By Victoria Collier and Ben Ptashnik, Truthout | News Analysis
"You've heard the old adage 'follow the money.' I follow the vote, and wherever the vote becomes an electron and touches a computer, that's an opportunity for a malicious actor potentially to ... make bad things happen." — Steve Stigall, CIA cyber-security expert, in remarks to the US Election Assistance Commission
Primary election rigging in the coming weeks and months is all but assured if American voters and candidates don't take steps to prevent it now. Evidence that US voting systems are wide open to fraud and manipulation should be taken seriously in light of the unprecedented high-stakes elections we're facing.
Not in recent history have American voters been presented with such radically polarized candidates, forcing a crucial choice for the direction of our future, and possibly upending long-established centers of power.
Local fixers, insider operatives, rogue hackers and even foreign countries could all rig US elections electronically.
It's no secret that US primaries have been tightly controlled by the two ruling parties, usually to the benefit of their favored candidates. If this internal manipulation (some might call it rigging) is not publicly condoned, neither is it loudly condemned.
This year, however, the primary season is shaping up to be a battle royal between the political establishment and outsider insurgencies who are challenging the party elites and defying their usual filters, money and manipulations. And it seems all bets are off.
As a brazen Donald Trump kicks down the door of the GOP, tens of millions in super PAC dark cash has (so far) failed to buy the candidacy for a lackluster Jeb Bush. Accusations abound that Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has stacked the deck for Hillary Clinton. Yet nothing - not even corporate media's censorship or outright hostility toward Bernie Sanders - has blunted his skyrocketing grassroots campaign.
You might ask: What is left, then, for the party powerful to ensure outcomes in 2016? Would any of them be so desperate as to actually rig the final vote count? Could they?
Indeed, they could.
But to be fair, so could a lot of other people. Local fixers, insider operatives, rogue hackers and even foreign countries could all rig US elections - in whole or part, in 50 states and most of the United States' 3,143 counties - electronically, and without detection.
Time and again, the beneficiaries of suspicious primary elections are establishment-favored candidates.
The potential for this vote-rigging cyberwar is the result of an ongoing crisis in US democracy - a silent coup of sorts. Over many decades, US elections have been quietly outsourced to a small group of private voting machine companies, some with extreme partisan ties and criminal records. They have now almost entirely replaced our publicly counted paper ballots with their secretly programmed, easily hacked electronic voting technology.
For example, the Diebold AccuVote-TS Touchscreen voting machine was recentlyanalyzed by Princeton computer security professors. They found that malicious software running on a single voting machine can be installed in as little as one minute, spreading invisibly from machine to machine through a virus, while stealing votes with little risk of detection.
While recent laws have limited essential hand-counting audits - in some cases making them actually illegal - in 18 states voting machines are used that produce no paper ballot at all, making verification of the results impossible.
Threats to the 2016 Elections
In 2016, Americans will once again cast their votes into this lawless electronic void, and no, we can't solve the problem before these game-changing primary elections. But shining a light on our voting systems does make a difference - as does getting out to vote: Voter apathy and ignorance create the ideal conditions for election rigging. Huge turnout makes election rigging less feasible, particularly when the pre-election polls or exit polls diverge more than 10 percent from actual vote returns. Manipulations usually happen when the spread between candidates is smaller than 10 percent.
For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."
What evidence do we have that any election rigging has already taken place? As it happens, extensive documentation exists, compiled over decades by researchers, cyber-security professionals, statistical analysts and even government agencies.
If you haven't heard about it until now, thank the press. A longstanding mainstream media blackout on this issue has prevented the evidence from reaching the public and vulnerable candidates.
While the investigations into rigging are mostly nonpartisan, the results typically are not. Time and again, the beneficiaries of suspicious primary elections are establishment-favored candidates. In general elections, far-right and extremist Republicans have overwhelmingly raked in the "surprise upset" wins.
Why Watch the Primaries?
The primaries in particular should be a major focal point of scrutiny by all democracy advocates and supporters of grassroots, populist and insurgent candidates in both parties.
See the eye-opening statistical analysis of vote results from 2008 to 2012 compiled by citizen watchdog team Francois Choquette and James Johnson. Results showed a highly suspect, so far inexplicable gain of votes, only in larger precincts, only for Republicans (and in the primaries, only for Mitt Romney), and only when votes are counted by computers.
Choquette, an aerospace engineer and Republican, writes, "This substantial effect exceeds reasonable statistical bounds and we calculate that the probability of such election results happening by chance is beyond typical or even extreme."
The potential smoking gun is that the votes gained by Republicans or "chosen" candidates in each precinct increase as a function of precinct size (vote tally), not the precinct location, whether in cities or rural areas. This makes no obvious sense based on any known demographic. Once you factor in rigging, however, it starts to make a lot of sense; stealing votes from a bigger pool is less likely to be detected.
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