WIRED’s Totally Legit Guide to Rigging a Presidential Election
So you want to rig an election. Good. Clearly you’re a smart guy. The smartest. Great intellect, believe me. Anyone who believes in free and fair elections to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power is a sucker. Sad.
But you’d better get started. Like, yesterday. In this country, you’ve got a lot of people to corrupt if you want to make sure you’re the one measuring new drapes for the Oval Office come January. See, the presidential election process in the United States doesn’t work like a lot of other places. Here we put our faith and trust in the people—many, many people—to make sure everyone’s vote counts, and counts only once. Funny thing is, all that trust isn’t just about faith in regular citizens to uphold the ideals of their—our—democracy. When you look at the electoral process in the hard light of logic, you see a highly distributed, incredibly robust system of checks and balances that’s almost impossible to undermine owing to its complexity and transparency. It’s also vastly redundant: a breakdown in one precinct doesn’t cascade to undermine the whole operation, just like killing one node doesn’t do anything to break the Internet.
At the same time, the presidential electoral system resists tampering thanks to an absence of interconnectedness. The US has 3,144 counties, each of which has its own idiosyncrasies. Presidential elections in the US are still fundamentally local, which makes corrupting an election on any kind of scale an exercise in overwhelming inefficiency. “The lack of a network is what makes it nearly impossible to ‘rig’ an election on the scale that is being suggested by the Trump campaign,” says political scientist Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.
Ryan Godfrey agrees. Godfrey is a product manager for a software company who every so often takes the day off to act as an election inspector at his polling place in West Philadelphia. Godfrey became Internet famous in August when he challenged Sean Hannity on Twitter for repeating the bogus claim that some parts of the city rigged the vote for Barack Obama in 2012. He patiently explained, 140 characters at a time, the institutional safeguards and sheer logistical challenges that would make fudging the vote impossible.
Ultimately, he says the question of whether someone could rig a presidential election comes down to one inescapable reality: “It’s much simpler to affect the election results by actually doing it legally than spending the time and effort to do it illegally.”
But not for you, the would-be election rigger, right?
How to Rig an Election Right
Let’s say you just wanted to rig the vote in Philly, which Donald Trump has sought to portray as a nest of electoral iniquity. The city is divided into 1,686 voting divisions (aka precincts), of which Godfrey’s eight-square-block neighborhood is one. Each division has a three-member election board, elected positions that include the judge of election, the majority inspector, and the minority inspector. Philadelphia is a heavily Democratic city, so the first two positions typically go to Democrats. But the minority inspector must be a member of a different party, or no party. (Godfrey is an independent.) Those inspectors must sign off on everything the judge of elections does, from assigning provisional ballots to certifying the results at the end of the night. “My job is really to make sure that the majority party isn’t going overboard doing anything crazy,” Godfrey says.
But those three people aren’t the only ones you have to buy off to rig the 700 votes Godfrey expects their voting division will see on election day. You have at least one machine inspector appointed by the county to make sure no one tampers with the late ’80s Nintendo console-style voting machines in his division. You have the clerk. Oh yeah, and you could have certified poll watchers from either party stop by any time of day, as well as one for each of the candidates. They hang around and can watch the whole procedure from setup to shutdown, Godfrey says. Finally, you’ve got the cop who comes by to collect the tallies at the end of the night.
But let’s not think about this too hard. Even assuming just the minimum staff of five at every division, multiply five by the number of divisions in the city and that’s more than 8,400 people you have to corrupt in Philadelphia alone with no one finding out—even though all of them are doing their jobs in public under the scrutiny of both sides and all the candidates. No question you’ll need a whole global conspiracy of bankers to be able to afford that.
But you’d better ask them for an even bigger advance, because rigging the election hardly stops at the polls themselves. Chris Ashby, a Republican election law attorney who has represented numerous politicians in hotly contested recounts, recently explained that rigging an election would also require turning lots of lawyers, too, who are often called on to verify results.
What’s next? The machines! In Philly, Godfrey says the machines are less like computers and more like appliances. “These machines couldn’t be networked if you wanted to,” he says. They don’t really have operating systems, either. To hack them, he says, you would probably have to crack them open, solder a hacked chip onto the motherboard, and close it back up.
Luckily, a lot of the country isn’t as outdated as Philly. And the computerized voting machines that have proliferated across much of the Unites States are probably your best bet for sowing electoral chaos. Some are outdated and insecure. Since you’re so good with The Cyber, this is probably the way to go, though you would still have to account for all the different kinds of software and machines.
But, wait, there’s more! (You’re not scared of a little hard work, though, are you?) After buying off polling place officials and hacking the umpteen different kinds of voting machines across the country, you have to get the canvassers—the people from both parties (again) who go over the results to make sure everything was done right. Then you’ve got the lawyers again—always the lawyers—watching the canvassers. Remember, too, that all election operations ultimately come under the authority of top state officials, some Democrats and some Republicans, in 50 separate states. To run the table nationally, you’ll have to co-opt both parties and get them to work together. You know, like they do in Congress! 🔥
And, oh yeah:
After the election, these records are open to public inspection. Anyone who knows what they’re doing can reconstruct the elex. -18
— Ashby Law (@ashbylaw) October 15, 2016
The Price of a Vote
Now comes the hardest part. Maybe you have such a way with people that you have managed to corrupt an army of volunteer election officials who mostly do the job out of a sense of idealistic faith in democracy. But maybe a few honest patriots are mucking up your game. To get more votes than you’ve actually earned, you will probably need to buy off voters themselves.
“Fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish and ineffective way to attempt to win an election,” researchers at the Brennan Center wrote in a comprehensive report that takes so-called “voter ID” laws to task for disenfranchising voters in the name of a non-existent problem. Aside from finding an infinitesimal number of documented examples of such fraud (“It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls,” the report found), it points to why such fraud just doesn’t make sense, either for the individual voter or the would-be election rigger.
Ultimately, the math comes down to a simple risk calculation: Try to vote twice in the presidential election and you could get five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Try to vote three times and the penalty doubles. All that for one extra vote, which statistically makes virtually no difference. Even in Florida in 2000, which George W. Bush won by 537, you’re talking about nearly 2,700 years in jail and almost $5.4 million to make up that margin. By the time you spent enough money to buy off those votes and paid the additional hush money to keep those 537 quiet, you could have—just spitballing here—persuaded those people and many, many more to vote for you for real. In 2012, Florida again was the closest state, but Barack Obama won over Mitt Romney by more than 74,000 votes. That’s a risk only the private prison industry could love.
Oh, and prosectors? They really hate it when people fuck with elections. In 2015, a poll watcher in Philadelphia reported that election officials in one division added six extra votes to one machine because of a discrepancy with the number of voters who had signed in. The district attorney charged all four with election fraud. That’s not proof that election fraud is easy. That shows that the system is working like it’s supposed to. People did the wrong thing and quickly got caught. Turns out election fraud is hard.
“You start whining before the game’s even over?” President Obama said in a pointed message to Donald Trump this week. “Then you don’t have what it takes to be in this job.”
But you’ve got what it takes, right? And you can prove it by defying all the rules of math, politics, psychology, and human decency. Rig this election. C’mon, we know you can. Just think bigly.