On today’s show, we dive into election security. And not what the rhetoric the politicians focus on. It turns out the things we actually need to worry about aren’t the ones getting the most press.
Our guest is Hour Detroit’s News and Features Editor Steve Friess, talking about that and his most recent piece focusing on the challenges and the places where we should be optimistic here in Michigan. Link: https://www.hourdetroit.com/community/is-voting-secure-in-michigan-cybersecurity-expert-alex-halderman-cautiously-optimistic/
Follow Steve on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SteveFriess
And if you scroll down, you’ll find an automated transcript of our conversation with about 95% accuracy.
But first, a couple things to know around town.
-Detroit Institute of Bagels is bageling no more. Eater Detroit: https://detroit.eater.com/2020/9/9/21429001/detroit-institute-of-bagels-closed-restaurant-property-for-sale-corktown-pandemic
-The Michigan Opera Theater has a new Creative Director and a really cool performance coming up, out of their garage.
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Image credits: Marco Verch, https://flic.kr/p/2iF75NT; CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Automated feature conversation transcription (90-95% accuracy, not verbatim):
Jer Staes: Joining me on the line is Steve Friess. He’s the news and features editor at our Detroit and a contributor to Newsweek. Steve, welcome to Daily Detroit.
Steve Friess: Good morning. How are you?
Excellent, excellent. I am excited to talk about this. You have a piece in the most recent, our Detroit magazine about election security. And I’m excited to talk about this specifically because there’s so much rhetoric around election security. But there are actual things that are important to look at beyond kind of like the back and forth tweetstorm. There actually has been a lot of work around election security and a lot of concerns with technology. First off, Steve, how did you get interested in this topic?
It’s really interesting. I was a staff writer at Politico during the 2012 election when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and for the 2012 election, Governor Christie decided To allow everybody to email in their ballots from wherever they were, because there were so many people who were displaced. And the idea that people could email their ballots, just put them in a normal email and send them over, seemed completely bonkers to me. And I started looking around to find out if election security people were concerned at all because we’d never really had any kind of full scale, quote unquote, Internet voting before. And it just seemed like the most insecure possible way to do it. And it was ridiculous. It was like people were sending their ballots to dead box emails, and it was bouncing back or people were the clerks were giving out their own private email addresses. It was nuts. And I thought it would be an interesting place to start to look at this question of whether we could do Internet voting because people always say, Well, you know, we can bank online and we can do this online. Why can’t we vote online and one of the things I found that thing about it was it was computer security people, the people who normally say, yeah, we can do anything who were almost unanimous in saying Internet voting, online voting is extremely risky. It is virtually impossible to secure. And also, by the way, there are all these other problems with electronic voting machines, touchscreen machines, any place where there are fallacy in cats without any paper. So that started a long run of coverage of election security for a lot of different publications. And what’s interesting now is that as I talk about it, it seems so no brainer, obviously, there are security lapses, but only eight years ago, it was kind of virgin territory. I mean, there were obviously some tech reporters writing about it, but not a whole lot of political reporters writing about it.
Why was there such a push to add so much electronic everything technology to voting? I mean, I remember when I first started to vote, I remember the big old machines With the big old levers that were like those giant, huge refrigerator sized things, and then you know, evolved eventually into like the ones where you poke your holes, and then other ones where you do like the dark mark in order to be able to figure out how you vote. Why is there such a push to add extra electronics to all this thing when it seems like, at least to me, the paper ballot seems to be a rather secure thing.
Well, it started primarily as an overcorrection to what happened in Florida in 2000. The idea that there were all the paper ballots and it was hard to tell what some voters intended. Remember the whole hanging chads and the picture of the guy with a magnifying glass? Oh, yeah, the chat trying to figure out what people intended to do. In addition to that there were design issues with that ballot. That meant that people were accidentally voting for pat buchanan when they intended to vote for Al Gore. And so there was this whole thing because that brought the country to its knees. I mean, that went to The Supreme Court, it ended up with that President that was not popularly elected, it was the whole thing. And so then the federal government put a whole lot of money into providing funding for electronic voting machines, electronic tabulators. And they’re two different things. Some of these machines are, you know, just their touchscreen. And we don’t do this in Michigan, by the way, which is very interesting to me because I was living in Nevada at the time, or not then but most of my freelance career was in Nevada, and Nevada. It was all electronic. And there was sort of a paper receipt that came out, but you didn’t get to keep it. You just sort of checked it before. He said, Yes, I voted. And so there are all these different machines and a lot of claims by vendors about how secure they are. And then there are people like this computer security expert that I wrote about for our named Alex Halderman, who’s at the University of Michigan, who would go in and say Yeah, this isn’t secure. I could hack this, I could stick something into port here and infect the entire thing. And then there was a lot of argument over whether any of these machines and their processes were connected to the internet. And all of these clerks were insisting they weren’t. But of course, they really weren’t. Because there was transmissions of vote total to different places. So I mean, the impetus was avoiding another Florida. The problem is that as we tend to in this country, we overcorrect.
What is the role of the clerks in these kinds of situations because I’ve seen a great variety in quality of clerk over the years covering local, covering local things in Detroit. I haven’t really spread the country as you have. I’ve really, you know, been here and what I have noticed is that depending on your city, depending on your election here, your clerk quality, as far as understanding technology, or even like being focused on the job, Job is wide, to say the least.
This is the perhaps the biggest human vulnerability in American elections. We have probably the most decentralized election system in the world. We rely on local clerks, some of whom are affected by a few hundred votes, sometimes to oversee the security of the most fundamentally important public act we as Americans do. It is it is actually kind of terrifying when you start thinking about it, when you just, you know, understand who these people are. They’re not security people. They might be people who are concerned about elections, or they like that process, or they’re, you know, trying to move up in party politics, or whatever it may be. But it is exceedingly rare. I’ve never really heard of any elected clerk overseeing an election. system that has any kind of advanced degree in technology. And you know, it kind of hits home to me. And this is in the piece that I wrote for our, because I am somebody who has been covering this for a long time. So it was quite a weird coincidence when I was at I live in superior Township, which is just east of Ann Arbor, and it’s a small, sleepy little Township, and my H.OA was having a meeting in the superior township meeting hall One day, a year ago in June, and we went in there and all of the ballot tabulating machines for the entire township were laid out on tables just sitting there with their keys in them. They were plugged in. They were just there overnight for some reason. And it sounds small, but somebody who knew what they were doing, could stick some software onto any one of those things. And then the minute that those machines are connected to a server to To transmit the results of their accounting, that software can go from superior township to the entire state, easily. And those things are terrifying. So yeah, it is one of the more troubling parts of all this. And it also reminds you that Congress doesn’t have as much power in this respect, as you think you would say, Oh, well, how come the Congress isn’t doing more to secure the elections? Well, this structure of our country does not really give Congress the power to do that much clerks aside. And maybe state election officials decide what machines they get to buy, what machines they use, how they certify it, how they store ballots, all that stuff. I mean, it’s not federal, it’s local, and maybe statewide.
You know, that makes me think of when you think of the online conversation in politics coverage in general. There’s this view that a lot of things have been nationalized in our discussion, but in reality, this is a special federal system. I think a lot of people outside, forget that we’ve got all of these layers of government and they all kind of interlock and interplay and create some very interesting results when you’re dealing with, you know, these topics, and especially in a country that’s as big as this and, frankly, in a state as large as ours, because Michigan has a lot of variety as far as the municipalities, the counties and the demographics. I mean, there’s a lot going on in Michigan.
Yeah, it is interesting. You know, Michigan has, like a lot of older states, a lot of eastern states, where there is just this, like, long, long history of extreme local control. And that means dozens of school districts, dozens of townships, with their own precincts, all that stuff. I mean, in Nevada, for example, you know, relatively new state, there were 17 counties, and there were 17 school districts, and there were 17 county clerks. And so yeah, there was much broader control not not saying that they’re necessarily any more secure. But my goodness, I mean, it is exhausting sometimes as a journalist to think about how many mayors are around here. I mean, the Clark County, which contains Las Vegas has five municipalities. That’s it. Wow. And it’s larger than New Jersey?
Wow. You know, and I think about that, too, as far as getting things done, like on a regional basis, or working together between cities, it really also impacts our culture that we’ve had so many individual, individual places. And that also, frankly, ends up spending a lot of money on administration and things like that. And one of those areas I would assume would be elections.
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of duplication of effort. You know, you see it in a lot of different things. You see it, you know, factions, you see it and things like mass transit. Yeah, that you have to patch together so many different elected bodies to approve of a mass transit service to cover a range Like Southeast Michigan is the crazy, but that’s an example of how micromanage our local politics and policy are, and there’s some charm to that. But there’s also ways in which it impedes a uniform process that would protect us all or serve us all better.
And I think about this in the context of when we’re talking about these elections, there’s a lot of rhetoric flying around about mailing ballots, and you see all this stuff that the president saying and then all the stuff other people are saying, but it seems like to me that the security here is a much more salient issue, and that it’s something that clerks are paying attention to looking at your piece, I saw that Michigan has made at least some progress around some of this stuff.
Well, you know, mail in ballot fraud, it’s not non existent, but it is much easier to detect because it’s just hard to Do and it’s a very inefficient way, for somebody trying to disrupt an election to do it. You have to go through specific people in specific ballots and match signatures, it would take an awful lot and you have to know how many votes you need to ship. You have to do it without being detected. There’s so much involved with it. That serious election meddling doesn’t happen at that level. It happens at the level of people trying to get into electronic systems where they can change large amounts of votes and do so undetected. And so that’s where we all should be very worried. There are concerns about mail and salads, but it’s more about the sort of labor intensive effort to deal with them. You know, you looked at Detroit during the August primary and, among other things, they were overwhelmed by mail in ballots, and our state doesn’t allow any clerk to even open those envelopes until the day of the election. So they can’t even get Ready to shove them into counting machines. And then that means that it’s going to take a lot longer to tabulate the vote. And we are a country that has become accustomed to the idea that election eight is like the series finale, like you’re going to know who’ve done it that night. And if you don’t, then something’s gone terribly wrong. And what’s been happening I think this year, I think the pandemic has actually helped in this respect a little bit, is that people are sort of understanding that counting elections and votes might take longer this year, but they’re not that patient. And whoever is ahead at the end of November 3 is going to say they won. And then whoever is behind if they happen to claw their way to a victory is always going to be seen as having stolen the election or somehow done something in bad faith. There is a sick purity power in the public expectations of how votes are counted how fast they’re counted. So it’s difficult. In our state, we are going to have a lot of mail in ballots because of COVID. And it’s going to take some time to count. It is up to journalists, the media to educate the public. So that’s going to be the case. But we do have an assurance that in Michigan, all votes will have a corresponding paper ballot. So yeah, so there is a way to look at the ballots and see if a correspond to how the machines tabulated. But more importantly, and this is the kind of cool part of what’s happening, Michigan, is we’re, I guess I actually haven’t confirmed for sure, but it seems extremely likely that after the November 3 of action for the presidential race, they’re planning to do what’s known as a risk limiting It, which means they’re going to actually go back through some of these ballots. And they’re going to make sure that on a mathematical, complicated formula, they look at certain numbers of ballots to see whether they echo what the machine count said. And if they don’t, then we have reasons to dig deeper and look more carefully at why there is a discrepancy. And that’s the security that paper provides.
Yeah, it really strikes me that it feels like that there’s kind of like a smokescreen of like the the male invalid thing. Whereas we have proof of foreign entities trying to get involved in American computer systems and from what you’re telling me with this decentralized system, and then you know, varying levels of funding. That gives me a lot of pause.
It should. People should be very aware that there are vulnerabilities in the election system, they just need to be aware that the vulnerability are not the stupid stuff that they’re hearing about. Like it’s not the mail in Dallas. I mean, there could be a problem with a set of mail and ballot, but more likely more dangerously. It is like you said, it is foreign entities doing things like hacking into voting registration systems, so they can make it difficult for people to vote, you know, you show up on election day or you mail in your ballot and then, you know, the ballot is checked, and it turned out that somebody has changed your signature so they throw out your ballot. I mean, those things can happen or they cancel your registration and then your valid is invalid or it’s listed as provisional. And that kind of thing is extremely dangerous. And we know that foreign entities, attempted in some cases actually got into some voting registration systems in the 2016 election. It is not believed that they actually made any change that known Some of these attacks were detected. But it is absolutely terrifying. I mean, you know, we have a very vulnerable system. And it’s why the idea of some of these post election audits are so important, particularly in a state like ours, where Michigan was the closest state in the country last time was less than what half a percent separated Trump and Clinton.
I like to leave people with some sort of sense that they can do something about this, because I’ll be honest, listening to you. It’s it’s kind of a lot. And it’s, I mean, it’s really good information. It’s really important, but it’s also kind of a lot and I want to, you know, my audience loves to do things and likes to get involved. How can an individual make some impact around this and even do something on a local level to make this at least a little bit better?
Well, I think that the best thing that could be done at this point, we’re already two months out from the election and in fact, people are going to start returning their absentee ballots very soon. I think the best thing to do is to pay attention to your own ballot, make sure that it arrives. You know, obviously there’s a lot of drama going on with the post office. So if it’s possible to personally drop it off, most clerks want to count the ballots, right. And we don’t have a heavily electrified system that way. We have some computerize elements of our election. But in Michigan, we actually have, you know, paper ballots for everything. So, you know, it’s important to make sure that the representatives know that you want to make sure that valid security is enhanced. That means by doing post election audits, it means by having safeguards, there are ways that members of different political parties can volunteer as election monitors, or, you know, you can go ahead and work as a poll worker as well. I don’t know that fiance polls are going to be as important This time, you know, I think it’s kind of interesting that by the time we get to Election Day, probably most voters would have already voted. You know, Johnson Johnson is trying to get the legislature to do something to prepare the state for the onslaught of absentee ballots. And, you know, other states do it. Other states allow for certain level of not counting, but sort of preparation is just a lot. It’s a lot to open up all those envelopes and match all those signatures and make sure everything’s correct. And then feed them into the machines. And, you know, it takes a lot of time. And if we want to know what Michigan voted on election night, or at least you know, within a day the clerk’s need help they need legislative help. I believe that, you know, if you have a representative who is not supporting that, mostly Republicans, it’s a good idea to bug them about it. Yeah,
Well, I encourage people to read Steve’s piece in Hour Detroit. It’s in the September 2020 edition. Beautiful pieces. Always you guys do over an Hour Detroit. Steve Friess. Thank you so much for your time.
It’s been fun. Thank you.