When I wrote about Michael Richison’s art project in November 2020, I felt I had to remind readers about the controversies that once raged around electronic voting machines. While voting security and hacking are real issues, it had been decades since the two issues were at the very forefront of concerns about America’s wobbly political system.
Then we met Sidney Powell. And all hell broke loose.
Since we published that story in November, I’ve repeatedly circled back to Richison’s project with a sense of fearful apprehension. Called Electo Electro 2020, the project was a kind of “musical polling station” built in the husks of decommissioned Diebold Accuvote TS voting machines. Tablets in the booths enabled “voters” to produce techno-inspired beats using video clips of the candidates in the 2020 presidential election. Re-reading our story about Electo Electro 2020, I felt like I was peering into the pages of some lost political Talmud. Nobody else had been talking much about voting machines prior to the election.
But it wasn’t just the issue of voting machines themselves, which Powell baselessly alleged had been created in Venezuela to rig elections for Hugo Chavez. (The company in question, Dominion, has sued Powell for defamation.) Richison had even drawn attention specifically to the state of Georgia — ground zero of the Powell/Trump disinformation campaign — where, he noted, these aging Diebold Accuvote machines had been used as recently as the 2018 gubernatorial election despite a long, documented history of vulnerabilities.
Michael and I traded emails back and forth after we published our story. It was kind of lighthearted at first (“Looks like you’ll have some more material flowing in,” I wrote on November 4, as election results remained incomplete.) Our correspondence became more ominous as the Trump campaign’s election dispute dragged on. It was between the last few emails to set up this story that a mob breached and invaded the Capitol. Disgusted, appalled, outraged, angry — that’s a fair reading how I was feeling, and maybe this piece has to be read with that in mind.
Some of the themes referenced by Richison’s Electo Electro 2020 project were not only prescient, but were being brutally manipulated and distorted by con-men, liars-for-hire and mercenaries chasing social media clout for clicks. Worse, they were being believed. Depending on how much you trust what the mob says about itself, this disinformation may have even lead to an assault on the seat of the American government.
Richison, a New Jersey-based artist, has developed an election-themed video art project every four years since 2004 and has likely spent more time thinking about subjects like the intersection of voting technology and disinformation than any other artist alive — or at least any that I know. Many of us make art to help make sense of our world, and talking to an artist with such interests seemed like a good place to start trying to make sense of mine.
5 Mag: When we wrote about the Electo Electro 2020 project, I assumed I would have to remind people about the controversy in past elections with voting machine security. In the two months since then, we’ve been swamped with disinformation about the subject. How are the claims about the Dominion machines being floated by the President and insane people like Lin Wood and Sidney Powell different than the ones about the Diebold Accuvote TS machines that power your exhibit and were subject to scrutiny during the ’00s?
Michael Richison: I haven’t done a ton of research on the Dominion system yet, but just about anything would have been better than the old Diebold system. It wasn’t just the Diebold Accuvote machine itself. The way the system was handled and implemented — from a security and ethics standpoint — was also problematic.
But back to Dominion. Some of the claims are out of this world. Dominion is not connected to Smartmatic, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, China, etc. according to the letter Dominion Systems sent to Sidney Powell. They’re not connected to the internet via a modem, and are therefore a closed system. Sidney Powell misquoted a Princeton study when she claimed there was a backdoor system into Dominion. In the study, the researcher was actually making statements about an older Dominion system in New Jersey, not the system in Georgia. Dominion systems have a paper trail, which means when you enter your vote, it is stored both digitally on a hard drive but also on a paper roll (I believe like the rolls of cash register receipts) so you can count and recount the votes two different ways.
Some of the themes referenced by Electo Electro 2020 were not only prescient, but were being brutally manipulated and distorted by con-men, liars-for-hire and mercenaries chasing social media clout for clicks. Worse, they were being believed.
During that November press briefing, Sidney Powell brings up a study by three professors that found some “backend” way to get into the Dominion machine. I haven’t looked too far into but it seems like she was confused about the 2003 study about the Diebold system and perhaps quoting that study to bolster her false claims about Dominion.
The Diebold Accuvote, on the other hand typically did not use a paper printout. In that 2003 study, researchers really dove into the Accuvote. They found a lot of interesting stuff. You could hack into it a few different ways. You can access the operating system — it ran on a version of Windows (Windows CE), so if you were a decent programmer you could get in that way. You can also solder a chip onto one of the boards in the computer. You can install malware via portable storage medium like a thumb drive or SD-type card. Or you could install malware onto a credit card-like key that the poll worker uses to unlock the station between voters. If you needed access to the machine you could use the same type of key used in soda machines, or if you’re a locksmith, you could have downloaded a high-resolution photo of a Diebold key from the internet and make your own.
There were also so many weird and unethical connections between Diebold operatives and state-level government officials including a campaign gift supposedly from Diebold to then-Secretary of State of Ohio J. Kenneth Blackwell. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than Brian Kemp (who’s now governor of Georgia) overseeing his own election when he was serving as Secretary of State in 2018. And in the middle of it all at the time was, of course, the Accuvote in 2018.
5 Mag: What are your thoughts about the claims these people have made about how Dominion machines were manipulated? You’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying this issue.
Michael Richison: I haven’t read about substantiated vulnerabilities surrounding the new Dominion systems. So much appears to be hearsay and conspiracy theories. A good thing is that the system in Georgia is at least new. There were a few stories about the screens of the Diebold machines not working properly during the 2018 election in Georgia. I can’t say either way if this cost Stacy Abrams the 2018 gubernatorial election, but it makes sense to say aging technology can’t be trusted.
5 Mag: I kept going back to this project as the information and disinformation spread. As you say, the type of machines you use for Electo Electro 2020 were even used in the 2018 election in Georgia.
Michael Richison: Yes! All those press photos of people voting in Georgia in 2018 were on a machine from about 2002. It’s like playing a really old game console. Should democracy depend on something almost as old as an Xbox 1?
5 Mag: Electo Electro 2020 also highlighted the disconnection between a politician’s rhetoric and reality. We just had a significant amount of the population who genuinely believed that (a) a lost election was a landslide victory (b) the Supreme Court, the Congress or even the military would overturn it (c) a bloodthirsty cabal of child traffickers secretly control the government and (d) a president who endorsed all of these delusions and did so even while police were trying to disperse an angry mob. How did we get here and does art have the power or the capability to bring people back to their senses?
Michael Richison: My original concept was to have people come into the exhibit and have them remix things themselves. I did that on an early version of the project in 2016. I wanted to empower folks to create and edit media while bopping their heads to a beat they made. In 2016 I popped up on the sidewalk in various places, and it was a lot fun. I enjoyed when DJs and other musically-inclined people jumped on and did something creative (kids were really enthusiastic too). People also wanted to talk about everything that was going on, but it seemed a little less heated. It was a different time back then, and the temperature was lower.
Having to unplug from that kind of interaction and lock the project up during the COVID crisis was very disappointing. I hope that the virtual audiences were able to get into the performances in somewhat the same way. I definitely have my own political agenda, but I would hope that no matter where you are on the political spectrum, if you were able to hop on one of the stations (someday), you might be able to relax a little and maybe have some fun.
One of the main goals of the interface is to shove the sound bites through a system that breaks them down. The project aims to mash up the catchphrases and sound bites into metered abstractions. The absurd conspiracy theories are noise and shouldn’t be taken seriously. The siege on the Capitol Building was terrifying and deadly, and those people were acting on things that just aren’t true. People died because of this.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that one of the main goals of the interface is to shove the sound bites through a system that breaks them down. The project aims to mash up the catchphrases and sound bites into metered abstractions. The absurd conspiracy theories are noise and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I wish everyone saw it that way. The siege on the Capitol Building was terrifying and deadly, and those people were acting on things that just aren’t true. People died because of this. A person was shot and killed, and there were three others who died.
[edit: now 4] [edit: now 7, including two police officers who committed suicide afterward] The threat and danger are real.
5 Mag: I thought the most interesting part of Electo Electro 2020 is the way you put this into the context of electronic music. You could have gone in a number of different directions with this. Why did you decide to present it this way?
Michael Richison: It started with an 808-like drum machine interface with my punchcard prototype in 2016. The precision of a 16-step sequencer fit conceptually with the inhuman nature of politicians, and it also physically fit into the booth. I started to build from there, shifting to a touchscreen concept, with more effects and features: simple trimming tools, high and low pass filters, reverb, more instruments and phrases, and the vocoder panel.
Someone who plays it can definitely get more abstract and more noise-oriented — so it depends on the user. But a simple four on the floor beat can give so much structure and consistency to just about anything. That’s a foundation you can build anything on, and it’s accessible for a listener as well as from a production standpoint.
From a more visual standpoint, a lot of voting systems (including paper ballots) feature an interface with rows of choices and boxes that could be adapted to look like tablature or a musical workstation. There’s a system that was used in India for a while that looked a lot like a small synth or entry-level drum machine, for example.
5 Mag: Between the time we decided to chat about the project and the time we began chatting about the project, the president of the United States denounced his VP as a traitor and a mob stormed the US Capitol. Guns were drawn in the Congressional chamber and as far as I can tell this is the first time this has happened since the War of 1812. What the hell are we looking at and what the hell happened?
Michael Richison: That was a very short period of time. Just crazy. It boils down to a president who clearly only cares about himself. Not concerned about those around him. Not concerned about who could get hurt or killed. Not in the least worried about democracy.
5 Mag: And where do you and the project go from here? “The election” now seems to be a permanent state in America. Will there be any further exhibitions, performances, an evolution?
Michael Richison: When the whole Rudy Giuliani/Sidney Powell meltdown (pun intended) was happening, I stripped the project down to four computer stations and eight iPads and called it “Electo Electro: Bunker Edition.” DJ, artist, producer, activist, and all around nice guy Darryl Montgomery-Hell promoted it through his virtual performance series “Hell Room” and I performed it a few weeks ago. The original performance is gone, but the highlights are still up on my Twitch channel. Working with Darryl has been a lot of fun, he’s mentored me a lot too. I’ve also been getting a lot of advice from LA-based DJ Oddgirlbadgirl aka Josh Trang. The new iteration was harder edged, noisier, and even more abstract in some places.
I need to deal with everything that’s happened through the project, and I want to work out what happened. I’m sure I’m not the only one to say this, but it’s hit me really hard. I’ll need to process and repackage another iteration. On a positive note, I do think there’s an opportunity to celebrate Stacy Abram’s initiative, vision, and mobilization of Georgia voters.
I’d like to keep going and keep adapting the project. I suspect it will get even noisier.