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Election Recounts Stir Divisive Debate

Court decisions have cleared the way for presidential vote recounts in Wisconsin and Michigan, driven by the specter of a foreign cyber attack and statistical quirks in vote tallies. Those recounts will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign won a round in federal court early Monday, forcing Michigan elections officials to begin recounting votes. The state recounts will ensure the integrity of the election system, said Stein, in states where President-elect Donald Trump prevailed over Democrat Hillary Clinton by narrow margins – just over 10,700 votes in Michigan. Stein is not contesting vote counts in states narrowly won by Clinton, such as New Hampshire.

“Make no mistake – the Stein campaign will continue to fight for a statewide recount in Pennsylvania,” said Stein lead counsel Jonathan Abady, who sought a federal judge’s intervention to jump-start a recount in that state.

Republican state officials continue to fight the recount on cost, constitutional and practical grounds. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette  is appealing the vote recount ruling in his state, calling Stein’s effort frivolous. “Her insistence on a recount despite only getting 1 percent of the vote has created chaos for our county clerks and will cost Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars,” Schuette said in a prepared statement.

Elections officials in the targeted states have defended their original counts against Stein’s accusations.

“It is unusual that a candidate who received just 1 percent of the vote is seeking a recount, especially when there is no evidence of hacking or fraud, or even a credible allegation of any tampering …” said Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson in a prepared statement. “Michigan taxpayers could be paying $4 million despite the $1 million the Green Party nominee must pay to have the recount.”

The recount in Wisconsin got under way last week despite the pleas of attorneys backing Trump that the state’s standards to determine the voters’ intent during the recount were excessively vague and a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The arguments also cast doubt on whether recounts could be completed by Dec. 13, when states must finalize their slates of presidential electors.

A chaotic, careless recount leading up to this date could jeopardize an orderly transition of power, the Trump attorneys argue in court documents. “Any such errors may cast an unjustified pall over the election of President-elect Trump, undermining public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process,” said court filings, which frequently cited the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore.

Democrats have countered by filing suit for the recounts to go forward. They point to cyber attacks against the Democratic National Committee this year, as well as incidents of stolen voter data in Illinois and Arizona, as examples of computer hacking possibly carried out by Russian officials.

“During the 2014 presidential election in Ukraine, attackers linked to Russia sabotaged Ukraine’s vote-counting infrastructure, and Ukrainian officials succeeded only at the last minute in defusing vote-stealing malware that could have caused the wrong winner to be announced,” J. Alex Halderman, director of the Center for Computer Security and Society at the University of Michigan, said in court documents.

The Security Service of Ukraine prevented a malicious virus attack on that nation’s Central Election Commission’s computer servers which would have expunged election voter tallies, a 2014 State Department document says.

“A full recount should determine the correct election outcome,” Ronald Rivest, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former adviser to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told AMI Newswire. “If the outcome is different than the previously reported election outcome, the recount may or may not discover the reason why.”

In counties that no longer use paper ballots, electronic voting machines can still be examined for evidence of tampering, Rivest said. But a skilled hacker can also inject viruses into voting system memory cards that self-destruct once they alter the voter tally, leaving no trace, he said.

Nor is it necessary for an election hacker to have cooperation of a local elections official, according to Rivest. “An attacker might be able to guess or surreptitiously steal passwords of the election officials and then manipulate the election without their knowledge or cooperation,” he said.

Rivest is speculating and, so far, no evidence of vote-tampering via computer hacking in the 2016 presidential election has emerged.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin will perform its recounts through a mix of optical scanning and hand counting, though the value of rescanning ballots is much less reassuring, according to Philip Stark, associate dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California.

“It’s like asking the same doctor for a second opinion,” Stark told AMI.

In its quest to push the three states to recount votes, the Stein campaign also brought up statistical irregularities that it finds suspicious. In three Wisconsin counties, Trump’s margin of victory was 10 times higher than the Republican average over the past four presidential elections, the campaign said.

Another Wisconsin voter analysis overseen by a Stanford University doctoral candidate, Rodolfo Barragan, found that Trump’s vote tallies in counties with electronic voting were significantly higher than in counties using paper ballots, even when factoring in voters’ ethnicity and education.

Another statistic Stein finds suspicious is that in Michigan, the number of voters in 2016 who cast no vote for president was almost twice that of the 2012 election. Many of these more than 75,000 “under-votes” came from traditionally Democratic regions such as Detroit, she said.