A Handful of Private Companies Control Our Elections. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Russian meddling was bad, but this is a lot worse — and corporate-owned media is downplaying the problem
(Youngrae Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Election 2020 may (or may not?) be over, and it’s been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Recounts and litigation have spanned multiple states, and for the first time in U.S. history a sitting president has refused to concede as a President-Elect anxiously awaits transition to the Oval Office.
There have been allegations of dead people voting, food trucks packed with bins of ballots arriving at precincts on election night, counties where the number of votes cast exceed the number of registered voters, and votes that were electronically “flipped” from one candidate to another.
This is the kind of sordid drama you would expect to play out in a banana republic, but it’s not; it’s happening in the country that’s “supposed” to be the beacon of democracy.
Was there “widespread fraud” on November 3rd? Are U.S. elections as compromised as President Trump wants us to believe? Is he the rightful president-elect or just a sore loser who’s come completely unhinged?
We may never know the truth. But buried in the fraud hoopla is a much bigger story that corporate-owned mainstream media has gone to great lengths to downplay. It’s the elephant in the room they’re ignoring:
Three privately-owned companies dominate the “election technology industry” and control the tallying of ballots in 30 states and all swing states.
How many of us knew this on November 3? How many of us even knew there was such a thing as the “election technology industry”? I sure didn’t. The media has done its obligatory “fact checking” to debunk conspiracy theories that these companies actually “rigged” voting machines to favor Joe Biden. But they’re not asking the question that should be on every American’s mind now:
Why is the most precious right that Americans have — the power to vote for the people who will lead us and determine our future — in the hands of a corporate oligopoly?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of capitalism. I think the free market system and private enterprise (flawed as they might be) are preferable to the equally-flawed alternatives. I don’t have a problem with private investment in energy, telecommunications, and other critical services. But there are some critical infrastructure that should be off-limits to private ownership, and election infrastructure is one of them.
In the wake of Election 2020, here’s what we’re learning about the election technology industry:
Dominion Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software (ES&S), the two largest voting machine vendors in the U.S., supply more than 80% of the country’s direct-recording electronic voting machines (DRE). ES&S is backed by private equity firm McCarthy Capital. Dominion, which has become a household name and the prime target of Trump’s fraud claims, was acquired in mid-2018 by Staple Street Capital, a private equity firm that invests in communications, energy, healthcare, financial sectors — and surprise! — media.
Other certified DRE providers include: Hart InterCivic (owned by Enlightenment Capital); Clear Ballot Group (Boston-based startup backed by VC firms like Bessemer Venture Partners),and Unisyn Voting Solutions (owned by an Asian lottery group).
Imagine if the United States outsourced wars to mercenaries hired by private equity firms, or if our intelligence agencies were owned by hedge funds.
Would we have complete confidence that these vital services were being rendered in a way that serves Americans? Could we be certain that these companies — like airlines, clothing manufacturers, and any other company trying to survive in a debt-ridden economy — wouldn’t cut corners to save money?
Which brings us to the issue of security.
Again, let me be clear: whether or not there was fraud in the 2020 Elections isn’t the point. It doesn’t matter if you voted for Trump or want him out of office yesterday.
What we’re learning about how the nation’s electronic voting systems operate should concern every American, regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican. It’s a wake up call to vulnerabilities that may lie at the foundation of our democratic republic.
What has been revealed in the last few weeks should concern all of us.
As it turns out, Trump and right wing conspiracy theorists aren’t the only ones who have been waving red flags about the security of electronic voting machines. A deep dive into this technology shows there has been increasing alarm on all points of the political spectrum — and even among non-partisan organizations.
In a December 6, 2019 letter to the owners of Dominion and ES&S, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar expressed serious concerns that the “secretive and trouble-plagued” voting machine companies owned by private equity firms “‘have long skimped on security in favor of convenience,’ leaving voting systems across the country ‘prone to security problems.’”
What kind of security problems are we talking about?
According to Princeton University Computer Science professor Andrew Appel, Dominion’s Imagecast Evolution machine “has the physical ability to mark votes onto a ballot after the last time the voter sees the ballot.” In other words, the ballot retained in the machine does not necessarily reflect the receipt a voter takes with them. This is a disaster for auditing purposes.
But that’s not all. Here is a sampling of the other mishaps that have been reported in the machines that dominate the election technology industry:
In the 2018 midterms, people in fourteen states submitted votes on touchscreens that didn’t produce paper trails necessary to confirm their ballots for audit election outcomes. Why is this important? Because if votes had been inaccurately processed — whether through hacking or human error — election officials wouldn’t be able to find or correct the problems. Recounts would never real the errors.
In one Indiana county, DREs machines faltered in ways that made it difficult to know whether some people had voted more than once. That same year in Pennsylvania, Democrat judicial candidate Abe Kassis received just 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots across more than 100 precincts; some machines actually reported zero votes for him.
In the 2020 election, nearly 6,000 votes in Antrim county, Michigan were incorrectly attributed to Biden instead of Trump. While fact-checkers were quick to point out that the “glitch” was due to human error, J. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, worries that “if a simple screw-up could cause these problems, that sounds like a technical design flaw.”( In 2018, Halderman famously demonstrated in The New York Times just how easy it is to “hack” DREs and concluded that “these machines have got to go.”).
The security of the D.R.E. technology is so notoriously weak that Texas — a state that experienced no Election Day “glitches” — has three times rejected Dominion systems after finding “multiple hardware and software issues” and its vulnerability to “fraud and unauthorized manipulaton.”
Of course, none of this is evidence of the “widespread fraud” Trump has been complaining about. But the fact that fraud could so easily occur in a voting system with such abyssmally feeble security is cause for serious concern.
So how have voting systems with such sketchy security managed to dominate the voting landscape? Because the federal government has shown no interest in addressing these security flaws. Despite the gaping security holes in their technology, the industry is subject to virtually no oversight, and efforts to increase government oversight have been blocked in Congress.
This means that voting machine vendors like Dominion and ES&S aren’t subject to any specific regulations or mandatory security standards. According to Brennan Center for Justice’s Lawrence Noren, “there are more federal regulations for ballpoint pens and magic markers than there are for voting systems and other parts of our federal election infrastructure.”
We are now learning that the business of democracy in the United States is largely a secretive and privately-run affair conducted out of the public eye with little oversight. The private companies who manage and control our voting systems are essentially allowed to police themselves.
Does this make any sense to you?
Imagine if a bank had concerns about potential breaches in its computer system and asked the company that created the software to decide whether it was flawed. According to Yale professor Candice Yoke, who specializes in laws governing election technology, this is the “absolutely preposterous” protocol we have in place now with our voting systems.
The companies that control most of the nation’s election infrastructure are effectively above the law — and they know it. When the Pennsylvania state legislature requested Dominion’s owners to appear at a hearing on November 20, 2020 to help lawmakers “identify and correct any irregularities in the election process” and allay rising concerns among voters, the executives didn’t show up; instead, Dominion sent its lawyers.
States that paid millions of dollars to acquire these machines seem equally apathetic to any security concerns, and it’s not hard to see why. Dominion and other election technology firms heavily lobby both parties, aggressively pushing to certify DRE machines in red and blue states. The companies that control the machines that count our ballots contribute money to the same politicians who decide whether or not to use these machines.
Government officials aren’t the only ones ignoring the problem; corporate-owned media has barely acknowledged these security flaws, and in the wake of Election 2020 has even tried to downplay them. Incredibly, mainstream news fact checkers have relied on statements from the companies, themselves, as evidence to debunk any security concerns. When Dominion denies that flaws in its software led to fraud, the media accepts it as fact. This is akin to Woodward and Bernstein asking Richard Nixon if he hired thugs to break into a Watergate hotel room.
And there’s something else that doesn’t add up. Anyone paying attention can see that the post-Election 2020 narrative presented by the federal government and the media is completely schizophrenic.
Congress has spent the past four years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to investigate claims of foreign interference that ultimately proved to have no effect whatsoever on actual votes cast. Just last year the F.B.I. warned that not enough has been done to address vulnerabilities in the U.S. election system. Director Christopher A. Wray told Congress “the threats just keep escalating” and the 2018 midterms were a “dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”
As recently as September 2020 the C.I.A. warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “most likely continuing to approve and direct interference operations” in the 2020 election.
Yet only one week after the election, the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the U.S. managed to stage “the most secure election in American history.” Even as we get clues of a threat far greater than Russian social media “meddling” — one that could potentially affect election outcomes — our government doesn’t seem to care.
Almost overnight, it’s as if all concerns about the vulnerability of our election infrastructure have simply vanished.
Perhaps not surprisingly, corporate-owned media has echoed this new narrative. Mainstream news outlets have gone to great lengths to comfort us that nothing is amiss. Their near-daily fact checking assures us that renewed concerns about election security are now paranoid conspiracy theories — despite the fact that months and even the day before the Election 2020 we saw headlines like "Will your vote be counted? Experts warn of unreliable voting machines" in USA Today.
The narrative being dispensed by corporate-owned media is conditioning us to blindly entrust our most sacred institution to an oligopoly. How in the world can we continue to let this happen in a country that values democracy?
It’s time to set aside party loyalty and pay attention to the dangers that Election 2020 has revealed, because what’s at stake now transcends politics. As freedom-loving Americans, we should all be asking the same questions now and demanding answers.
Private companies already own and control media that have the power to shape the way we see the world. But trusting them with the ability to control the technology that can determine who runs our country is madness in the extreme.
If we continue down this path, what’s to stop CNN, Microsoft, or any other conglomerate from acquiring the companies that control voting technology? What would prevent individuals — billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch — from purchasing them? The possibilities are dizzying.
America faces an existential threat, and it’s not one we should ignore or sweep under the rug just to get rid of Trump. Next time, the candidate you prefer may be the one alleging that voting machines malfunctioned to their detriment. Looking the other way now may rob us of the power to eject future threats from the Oval Office that may eclipse any danger that Trump poses.
And if that happens, it’s lights out for our republic.
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