Update and Action Item: Just since late this afternoon, the Jill Stein campaign has already raised more than $1 million toward requesting hand recounts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Their target is $6-7 million. I just donated what I could; if you agree with this post, then please do the same. It doesn’t matter at this point if you disagree with Stein, or even (like me) think she shouldn’t have run: the goal is just to get a recount to happen before the deadline expires.
Another Update (11/24): In an amazing demonstration of the power of online fundraising, the Stein campaign has already, in less than 24 hours, raised the $2.5 million needed to fund a recount in Wisconsin. Now they’re working on Pennsylvania and Michigan. Amusing that Stein seems finally to have found a winning cause: Hillary! (“Fighting for Hillary even when Hillary won’t fight for herself.”) Again: please donate here.
Third Update (11/25): The recount is on is Wisconsin! The Stein campaign hasn’t yet filed in Pennsylvania or Michigan, but will do so next. So, all the commenters who came here to explain to me that this was a scam, no judge would it allow it to go forward, etc.: please update your priors. And next time, if you won’t listen to me, at least listen to Alex Halderman…
This will probably be my last election-related post. After this (assuming, of course, that the effort I’m writing about fails…), I plan to encase myself in a bubble, stop reading news, and go back to thinking about quantum lower bounds, as if we still lived in a world where it made sense to do so. But this is important.
As many of you have probably seen, several of the US’s top computer security experts, including my former MIT colleague Ron Rivest and my childhood friend Alex Halderman, have publicly urged that an audit of the US election take place. But time is quickly running out. If, for example, the Clinton campaign were to request a hand recount, the deadlines would be this Friday in Wisconsin, Monday in Pennsylvania, and next Wednesday in Michigan. So far, alas, the Clinton campaign seems to have shown little interest, which would leave it to one of the third-party candidates to request a recount (they have the legal right too, if they can come up with the money for it). In the meantime, I urge everyone to sign a petition demanding an audit.
For me, the key point is this: given the proven insecurity of electronic voting machines, an audit of paper ballots ought to be completely routine, even if there weren’t the slightest grounds for suspicion. In this particular case, of course, we know for a fact (!!) that Russian intelligence was engaging in cyber-warfare to influence the US election. We also know that Russia has both the will and the technological ability to tamper with foreign elections using vote-stealing malware—indeed, it nearly succeeded in doing so in Ukraine’s 2014 election. Finally, we know that Trump, despite losing the popular vote, surprised just about everyone by outperforming his polls in three crucial swing states—and that within those states, Trump did systematically better in counties that relied on electronic voting machines than in counties that used scanners and paper ballots.
Nate Silver has tweeted that he sees no evidence of foul play, since the discrepancy disappears once you control for the education level of the counties (for more, see this FiveThirtyEight article).
But that’s the thing. In a sane world, skeptics wouldn’t need to present statistical proof of foul play in order to trigger a hand count. For if enemy actors know that, in practice, hand counts are never going to happen, then they’re free to be completely brazen in tampering with the childishly-insecure electronic voting machines themselves. If no one ever looks at them, then the paper records might as well not exist.
Would anyone in the 1950s or 60s have believed that, a half-century hence, Russia actually would acquire the terrifying power over the US that the right-wing Cold Warriors once hyperventilated about—sometimes choosing to exercise that power, sometimes not—and that 2016’s conservatives would either shrug or welcome the development, while the only people who wanted to take reasonable precautions were a few rabble-rousing professors and activists?
Fate has decided that we should live in a branch of the wavefunction where the worst triumph by flaunting their terribleness and where nothing makes sense. But however infinitesimal the chances anyone will listen, we should still insist that the sensible things be done—if nothing else, then simply as a way to maintain our own mental connection to the world of sense.