A baseless conspiracy theory claims that a secret supercomputer was used to switch votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Experts — and the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — have said the theory is a hoax and that safeguards, including paper trails, would deter such an effort.
As President-elect Joe Biden prepares a transition to the White House and President Donald Trump mounts challenges to election results, federal and state officials have declared that the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history.”
But a conspiracy theory that has been swirling online suggests the opposite, baselessly claiming that a supercomputer and special software were used to systematically switch votes and cement Biden’s victory.
That bogus theory is directly disputed by federal and state officials, as well as experts who study election security.
CISA has said that safeguards — including auditable logs and software checks — used by states ensure accuracy in the vote totals.
Still, in the days after the election, the theory has received significant attention on social media and on national TV.
Sidney Powell, an attorney who has represented Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, espoused it on Fox Business on Nov. 6 — saying that ballots were changed “using the Hammer program and a software program called Scorecard” — and that she had “evidence that that is exactly what happened.” She repeated the theory two days later to Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo.
We reached out to Powell to ask what her supposed “evidence” was and she didn’t provide any, telling us instead to “Stay tuned.”
The conspiracy theory appeared several days before the election on a dubious blog called the American Report, which ran an Oct. 31 story claiming that Biden was “using SCORECARD and THE HAMMER To Steal Another Presidential Election.”
The story cited a so-called “whistleblower,” Dennis Montgomery, to claim that an intelligence supercomputer (“HAMMER”) and accompanying software (“SCORECARD”) had the capability to hack elections and steal votes. It went on to claim with no proof that Biden and former President Barack Obama had won reelection in 2012 using the system, and that Biden had beaten his rival in the Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, through such means.
Montgomery has a history of making dubious claims going back more than a decade.
A company he co-owned, called eTreppid, won millions of dollars in federal defense contracts following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But, according to an FBI investigation in 2006, his partner in the business said that he deceived Pentagon officials.
In one case, according to an FBI interview with the business partner, Montgomery fabricated a test for Department of Defense officials of the company’s “recognition software” for weapons. While the officials waited inside the company’s office, the business partner said, Montgomery took a toy bazooka into a nearby field and, instead of having the technology actually recognize the weapon, he pinged the cell phone of an employee, who was waiting to push a button and make a picture of a bazooka appear on the screen.
In another case detailed in a 2014 book, the CIA believed that one of Montgomery’s programs could detect secret codes from al Qaeda that were hidden in broadcasts from the news network Al-Jazeera. Although this led to the grounding of U.S.-bound flights from France, Britain and Mexico in December 2003, the technology was ultimately determined to be bogus. Montgomery objected to that characterization and sued the author and publisher. But he failed to provide evidence that his technology actually worked, and the judge ruled against him.
The theory espoused in the American Report story doesn’t make sense for several reasons, Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who researches voting security, told us in a phone interview.
The story claims that “SCORECARD steals elections by tampering with the computers at transfer points of state election computer systems and outside third party data election result vaults.”
If a hacking operation tried to change votes at the state aggregation level, Wallach said, there are county-level results with which to compare those figures. And if a county’s votes were manipulated, there are results from precincts — and individual paper ballots or individual paperless voting machines — to verify those figures.
Ballot boxes, voting machines and election equipment are also subject to various chain-of-custody protections.
“The implication of this conspiracy theory is that there can be an undetectable, irrevocable change made — and that implication is false,” he said.
Likewise, J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, told us the conspiracy theory is “nonsense.”
“Most votes across the country are counted by computer scanners at polling places or, for mail-in ballots, at central locations in each county,” Halderman, who is also director of the university’s Center for Computer Security and Society, said in an email. “Election workers then copy the totals from each scanner (most often using memory cards or USB sticks) to a computer called an election management system, which adds them up and produces the initial, unofficial results.”
“However, every ballot scanner is required by law (under the Help America Vote Act of 2002) to produce a paper printout summarizing the vote totals for the ballots it counted,” he continued. “Nearly every state, before it certifies the official election results, compares the reported results to the physical printout from each scanner. If an error or fraud affected the reporting process, it will be caught during this process, before the results are declared official. These routine checks both add an extra layer of security and help deter attackers from targeting the reporting process in the first place.”
The American Report story also argued that votes would be stolen in Florida when the state transferred data to a third party called VR Systems. As the fact-checking website Lead Stories points out, that company doesn’t even work with vote tabulation.
VR Systems Chief Operating Officer Ben Martin confirmed in a statement to us that the company “does not do voter tabulation and is not connected to county or state voter tabulation systems.” The company instead “provides elections software and services to election officials who manage the voter check-in process” and also supports officials with websites and databases for voters to check polling locations and voter registration status.
And while the American Report story claims the company has contracts in eight states, Martin said the company only does work in three.
CNN Video Shows Error, Not Fraud
In the video, vote totals for Pennsylvania displayed on screen by CNN can be seen going up for Biden by 19,958 as they go down for Trump by that same amount.
But the error was actually a simple mistake by a research firm that gathers results data for CNN and others; it wasn’t a change in the reporting by election officials. (It’s worth noting, though, that those vote tallies are unofficial tallies, not final, official results.) The mistake was corrected about an hour later.
Edison Research, which provides vote tabulation data to CNN and other networks, said that the moment of Trump dropping by 19,958 was caused by a brief reporting error on its end.
Rob Farbman, Edison’s executive vice president, told us that Edison did receive the correct vote totals from Armstrong County in Pennsylvania through a state feed — which at that point in time was 24,233 votes for Trump and 4,275 votes for Biden. But a team member, while scouring individual county vote totals, then mistakenly entered the county’s totals backwards — 24,233 votes for Biden and 4,275 votes for Trump.
A CNN source also confirmed that the matter came down to vote totals in Armstrong County being briefly transposed in the feed provided to the network, but that the accurate figures were soon restored.
“It was simple human error,” Farbman told us by email, noting the mistake was corrected about an hour later.
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Dennis L. Montgomery v. James Risen. “Memorandum Opinion.” U.S. District Court, District of Columbia. 15 Jul 2016.
Farbman, Rob. Executive vice president, Edison Research. Email to FactCheck.org. 13 Nov 2020.
“Government’s Compliance With Court Order of August 17, 2006.” U.S. District Court, District of Nevada. 11 Sep 2006.
Halderman, J. Alex. Professor of computer science and engineering, University of Michigan. Email to FactCheck.org. 11 Nov 2020.
“Joint Statement From Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council & The Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees.” U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. 12 Nov 2020.
Powell, Sidney. Attorney. Email to FactCheck.org. 11 Nov 2020.
Krebs, Chris (@CISAKrebs). “Same as yesterday, Hammer and Scorecard is still a hoax. Thats it. That’s the tweet.” Twitter. 8 Nov 2020.
Krebs, Chris (@CISAKrebs). “To be crystal clear on Downwards arrow, I’m specifically referring to the Hammer and Scorecard nonsense. It’s just that – nonsense. This is not a real thing, don’t fall for it and think 2x before you share. #Protect2020” Twitter. 7 Nov 2020.
Martin, Ben. Chief Operating Officer, VR Systems. Statement to FactCheck.org. 12 Nov 2020.
Miller, Dean. “Fact Check: Secret Super-Computer Is NOT Stealing Votes Through Voter Interface Contractor.” Lead Stories. 3 Nov 2020.
“Pennsylvania Elections – County Results | Armstrong.” Pennsylvania Department of State. Accessed 13 Nov 2020.
“Pennsylvania Elections – Summary Results | Statewide.” Pennsylvania Department of State. Accessed 13 Nov 2020.
Richardson, Louise. “James Risen’s ‘Pay Any Price.'” New York Times. 15 Oct 2014.
“Rumor Control.” U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Accessed 10 Nov 2020.
Sommer, Will. “Infamous ‘Hoax’ Artist Behind Trumpworld’s New Voter Fraud Claim.” Daily Beast. 8 Nov 2020.
Wallach, Dan. Professor of computer science, Rice University. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 13 Nov 2020.