Super-important Ohio contains super-vulnerable voting machines

A tech savvy voter determines the next President of the United States.

If Nate Silver is to be believed—and if he is not, pretty much all is lost—FiveThirtyEight blog is running 40,000 election simulations per day. In 50% of those simulations, the candidate who wins Ohio wins the presidency. Silver makes a compelling case that Romney needs Ohio to complete his (editorial opinion alert) baffling comeback; he can get to the White House by other routes, but each is more tortuous than the last. One major provider of electronic voting machines to Ohio is Hart Intercivic. One major investor in Hart Intercivic is HIG Capital, seven of whose directors are former employees of Bain & Co. Four of HIG’s directors are Romney bundlers, and the company has contributed over $300,000 to the Romney campaign.

It kind of looks like a conflict of interests, if you yourself are not an employee of Hart Intercivic. But as a spokesman for Hart explained to Salon, a bunch of Mitt Romney’s former employees and current donors owning a stake in the machines that count Romney’s votes will not bias the results—that would be bad for business:

HIG Capital is an investor with Hart, but it has nothing to do with management at Hart. We don’t want the perception that we have some political agenda. We are in the election business and integrity is paramount.

Let us assume that HIG, who bought its piece of Hart one month after Romney announced his candidacy, will not mess with any voting machines. That would be election fraud, after all, and an unconscionable subversion of American democracy. Kneejerk leftists may not like to hear it, but it’s likely that Romney is an honest, well-meaning person who just thinks he could do a better job as president. Assuming that is true, his connection to the company that counts votes in the state that may decide the election is a terrible mistake.

In 2004, George W. Bush won Ohio despite exit polls showing that John Kerry had a four-point advantage. Had Kerry won Ohio, he would have been president. A subsequent study gave Hart Intercivic voting machines a score of zero on a baseline security comparison, noting that they “failed to meet any of the 12 basic best practices” for preventing tampering. According to the 2007 Everest Report, the machines “lack the technical protections necessary to guarantee a trustworthy election under operational conditions.” Since then, Hart Intercivic has not updated its system.

To paraphrase a Hart Intercivic employee, we don’t want the company counting votes in Ohio to have some political agenda and/or swiss cheese security system; in the election business, the perception of integrity is paramount. However things come out in November, the election is going to be close. Imagine, for a moment, a scenario in which Romney narrowly wins the presidency by taking Ohio, and then we all hear how easy it is to tamper with the voting machines his political contributors partly own.

You don’t need to cancel any elections to wreck a democracy. All you need to do is convince a substantial portion of the people that elections aren’t real. We have already seen a teapot version of this tempest in the so-called controversy over Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The mere possibility that the president is not legitimately president has given that absurd conspiracy legs even after everyone in America saw the evidence disproving it. Imagine how disappointed Obama supporters would react to a Romney presidency won on dodgy voting machines with ties to his campaign. Consider how you already feel about 2004.

It’s a nightmare scenario for comity in American politics, and according to the best pollster and statistician I know of, it happens to 50% of hypothetical Romney presidencies. Ohio should divest itself of Hart Intercivic voting machines right now. They already tainted the results of one election, when the connection to a candidate was far more tenuous than what we see now. Whether anyone is planning to steal Ohio or not, it sure looks like someone could. With two weeks to go in one of the closet elections of my lifetime, I’d rather see a shortage of machines than a surplus of doubt.

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  1. electronic voting in general is a terrible idea. It’s not just that one side could be rigging the machines, but more that they are an obvious target for hackers in general. No electronic machine, networked or not, is safe from exploit, especially when you’re giving people physical access to them.

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