J. Alex Halderman

Computer scientists urge Clinton campaign to request recounts

The New York Times reported today that Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote widened to 1.5 percentage points, a lead not seen for a losing “candidate since the disputed election of 1876.”  Clinton’s popular vote lead reached 2,017,563.  The Times reported (this article has been recently updated) that her expanding lead has prompted “new calls for an audit of voting machines in battleground states.”

Mrs. Clinton’s lead now exceeds the winning percentages of sevehaldermann presidents, five of whom also won the Electoral College. And it has given rise to a push from liberal activists to demand audits in three states won narrowly by Mr. Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman posted an extensive explanation on Wednesday.

The analyst that did the Times own voter projections, Nate Cohn, does not buy Halderman’s argument, but the article provides a link to it so readers can make up their own minds.    Halderman and other leading election security experts have been advising the Clinton campaign to consider seeking recounts in critical states. This was reported by CNN late yesterday.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is being urged by a number of top computer scientists to call for a recount of vote totals in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to a source with knowledge of the request.

The computer scientists believe they have found evidence that vote totals in the three states could have been manipulated or hacked and presented their findings to top Clinton aides on a call last Thursday.

The scientists, among them J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, told the Clinton campaign they believe there is a questionable trend of Clinton performing worse in counties that relied on electronic voting machines compared to paper ballots and optical scanners, according to the source.

The group informed John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, and Marc Elias, the campaign’s general counsel, that Clinton received 7% fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic voting machines, which the group said could have been hacked.

I encourage you to read Halderman’s argument.  Here are the highlights.

How might a foreign government hack America’s voting machines to change the outcome of a presidential election? Here’s one possible scenario. First, the attackers would probe election offices well in advance in order to find ways to break into their computers. Closer to the election, when it was clear from polling data which states would have close electoral margins, the attackers might spread malware into voting machines in some of these states, rigging the machines to shift a few percent of the vote to favor their desired candidate. This malware would likely be designed to remain inactive during pre-election tests, do its dirty business during the election, then erase itself when the polls close. A skilled attacker’s work might leave no visible signs — though the country might be surprised when results in several close states were off from pre-election polls.

Could anyone be brazen enough to try such an attack? A few years ago, I might have said that sounds like science fiction, but 2016 has seen unprecedented cyberattacks aimed at interfering with the election. This summer, attackers broke into the email system of the Democratic National Committee and, separately, into the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, and leaked private messages. Attackers infiltrated the voter registration systems of two states, Illinois and Arizona, and stole voter data. And there’s evidence that hackers attempted to breach election offices in several other states.

In all these cases, Federal agencies publicly asserted that senior officials in the Russian government commissioned these attacks.

Halderman describes how Russia has the capacity to execute these attacks and they have already attempted to manipulate the vote in the Ukraine.

In 2014, during the presidential election in Ukraine, attackers linked to Russia sabotaged the country’s vote-counting infrastructure and, according to published reports, Ukrainian officials succeeded only at the last minute in defusing vote-stealing malware that was primed to cause the wrong winner to be announced.

The Washington Post reported on November 20th that the Atlantic Council had released a report describing how Russia has attempted to influence elections in other European countries.

A new report by the Atlantic Council details how Russia has been using a combination of overt and covert means to foster the rise of pro-Russian political parties in several Western European countries, including Britain, France and Germany.

“Moscow views the West’s virtues — pluralism and openness — as vulnerabilities to be exploited,” former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski writes in the forward to the report. “The Kremlin’s blatant attempts to influence and disrupt the U.S. presidential election should serve as an inspiration for a democratic push back.”

Based on all the evidence, Halderman draws the following conclusions.

Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not. I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked. But I don’t believe that either one of these seemingly unlikely explanations is overwhelmingly more likely than the other. The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence — paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts.

The three swing states below have come under suspicion because of the difference between the polling average and the vote totals.  The first column is electoral votes, second is the probability of victory according FiveThirtyEight, third is the polling average as reported on FiveThirtyEight, fourth is the percentage of votes as reported on RealClearPolitics.  The vote in the Electoral College is Trump 290, Clinton 232.  In each state, Trump out performs the polling average substantially and by just enough to win.

                                       EV     %V                  Polls    Votes

Michigan                    16       C78.9              C4.1    T.3

Pennsylvania            20       C77                 C3.9    T1.3

Wisconsin                  10       C83.9              C5.9    T2.6

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