How elections are rigged in Florida and elsewhere

Illustration by Brook Hines

Florida has been Ground Zero for questionable elections since the 2000 recount fiasco. Following that disaster, it’s remarkable that no substantive public discourse or policy has challenged our error-ridden, opaque, unaccountable elections.

Much has been written about the subject by serious political scientists who are deeply concerned about the security of our elections. But mainstream media and leadership of both political parties seem deathly allergic to examining the problem. The restraint on the part of the Democratic Party is especially baffling considering that statistical anomalies handing elections to Republicans are so widespread that the phenomena has been given a name: red shift. You’d think that the party getting the short end of the stick would be moved to action, but that has not been the case. 

Some history of modern electronic voting everyone needs to know:

Modern American elections are marked and tallied using technology manufactured by private companies. These are electronic machines that utilize either optical scanners or touchscreen ‘direct voting’ (DREs), in addition to various forms of assisted voting for special needs voters (vision, dexterity impaired). These companies do not allow inspection of their code. That’s proprietary. Also proprietary is their auditing system. You simply can’t see how the machines work or if they’re working properly, because that’s considered a profitable proprietary area. 

Voters have been asked to ‘trust’ a system that has fallen far short of deserving confidence. Mergers and acquisitions have reduced the number of electronic voting vendors to a handful of incestuous and secretive corporations, many with ties to the extreme right wing. One Republican voting machine owner, Chuck Hagel, actually won a Senate seat as voters used his machines, while he hid his ownership in the company.

Ohio’s 2004 election rivals Florida’s 2000 election in the shady business department. In 2003 the electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold (later, Premier Election Systems) serviced elections in Ohio. Their CEO, Walden “Wally” O’Dell was a fundraiser for George W. Bush who promised (in writing) to “deliver” Ohio’s electoral votes to Bush. The election systems CEO said in a fundraiser invitation that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year,” which prompted calls for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to drop Diebold as a vendor of electronic voting machines. Blackwell also happened to be the Ohio co-chair for the Bush/Cheney campaign. The problems with Ohio’s 2004 election are too numerous to list, but here’s one staggering illustration of the theft that night. In Gahanna County, Ward 1, Precinct B there were 638 total ballots cast. Bush won 4,258 from that precinct. That is not a typo. Bush was awarded 4,258 votes in a precinct that cast only 638 ballots. This was on top of Ohio’s massive voter purge and suppression. 

For more on Ohio’s 2004 debacle here’s Christopher Hitchens writing for Vanity Fair.
Also see the excellent documentary available for free on Vimeo: “Murder, Spies & Voting Lies: The Clint Curtis Story”


According to the cover story in Harper’s Magazine (November 2012, “How to Rig An Election”) executives and staffers at election corporations have been either accused or convicted of “conspiracy, bribery, bid rigging, computer fraud, tax fraud, stock fraud, mail fraud, extortion, and drug trafficking.” One executive, Jeffrey Dean, developed vote-by-mail software while in prison for embezzlement. When Dean left prison he launched a ballot-printing operation with narcotics trafficker John Elder. 

Another big player in electronic voting, Sequoia, was exposed when whistleblowers charged that the company forced them to use inferior paper stock and misalign chads on the ballots used in Palm Beach county in the 2000 election. A 32-year employee of Sequoia said “I feel like they deliberately did all this to have problems with the paper ballots,” because the “touchscreen-voting system wasn’t getting off the ground,” as they had hoped.

Rick Scott was elected in 2010 after machines in Hillsborough County maintained by a company called Dominion (now part of Premier Election Systems/Diebold and Sequoia) had a “memory card glitch” causing 38,000 early voting ballots to be rescanned (in secret, of course). The same year in Wisconsin a county elections official just “discovered 14,300 votes “on her computer” which delivered the state’s Supreme Court to Scott Walker who needed the majority to push his extremist agenda. 

In the 2000 presidential election, Volusia County reported in error that Gore was behind by 16,000 votes when he was actually ahead by 13,000. This was never corrected and Bush became president, leading us into wars that we are still fighting, based on lies that everyone now recognizes and/or ignores. 

This tabulation error opened the door for Florida Recount debacle organized by GOP operatives (some of which are reported to be agitating now in Broward), culminating in the infamous “Brooks Brothers Riot” at the SOE’s office. That manufactured spectacle, and others like it cowed the Democratic Party which gave Republicans an edge in popular opinion (“sore losers”). A partial list of participants in the Brooks Brothers Riot includes:

Roger Stone in his Penguin phase. Credit: via Netflix, “Get Me Roger Stone”

  • Roger Stone, a self-described “GOP Hitman” and former member of Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP). Stone is rumored to be involved in the current Broward County mayhem. 
  • Matt Schlapp, a former House aide who became the White House Political Director during the Bush Jr. administration
  • Garry Malphrus, who became deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council during the Bush Jr. administration
  • Rory Cooper, a former staffer for the National Republican Congressional

    Manufacturing dissent. Credit: via Alamy

  • Tom Pyle, a former Tom DeLay (R-Texas) staffer
  • Duane Gibson, a Don Young aide on the House Resources Committee who worked for Ted Stevens, then became a lobbyist associated with Jack Abramoff.
  • Chuck Royal, legislative assistant to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)
  • Steven Brophy, a former GOP Senate aide to Senators Fred Thompson, Bill Frist, and Senator-elect Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)
  • Jeff Bloemker, also a former aide to Sen. Thompson (R-Tenn.)

Electronic voting and tabulation is so inherently anti-democratic that the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland all outlawed it after testing revealed massive security problems. Countries using e-voting methods seem especially prone to electing extreme right wing authoritarians: Brazil, Philippines, and India.

And lest you think that only the Russians have interest in hacking in the US, in 2005 a nonpartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker minced no words when they stated that the greatest threats to secure elections are insiders with direct access to machines. Their report reads: “There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry any more than in other industries.” It’s conceivable that Russia or another foreign nation could hack our elections, but they’d have to get in line behind the American right wing who staked out this turf long ago. And let’s be clear about the nature of a such an attack. Russian mobsters may work for any entity. Could be the FSB, but it just as easily could be a political party or corporate entity that is buying the hacking service for their own ends. In 2016 a Russian spear-phishing attack on poll books manufactured by Florida-based VR Systems were accessed and we still have no idea what became of that data. Further complicating matter, some electronic voting companies are foreign-owned. 


Against this backdrop the top two races on the 2018 Florida ballot are going to a statewide recount with a nauseatingly familiar election night narrative: memory card glitches, votes appearing out of thin air, optical scanners not working correctly. To assert that our machines and tabulating systems are clean is utter nonsense. Florida needs a recount, and then we need to audit our entire system and move to hand-counted paper ballots. It’s a farce for modern Democratic elections to take place on secret machines using secret code that (maybe) are audited under secrecy (we don’t know if they’re audited or not). Modern elections in the US simply can’t be trusted. We have every reason to believe there is tampering, but we have no right to “pop the hood” and examine the process. Privatized, secret elections should be considered a violation of civil rights in a free and fair Democracy. 

As I write this national news is reporting that Bay County allowed approximately 150 ballots to be returned by email and fax. Voters reportedly sent snapshots of their filled-out ballots to the Supervisor of Elections (SOE), Mark Andersen for tabulation. For his part, Andersen doesn’t see the problem with email/fax voting telling the Miami Herald, “how is that different than a ballot that comes in through the post office?” Here’s how: email/fax voting precludes anonymity. Who can blame voters who decide that not voting is preferably to disclosing of their voting preferences? At a time when we’re supposedly so concerned with voter ID, how did Bay County certify that the ballots were ID checked? Did SOE staff create new ballots for these voters and run them through machines, or did they just enter the data raw—creating an unverifiable tally? How do we know if SOE staff filled them out as the voter intended? How do we know that the SOE manufactured only the 150 ballots/votes they reported from email/fax solicitation? Was the privilege of email voting extended to everyone in the county? Or just those who enjoy a relationship or direct communication with the SOE? Moreover, how is it that a Supervisor of Elections doesn’t see the problem with this?

The Bay County blunder undermines the public trust. For all we know Bay County meant well and did nothing untoward with anyone’s election information—but there is no way to prove it. Providing a secure and accountable system instills confidence that every voter is treated equally. The problem with breaking election rules is that it opens the whole system up to question. This is a particularly flagrant example. But there are plenty of other Election Day no-no’s that occurred, some of which were caught on video. 

The Tim Canova campaign has circulated a video of ballots being loaded from the trunks of cars (with a single drivers) to a rented moving truck. This video shows clear and obvious problems in the chain of custody. There should always be two people attending ballots, for obvious reasons. Other chain of custody problems were reported in Broward include boxes marked “provisional ballots” popping up at a school and in the trunk of a rental car. The SOE claims that these reports and video do not show impropriety–essentially saying “who are you going to believe?”

The 2018 midterm election isn’t the first tango for Tim Canova and Broward County SOE Brenda Snipes. His 2016 primary challenge of Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been researched by at least four independent analysts for statistical anomalies. All four independently confirmed statistical anomalies associated with error and/or fraud. Canova sought to inspect paper ballots in March 2017 and took Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes to court three months later when her office hadn’t fulfilled his request. A judge ordered the inspection of ballots in September 2017. That’s when Canova learned that the ballots had already been destroyed. Snipes even signed a certification that said no court cases involving the ballots were pending, and SOEs in Florida are required by law to retain ballots in federal elections for a minimum of 22 months. Canova believes Snipes should have been dismissed after the violating the law with regard to ballot preservation. As reported in the Sun Sentinel, “The judge’s ruling cited a previous case that held dismissal was an appropriate sanction for failing to preserve evidence ‘even though the destruction of evidence may have resulted from negligence rather than an attempt to obstruct justice.’” 

Another notable incident of ballots subject to a lawsuit being destroyed happened in 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties after the 2004 election. This time the ballots were subject to a federal court order to preserve them, as they were considered evidence in the determination of whether the Presidential election was stolen from John Kerry. 


Another chain of custody issue arises from technical errors. When there is a “glitch” in the wireless/cellular transmission of vote counts and a poll worker transfers tabulations from the machine to thumb drive, that breaks the chain of custody because no one can know if the thumb drive that winds up at the SOE’s office contains the actual data or rigged numbers. Another threat posed by thumb drives involves digital manipulation. A drive taken from one machine to a central tabulator has been likened to the danger of sharing hypodermic needles between patients. You have no way to know if the drive transmits malicious code to the either machine. In hacking experiments, the use of a thumb drive is often cited as the most efficient means to hack an election. It can take less than a minute for an infected drive to insert malicious code at any point in the system.

Also, “wireless/cellular transmission” of vote counts is insecure by nature. Conceptually, the chain of custody is automatically violated in wireless transmission because we have no way to know if the data is intercepted. A commonplace example of security issues with wireless transmission are credit card skimmers that steal your account information at gas pumps and ATMs. This year election machine giant ES&S installed cellular modems in Florida’s machines to transfer vote counts on election night. Computer Science Professor Andrew Appel of Princeton University warns that cellular transmission creates the opportunity for hackers to intercept and “alter vote totals as they are uploaded.” All the hacker needs to do is intercept the transmission via nearby cell phone towers using technology similar to the Stingray system used by many police departments. 

Here are just a few more concerns that have been raised in Broward County which could become part of a lawsuit:

  • In both August and November, after the polls closed, thousands of ballots were “discovered” by SOE.  
  • Reports that voters were told that they have already voted when they haven’t.
  • More than 20,000 voters reported problems with mail-in ballots for the November election.
  • Reports that SOE website recorded votes for people who haven’t yet voted. 
  • Reports that precincts handed out “cheat sheets” of who to vote for on election day.
  • Reports that ballots did not contain the name of some candidates or some races at all.
  • Reports that some polls were closed during voting hours when voters went to vote on election day.
  • SOE reports that some ballots rejected by machines were duplicated and run through the machine again. 
  • After voting closed SOE did not know how many ballots were left to count and did not disclose why ballots are still left to count. 

Our problems with election fraud are widespread and largely ignored. Many election security issues arise from corporate control and secrecy. Electronic voting technology isn’t serving Democracy—it’s serving corporate interests. In order to regain trust in our electoral system we need comprehensive election reform that forbids privatization and demands accountability through hand-counted paper ballots. No more wireless transmission. No more propietary machines that are off-limits to public scrutiny. America would be wise to follow Germany and Ireland in abandoning these undemocratic machines and processes. 

The Verified Voting Foundation suggests the following principles to guide development of new voting systems.

  1. Paper: It should use human-readable marks on paper as the official record of voter preferences and as the official medium to store votes.
  2. Accessible: It should be accessible to voters with disabilities, and in all mandated languages.
  3. Voter Verifiable: It should provide voters the means and opportunity to verify that the human-readable marks correctly represent their intended selections, before casting the ballot.
  4. Anonymous: It should preserve vote anonymity: It should not be possible to link any voter to his or her selections, when the system is used appropriately. It should be difficult or impossible to compromise or waive voter anonymity accidentally or deliberately. No voter should be able to prove how he or she voted.
  5. Standardized: It should export contest results in a standard, open, machine-readable format.
  6. Auditable: It should be easily and transparently auditable at the ballot level. It should: export a cast vote record (CVR) for every ballot; in a standard, open, machine-readable format; in a way that the original paper ballot corresponding to any CVR can be quickly and unambiguously identified, and vice versa.
  7. Open and Affordable: It should use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware components and open-source software (OSS) in preference to proprietary hardware and proprietary software, especially when doing so will reduce costs, facilitate maintenance and customization, facilitate replacing failed or obsolete equipment, improve security or reliability, or facilitate adopting technological improvements quickly and affordably.
  8. Flexible: It should be able to create CVRs from ballots designed for currently deployed systems and it should be readily configurable to create CVRs for new ballot designs.
  9. Non-proprietary: It should be sufficiently open to allow a competitive market for support, including configuration, maintenance, integration, and customization.
  10. Usable: It should be usable by election officials: They should be able to configure, operate, and maintain the system, create ballots, tabulate votes, and audit the accuracy of the results without relying on external expertise or labor, even in small jurisdictions with limited staff.


Further reading: 
Learn more about election integrity at
“The Crisis of Election Security,” New York Times Magazine, Sept 26, 2018
“How to Rig An Election,” Harper’s, Nov 2012
“Voting Machines: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” New York Review, Nov 5, 2018



One comment

  1. Our elections in Florida and the USA must be forensically investigated.


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