Let me state up-front that I am NOT claiming that any of this is true, so don’t anyone accuse me of being a crackpot conspiracy theorist here. This is simply a thought experiment/thriller plot that I found entertaining to think through.
On the way home from the
victory party funeral last night, it struck me that I hadn’t heard the left rant about “Diebold” and “Ken Blackwell” in a while. In a long time, in fact – at least since 2008, possibly since 2006. This seemed odd, given that it was once a frequent topic/hobby horse on lefty talk radio (esp. on Randi Rhodes’ show), but I guess if you’re winning elections you no longer need to contrive explanations for why you’re losing.
This observation intersected with the results from last night being so unexpected across the board (given polling, energy, etc.) to put me in a Dan Brown frame of mind. How might you write a technothriller around these observations? If one were to read these unexpected election results as the result of a conspiracy, how would you make the conspiracy work in a way plausible enough for fiction?
It’s outside my usual genre, but here’s what I came up with as a backstory:
- Democrats (and especially leftists/Progressives) have a habit of publicly accusing Republicans of corruption or dirty tricks or the like, accusations which are completely bogus and often verge on the paranoid. But in digging for proof these allegations, they sometimes figure out how to do exactly those things themselves and then proceed to do so (justifying it by claiming they’re just fighting back against what the Republicans are already doing). For example, the Democracy Alliance owing its origin to a delusional belief in a vast right-wing media/nonprofit/activism conspiracy – Rob Stein, et al, imagined such a conspiracy on the right, and then proceeded to create a real one one of their own to fight it.
- The once-common-as-air Democrat complaints about “Diebold” and “Blackwell delivering Ohio” have been utterly absent. Since around the time Democrats elected Obama, if not when they took over Congress in 2006. The obvious explanation there is that they stopped losing elections, and so no longer required a conspiracy theory to explain how they were being wrongfully denied the offices and power to which they were naturally entitled (if you’re winning elections, it sucks the energy out of fantasies that your enemies are rigging the vote against you). But what if there was another reason for their abruptly shutting up about voting machine fraud…?
- 2004: The obviously superior and demonstrably more-qualified war hero Democrat challenger loses a gimme election to the increasingly unpopular hayseed Republican incumbent. Dems in some quarters blame the loss on electronic voting machines in key swing states having been rigged for the incumbent. Angered by being denied their rightful victory, Progressives start looking for proof of this manipulation, and find that – yes indeed! – there is in fact an exploitable security hole in many e-voting machine software. Certain that Republicans left those back doors there so as to rig elections (when in fact they may simply have been poorly-secured diagnostic or debugging elements), the Democrats who discover them are outraged…but keep silent. Given that Republicans manipulated election results to unjustly deny their man the presidency, they bitterly ask themselves why shouldn’t we do the same to them? And after a micro-second of agonizing have little trouble finding self-serving rationalizations to support doing so.
- 2005: A small group of insiders (always keep your conspiracy small in number if you want a chance of keeping it secret!) share this information amongst themselves, and quietly exploit their connections in the tech sector to develop ways to exploit it, always keeping the knowledge compartmentalized to prevent discovery of what they’re up to. Additional security holes are discovered and exploited, providing extensive if not complete control over the most-common models of electronic voting machines. The group infiltrates trusted people into the companies who manufacture and program the machines in order to keep abreast of upcoming software revisions and, where possible, to insert their own subtle and harder-to-find back doors. The more obvious back doors are left in place, so that their occasional easy discovery in audits adds to public confidence that security holes are routinely and reliably plugged before election day.
- 2006: The group uses the mid-term election (where they were going to make substantial gains anyway given the shift in public attitude against the GOP President and Congress) as an experiment, tweaking totals in a few precincts here and there. They manipulate small numbers of votes, spread out geographically, via entirely remote means, all to keep the tampering small and unobtrusive: if it’s subtle enough to be invisible, no one will think to look for it. They see that they can both get away with the tampering, and that in a couple of the test races, tampering on the margins can be done in a way that doesn’t raise suspicions and swings an otherwise close race. Armed now with a tool they know works on the small scale, the group persuades left-aligned organizations and media personalities to tone down or avoid discussion of voting machine manipulation to avoid the tool’s exposure.
- To further help conceal their activities, the people behind the method help launch an organization much like the Secretary of State Project to get progressive Secretaries of State elected. The organization doesn’t need to know why they’re getting help, only that they need to assist candidates who approve of electronic voting and will if elected be responsible for auditing the security of the machines used in their state. The SoSs aren’t actually in on it, beyond getting a midnight phonecall with a helpful suggestion that they appoint the “right people” to do the auditing.
- In 2008, they widen the deployment and hone their skills. Its first large-scale deployment is in the primaries, where it is used to shift enough votes over to the more Progressive candidate to deny the anointed and “sure-thing” candidate the nomination. Microtargeting data used elsewhere in the nominee’s campaign is also used to pinpoint districts where usefully large quantities of votes can be shifted to him and other left-leaning candidates without appearing out of place with the demographics and ideological flavor of the place. The sleepwalking Republican nominee being a non-threat electorally means the tool can be applied to down-ticket races in the general election and not focused solely on the Presidential race.
- 2010: The group continues to hone its skills where possible, but refrains from a major intervention in the election due to an unexpected center-right grassroots uprising – given the sentiment of the country, maintaining Democrat control of Congress would require intervention on a scale the group still cannot pull off invisibly, which would risk exposure if it tried it. Instead, it focuses its efforts on a few strategic races, like the Senate Majority Leader’s reelection, and combines it with new frontiers in old-fashioned targeted character destruction to assure the retention or election of key political assets at the federal and state levels amid the generalized loss.
- 2011: Where the group can’t elect Progressive (read: controllable) Secretaries of State, it puts into place a tactic referred to (curiously) as “gesslerizing”, in which the opposition/non-cooperative Secretary of State in a swing state finds himself tied down (especially just before in-person early voting begins) with lawfare actions targeting him with ethics allegations and criminal investigations. “Gesslerized” SoSs will be either too distracted to look for or notice the remote-control tampering during early voting and on election day, or they will be too discredited via the allegations and similar bludgeoning over vote integrity (e.g.: the equation of voter ID efforts with racism) for any exposes they offer to be taken seriously.
- 2012: The tool has been fully debugged and integrated with microtargeting data, and is ready to deploy on a large scale with special focus on swing states. As the election approaches, polls all show the challenger gaining on the incumbent and then pulling into the lead amid a surge of voter enthusiasm for him, but a few left-leaning pollsters are fed results which predict the incumbent winning handily…exceptions which are greeted with derision as delusional outliers. After the votes are tallied, however, those polls are shown to be dead-on accurate. Uncannily so. Perfectly so. These polls allay any suspicion of the election results by giving an “independent” confirmation of the outcome, in which the status quo was unexpectedly maintained despite record discontent with the incumbent and Congress alike. In reality, for all its sophistication the tool isn’t perfect and can only do so much. Even with improved scale and finesse since 2010, the discontented national mood again placed limits on its invisible use – too much of its power had to be focused on protecting the President and the Senate majority for it to swing the House to the Democrats at the same time without being noticed…ergo, status quo.
- By now, the tool has become so refined that it can’t be discerned from its effects without complex statistical analysis. But, since no system is perfect, occasional machine glitches reveal the tool at work – for example, a number of widely-separated polling places reporting votes cast for the challenger being recorded as for the incumbent. Anticipating this (based on prior experience where it happened in 2008 or 2010 on small scale), Democrat operatives are unwittingly directed to wear campaign clothing, put up campaign posters, and engage in other blatantly illegal electioneering in the polling places, to distract public and media attention away from the vote tampering: “oh sure, there have been a few minor instances of unintentional ‘electioneering’ at the polls, but it’s just trivial stuff that GOPers are overreacting to as usual…nothing to see, move along!”
This backstory sets the stage for the actual plot of the thriller and inevitable big-budget Hollywood adaptation. Picture now a beautiful, young, vaguely (but non-threateningly) exotic do-gooder journalist, fresh out of J-school and looking to make a name for herself by investigating the inherent racism of Republicans and their racist “voter integrity” laws. She crosses paths one evening with an implausibly well-adjusted computer-scientist-turned-bartender with mysterious links to a voting machine manufacturer, intending to grill him for information supporting the (banal and cliched) thesis of her expose that Republicans are racists attempting to racistly deny the vote to minorities, because Republicans are (ipso facto) racists whose racist motivations require no further onscreen exploration. Of course.
Their ensuing night of passionate stenography takes an unexpected turn when the improbably-hunky computer scientist/bartender reveals to the iron-willed-yet-romantically-vulnerable journalist that he was blacklisted from programming work after discovering the back doors into the voting machine software. Certain that the real culprits are the racist Republicans who were rumored to have used such underhanded (not to mention racist) methods to steal the 2004 election, she enlists his aid to find the proof she needs to support her a priori conclusion…only to come face-to-face with the real conspirators after a completely unnecessary parkour chase through a vast warehouse of tampered-with voting machines, stolen yard signs, and slightly-used Greek columns fashioned from polystyrene.
Will she expose the truth, thereby undermining the sweep of victories over the racist Republicans in the just-concluded election, shattering her faith in (non-GOP) humanity, and discrediting the man she believes to be a messiah walking amongst us (the incumbent, not the nerd/bartender)? Or will the conspirators convince her to sell out her lofty journalistic principles and turn a blind eye to the massive ethical lapse of the people and party she thought represented everything good and non-racist in America?
[Spoiler alert: well duh, of course she covers up the truth about her party comrades at the end - she's a journalist.]