing an all-new type of touch-screen voting system which, as we've exhaustively explained, will be equally unverifiable after an election.)

What can we do?

For those concerned about the integrity of elections run on touch-screens, or even paper-ballot systems tallied by computers, public oversight remains your only hope, as difficult as that can be with these type of systems. On Election Night, take photographs of the results paper tapes that are printed out from them before their memory cards are transported to election headquarters. Final results have a way of "changing" between the precinct and county headquarters, and photos of the paper tapes can become useful later.

Watching and documenting tabulation after the election, even on paper ballot systems, is important as well, even if its nearly impossible to detect the most direct type of results manipulation on a computer tabulator.

If you must vote on a touch-screen system and you see your vote flipping on the screen, here's the advice we offered when the first touch-screenvote flips began to appear in 2012 --- in that case, Barack Obama votes were seen flipping to Mitt Romney --- in PA:

  • Try to capture it with your cell phone camera.
  • Call poll supervisors to observe the problem.
  • Fill out a problem report.
  • Refuse to vote on that machine.
  • Request that the machine be taken out of service.
  • Get the serial number of the machine if possible (may be difficult in some cases).
  • Tell other voters in line which machine it was and that they should NOT vote on that machine!
  • Report it to county/town election office.
  • Report it to the Secretary of State.
  • Call local reporters and tell them the story.
  • Call 866-OUR-VOTE and tell them.
  • Contact bloggers and Election Integrity websites.
  • Raise holy hell.

And, again, if you have the option in your own jurisdiction, please vote on paper ballots if at all possible. If you don't have that option where you live, request an absentee ballot if possible, and then deliver it on Election Day personally in order to maximize the chances of your vote being counted accurately.

Other than that, good luck again, America! And, next year, please consider our decade-long advice to not wait until the days just before the election to demand a better system for casting and counting votes in what we used to pretend was the greatest democracy on earth.

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