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GOP lawmakers, activists go local with push for hand-counted ballots

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Primary election voting

Voters cast their ballots early for the June 7 primary election on May 24 at the Lewis and Clark County elections office in Helena.

HAMILTON — A self-described cyber security expert implicated in an alleged breach of a Colorado election system is touring Montana counties this week, the latest push by some Republican lawmakers to return the state to the days of hand-counting all its ballots.

The local drive is part of a national effort spawned by unfounded voter fraud theories, but experts warn that eliminating ballot-processing machines could return elections to the days of widespread disenfranchisement and fraud that prompted the switch to machine-counting more than a century ago.

Despite no documented instances of the machines being manipulated or hacked during any election, they’ve become top targets of right-wing activists who believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Lawmakers in at least six other states have introduced legislation to prohibit the use of machines during elections, and at least one such bill draft has been requested for Montana’s 2023 legislative session.

Alleging a cover-up

Seated in a gray polo shirt and a white Maserati baseball cap, Mark Cook on Monday spent well over two hours telling the Ravalli County Commissioners that their election system is in jeopardy.

Cook said his expertise entails helping software companies uncover vulnerabilities in their systems. Following the contention over the results of the 2020 election, he said he began looking at the infrastructure of election systems across the country, and was “absolutely shocked” when he quickly discovered major security flaws.

“I started seeing the vendor was keeping this a secret, they wouldn’t release the source code they wouldn’t let anyone see this stuff,” Cook said, referring to the proprietary source code used by the companies that develop tabulators. “Then they were starting to prosecute people that were looking at it and investigating it. And I thought, oh my gosh, this is the biggest cover-up I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Cook has been named in at least one of those investigations, in Elbert County, Colorado, where the clerk and recorder has admitted to making and distributing copies of his county's election system. In a court filing, he identified Cook as one of the two experts who guided him through the process of copying the system onto a hard drive.

That case is being investigated by the Secretary of State, but charges have not been filed against the clerk. In a lawsuit, the state alleged that the breach could be "exploited by unknown actors to uncover system vulnerabilities that might be used to undermine voters’ confidence in Colorado’s secure elections,” Colorado Newsline reported in February.

Over the course of the three-hour meeting, Cook described the machines that process ballots as unreliable, vulnerable to manipulation and obscured from public view by government officials and the companies that manufacture them.

“As far as security systems, there is no secure computer, it just doesn’t exist,” he said. “Our Department of Defense has been hacked. Our Pentagon has been hacked. Facebook’s been hacked. … All these huge companies have been hacked.”

But Cook made no claims that election systems had been hacked during any election, and offered no evidence to suggest the tabulating machines had been compromised. Still, Cook argued, the only way to ensure the nation's election security is to eliminate the use of machines in elections, with the exception of those used to allow people with disabilities to cast their votes.

“All we’re doing is we’re adding up numbers,” he said. “… You count them yourself with a few of your neighbors, or a husband and wife, you guys count them one night in the precinct, so there’s no question. Everyone knows that the numbers are correct.”

Vulnerable versus error-prone

Douglas W. Jones is a retired University of Iowa computer science professor, who has devoted much of his career to election-related technology and has written a book tracing the history of those machines.

Jones shares much of Cook’s skepticism of the security claims from the companies that make ballot tabulators. But rather than a “cover-up,” as Cook alleged, Jones said the reason the companies don’t reveal their code is based more on their business models.

The three biggest manufacturers, ES&S, Dominion and Hart InterCivic, all protect their intellectual property through trade secrets, meaning all their source code is proprietary.

“If the industry would agree, on an industry-wide basis, to move from trade secret to copyright protection, then they could all publish their code the same way novels are published — under copyright,” he said. “And everyone could read everyone else’s code and everyone could be secure.”

Jones’s skepticism is rooted both in the turbulent history of voting machines and his own experience finding vulnerabilities in the thousands of lines of code that allow modern tabulators to function. Companies don't willingly reveal their trade secrets, he said, and they’re also wary of being embarrassed by the security flaws that public “white hat” hacking exercises might uncover.

“These are really serious exercises, and the election industry has been historically very resistant to allowing their machines to be subjected to this kind of scrutiny,” Jones said. And when they have, he added, “they haven’t fared well.”

Yet even an open-source model, in which people like Cook would have free rein to try to detect and alert officials to potential vulnerabilities in the software, would be far from impenetrable, Jones said.

“Proofreading computer code is just as hard as proofreading English … people are lousy at it, and even good proofreaders will let things get by,” he said. “… Auditing that code is pretty much hopeless.”

But Jones believes that heeding the calls to “vote Amish” and return to hand-counting every paper ballot are based on a romanticized idea of how hand-counting actually works, especially in larger jurisdictions. Hand-counting is inherently rife with clerical errors. And beginning around 1875, reformers began to see mechanical vote-counting machines as a solution to “the chicanery that was taking place,” he said.

“In many jurisdictions, as many as 10 to 40% of all ballots were rejected in the hand count, based on technicalities,” Jones said. “Where dirty politics was deeply embedded, the name of the game wasn’t to get the most votes but to reject as many votes as possible in order to support your side.”

Examples included the “short pencil technique," in which partisan ballot counters would hide pencil lead under their fingernails, making marks to disqualify ballots cast for the opposite party.

Jones' solution, then? Regularly audit the elections as a double-check that the machines are working — essentially the system Montana currently has.

“The machines don’t make clerical errors, but at the same time, the machines are vulnerable,” he said. “The two together are much stronger than either alone.”

‘A lot of razzle-dazzle’

Cook found a mostly sympathetic crowd for his message in Hamilton, where many of his lines drew enthusiastic applause. Sen. Theresa Manzella, who previously indicated she was helping to organize Cook's trip to Montana, has submitted a request for a bill draft that would eliminate the use of tabulators in the state, along with 22 other election-related bills. She left Monday's meeting early and did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.

“Our citizens are telling us that they do not trust our system,” she told the commissioners. “It is imperative that we address this and create a system that the citizens can trust.”

But seated alongside the commissioners, Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg pushed back on some of Cook’s assertions.

Cook repeatedly painted Montana’s post-election audit system as insufficient to ensure there’s no manipulation — which even he acknowledged is a statistically challenging case to make. The vast majority of Montana's 56 counties use automatic tabulators, and each of those since 2009 has been required to audit three randomly chosen races in a selection of randomly chosen precincts via a hand count. The audits take place each federal election, an average of one per year, in all but about a dozen counties. Recounts of close or contested races are also done by hand.

In a back-and-forth with Plettenberg, Cook suggested that perhaps a bad actor could somehow inject themselves into the randomization process used to select which precincts to audit, and only manipulate the other races and precincts. (It’s done with 10-sided dice that are rolled by state officials in a public process)

“The only way to know for absolute sure that it’s 100% accurate across the board is to audit every single race,” Cook said, referring to what would effectively be a full hand-count of the election.

Plettenberg responded, “And if you have a recount, I mean, the same thing — how do they know which race is going to be close?”

“They may know everything,” Cook answered.

Cindy Havens, a Victor resident who said she spent her career as a director of information technology for companies including a hospital and an insurance firm, rejected Cook’s assertion that a rogue actor at one of the tabulator companies could insert malicious code to steal an election.

Software developers have long used a system called “source control” to guard against that possibility, she said, explaining that each change made by each programmer is recorded and reviewed by the other members of the development team before it becomes part of the software.

“All these buzzwords about hacks, I mean, ‘banks have been hacked,’” Havens said, “there’s a lot of razzle-dazzle there, detracting from the real point: Are the counts accurate? Have they been accurate? Can we expect them to continue to be accurate?”

Other paths to restoring confidence

While the allegations that the 2020 election was stolen continue to inform one track, a group of lawmakers, election officials and other stakeholders in Montana are working behind the scenes to develop their own responses to repair voter confidence in the integrity of the election system — which cratered following Trump’s loss.

In April, the first in a series of work sessions kicked off in Helena. That group includes Republican and Democratic lawmakers, a half-dozen election administrators from urban and rural counties and representatives from the Secretary of State, the Commissioner of Political Practices and the Montana Association of Counties.

“We did keep it focused on looking forward,” Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said in an interview last month. “We’re not interested in recontesting the 2020 election, we’re looking for commonsense solutions that might make their way into rule or legislation in the upcoming session.”

High up on the list of discussion items is the security of election technology. Bedey stressed that he believes the system is secure, but said the group is looking for ways to “make that more obvious” through the certification process.

Other topics up for consideration by the work group include the number of precincts that get audited each election, verifying that voters are American citizens and reviewing the penalties for voter fraud.

In the coming months, Bedey said the group aims to develop concrete proposals to present to the Secretary of State for rulemaking and legislation to take up during the 2023 session.

“Our intention is to seek to enhance a system that is already very secure,” Bedey said.

Montana State News Bureau
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