Last night’s elections in Virginia were a stunning victory for the Democrats. As I reported on Monday, voters in the commonwealth didn’t care about Donna Brazile and DNC fundraising squabbles: they were too busy organizing to usher into power their new governor, Ralph Northam, their new Lt. Governor, Justin Fairfax, and a diverse slate of House delegates, including the first transgender woman to ever assume elected state office in this country, Danica Roem. Their victories have been the strongest rebuke to Donald Trump and his administration so far, and should give hope to all who resist the Russian-Operative-in-Chief as we start organizing for 2018. However, Virginia had another big winner last night that cannot be ignored going forward – paper ballots.
Before this election, Virginia had been at the mercy of WINVote, a brand of electronic servers described by Wired as “America’s worst voting machines.” They were filled with bugs upon their debut in 2003, when they subtracted one out of every hundred votes cast and caused Rita Thompson to lose her local school board election by a close margin, and never improved throughout their decade of usage. Thanks to their easy passwords (one of them was, I kid you not, “abcde”), lack of security, and reliance on wi-fi to work, they were a boon for hackers who could crack the system’s WEP key in under three minutes to insert their malware. Aided by WINVote’s lack of internal logging capabilities or paper trail, there was even built in plausible deniability that any hacking had occurred.
It wasn’t until 2014, when the state experienced a myriad of problems on Election Day, that Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed an overhaul of the state voting system. By 2015, the Virginia Board of Elections decertified the use of WINVote, but they were still stuck with other DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) systems. This past summer, at a DefCon conference in Las Vegas, computer scientists staged a “Voting Machine Hacking Village” to prove the instabilities of DRE, which included a single password for all machines, physical ports to insert malware, and reliance on outdated software that had not been updated since the mid-2000s. The combination of this demonstration and the vulnerabilities exposed by the Russian targeting of last year’s presidential election, led Virginia’s Board of Elections to decertify all electronic machines, forcing the counties that used them to return to paper ballots and electronic scanners.
Other states that face demands for transparency have not been so forthcoming. Although Georgia elected three Democratic representatives to its state house last night, the state still relies solely a machine called the AccuVote TS, including in the extremely close congressional special election last June, where Democrat John Ossoff lost by less than 10,000 votes to Republican Karen Handel. Following these results, voters filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that its voter database was left exposed to Russian hackers for seven months between August 2016 and March 2017, leaving the state open to all kinds of mischief.
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp said through a spokesperson that the claims of hacking were “meritless,” but both sides now find this much harder to prove due to a key server containing election results being wiped in July, just after the suit was filed. Kemp said, again through a spokesperson, that his office had nothing to do with the error, but as computer scientist Richard DeMillo accurately stated, “People who have nothing to hide don’t behave this way.” Due to this impropriety, Georgia’s attorney general has stated their office will not defend Kemp, who will be represented by a private firm.
Voting rights have been assaulted over the last decade by Republican gerrymandering and voter ID laws. The election of Ralph Northam last night against Ed Gillespie, whose REDMAP system allowed the GOP to retake the House of Representatives in 2010, ensures that Virginia will remain safe from these disgusting practices when the next census, and presidential election, occur in 2020. Hacks like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Brian Kemp, both of whom plan to run for governor of their respective states, would love nothing more than to see us disenfranchised, lest we should challenge the “legitimacy” of their victories, or the permanence of their offices. What happened in Virginia last night must send shivers down their spine, since it can, and must, lead to all fifty states demanding transparency in their electoral processes, and that starts by protecting our votes with a paper ballot.
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Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.