7 Questions with Hal Malchow
7 Questions on the impact of voting machine hackers with Hal Malchow
Hal Malchow is the former Chairman of MSHC partners, which was a political consulting firm that pioneered the use of statistical modeling and control group experiments in politics. His work in changing campaign politics is chronicled in Sasha Issenberg’s 2011 book, The Victory Lab, The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Over his career, Hal has worked for five Democratic presidential nominees. His first political thriller, No Popes in Heaven, was published in 2018. His new book, 42 Million to One, is a fictional story set against an alarming background of real events demonstrating how easy it is to hack a voting machine and change the outcome of our elections and evidence that outcomes have been changed. We asked him 7 questions about his new book and how voting machine hackers could influence the 2020 election.
1. What inspired you to focus on the specific issue of voting machine hackers as a threat to our democracy?
My last book, No Popes in Heaven, was about a drug company that develops a drug to delay aging. In presenting a theory of aging and how it might be delayed, I relied on a scientist in this field, Josh Mitteldorf. When the book was finished, I sent him a copy and he replied that if I was a political consultant why was I doing nothing about voting machine manipulation. That started a long conversation that led to this book.
2. Why did you choose to make the story about a young investigative journalist?
The book is a fictional story based upon real events. So I needed to show the events and the best way was for a reporter who believes something is going on to investigate these events and show them to the reader.
3. How did your political experiences shape this book?
I shut down my firm in 2010 because I had become disgusted with the campaign dialog and the polarization that prevents Democrats and Republicans from working together to find solutions to the problems we face. Voting machines are central to the story but there is also a presidential campaign where a candidate defies that odds by telling base voters that we have to compromise and work with Republicans. He is elected but only because phony scandals eliminate the two frontrunners. My experience helped me tell the difficulties facing a candidate who is a centrist running in a primary and also describing the innovative tactics he employs to succeed.
4. How did you use fiction in this story to emphasize the troubles facing our democracy in real life?
The main problem facing our democracy is that we have lost the ability to compromise and even talk across party lines. 42 Million to One is a story, not just about voting machines, but about a candidate who addresses these problems, begins to succeed but ultimately fails because of a scandal not of his making.
5. How did you work the probability calculations into the fictional story? Were there some states’ p-values you focused on more?
I compared exit poll predictions with actual election results and computed the probabilities that the differences could be due to random chance. In 301 elections between 2004 and 2016, Republican candidates outperformed the exit poll predictions overall and the probability that this overperformance could be due to random chance is 42 million to one. I also looked at probabilities for each of those specific elections. Trump outperformed exit polls by five points in Ohio. The chances that that difference could be due to random chance we more than 500,000 to one. There were several other battleground states where his election results were highly unlikely. In Mitch McConnell’s 2013 senate race, the exit polls showed a seven- point victory. His ultimate margin was fifteen points.
A lot of people say that the reason exit polls underpredict Republican performance, is that Republicans choose not to participate. But there are two problems with that explanation. First, if that were the problem, overperformance should be fairly consistent across many elections. But exit polls for some elections greatly understate Republican performance. In other states exit polls make exact predictions. Second, exit polls are no longer just polling place interviews. Because of early voting and the many forms voting takes, exit polls rely on phone calls and internet surveyed for almost half of their samples. If you compare the exit poll predictions, overall, with the predictions made by public polling averages, the exit polls provide a more accurate prediction of election day outcomes.
6. What does your book suggest about how voting machine hackers could influence the 2020 election?
Hacking voting machines from the outside has become harder. Many states tightened their election security, especially in 2019. Other states have done almost nothing. But our voting machines are completely vulnerable to manipulation by the voting machine companies who have a long history of poor quality and security lapses. These are private companies, with no requirement to disclose board members or shareholders. A company could be owned by Vladimir Putin’s best friend and we would have no way of knowing.
7. How do you think this threat to our democracy should be addressed?
There are all sorts of encouraging developments. One company has introduced software that can look at 1000 ballots and indicate whether manipulation was likely. There are other advances in election security that are technological and promising. But to me there are three measures that are key to having safe elections.
First, all voters should cast a paper ballot that is marked by hand. Paper ballots are counted by scanners which can contain vote-changing code. But if you have paper ballots you can do a hand count in randomly selected precincts and compare the paper ballot count with what the scanners report. If they don’t match, you know someone tampered with the machine.
Second, all close elections should be subject to an audit. We don’t have to hand count all the ballots. Just enough precincts to make sure that the machine counts are valid. If a hacker knows that an audit will take place what is the point of the hacking.
Third, voter registration files should be kept by the federal government with full access provided to the states. The cost and expertise required to protect these lists is beyond what many states can provide. These Secretaries of State have already demonstrated that they are not up to the job.
These are all sensible measures, especially requiring paper ballots. But despite some Republican support in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has blocked all progress in this area.
Bonus: Have you recently read any books that bring a new perspective or issue to the forefront about the 2020 election?
I recently saw the Netflix documentary, Social Dilemma, which showed how Google and Facebook manipulate the content we see in a way that helps drive voters to more extreme and divergent viewpoints. Their goal is, of course, profit. That is what they do. To make more money they need to keep users online for longer periods of time. Their artificial intelligence has learned that the way to do that is to feed the user content the affirms and strengthens their existing viewpoints. Liberals and conservatives now live in different internet worlds. Very illuminating documentary which taught me more than any book I have recently read.
Bonus: Which races’ results will you be paying close attention to in November?
I am watching news about the Post Office. Polls show that Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail. By slowing the mail, Trump is attempting to steal the election.
Bonus: Do you think increasing the public’s knowledge of voting machine hackers will result in more accurate election results?
The House has passed legislation to improve election security. Mitch McConnell has blocked legislation in the Senate. I doubt voters knowing more will result in overcoming McConnell’s opposition. Voters have become remarkably tolerant of all sorts of misdeeds. It will take a Democratic senate to require paper ballots and other reforms necessary to protect our democracy.
Thank you Hal Malchow for answering our questions - Check out his new book and other books here.