In Donald Trump recount election drama, news media is again being taken for a ride

Trump made unsubstantiated claims of serious US voter fraud and said 'millions of people' had cast their ballots illegally, offering no evidence for the assertions he put forth on Twitter.

Nikhila Natarajan November 29, 2016 07:57:09 IST
In Donald Trump recount election drama, news media is again being taken for a ride

When Princeton professor Andrew Appel decided to hack an election machine and prove how vulnerable America’s election is, he bought the election machine online for $82 and when the 250 pound package arrived on the shoulders of stunned deliverymen, he called his student Alex Halderman to pick its lock. They swung it in 7 minutes.

The same student — a reedy, bespectacled professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan who said India’s electronic voting machines are susceptible to hacking has been hammering away for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to go for a recount of votes in key battleground states.

In Donald Trump recount election drama news media is again being taken for a ride

File photo of Donald Trump. AP

Professor Halderman’s doggedness is why third party candidate Jill Stein, who won about 1 percent of the total vote in the US 2016 election, is rallying hard for a recount in Wisconsin — a move that has got President-elect Trump back to his Twitter rant routine.

"In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," Trump wrote on Twitter. There is not a shred of evidence to support Trump's claim which came as steps are being taken towards recounting votes in the state of Wisconsin, which Trump won.

That attack got the remainder of Clinton’s campaign back to full throttle.

“We are getting attacked for participating in a recount that we didn't ask for by the man who won election but thinks there was massive fraud,” Marc Elias, Clinton’s campaign lawyer, shot back.

Let’s get some facts out of the way first.

Hillary Clinton has not asked for a recount of votes, although she leads Trump in the popular vote by 2 million. Jill Stein asked for the recount and Clinton’s team nodded. Halderman is not saying the election was hacked, he’s saying the deviation from the pre-poll numbers could be because the polls were systematically wrong. A statement on the Wisconsin Elections Commission's website said the recount was scheduled to begin Thursday and had to be completed by 13 December.

Although Trump is President-elect, vote counts are not finished yet. Trump increased his Electoral College vote count to 306, compared with 232 for Clinton, after Michigan certified its election results — and his victory there.

As of 28 November, Trump leads in 30 states with more than 300 electoral votes, and he would have to lose all three contested states to lose the election. He leads by some 71,000 votes in Pennsylvania, more than 20,000 in Wisconsin, and by nearly 11,000 in Michigan.

Getting a recount done is a costly op. Jill Stein has already raised the $1.1 million necessary to trigger a recount in Wisconsin, as well as the $500,000 to do the same in Pennsylvania and needs to raise $600,000 in Michigan by 30 November.

Trump made unsubstantiated claims of serious US voter fraud and said "millions of people" had cast their ballots illegally, offering no evidence for the assertions he put forth on Twitter.

It’s like how he suggested Ted Cruz's dad might have been involved in JFK's assassination. Or that Hillary Clinton is on the edge of death. By saying that millions voted illegally, Trump is questioning his own win. A system that could be manipulated to become pro-Clinton could well do the same for Trump.

Trump's shock path to the White House saw him fall short of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the popular vote — she carried the election by 2.2 million ballots — but win the all-important Electoral College count, which decides the US presidency.

Trump, rarely a good sport when he’s on the losing side, is searching for an excuse for the 2 million deficit.

Professor Andrew Appel of Princeton University says at least 10 states are still using machines that are vulnerable to hacking. And you don't need the Russians to play dirty. Anyone with access to the machines for a reasonable amount of time, fraud on their minds and geeky enough can rig this thing.

"How do you know these machines have not been giving you wrong results for the last five years?" Prof Appel told Firstpost.

Touch screen voting machines riddled with bugs and security holes were in full force in Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Delaware, Kentucky.

The low level game of election fraud is to just rig the machine to behave badly, the high stakes game end is to create cheating programs that shift votes around and are taught not to cheat while they are being tested.

Nearly 44 million registered voters, accounting for 25 percent of the total US voters, live in jurisdictions that rely on paperless systems, including millions in contested states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

That means one in four registered voters in America live in areas that will use electronic voting machines that don’t produce a paper backup.

Election experts agree that election voting machines which rely on paper ballots are the best available technology on voting day. But America uses two kinds of machines - paper based and optical scan. The problem is with the latter.

“Any non-paper based voting machine is essentially like a computer or your iphone,” Halderman’s teacher Prof Appel tells Firstpost.

Professor Appel and Halderman have both demonstrated how anyone can install vote-stealing malware on real voting machines that alters the electronic records of every vote.

The reason the recount story is flying now is because deadlines for filing recount petitions are hardcoded into the political system and they all fall this week.

As for those asking the obvious question of why the recount at all when the total margin in the three states put together is well over a 100,000 votes against Clinton, Halderman explains: “Examining the physical evidence in these states — even if it finds nothing amiss — will help allay doubt and give voters justified confidence that the results are accurate. It will also set a precedent for routinely examining paper ballots, which will provide an important deterrent against cyberattacks on future elections. Recounting the ballots now can only lead to strengthened electoral integrity…”

“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,” says Halderman in a blog post.

“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,” he says.

In his post, Halderman also pointed out what he says are security flaws in American voting machines in general and urged their replacement.

Meanwhile, Trump and his aides have pushed back hard against the Wisconsin recount, with the president-elect letting loose a series of early-morning tweets in which he quoted Clinton about the need to respect the electoral process.

Although Trump had warned before the election that the result might be "rigged," he had offered no such complaint after his unexpected November 8 victory -- until now.

Back in New York late Sunday after spending the Thanksgiving holiday at his Florida Mar-a-Lago resort with his family, Trump again took to Twitter, alleging that voter fraud had occurred in several states.

"Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California — so why isn't the media reporting on this? Serious bias — big problem!" Trump posted.

Trump and his aides have offered no evidence concerning the claims, nor did Trump explain why he would oppose the nascent Wisconsin recount if illegal voting was such a serious problem.

Bernie Sanders, who ran against Clinton for the Democratic nomination, called Trump's remarks "unfounded nonsense" that showed Republicans wanted to make it harder for people including minorities to register to vote.

Just as Trump's appeal to the angry white man in America was more strategy and less about social inequality, his railing against the recount and allegations of voter fraud is just another example of fact-free politics in the age of free media, fueled by a fortune that grew from tall buildings in Manhattan.

Once again, it's the news media that's getting played.

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