Analysis: Why the "Hillary hacked NH?" story is important (Updated)
By Jon Stokes | Published: January 11, 2008 - 03:32PM CT
I don't want to preempt my forthcoming coverage (it probably will go up Sunday night) of the steadily rising chorus of accusations that Hillary somehow stole the NH election. But I do want to start a thread about it here for people to post links to resources that I can refer to as I work on the story. So if you've been following this closely, feel free to drop into the discussion thread here and tell me what you're reading and what you think of it.
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My goal with this post and with tomorrow's coverage is not to lend any credence to the charges of election fraud—I believe there are more probable explanations for the upset—but to highlight the major issues that this minor controversy raises about election integrity and what we may have to look forward to in November.
Update: The New Hampshire Secretary of State's office has announced that they'll be doing a statewide recount of the primary's results, citing the Internet controversy (see below) over the results. I also want to add that, contrary to what is being reported at Wired's "Threat Level" blog, this controversy is very much about electronic voting machines. I don't really understand how a writer at an otherwise excellent infosec blog like "Threat Level" could make as elementary an error as equating "e-voting" solely with "paperless touchscreen voting machines," but it happened. Memo to Wired and to the rest of the press: optical scanners are "electronic voting machines," and they are just as vulnerable to hacking and tampering as touchscreens. See below for more on this.
The problem with New Hampshire
On the subject of election integrity, I want to use this post to highlight a few very important points for the various pundits, bloggers, and other media types who may be working on this story.
First, it is a huge mistake to assume (like this DKos poster) that the optical scan machines used in NH are somehow more secure than the much-maligned touchscreen machines, which didn't seem to be that widely used in the primary. Optical scanners can actually be less secure than touchscreens, because they're just as easy to tamper with (sometimes more so) as the touchscreens, but there's typically only one per precinct—an attacker therefore has a single point of failure to manipulate. The fact that optical scanners leave a paper record is totally irrelevant if a random audit of the results is not mandatory by law after every election. And in New Hampshire, there are no mandatory audits. As I've said before, mandating a paper trail without also requiring post-election audits is like buying a security system for your house and then not turning it on.
Ron Paul and his supporters may be a bit loopy, but they are 100 percent correct in insisting on some type of audit of the NH results—not because Hillary hacked the vote (I currently think there are better explanations for the results than vote hacking), but because such audits should always occur as a matter of course. Again, when you use an electronic voting system, you must audit the results if you want to have confidence in them.
Second, I want to congratulate lefty blog stalwart Josh Marshall on his apparent clairvoyance. Clearly, he has access to information about the integrity of the NH elections that has been denied to the public. In a post entitled "Enough," Marshall decried "the notion that public opinion surveys and even exit poll data is so reliable that any substantial discrepancy between those numbers and the official result is prima facie evidence of tampering. That is simply absurd."
He went on insist that "the possibility or danger of tampering is not a license to assume it or imagine it—in the absence of any evidence—any time the vote doesn't go how we'd like."
I single Marshall out not just because I'm a daily reader of his blog, but because the attitude exemplified in this post is typical of well-intentioned journalists who don't really grasp what's at stake in the e-voting debate. So let me clarify, for the benefit of Marshall and the others:
In a truly democratic election, the burden of proof is on the state to provide evidence of the election's integrity. This sentiment is behind the idea that ballots should be counted under the watchful eyes of the public's representatives. So elections are held to a much different standard than criminal proceedings, where the burden of proof is on the one who brings a charge of wrongdoing.
Right now, in the absence of an audit of the New Hampshire results, the state has not met the requirement that it prove to the public that the election was fair. This is what the fuss is about. New Hampshire does not have the manual audit requirement that is necessary to prove that an election was fair, so that state's ballots were effectively counted in secret by closed-source machine code. When ballots are counted in secret and it's up to the voters to prove that the election was rigged when they're surprised by the results, that's not the kind of democracy that the Founders had in mind for us.
Hillary's New Hampshire woes could be a prelude to a much bigger mess
I've saved the most important part of this post for last. Note that this is also the part of the post where I do what folks on the Internet are always wishing that "mainstream" journalists would do, and that's call it exactly like I see it. So feel free to disagree, but I think even the small minority of our audience that believes the very worst about Hillary Clinton will have to concede that I have a point about the lay of the land here.
All NH integrity issues aside, the real story in the mini-firestorm stirred up on the Internet in response to Clinton's NH upset is that it has important implications for the any presidential contest that includes the former First Lady.
Imagine the scene on the day after the November 2008 presidential election if Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the presidency in an upset, after citizens in states like Ohio went to the polls and voted electronically. If you're an independent who thinks that the left has made a big deal over the Florida results in the 2000 election, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Over the course of the 90s, segments of the right accused Clinton of a litany of sins that includes the murder of Vince Foster, so it's not at all a stretch to assume that they could and would add mass electronic election fraud to that line-up.
My point is that given the simple fact of who she is and the feelings that she stirs in her opponents, a close Clinton victory—especially if that victory is at odds with pre- and post-election polling—could precipitate a major electoral controversy to a degree that is not true of any other candidate on either side. Unlike Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, no Republican candidate is likely to roll over and let Clinton take the White House if they can get substantial traction with accusations that she stole the election. So there's a small possibility (or a large one, depending on how you judge the odds of a close Hillary victory), that we may be in for a mess that makes us long for the halcyon days of "hanging chads."
From my perspective, this is what's really at stake in the ongoing e-voting controversy: the government's inability to fulfill its obligation to prove to the public that our elections are fair makes our democracy so much more fragile, and so much more susceptible to cracking under the shock of a major election controversy.