J. Alex Halderman

The Case for the Recounts

Newspapers across the country are now reporting on Jill Stein’s effort to seek a recount of the vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  This effort has been characterized in different ways by Jill Stein, J. Alex Halderman (a Michigan University Computer Scientist advising the Clinton campaign on the issue), and The New York Times.  Fox News found a Democrat to describe the recounts in a negative light.  None of the audit-the-voteexplanations provided for the recount lay out all the evidence we have that the Russians engaged in a comprehensive effort to influence the U.S. election similar to efforts they have made in Ukraine, Britain, France and Germany.  We have evidence we just lost a cyberwar and many in the press and the country are pretending like one did not take place.  Consequently, no one is laying out all the reasons for the recounts.  This post attempts to provide a comprehensive argument for the recounts.  The argument falls into three categories: evidence of vote tampering, evidence of the capacity to tamper with votes, and evidence of the motivation to tamper with votes, and the argument for the recounts.

Evidence of Vote Tampering

  1. The F.B.I. warned state election officials in August that hackers directed by Russia had exported voter registration data from computer systems in at least one state, and had pierced the systems of a second one.  One incident included stealing information from roughly 200,000 Illinois voting records. In another attempt in Arizona, cyber criminals used malware to try and breach voting records, forcing state officials to disable online voting registration for nine days as they investigated the unsuccessful hacking.
  2. Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, said in August that recent classified briefings from senior intelligence officials left him fearful Putin’s goal is tampering with the U.S. election.   Reid noted that hackers would only have to manipulate the vote in a few swing states to influence the outcome of the election.  He called for the F.B.I. to investigate the efforts of the Russians to tamper with the U.S. election.
  3. There is a unique and substantive difference between the average of the polls and the vote in three crucial swing states.  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.
    State                            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
  4. University of Michigan Computer Science Professor J. Alex Halderman reports that in Wisconsin Clinton received 7% fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic voting machines, which he said could have been hacked.
  5. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security released a joint statement that accused Russia of launching computer hacks “intended to interfere with the US election process”(2).  It stated that the US intelligence community “is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails” belonging to the Democratic National Committee.  If a country was going to try to manipulate the vote of another country, a counterintelligence program like this would be necessary to provide alternative explanations for the variance between the polls and vote count.
  6. Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has now exceeded 2.2 million votes or 1.7 percentage points.  Yet Trump won the electoral college.  A President-elect has not taken office with a lower percentage of the vote since 1824.  A few swing states played a pivotal role.  Clinton fell shy of Trump by only 10,704 votes in Michigan, 27,000 in Wisconsin and 60,000 in Pennsylvania — razor-thin margins in all states.  As Clinton’s lead in the popular vote grows, it becomes more and more probable that the results in these states are the products of tampering that was strategically targeted to influence the outcome of the election.

Evidence of Capacity to Tamper

  1. In 2014, during the presidential election in the 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.
  2. 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 German.

Evidence of Motive to Tamper

  1. Trump has advocated unique positions on issues that are in the direct interest of Russia.  He has said he would consider allowing Russia to annex Crimea.  He has questioned the U.S. role in NATO.  The European Union has imposed economic sanctions on Russia because it used naked force to take over Crimea.  President Obama and Chancellor Merkel have lead the effort to impose these sanctions; Trump’s views dramatically undermine the ability of the EU to maintain economic sanctions on Russia.
  2. Since Trump’s businesses went bankrupt in the 1990’s, he has been unable to get funding for his business ventures from American banks; consequently, Trump has been forced to use Russian financiers to bankroll his business.  The Bayrock Business Group is one example but there are others.  Trump’s business relationship with Bayrock extends to projects all around the world.  The F.B.I. found that a Trump organization server has been receiving messages since the spring of 2016 from the Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s biggest banks and whose owners have longstanding ties to Putin.  Helping Trump get elected, gives the Russian’s unprecedented leverage over the U. S. President.

Conclusions on Russian Tampering

University of Michigan Computer Science Professor J. Alex Halderman summarizes the options as follows.

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.

There are a number of rhetorical reasons for Professor Halderman to describe the options this way.  You can persuade more people, if you reduce the ambition of your claim.  But I want to question his suggestion that it is more likely that the polls were systematically wrong.

Here is the analysis of the polls in 2012 by the FiveThiryEight team.  As most of us know by now, we don’t simply use one poll anymore; now we have meta-polls that analyze the data from several polls.  The quality and biases of each poll are taken into account in the meta-polls.  The limitations of the polls in 2012 are programmed into algorithms that analyze the data from future polls, improving the accuracy of the meta-polls.  So far, no one has provided an explanation for how all the meta-polls could be “systematically wrong.”  Halderman throws the alternative out there and suggests it is more probable than Russian tampering, but he provides no explanation for how it could happen.  That is not his area of specialty.  He does provide an explanation for how the Russians could have tampered with the vote and created the results that we have.

We have evidence the Russians were trying to tamper with the U.S. election, we have evidence they have the ability to tamper with the results of the election, and we have evidence they have the motive to tamper with the U.S. election.

I think Halderman’s description of the alternatives is effective as a rhetorical tool to persuade a large audience to consider a recount after a long and divisive election.  But I also think we should not fool ourselves: at this point the evidence suggests that it is more likely that the Russians tampered with the vote than it is that the polls were “systematically wrong.”

Argument for Recount

The evidence in all the previous sections supports an argument that we should have recounts in WI, MI, and PA.  Halderman summarizes the basic argument as follows,

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.

On Meet the Press on November 27th the call for recounts baffled many of those who joined the round table discussion.  They did not see how the recounts could change anything.  In order to change the result of the election, Clinton would have to overturn the decisions in all three states.  Think about how difficult it was to conduct a recount in Florida.  The number of votes that Clinton would have to make up in the recount is unprecedented.  Usually recounts only turn a couple hundred votes around.  It may also be difficult to uncover evidence of Russian tampering through recounts.  Halderman describes election tampering malware that erases itself and leaves no tracks.  All these points are well taken.

One can argue in response, first, the recounts will allow experts like Halderman to analyze all the evidence.  This will give us the best chance we have of uncovering evidence of Russian tampering.  Even though we might not be able to detect what the Russians did, we should still let our best experts try.

Second, the number of votes that need to be overcome in order to overturn the election is indeed unprecedented, so is the level of Russian interference in the U.S. election.  We have never had the F.B.I. warn state polling officials that Russian hackers were hacking into to voter registration data bases.  This is the first election in the U.S. since the Russians used malware to tamper with the vote in the Ukraine in 2014.

Third, recounts do not have to overturn the election in order to be valuable to the country.  I have not heard anyone in the news media acknowledge this fact.  If they uncover evidence that Russia tampered with the results of our election, they will put us in a far better position to protect our democracy in the future.  They will enable us to better understand how they influenced the results and the steps we need to take to make sure the Russians cannot do it again.  This is a national security issue and should be treated with that level of importance.

Fourth, recounts serve to deter foreign countries from attempting to tamper with elections.  They dramatically increase the chances these countries will get caught.  The fact that the F.B.I. warned state election officials in August that hackers directed by Russia had accessed voter registration data from computer systems in two states demonstrates that the U.S. is facing a serious threat.  One could argue that regular recounts would be a reasonable way to protect ourselves from this threat and to deter Russia and other countries from attempting to tamper with U. S. elections in the future.

Fifth, the recounts do not have to overturn the election to have a political impact.  If evidence of Russian tampering is found, it will have a profound political impact even if it does not overturn the results of the election.  This evidence will be viewed within the context of Trump’s ties to Russian: his ties to Russian financiers, from which he has so far refused to divest himself; his communications with the Alfa bank throughout the campaign; the Russian ties of Paul Manafort, Trumps original campaign manager; and Trump’s unique positions on Russia, the Crimea and NATO.  These recounts can therefore help the congress and the public get a better understand the relationship between Trump and Russia.  The perception of this relationship can fundamentally alter Trump’s ability to achieve the objectives in his legislative agenda.

Sixth, despite a lead of over 2.2 million votes, less than 100,000 votes in three states swung the election away from Clinton.  In each of these states, the variation between the average of the polls and the election results was excessive, between 4.4 and 8.5%.  So far we have not received any explanation for how the polls could be “systematically wrong” to this extent.  Cyber experts have however explained how these results could be generated through kinds of vote tampering techniques Russian has already used in other countries, like the Ukraine in 2014.  One of the possible outcomes of the recounts, therefore, could be that the decisions in all three states is reversed and Clinton is declared the winner.  But this outcome is not the only reason to advocate for the recounts.

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