I. In Focus This Week
Defiance County, Ohio at center of elections ‘Scandal’
Local officials not sure why show chose Defiance
It was about 48 hours after the polls closed on November 6, 2012 when Defiance County, Ohio Elections Director Pamela S. Schroder got the late-night text on her phone from another Ohio county elections official.
It’s the type of message no elections official wants to get.
There was talk on television of vote rigging in Defiance County.
Schroder looked at the text on her phone and thought “Why us?”
Fortunately for Schroder, while the text was real, the talk wasn’t. It is part of a story line on the ABC drama Scandal.
Scandal is a primetime drama on ABC starring Kerry Washington as public relations “fixer” in Washington, D.C.
The show features a variety of salacious storylines, but the one that caught Schroder by surprise that November night is a vote rigging storyline.
In the show, produced by Shonda Rimes (despite electionline’s best efforts, we could not reach Rimes for comment), a cabal of five people — the first lady, a PR executive, a Supreme Court justice, a Texas businessman and the president’s chief of staff — all scheme to get the president elected. Part of that scheming was paying a hacker to rig the vote in one small Ohio county — Defiance, population 38,884.
Why Defiance? Why Ohio? Schroder has no idea.
“It’s an interesting county name?” Schroder speculated. “We have an Indy car championship driver, several professional baseball players, the movie—“Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio,” but we really have NO idea.”
Although based on this report it may not seem like it, the show is quite popular and most recently won its time slot with overall viewers and the coveted 18-49 year olds. A reporter from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette said that “[v]iewers seem to be eating it like it’s delicious warmed brie.”
Schroder said that nothing the show has shown about Defiance elections is remotely true, right down to the voting machines the show uses.
“Ours are not the same as the ones on the show,” Schroder said. “We use Premier TSx’s (touch screen). The print outs on the show were totally different than our process.”
Schroder said she hopes that the voters of Defiance — and people everywhere — realize that the show is fiction.
“We hope this doesn’t cause distrust with our voter,” she said.
But could it happen? Would it be possible for five, well-placed people, to pick up the phone and have a hacker hack one voting machine in one small county and change the outcome of an election?
“I have not seen the show but have heard about the story line. As with any good TV fiction, one has to be able to suspend disbelief. In this case, as a former election official with a background in information security, I lack sufficient imagination to suspend that much disbelief,” said Dan Nolan, vice president, strategic planning and government operations, SOE Software, a Scytl Company.
Nolan said the cost and complexity of even attempting such a conspiracy would “beggar Citizen’s United.” He said that even if an undetectable Trojan Horse could be introduced into a voting system, despite intrusion detection systems, immutable logs, etc., the routine audit process conducted by elections officials would reveal anomalies.
Pamela Smith with Verified Voting agrees that the show is a bit over-the-top, but does feel that it could provide a cautionary tale for voters.
“It’s silly but it’s not,” Smith said. “I don’t actually see it, so I went on Apple TV and watched an episode.”
Smith noted that some voting systems are more securable than others and she said the show could have an impact on public perception and make voters wonder about the systems used in their jurisdiction.
“I wouldn’t necessarily want people to think that all voting systems are suspect, but I don’t want them to think that they aren’t either,” Smith said. “People need to be vigilant on an on-going basis.”
Smith and Nolan both agree though that an audit of a voting system would prevent something like what happened on Scandal from well, happening.
“If you have an evidenced-based election and you have an auditable system and you are doing audits, then you have the evidence to reconstruct the outcome if there were a question,” Smith said.
Back in Defiance, Schroder said that most people have found the storyline to be amusing and there are lots of funny grins and lots of questions from residents if anyone in the elections office has seen the show or not.
“One of our board members arrived at a board meeting and we were discussing the ‘Defiance’ episode about the voting machine being found at the high school that had been rigged and his facial expression was quite concerned—eyes bulging, eye brows raised and mouth open,” Schroder said, but. “… [T]he show is totally fiction. We work diligently to provide fair and honest elections in Defiance County, Ohio.”
Scandal airs on ABC at 10 p.m. on Thursdays. On tonight’s episode “Gladiators in Suits,” we’ll “discover the truth about the rigged election.”
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