Amid calls for recount, election experts ask: Why not audit the vote?

With Green Party candidate Jill Stein calling for a Midwest recount and the North Carolina governor refusing to concede, some experts say regularly auditing voting machines would provide safeguards and improve voter confidence.

D. Ross Cameron/AP
Former Green Party candidate Jill Stein, shown at a campaign stop at Humanist Hall in Oakland, Calif. on Oct. 6, has raised enough money to call for a recount in three Midwest states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – that were critical to Donal Trump's victory.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has raised more than enough money for a recount in three critical Rust Belt states that narrowly handed Donald Trump the presidency amid what she called a “hack-riddled election.”

Meanwhile, unwilling to concede a loss in North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory claims fraudulent votes gave his opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, the win on Election Day.

Both gambits are highly unlikely to sway the outcome, election experts say, given scant evidence to support the fraud claims.

The fact that candidates on different sides of the political divide are unwilling to accept the results shows how divisive the 2016 election was and that more could be done to elevate Americans' confidence in the electoral system. Some election experts say regularly auditing voting machines would both provide safeguards against emboldened hackers and improve voter peace of mind.

“Examining the physical evidence in these states  –  even if it finds nothing amiss  –  will help allay doubt and give voters justified confidence that the results are accurate,” J. Alex Halderman, director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, wrote on Medium. The computer security expert has shown that some American voting machines can, in fact, be hacked.

A series of high-profile hacks of the Democratic National Committee, which the FBI has said it suspects were done by Russian hackers, also has given some traction to calls for additional safeguards.

A 'hopeless goal?'

Stein raised more than $4 million in three days, in large part from disgruntled Clinton voters eager to blame conspiracy rather than voter sentiment for what became a stunning Election Day loss to Mr. Trump.

"We have voting machines that are extremely hack-friendly in an election that's been very contentious,” Ms. Stein explained on Wednesday, while acknowledging there was no "smoking gun."

Concerns were raised by a team of researchers that included Halderman, which found discrepancies in some of the key Wisconsin counties won by Trump. That’s significant because Trump’s victory margin remains razor-thin in all three states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Recount efforts would have to overturn all three states, however, for Clinton to prevail. And Halderman himself wrote that the discrepancies could also be explained by bad polling.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver sounded a skeptical note, suggesting that the results “are well-explained by demographics – not hacking.”

Tellingly, the Clinton campaign has remained silent on Stein’s recount gambit. For one, the hacking complaints are ironic, given that Democrats condemned Trump for his frequent complaints about a “rigged” election.

In that way, Stein’s protest “directs liberal anger toward a hopeless goal and … [f]eeds into a Russian story line … that American democracy is awfully flimsy,” writes David Weigel in The Washington Post.

But others argue such audits should be standard operating procedure."[A] statistical audit of electronic voting results in key states as a routine safeguard – not just an emergency measure – would be a surprisingly simple way to ease serious, lingering doubts about America’s much-maligned electoral security,” writes Andy Greenberg in Wired.

The case in North Carolina

In North Carolina, Governor McCrory is fighting headwinds in his allegations that a broader voter conspiracy put Mr. Cooper over the top. McCrory, a Republican who rose to the national spotlight after signing the state’s controversial “bathroom bill” into law, is more than 7,000 votes behind. Despite that margin, he is demanding a recount. “We found several dozen voters who are on parole or in prison who have voted,” McCrory strategist Chris LaCivita told the Post. “There’s dead people who have voted. There’s people who have double-voted.”

But preliminary analyses suggest that at least one list of supposedly fraudulent voters was largely wrong: Most of the names listed as ineligible were found to be valid voters. County election boards, run by Republicans, have also found little evidence of voter wrongdoing. McCrory then asked the state election board to take over the investigation.

As with Stein’s appeal, there’s a heavy fog of politics and sour grapes in the air. Some have accused McCrory of trying to steal the election by invoking a state law allows the legislature to anoint a governor in a “contested” election, and bars anyone from suing in state courts over such a decision.

The willingness to invoke the potential of fraud has, to some extent, dovetailed with emerging cyberthreats to ring fresh alarm bells about the US voting system.

At the very least, recent hacks of the Democratic Party and state voter registration systems suggest that those keen to disrupt the US system are probing its defenses. “2016 has seen unprecedented cyber-attacks aimed at interfering with the election,” Halderman writes.

Suggested reforms include bolder safeguards against insider wrongdoing, more federal funding to upgrade aging voting machines, and, critically, automatic paper-trail audits. About 70 percent of US voting machines leave a paper trail, but randomized checks are done only upon request.

“It is vital that we protect voters from the real threats to the integrity of elections,” Myrna Perez, a law professor at the New York University School of Law, wrote in a Brennan Center report from earlier this year. “Fortunately, it is possible to protect election integrity without disenfranchising eligible voters.”

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