The Impact Of Voting Machine Hacking & Gerrymandering On Climate Change Initiatives

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Does anyone doubt there is a direct line between politics and climate change action? Let’s look at the United States. Since January of this year, #FakePresident Trump has abrogated the commitments the country made to the other nations of the world at the COP 21 conference in Paris and has installed rabid climate change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

touch screen voting machinePruitt in turn has hired a drone with no policy experience to purge all EPA funding for any program that dares to have the words “climate change” anywhere in its mission statement. He has slashed funding for small but necessary agencies like the Chemical Safety Board, which would have been responsible for investigating the catastrophic explosions and fires at the Arkema Chemical plant outside Houston. He has rammed through approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

The list of insults to conservationists and environmentalists is long and growing longer every day. Whoever sits in the Oval Office nominates judges and appoints federal officials. Policies made in Washington, DC, filter down to every state, county, and municipal government in America. Yet the voting process in America is subject to imminent attack from those who seek to sway the outcome of elections. It’s not just the Russians. Republicans have invented a welter of mechanisms for suppressing voter turnout and stacking the deck in their favor.

Voter fraud doesn’t have to affect millions of ballots. A few thousand can make all the difference. In New Hampshire, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Trump won by less than 2% of the votes cast.

Hacking Voting Machines

Any device connected to the internet can be hacked. After a Germanwings aircraft was flown into the Alps by a suicidal pilot in 2015, many people asked why ground controllers couldn’t take over control of the doomed plane to save the passengers. The answer was that doing so is absolutely possible, but flight safety officials are terrified that hackers would break into the system and cause planes to crash maliciously. Credit reporting agency EquiFax has just revealed that hackers broke into its computers and stole personal data, including social security numbers, belonging to 143 million people.

A pair of white hat hackers broke into the controls of a Jeep Grand Cherokee and took over the steering and braking systems two years ago to expose the potential danger of connected cars to motorists. A year later, after Jeep theoretically fixed the problem, the same pair did it again.

DefCon is an annual conference for hackers. This year, the organizers bought 30 electronic voting machines from all the major manufacturers and invited hackers to try to break into them. The average time to hack the machines was less than 2 hours. The record was 35 minutes. Some of the machines still use Windows XP, an operating system no longer supported by Microsoft. Danish researcher Carsten Schürmann gained remote access to one such machine within 90 minutes. He says he could hack the machine from anywhere in the world provided he had a connection to the internet.

Carter Speaks

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times dated September 12, former president Jimmy Carter issued a call for better voting machine security. “Technology threatens to fundamentally change the nature of elections and democratic governance,” he writes.

“Advances in election technology are also bringing new opportunities and new fears — founded and unfounded — about the security of the election process. Technology is being introduced into electoral processes to promote efficiency, but it also moves voting and counting into the unobservable digital realm.”

“We must accommodate these changing times while holding true to our unchanging principles — equality, justice and freedom for all,” Carter continues.

“This means building political processes that are inclusive and transparent and that hold those in power accountable. We must also develop legal frameworks and technological systems that protect privacy and the security of our personal information, with processes for independent oversight. People must be able to learn what data is being gathered about them and who has access to it.

“We must understand how all of this information is being used by media, corporations, governments and others to shape political views and behavior, and develop and implement standards and codes of practice to ensure that this does not undermine our common principles.”

Other Countries Are Concerned About Vote Hacking

Carter makes reference to the fact that the Netherlands has recently decided to stop electronic vote counting because of the revelations regarding Russian interference in the most recent US and French elections. It stopped using electronic voting machines in 2007 over fears they were not secure.

Vote counting is even more of a risk to fair elections than hacked voting machines, as there is virtually no way to detect if the system has been breached. Paper ballots may be a defense against hacked voting machines but the tabulation process is wide open to abuse. The Netherlands will count paper ballots manually instead. Canada also uses paper ballots and manual counting in its federal elections due to fears that electronic voting can be too easily affected by hackers.

The Threat Is Well Known

Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who has been closely involved in vote hacking tells the Miami Herald, “It can be very hard to even get (state elections officials) to admit that they are aware of the obvious security issues and take steps to mitigate the exposure, even when the stuff is obvious.” He claims state officials he has spoken with “seem sincere” and “want to do the right thing,” but do not have the expertise necessary to understand the nature of the treat.

Buell points out that even Iran’s nuclear weapons program — which was completely disconnected from the internet — was compromised by hackers after US operatives circulated flash drives to Iraqi scientists. The flash drives contained a virus known as Stuxnet that caused centrifuges involved in nuclear fuel enrichment to spin too fast and self destruct.

Gerrymandering Is Just As Dangerous

Gerrymandering is as old as elections, but Republicans have recently taken the process to a whole new, computer aided level designed to assure them election victories now and far into the foreseeable future. According to Wikipedia, “The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry.

“In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. The original gerrymander, and original 1812 gerrymander cartoon, depict the Essex South state senatorial district for the legislature of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, created a computer program for the Republican party in Wisconsin in 2010. The tool he devised measured partisanship for every precinct in the state. Two Republican aides and a consultant used that information to draw a series of possible maps which they then matched against a regression analysis that Gaddie created. It showed how the districts would perform in any election scenario, reports the New York Times.

By modeling everything from a typical split between Republicans and Democrats to a big swing toward either party, Gaddie’s techniques allowed the mapmakers to distribute voters with maximum advantage for Republicans without spreading their own supporters too thinly and thereby putting their own seats in peril.

Highly partisan election maps have become a contentious issue in several states besides Wisconsin. Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina have also redrawn their voting districts so as to strongly favor Republican candidates. The result is clear. Republicans now hold a majority of state houses and state legislatures for the first time in American history. Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, has famously forbidden any member of state government to use the words “climate change” in any official communications.

Republicans nationally have announced a major initiative to smash public employee unions in coming years. They loathe the checkoff, the provision of a union contract which requires all union members to pay union dues. That sticks in their craw because many union use those funds to support progressive candidates.

As proof of the perfidious nature of Republicans on this issue, they are proposing that the tax reform package #FakePresident Trump is planning to push through this fall allow churches to contribute to political campaigns for the first time since 1954. They are perfectly happy to overlook the separation of church and state so long as it benefits them but want to deprive progressives of an important source of funding by unions.

Politics As A Blood Sport

In the movie All The Way, a bio-pic about Lyndon Johnson, LBJ describes politics as “war” — a take no prisoners, win at all costs game played beneath a guise of civility. Lyndon may have been right. Certainly today’s so-called Republicans — who would make Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan look like sissies by comparison — make no pretense about their quest to acquire power and hold onto it at all costs.

Any pretense of governing for the good of the country has been long since swept away in a tidal wave of naked aggression that seeks to turn parts of American against other parts, all for the aggrandizement of a few. The voters are getting hosed as this blood sport ratchets up.

The proof of the pudding comes when the judiciary becomes wrapped up in political dogma. Some lower federal courts have struck down the current voting district maps, but those cases will certainly find their way to the Supreme Court, where Senate Republicans, with malice aforethought, steadfastly refused to even consider an Obama appointee to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. Instead, thanks to possible vote irregularities and gerrymandering, America now has Neil Gorsuch on the court, a staunch ally of the radical right.

Update: On September 12, the US Supreme Court upheld an appeals court order overturning a finding by a federal district court in Texas that the state’s current voting maps were drawn illegally to the disadvantage of Hispanic and black voters. Neil Gorsuch voted with all four other Republican judges to uphold the appeals court order. 

That’s the perfect example of how vote hacking can affect climate change. Multiple suits have been filed in federal court seeking to undo the worst abuses of Donald Trump (Take your pick. The list is long.) Many of those actions by the current maladministration bear directly on how the United States deals with global warming and climate change. All of them will wind up before the Supreme Court, where the vote of one unelected judge could have worldwide ramifications.

Josef Stalin supposedly once said, “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” The quote may be apocryphal, but the meaning is relevant. Electronic voting machines and electronic vote counting systems are highly susceptible to outside interference. People who do not believe the voting process is honest tend not to vote, which is one possible explanation for the embarrassingly low voter turnout in recent elections. Torturing voting maps also dangerously distorts the voting process and convinces many eligible voters to just stay home.

A vibrant democracy is dependent on active participation in the voting process by its citizens. It is vital to America’s continued claim to be a democracy that reasonable steps be taken to guarantee free and fair elections that truly represent the will of the people. There are powerful forces at work that seek to destroy that guarantee. It is everyone’s duty as a citizen to demand our leaders protect our democratic heritage.

After the US Constitution was finished, a citizen of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” According to the notes of James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the convention, Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.” Just as it may already be too late to keep climate change from dramatically altering the earth’s environment, the time to safeguard the American republic may already have come and gone.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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