Benson names 2016 recount advocate to Election Security Commission

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — A professor who has warned of hacking threats and recommended a state recount in the 2016 presidential election will co-chair a new Michigan Election Security Commission announced this week by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

The commission, which is expected to recommend reforms and strategies to improve election security, will be co-chaired by David Becker, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, and University of Michigan Professor J. Alex Halderman, director of the school's Center for Computer Security and Society.

“The security of our elections is critical to the security of our democracy,” Benson said in a statement, describing the commission as a “first-of-its-kind” effort.

Halderman once hacked a voting machine to play PacMan and last year worked with the New York Times to stage a mock election that demonstrated voting machine vulnerabilities.

He also urged a paper ballot recount in the 2016 presidential election for critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that helped deliver an unexpected win for President Donald Trump.

While the deviation between Trump’s vote totals and pre-election surveys was probably the result of polls that were “systematically” wrong,  “the only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence,” Halderman wrote in 2016.

Benson, who guest hosted a WJR-AM radio show on Thursday morning, spoke with Halderman about the commission and introduced him as “one of our nation’s leading election security experts.”

But GOP strategist Stu Sandler criticized the appointment, saying Halderman pushed “the senseless recount in 2016 that cost millions and produced nothing.”

Stein was required to pay $973,250 in Michigan for what would have been a massive hand recount, but then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office estimated the true cost could approach $2 million.

Michigan's courts ultimately stopped the recount shortly after it started, ruling that Stein did not qualify as an “aggrieved candidate” who could request a recount under state law because she had no chance of winning.

Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Stein finished a distant fourth, with 1.1 percent of the vote. The state refunded Stein $632,125 for precincts that were not recounted.

In their brief radio exchange on Thursday, Benson asked Halderman what kind of election threats security experts fear.

“We worry about a number of different places where computers are just essential to running elections and determining who won,” Halderman said, “everything from voter registration to preparing for conduction of the election to the equipment that voters might interface at the polls to the way we find out who won and announce the results.”

The 18-member commission will include election officials, including Republican former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett, Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton and Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who completed the 2016 recount but called it “logistical hell” at the time.

The commission will also be staffed and facilitated by Secretary of State employees.

Benson's office said the commission's work will be paid for through a federal grant. Michigan qualified for $10.7 million in federal dollars last year under a 2018 spending plan approved by Trump that was designed to help states improve election administration and security. 

"This commission's work will be funded out of that pool, but we don't anticipate it will use a very large chunk of that funding," spokesman Shawn Starkey said in an email.

The advisory commission is expected to convene in early April and will eventually hold public hearings across Michigan before delivering a set of recommendations to Benson by the end of 2019