Congressional Briefing Panel: Paper ballots crucial to the future of election integrity

By Marta Steele

A distinguished panel of cybersecurity and election experts convened yesterday at a congressional briefing to discuss crucial issues, including cybersecurity against outside invasions and corruption and the dire need for the entire country to not only vote on paper ballots but use them for vitally important post-election risk-limiting audits.

::::::::May 16, 2017

From Day 156: .Civic duty. {MID-73023}
Day 156: .Civic duty.
(Image by seanmfreese)
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Paper ballots are crucial to the future of election integrity, a panel of seven distinguished experts all agreed at a congressional briefing on Strengthening Election Cybersecurity yesterday, May 15. And bipartisan cooperation is vitally necessary toward this goal.

Paper is essential to elections, in the form of paper ballots used for voting on optical scanners, with voter-verified auditable paper trails (VVPAT) as generated by some touchscreens an alternative, but ditching the DREs (direct-recording electronic voting machines ) altogether is vitally necessary. The problem is that most states can’t afford to purchase new machinery. The nationwide cost of replacing systems more than ten years old and hence out of date (running on Windows XP if not older operating systems) as well as beyond their usability limits and lacking security, would be around $100 to $200 million–a price low by most governmental standards, said James Woolsey, former CIA Director and Chair of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. If the federal government can’t provide it, certainly wealthy “angels” can, or NGOs or foundations. Like the Koch brothers or George Soros, he later joked.

But too much public alarm over cybersecurity, or any other issues at the voting level will reduce voter confidence. That fact was not disputed.

So many issues were touched on and there was only an hour and a half for each panelist to speak and audience questions to be taken. The event was so stimulating I wish it had lasted longer.

The distinguished panel was moderated by Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She was joined by Ambassador Woolsey; Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer (ret.), a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and a contributor to Fox News; Lawrence Norden, deputy director of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice; Susan Greenhaigh, election specialist at the Verified Voting Foundation; James Scott, senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology; and Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and technology at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Greenberg began the discussion with a theme that all agreed was necessary to any progress on cybersecurity, bipartisan cooperation. So far, legislation addressing election integrity and machinery has been sponsored and cosponsored by Democrats. All the members of the new congressional caucus on fair elections that was formed last year are Democrats. President Trump promises to include Democrats among the consultants included in his proposed Commission on Election Integrity, which is really about “scientifically” rationalizing away Hillary Clinton’s 3 million popular vote victory over him in Election 2016 (click here). Whom will he appoint? Perhaps Ambassador Woolsey, who humorously described himself as a Lieberman-style Democrat?

Professor Halderman, well known among election integrity activists for successfully hacking into Internet voting machinery introduced for possible use in the District of Columbia in 2010, noted that 52 different election system models are used in this country. All are subject to virusing singly or contagiously or at an even wider range if central tabulators are used, even those not connected to the Internet.

Countrywide our decentralized technologies, have systems varying in most cases from county to county. A few are centralized statewide, but municipalities are very wary of interference by the central government. Hacking is hardly impeded, however. Expert hackers like Russia, Guccifer, Anonymous, or even ISIS choose the most vulnerable models in the most critical, battleground areas.

In Michigan, he said, 75 percent of counties outsource management of their systems to outside providers, making the whole state vulnerable to hacking. He praised and advocated the use of paper in elections, comparing it to the old-fashioned magnetic compasses airplane pilots use when their computers fail. In 2016 more than 70 percent of votes were on paper ballots, most of which weren’t resorted to even where final tallies were close, which is when paper ballots are most useful in providing exact and accurate vote counts.

Further, we must have risk-limiting audits–that is, post-election audits of a number of ballots statistically valid in the context of the total number of votes–a system that must be in place by Election 2020 “or we’ll be sitting ducks.”

Ambassador Woolsey, who said that he wasn’t a cyber expert, demonstrated deep expertise on the art of “disinformation,” a form of deception in which Russians excel other countries and on which they devote a huge amount of taxpayer money, all to deceive the West. An example was pro-communism propaganda, which they spread among 30 million Western Europeans successfully, as apparent in their election results, despite all of the post World War II aid the United States supplied to them. We are the world’s biggest target and Russia’s favorite one.

Dr. Scott, next to speak, the author of the newly published best-seller Hacking Elections Is Easy, addressed the problems of malicious software, espionage, and disinformation. Iranians have yet to invade U.S. systems, aiming, along with others, at state-level tabulators, which are most vulnerable to outside invasions. Hackers have an easy time keeping the “backdoors” of the machines “open” to such penetration.

Hammertoss is a “backdoor” program used by the Russian group APT29 that receives its instructions or commands from Twitter or other popular websites and mimics the behavior of legitimate software as it invades systems and extracts data from them–the most complex form of manipulation.

An easier form of malware, used in the United States, is fractionalization or decimalization [discovered by Bev Harris’s associate Bennie Smith], which, with predetermined agendas according to polling where it is used, assigns “weights” to each vote, either less than one or more than one but never zero (to my knowledge) or two. The votes total exactly the number predetermined–more votes in white areas, fewer in nonwhite areas, of course, and the software is entirely undetectable. Results will have been manipulated by assigning 1 vote-plus-a Fraction to a number of desirable voters (depending on bias of the programmers) and reducing, by Fraction, the votes of a greater number of voters to less than 1. If equally weighted, the majority would have won, but with the Fraction allocations, they lose. The software is entirely undetectable except in rare cases where an operator carelessly leaves a Fraction in the results, which a practiced operator will “close” to whole numbers after the program has done its job. Dr. Scott anticipated that it would be used in “one or two swing states” in the next federal election. Dr. Scott anticipated that it would be used in “one or two swing states” in the next federal election. I couldn’t help but compare the ante-bellum system that assigned two-thirds of a vote to every slave, though slaves couldn’t vote. The point was to make the number of votes in the less-populous slaveholding South comparable to that of the industrial Northern states.

Exasperated with Dr. Scott’s descriptions of how utterly hackable computerized voting systems are, I wanted to ask at this point why we bother with digitalization at all instead of going back to a hand-counted paper ballot system polished by time and experience so that ballot boxes can no longer be “stuffed” and other forms of corruption at this level are avoided through a conscientious chain of custody that includes bipartisan public witnesses at every stage. It is much harder to attack the “HCPB” system on a massive scale, given the techniques developed to maintain the integrity of vote counting. I did ask one of the experts afterward, but it was clear that cybersecurity in today’s context meant just that, the use of computers as a bottom line of voting.

“Vulnerability gives access,” said Lt.-Col. Shaffer, next to speak. We must learn to think like the adversary. Technology has been weaponized. In 1991 General Norman Schwartzkopf displayed an elaborate map of strategies he planned to use against Iraq in the Gulf War. This included deceiving Iraq by leaking the information that his troops planned to occupy Kuwait when the actual plan was to invade a small part of it. But the map was accidentally left displayed and the strategy was therefore stymied.

We must make sure that the principle one citizen equals one vote endures, a cardinal point recently enforced by conservative federal judges in Texas, where opponents wanted to redraw districts according to the number of voting-aged citizens rather than on the basis of the full population.

Paper trails are essential, reiterated Susan Greenhaigh of Verified Voting, a foundation established in California in 2004 by computer scientists concerned with accuracy and security.

The best means toward this goal is paper. She displayed a map showing which regions in this country utilize which systems. Though paperless DREs (touchscreen voting machines) are used in the fewest, they must be eliminated altogether, as the most hackable of systems. The total of optical scanner generated paper ballots should match the machine totals for an election to have succeeded as entirely accurate.

The most effective of paper ballot audits is the risk-limiting category, which calculates how many votes to recount on the basis of total votes. These tatistically sound audits add transparency to the voting process and deter infiltration.

Getting down to the “nuts and bolts of things,” Dr. Norden said that lots of progress has been made on security issues since the last machines were put into use. Half of the states do post-election audits. All of the problems evident in the overaged machinery can be addressed by newer models, which a few states have been able to purchase, though some, for some reason, still have Internet connectability, as vulnerable as this has proved to be. 42 states still suffer from antiquated systems. They can’t be tested with current security standards.

At least three House bills have been generated on these issues and others, but all of the sponsors and cosponsors are Democrats, a situation, as emphasized above, that must be remedied for paper ballots to replace the DRE systems.

Eighty percent of localities are desperate to replace their DREs, but counties don’t agree, said Norden. How can we change our system toward bipartisan involvement? This is the only path toward preventing cyberattacks. The ambassador said that he’d be happy to serve as a consultant. Federal intervention is crucial. The money must be spent, said Dr. Norden.

On the subject of Internet voting, the most hackable, least secure of all systems. Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State permit it, though mostly for use by military working overseas, where absentee ballots from remote locations sometimes don’t arrive here in time to be counted. Troops must sacrifice the privacy of their votes to use the Internet.

U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) has written cybershield legislation.

During the audience Q&A period, panelists noted that we have “plenty of time” to improve our cybersecurity, at least until Election 2018.

Not only is bipartisan cooperation necessary at the government level; we need more grassroots organization to push for paper ballots. [Such organization at local and larger levels has been in process since earlier than 2005, but assistance from higher levels will certainly be advantageous toward our goals.] Ben Ptashnik, co-founder, and executive director, along with Victoria Collier, of one of the sponsors of yesterday’s events, the National Election Defense Coalition, said that lots of conversation is already in progress, but common ground is necessary at all levels. He is already reaching out to nonpartisan groups. We must forge common ground among science, technology, and politics. The issues aren’t new but more, much more is needed to effectively address them.

Said Professor Halderman, “People want fair elections. That’s a given. The rest is politics.”

Other sponsors of this panel were the Brennan Center for Justice, the London Center for Policy Research, Verified, and the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book “Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement’s Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People’s Vote, 2000-2008” (Columbus, Free Press) and a member of the Election Integrity movement since 2001. Her original website,, first entered the blogosphere in 2003. She recently became a senior editor for She has in the past taught college and worked as a full-time as well as freelance reporter. She has been a peace and election integrity activist since 1999. Her undergraduate and graduate educational background are in Spanish, classical philology, and historical and comparative linguistics. Her biography was listed in “Who’s Who in the East” in 2000.


About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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One Response to Congressional Briefing Panel: Paper ballots crucial to the future of election integrity

  1. eslkevin says:

    I agree on the paper ballots, and we need to have an international independent observer body–similar to the Jimmy Carter Foundation–oversee elections in the USA.

    Carter in an interview said that long before the 2000 election, his election commissions had determined that USA elections did not pass muster internationally (anywhere in the continental USA).

    In other words, our election problems are not new but stem from a long history of manipulation, whereby even in small towns the Dems and Repubs threw out 20% or more of the paper ballots by the 1970s.

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