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Will Bernie Sanders Be Stopped by Barcode Voting in L.A. County?

Updated on February 14, 2020
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Ralph Lopez majored in Economics and Political Science at Yale University. He has been published in the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun.

The latest poll shows Sanders pulling ahead by a huge margin in California. A late January KQED/NPR poll shows Sanders with a 14% lead over Joe Biden, and 22% lead over "Mayor Pete" Buttigieg. But the knives at the Democratic National Committee are out for Sanders.

In an ominous development, an audacious move by election officials in California swings the pendulum back to more hackable, un-transparent, and unverifiable elections than ever before. The state is piloting a system in Los Angeles County which transmits a voter's choices by a barcode, that the voter cannot read, and which could say anything.

The Los Angeles County Registrar's office states:

"A Vote Selections QR Code below the County name and seal, which encodes the vote selection IDs in the same order in which they are printed on the ballot. The QR code is used by the VSAP Tally System to read and process the votes cast on the ballot."

So controversial is this type of system, using barcodes, that it was banned in Colorado last year.

The system is widely criticized by election integrity activists as a giant step backward in honest elections. Los Angeles County has stonewalled election activists' requests for more information on the security of the system, and has not responded to an offer by a computer expert to determine if the system would pass a "hack test."

If there were a battleground on which to stop any momentum accumulated by Sanders on March 3rd, Super Tuesday, California, and Los Angeles in particular, would be the place. L.A. County holds fully one-fourth of the state's voters.

Elections activists have long called for a universal system of voter hand-marked paper ballots, either counted by hand or run through an optical scanner device that takes and stores a digital image of each ballot.

Brad Blog's Brad Friedman, who has followed the story since L.A. County first proposed using the system, reports:

"L.A. County Clerk/Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan, who had been very responsive and helpful in previous years, no longer answers simple questions about the new voting system called "Voting Solutions for All People" (VSAP)"

Why Use QR Codes for Voting?

Los Angeles County, the state's most populous county and crucial to the ambitions of any Democratic Party nominee, has adopted the Smartmatic VSAP "Voting Solutions for All People" ballot marking device voting system, which utilizes a touch-screen machine on which a voter taps his or her choices, similar to a bank ATM machine. The ballot marking device then prints out a barcode on a paper ballot which cannot be deciphered by the voter.

Although the voter's choices are printed on the ballot with the familiar "bubbles" filled in next to candidates' names, it is the barcode, in this case a two-dimensional type of barcode called a QR code, that is read by the vote-counting machine that the printed ballot is inserted into. The QR code is undecipherable to humans and could say anything.

For example, the QR code below reads "Elizabeth Warren." But the QR code below that reads "Ha ha I just stole your vote."

Code reads "Elizabeth Warren"
Code reads "Elizabeth Warren"
Code reads "Ha ha I just stole your vote"
Code reads "Ha ha I just stole your vote"

Who Owns Smartmatic?

Smartmatic is a company whose true ownership remains somewhat of a mystery. The company's ownership was called "a riddle" in an investigation by the US Embassy in Venezuela, where the system was being used in national elections in the previous decade. The investigation concluded that the company's true owners:

"remain hidden behind a web of holding companies in the Netherlands and Barbados."

The company is also no stranger to controversy. In 2017, several Smartmatic and Philippines election personnel were indicted for election tampering in a 2016 Philippines national election.

Super Tuesday in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is far and away the most populous county in California and indeed in the US. The presidential ambitions of primary candidates of either party are greatly affected by what happens in Los Angeles. California has 495 delegates to apportion. As a comparison, the next highest state is New York, with 270 delegates.

California's election machinery is firmly in the hands of Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who was an avowed Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016.

In a radical departure from past primary seasons, the disproportionately influential California primary has been moved up from the end of the season, to the beginning, on Super Tuesday, March 3rd. Super Tuesday is the first major wave of primaries after the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and the Iowa Caucus.

Super Tuesday greatly influences the fortunes of all candidates, with such critical factors as "momentum" being evaluated by the media based on the results. California now being on Super Tuesday gives the day an enormously influential role, which will all but end the mathematical possibilities for the nomination for any candidate making a poor showing.

In the 2016 California Democratic primary, a rash of episodes involving election fraud outraged Bernie Sanders supporters, when polls had Sanders and Clinton neck-and-neck within 2 points but Clinton emerged with a landslide victory of over ten points. This year, Sanders has broken out far ahead of the pack in California, 22% ahead of Mayor Pete.

In 2016, problems were reported throughout the state with botched voter registrations, incorrect instructions for independent voters, and in San Diego, election workers were photographed using white-out on Sanders votes. No prosecutions for election misconduct ever ensued.

White-out on Sanders ballot in San Diego, Democratic Primary 2016
White-out on Sanders ballot in San Diego, Democratic Primary 2016 | Source

A Giant Step Backwards for Election Security

The Smartmatic system is a radical departure from the previous trend toward voter hand-marked paper ballots, in which the voter marks a paper ballot by hand, except in cases of disability. The filled-in bubbles n the paper ballots are then read by an optical scanner vote-counting machine, or counted by hand. The voter has direct visual confirmation of what the ballot says.

One way to make hacking fraud more difficult in L.A. County would be to post the digital images of the ballots which are automatically made with this kind of voting system, so the public can verify that the machine count matches what the human-readable part of the ballots say.

Activists contend that the vote count should be verifiable by the public, by posting or making available, on a DVD or thumb drive, the digital ballot images. Although activists in other states have taken legal action to make the images public, election authorities have fought to keep the images secret.

The ease with which vote-counting machines can be hacked was the subject of a famous demonstration in the HBO documentary "Hacking Democracy."

Vote-Counting Machine Hacking Demonstration

Smartmatic and California election officials have been touting the new Los Angeles voting system as California's first "open source" system, but the code used in the software for the system's machines is not actually open source.

The open source designation may mean that the code was originally lifted from free software, non-proprietary sources. The code is still hidden from the public.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in 2018 when the system was certified:

“Los Angeles County’s VSAP vote tally system is now California’s first certified election system to use open-source technology...This publicly-owned technology represents a significant step in the future of elections in California and across the country.”

Activists have between now and Super Tuesday to block Los Angeles from using the barcode machines, and to demand voter hand-marked paper ballots that are either hand counted, or only have the human-readable part of the ballot counted by machine. Ballot images should then be posted online, or made available on some electronic medium like a DVD or flashdrive.

Insecure and opaque systems such as Smartmatic's are planned for use, or are already being used, in OH, WI, PA, TX, WV, KY, NY, NJ, KS, TN, IN, SC, NC.

In January of 2020, independent blogger Brad Friedman uncovered a series of security vulnerabilities in the VSAP Tally voting system, according to a report commissioned from professional testers by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. However, these findings have not been corroborated by other media sources. Among Friedman's findings are:

  • USB ports which violate California specifications disallowing any more ports than necessary for the system's basic function.
  • "excessive root access and the ability to boot the system from a USB port give access to the system by unauthorized individuals. Either scenario can result in undetected changes to files and data."
  • "It is possible to insert or remove ballots from both the BMD and ballot transfer boxes without detection."
  • "Seals, locks, labels and sensors can all be bypassed."
  • "Ability to modify electronic event logs without detection.”

Many problems are cited in these three documents:

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