On the Monday of election week, The Last Week Tonight host takes a closer look at a critical part of Americas election infrastructure: voting machines.
On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver focused on voting a staple of American democracy and, among other things, the only way to get Sean Spicer off of Dancing with the Stars.
Before Americans vote this Tuesday yes, Oliver reminded, there are elections this Tuesday its worth asking: How much do you trust the system that counts your ballots?
Its not unreasonable to have some questions about election security, Oliver continued. We now know that in 2016, Russian hackers targeted election systems in all 50 states. In that case, they targeted voter registration data; as for the machines, officials have promised that theyre secure, but a Senate report on the 2016 election infrastructure found that some were vulnerable to exploitation by a committed adversary.
Oliver offered some context: theres not one election system in use across the US. Some states use paper ballots, others have a print-out ballot, still others use all-electronic systems. Those electronic machines were introduced after the contested 2000 presidential election, in which the race between George W Bush and Al Gore came down to 1,000 votes in a Florida recount cast on push-pin ballots.
That mess resulted in the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which offered states $3.9bn to help administer federal elections and buy new voting equipment. It sounds great, said Oliver, but states ended up buying machines before they were ready, with questionable results. A 2004 Wired story reported that one machine in Iowa spit out 4m votes based on only 300 ballots, for example, and quality control tests from manufacturers in the Philippines amounted to literally shaking the machines.
Then theres the risk of hacking. Oliver showed a 2018 video in which Rachel Tobac, the CEO of Socialproof Security, demonstrated how to hack a type of voting machine used in at least 18 states in under two minutes.
Oliver also pointed to a Finnish man who once found one of the most severe security flaws ever discovered in a voting system in US machines and alerted their manufacturers, who released a patch to fix the problem in 2006. The state of Georgia, however, never installed it, and the Senate report noted their machines hadnt been updated since at least 2005. Theyd essentially been hitting the remind me tomorrow button on a critical security update for over a decade, Oliver explained, meaning Georgias election systems operate on the same level of technical proficiency as Every Dad.
Hacks would be admittedly difficult to do in individual voting booths without people noticing, but Oliver noted that there are plenty of opportunities to access the machines alone; one Princeton professor has made a point to visit polling stations every election day to photograph machines left unattended. In other words, Ive now shown you how to hack voting machines in less than two minutes, and how to find unattended voting machines, Oliver said. Its the kind of important educational work we do here at I Really Hope Putin Doesnt Watch This Show with John Oliver.
Oliver also dismantled the claim put forth by many election officials that electronic machines, hackable as anything through the internet, are not connected to the internet. Some machines that officials insist dont connect to the internet actually do connect to the internet, and even some machines that dont connect directly to the internet are programmed with cards that have themselves been programmed on computers that connect to the internet, Oliver explained. So your voting machine isnt connected to the internet the same way your Alexa isnt recording everything you say and sending it directly to Jeff Bezos. Its totally not doing that, except for when its totally sometimes doing that.
The truth is that every voting machine can be tampered with, Oliver continued, so the solution is to make systems as secure as possible.
But according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 16 million Americans are set to vote on electronic voting machines in the 2020 election that are known to malfunction, which is itself difficult to track. That predictability is absolutely terrifying, because what we have to do here is obvious, said Oliver.
He pointed to legislation passed by the House which would authorize over $600m for states to purchase new machines required by law to not be connected to the internet and provide a paper trail for mandatory audits. But the Senates plan offers less than half that amount with no requirements attached, which is simply ridiculous, said Oliver. We can fix this, and we must fix this. Because it is critically important for people to have confidence in our voting machines, and we should have more faith in our system for choosing our leaders than we do in the one that inexplicably keeps Sean fucking Spicer doing the cha-cha on national TV.