Despite fears Russia would use its electronic army to meddle with vote totals and install Donald Trump in the White House, the 2016 presidential election probably was not hacked. Even so, a group of computer science professors and lawyers are reportedly pushing Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to call for audits in three key swing states that clinched the election for Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Late Tuesday, Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine reported the demand by Alex Halderman, a well-regarded election security expert, and John Bonifaz, a veteran Boston lawyer and activist, to push the Clinton campaign to seek recounts in the three states. Sherman reported that Halderman, a University of Michigan computer scientist, discovered that Clinton received 7 percent fewer votes in Wisconsin counties that used electronic voting machines instead of paper ballots. That discrepancy, Sherman wrote, might have been enough to swing the state for Clinton and could have been caused by computer attacks on the U.S. election.
On Wednesday morning, Halderman accused Sherman of misinterpreting his findings — and getting the numbers wrong. However, he did not rule out the possibility of a computer attack on the voting infrastructure and called for the vote to be audited.
“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,” Halderman wrote. “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.”
This election season, American intelligence officials warned that Russian hackers targeted American political organizations with the intent interfere in U.S. elections. By hacking into computers belonging to the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and then posting the stolen information online, hackers working on behalf of Moscow exercised a certain level of control over the news cycle and sparked scandal. DNC emails posted on WikiLeaks resulted in the resignation of party boss Debbie Wasserman Schultz and exposed an effort to undermine the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The campaign against U.S. political organizations raised fears that Moscow would also target the American computerized voting system. But on Election Day officials discovered little evidence of outright vote tampering by hackers, and the vote was generally thought to have been clean.
According to Sherman, Halderman and Bonifaz are pushing the Clinton camp to seek recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania ahead of deadlines to do so in all three states in coming days.
But all involved in this putative effort to challenge the outcome of the Nov. 8 election are staying fairly quiet. In response to questions from Foreign Policy, Halderman emailed a link to his blog post but did not answer follow up questions and phone calls. Bonifaz did not return emails and phone calls. Spokespeople for the Clinton campaign did not answer questions about the extent of their work with Halderman and Bonifaz or whether they would pursue recounts in the three states.
In order for Clinton to win, she would have to overturn the results in all three states.
In the absence of any overt moves by the Clinton campaign to seek a recount, Green party candidate Jill Stein said Wednesday that she would challenge the outcome of the vote in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Stein is raising money to fund that effort and is asking contributors to kick in for a total of $2 million.
While Halderman may have discovered a discrepancy in the Wisconsin vote — a claim that data journalist Nate Silver views with intense skepticism — its exact extent remains unclear. Michigan uses paper ballots across the state, a measure that makes the vote easier to audit and more difficult to hack. Wisconsin uses a mix of paper and computer voting machines. Pennsylvania uses a large number of computerized voting machines that experts have identified as potentially vulnerable to hacking.
Ross Hein, an elections supervisor at the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said his state lacked the necessary information to determine whether the vote had been marred by irregularities. He said the state is nonetheless confident in the validity of the election outcome and that it will conduct its normal audit of voting machines. Wisconsin law allows the Clinton campaign to demand a recount. The deadline for doing so is Friday at 5 p.m.
In a statement, the Pennsylvania Department of State said it was aware of the New York article and said state allows for an election outcome to be challenged in court within 20 days of the election.
Fred Woodhams, a spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of State, told Foreign Policy that state law there allows for the losing candidate to challenge an election outcome. Doing so would cost the Clinton campaign about $120,000. It would have to file a recount request by next Wednesday, Nov. 30.
Challenging the outcome of the vote in three states that before Election Day had been considered part of Clinton’s so-called “firewall” would represent an enormously controversial move. President Barack Obama has emphasized he wants to see a smooth transition, and any legal challenge to the vote would surely undermine that process.
The Trump campaign did not return emailed questions about the recount push.
Sherman’s story initially lit up social media with fears Russia might indeed have hacked the U.S. election. Yet it turned out to be yet another lesson on just how hard it is to check the validity of American election results in an era of outdated voting machines, rickety computer infrastructure, and policies that often makes it difficult to audit the vote.
Election security experts in the United States would like to see more extensive auditing procedures put in place alongside voting machines that produce a strong paper trail.
Pamela Smith, the president of Verified Voting, a non-profit focusing on election security, said the dust-up over Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania illustrated the need for strong post-election audits.
“The point of doing an audit is that you learn a lot about your voting system,” she said. “But the really key function is to ensure that the outcome was correct.”
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