10 Years After HBO’s Hacking Democracy, Electoral Vulnerabilities Still Exist

Concerns over electoral integrity aren’t necessarily new; however, the issue seems particularly prevalent with respect to this election.
12/13/2016 01:30 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2016
HackingDemocracy.com

Ten years have passed since HBO aired its Emmy-nominated documentary, Hacking Democracy. Though it was well-received by American audiences, electoral vulnerabilities, by and large, are still being shrugged off by public officials. The message of Hacking Democracy, however, wasn’t necessarily an outcry to Congress, nor did it overtly suggest a legislative solution was needed to ensure the integrity of the vote. Conversely, it conveyed an empowering message to citizens that they, alone, have the power to protect the integrity of democracy.

The film’s disconcerting revelations—from Al Gore’s mysterious “negative” votes in an important Floridian county in 2000, to the ground-breaking exploit discovered in memory cards of ballot-counting machines that makes them vulnerable to vote-switching hacks—highlights the importance of election auditing, namely hand recounts. More so than ever, Americans are paying attention to electoral integrity, which is illustrated by the success of Jill Stein’s recount initiative that raised more than $7 million dollars to audit the election results in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. With the extent to which exit polls were off and exceeded the margin of error during the primaries, along with unverified claims of widespread voter fraud by President-elect Donald Trump prior to the election, and even talks of potential Russian tampering with America’s voting systems; regardless of one’s affinity for Clinton, Sanders, or Trump—and despite the lack of substantial evidence to validate the latter concerns—at least some individuals from each of the aforementioned voting groups have expressed concerns about the integrity of the vote throughout this election cycle.

Concerns over electoral integrity aren’t necessarily new; however, the issue seems particularly prevalent with respect to this election. Irrespective of which candidate ultimately wins, Americans simply want assurance that the outcome was fair, and that their vote counted. Therefore, the overall message of Hacking Democracy is still—if not more—as relevant as ever. I was privileged to get the opportunity to speak with Russ Michaels, who in addition to being the director and producer of Hacking Democracy with Simon Ardizzone, was also the film’s researcher.

Hacking Democracy, according to Michaels, tells the story of relentless “citizen investigators, led by the extraordinary writer Bev Harris, who first discovered Diebold’s secret vote counting computer software and founded blackboxvoting.org.” “[A]s filmmakers,” he states, “we were so incredibly inspired by this citizen’s movement which tirelessly worked to uncover the problems and speak out.” Bev Harris exposed the lack of transparency surrounding Diebold’s voting machines and caught the company in numerous lies. Her findings had a profound impact, and triggered a retaliatory response from the company, Michaels explains. “Diebold launched an extraordinary public attack on the film and demanded that HBO ‘pull the documentary’ from the schedule,” he states. “They even called the devastating hack of the Diebold machines that forms the climax of the film ‘a sham,’” although Michaels continues, “[t]he top computer scientists at UC Berkeley verified our hack was a true discovery. HBO stood 100% by our film’s integrity and broadcast Hacking Democracy every day for months.” Additionally, the company went after individuals involved in the film. Michaels explains:

Diebold also went after Ion Sancho, the courageous Election Supervisor who had allowed us to hack his county’s Diebold system in Florida. Mr Sancho was perilously close to losing his job. Then California’s Secretary of State commissioned the top computer scientists at UC Berkeley to investigate our vote rigging hack, which was exposed by our hacker, Harri Hursti. The special report from UC Berkeley states: “Mr. Hursti’s attack on the AV-OS is definitely real. He was indeed able to change the election results by doing nothing more than modifying the contents of a memory card.” 

Ion Sancho,” Michaels asserts, “is still Election Supervisor and the big secret is out – America’s votes can be stolen using a few lines of computer code.”

Hacking Democracy is unique in that it was conducive to an outcome wherein a normal citizen courageously took on a large corporation and actually won. Although Diebold is still in existence today, it’s no longer in the business of elections. Michaels explains that the company “finally sold off Diebold Election Systems [DES] in 2009,” which was “the voting machine arm of the Diebold corporation.” The sanctity of America’s elections, however, is still in the hands of a private corporation. Dominion Voting Systems, a Canadian corporation, purchased DES, but “the same voting machines that we hacked in the film are still dangerously unsecured and are still counting America’s votes from Florida to California,” Michaels warns.

Though naysayers dismiss some of the vulnerabilities that came to light in Hacking Democracy, Michaels describes how our elections are still vulnerable nonetheless:

“Almost 100% of America’s elections are now counted using computerised machines which run on trade secret software. But the good news is that many more states and counties have paper ballots. Yes, these ballots are scanned by machines just like the one you see hacked in our film, but a percentage could be hand counted by citizen volunteers as a safety check on the machines.
In September 2016 the elections Moderator in the New Hampshire town of Derry decided to do exactly that. Around 20% of the paper ballots were hand counted immediately after the machine count. If citizens demand Safety Hand Counts like this across America then any electronic vote tampering would be detected. It isn’t political. It’s sensible. Even better, hackers would know it in advance and would be deterred.”

Such a deterrence is a necessity seeing that fraudulent voting manipulations such as the peculiar “negative” vote phenomenon, which came to light in the film, accounts for one of several highly perturbing possibilities that can potentially change the outcomes of elections. Just how prevalent is this, exactly? That’s difficult to assess. “Negative votes was the amazing revelation,” Michaels states. He continues:

“We knew the Diebold system had been designed to allow negative – minus – votes and these can be used to rig a candidate’s results, as our film ultimately proves.
But if a negative vote hack has been attempted since 2000 it wouldn’t necessarily ever have been discovered. As usual with these black box machines we don’t know what’s happening inside them.
But our expert hacker, Harri Hursti, also discovered a vote changing virus that can be maliciously installed to affect many voting machines at once. So there are even more serious questions about how this kind of vulnerability has been allowed in America’s elections.”

These findings do not aim to fan the flames of conspiracy theories, nor are they intended to delegitimize the results of American elections, but they are vulnerabilities that have the potential to jeopardize voting integrity, nonetheless. The answer, therefore, isn’t to simply brush off American elections as rigged affairs, rather “[t]he answer,” in Michaels’ view, is for Americans “to get involved.” Jill Stein’s recount effort is emblematic of the film’s core message, but on a grander scale. When asked for a comment on Stein’s recount effort, primarily her demand for a hand count of ballots in Michigan, Michaels states:

“Hand checking ballots that were counted by machines is essential. The recount which Jill Stein raised millions for reveals a crisis in the accountability and transparency of America’s elections. Only human eyes and hand counts of ballots can be sure to expose machine miscounts or hacking. But many counties in Wisconsin have refused this gold standard and instead force fed the paper ballots through the same machines which first counted them using trade secret software. In Michigan – with just 10,704 votes between Trump and Clinton – the hand recount has been stopped by a judge who stated that Stein presented no “evidence of significant fraud or mistake”. But without the forensic audit we will never know what evidence lies in those unopened ballot boxes. America’s votes and voters are, yet again, being treated with contempt.”

In spite of perpetual, albeit unsurprising reluctance from state and local election officials, one can be hopeful that Stein’s effort will be contagious, and encourage more citizens to get involved and audit the results of elections in their own counties. Michaels explains, “[w]e hope that everyone who watches our film will be inspired by the people we followed who all gathered evidence, exposed lies and the lack of transparency and fought, and still fight, to protect America’s elections.”

When asked whether or not a sequel to Hacking Democracy would be in the works anytime soon, Michaels expressed hope that it would be possible, and indicated that new video footage will be posted to the film’s Facebook page soon.

Hacking Democracy is available to rent on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99, or you can purchase a digital copy for $5.99. The DVD is available on Amazon. Visit Hacking Democracy’s official website for more information about the documentary.

Disclosure: The author of this article is not being paid to promote this film.

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