Myth No. 1
Voting machines were hacked
Trump has complained of “voting machine ‘glitches’ all over the place (meaning they got caught cheating!).” His former lawyer Sidney Powell has said computer algorithms shifted votes from Trump to Biden. Democrats made similar allegations about voting machines in Ohio in 2004, suggesting that tampering helped reelect President George W. Bush.
Voting machines are easy to hack: In the hands of a skilled person, individual machines are shockingly vulnerable, as experts demonstrated at Def Con, a hacker convention, in 2019. That’s why a growing movement over the past 20 years has pushed to replace paperless voting machines with devices that record votes on paper ballots.
That transition is still in progress, but paperless machines have been eliminated in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the states Trump supporters have focused on since November. Wherever paper ballots are used, officials can check behind the machines with recounts and audits to find out whether the software was honest. The hand audits done in Georgia, plus recounts in Dane and Milwaukee counties in Wisconsin and in Antrim County, Mich., found no evidence of hacking, and confirmed Biden wins (in Georgia and the Wisconsin counties) as well as a Trump one (in Antrim County).
Myth No. 2
There's no way to verify that vote counts weren't rigged
Trump supporters say there isn’t enough transparency around how votes were counted. “Perhaps no device illustrates that technology is a double-edged sword than the machines and associated software that have come to be used to tabulate votes across all 50 states,” White House economic adviser Peter Navarro writes in a report on ostensible irregularities, including what he says are “process fouls” that made it impossible to check the results. Trump’s attorneys argued in court that swing states were “systematically loosening the measures for ballot integrity so that fraud becomes undetectable.”
But the election was conducted in the open. When polls closed, precinct officials everywhere made both a paper and an electronic report of vote totals. The electronic reports were sent to computer systems at local election offices, and the results from those systems were released to the public on election night as unofficial totals.
Then local election boards prepared final reports for their state election boards; that process typically involves checking paper records against electronic ones to be sure there were no errors. All of these documents, too, are public records. Similar procedures were used to combine the results from local election offices into statewide totals. The public release of totals from precincts and from local election offices means that anyone — partisan observers and members of the public — can check the math.
Myth No. 3
Voting machine companies are foreign-owned
Fox News, One America News and Newsmax have allowed Powell and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to repeat myths about a company that makes voting machines and software, Dominion Voting Systems, and another software firm, Smartmatic. The theory in right-wing circles is that the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez helped start Dominion and that the firms built their software to allow votes to be changed without a trace. Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned the two companies nearly 1,000 times since the election.
None of their claims are true. (Smartmatic has threatened defamation lawsuits over these allegations, prompting Fox to air a fact check of its own coverage and Newsmax to “clarify” them.) The companies share some corporate history through a now-defunct business called Sequoia Voting Systems, which was acquired in the 1970s by Jefferson Smurfit, an Irish printing conglomerate. In 2002, Smurfit sold Sequoia to De La Rue Cash Systems, which sold it to Smartmatic in 2005. In 2004, Smartmatic had partnered with a Venezuelan company, Bitza, to provide voting machines for Venezuela. Three years later, Smartmatic sold Sequoia to its U.S. managers on U.S. government orders because of possible ties to Chávez. In 2010, Dominion acquired Sequoia’s intellectual property. Dominion was founded in Canada, but it’s now U.S.-based.
But there’s nothing inherently suspicious about foreign ownership of voting machine manufacturers or software makers. As David Dill at Stanford University said in 2003, with proper procedures, we should be able to run a fair election even if the Devil himself made the equipment. The key is to use a system that keeps and preserves evidence of every voter’s intent — such as paper ballots.
Myth No. 4
Slow vote-counting is a sign of fraud
“At the stroke of midnight on Election Day, President Donald J. Trump appeared well on his way to winning a second term,” Navarro’s report says. “. . . Shortly after midnight, however, as a flood of mail-in and absentee ballots began entering the count, the Trump red tide of victory began turning Joe Biden blue.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made a similar argument last month, writing on Twitter: “Trump margin of ‘defeat’ in 4 states occurred in 4 data dumps between 1:34-6:31 AM. Statistical anomaly? Fraud?”
But a long count is exactly what you’d expect with the large number of mail-in ballots this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Absentee ballot processing is inherently slow, and in many states, such as Pennsylvania, where the number of absentee ballots in past elections was very small, offices had to deal with more than 10 times as many as they were used to.
In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, thanks to laws passed by GOP-controlled legislatures, officials couldn’t start counting absentee ballot envelopes until Election Day or the day before. That process is slow, even with automated help. Mailing envelopes have another one inside containing the ballot. The unopened envelopes have to be counted. The outer envelope can then be opened, but the ballot can be removed from the privacy envelope only after it’s separated from the outer envelope. The number of empty mailing envelopes, privacy envelopes and ballots must match.
Then the ballots need to be processed. Scanners never run continuously: Paper fibers shed from the ballots form lint that must be periodically blown out. Misfeeds and paper jams add interruptions. The net result? Ballot scanning is typically 25 percent as fast as the advertised speed of the machine. Finally, once all the absentee ballots are counted, provisional ballots have to be adjudicated; if someone casts a provisional ballot at the polls and also mails an absentee ballot, the provisional ballot must not be counted.
Myth No. 5
Voting machines, which have high error rates, skew elections
A report issued this month by Allied Security Operations Group, a Dallas-based organization run by Trump supporters, claimed that voting machines in Antrim County, Mich., had error rates of over 68 percent this year. Trump later tweeted the same figure. The implication was that the errors went uncorrected, skewing the result.
Closely contested elections do bring attention to every flaw, but such errors always exist. And there are typically very few of them — nowhere near 68 percent. (The recount in Florida in the 2000 presidential race found that about 3 percent of ballots required human interpretation to read correctly — though the share was higher in counties with notoriously bad ballot design.) In Antrim County, the machines were misconfigured in a way that led to errors in combining vote totals from different precincts but not in recording the votes. A hand recount in the county this month found that Trump’s vote total was underreported initially — by 12 votes, or less than 0.1 percent.
Errors do happen, though — people mark ballots incorrectly, or ink smudges confuse scanners — and the best practice is to set machines to reject those ballots so humans can check what voters really intended. Voters at precinct polling places get to fix such problems themselves — they’re usually caught when the ballot is scanned right after it’s cast. If they’re not, they’re found during hand recounts in close races. The errors usually don’t change election outcomes, as the Antrim County recount showed. But in very rare cases, they do — as in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District this year, where the final winning margin after a recount was only six votes.