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[Comments] (15) : I've been thinking about the best way to tell people about voting machine fraud without sounding crazy. I have had success in telling people about it, but only with people who were themselves kind of crazy.

But the success of 24 proves that you can get people to incorporate crazy political ideas into their worldview by presenting those ideas in story form. So I had an idea for a political thriller TV show. The elevator pitch is 24 meets the last season of The West Wing. It starts with a third party senator (like Jesse Ventura, but more politically savvy) who decides to run for president. He starts out wanting to act as a spoiler, but then he meets a programmer who works for the company that makes the voting machines, and he decides to win.

At the end of the pilot, you've got got two overlapping stories. The senator tries to make his spoiler campaign look like something that could really win the election, and the programmer works to form a conspiracy within the voting machine company. Not only does the conspiracy have to cover their tracks, they must form an ad hoc political organization, changing their voting machine hacks to deal with downticket races and otherwise make the voting results look realistic, without having any contact with the real campaign.

This can go for half a season or a full season. There are twists and turns but the two teams win/steal the election. Then the real fun begins. The conspiracy is discovered and publicised, but it's too late.

This will never be made into a TV show, mainly because nothing I ever say will be made into a TV show, but also because all American TV shows seem to have a premise that can extend, in theory, for five seasons. I don't see any way to make a presidential election and a constitutional crisis run more than two seasons.


Posted by mikepop at Fri Apr 21 2006 09:51

First, I think this would make an excellent book. Or, make it a movie.

But if you wanted to stretch it out to at least four 24-esque twisty seasons:

- start the story earlier. begin with PROGRAMMER, how his political ideals led him to get involved with the netroots of popular but ultimately losing campaigns. In the process he becomes disillusioned, and starts to formulate his plans, gets hired at the voting machine company, etc.

- he starts small, rigging up some house races, mayors, district attorneys. Then with experience moving on to senators. The collection of fraudulent winners form into a sort of loose coalition - some more involved than others, some with definite world-building schemes, some who want nothing to do with the group once they are elected and so on. Sort of like a Global Frequecny where nobody wants to answer the phone, members of the coalition can be called on at random times to exert their influence/grant favors. Obviously some of the lawmakers lay the groudwork for more widespread electronic voting machine acceptance. Eventually they rig an election for Governor of an influential state - which is a dry run for the presidential fraud.

- 3RDPARTY then enters the picture, and is manipulated to believe he has recruited PROGRAMMER to rig the election. Introduce MATHGENIUS, who notices "irregular symmetry" (it's fun to make up things for tv) in some past races. A year into the presidency, the conspiracy is "discovered" via a series of leaks from the PROGRAMMER and the coalition. Outrage/impeachment hearings/full investigations are called for, with the members of the coalition calling the loudest. The President/Vice Pres are victims of a dual-assassination, and the speaker of the house, a coalition member, becomes President. These uncertain times lead MATHGENIUS to become involved with AGENT, a member of the FBI/NSA/CIA or other such agency.

- PRESIDENT launches an ivestigation, PROGRAMMER and his cohorts within the voting machine company provide doctored evidence of fraud, paving the way for PROGRAMMER to take control of voting machine company and PRESIDENT/congress to get rid of some honestly-elected members of congress who annoy them. The country begins to settle back down. MATHGENIUS finds more and more statistical evidence, which convinces AGENT to investigate. As this unofficial investigation uncovers more evidence, AGENT must form his own secret group, spanning several government agencies, the military and eventually members of congress who had also begun their own secret investigations, led by HONESTSENATOR, who previously flew under the radar because he was more concerned with getting pork for his state, but who has come to realize his deep love for his country via this crisis.

- The alliance of congressfolk, agents, military, and others (let's throw in some activists, bloggers, multinational corporations, media barons), having gathered enough evidence, stage a congressional/pseudo-military/information warfare coup in order to present the evidence to the American people. The nation/world is thrown into financial, legal, technological and physical chaos. Eventually, most of the coalition is brought to justice and/or killed.

- I always like post-apocolyptic stuff, so I'd vote for a season covering the rebuilding/recovery, culminating in new elections.

Of course, along the way you have to have all the subplots - personal agendas, love interests, families torn apart, people falling from grace and others building themselves up.

And the fun stuff is in the details. Maybe PROGRAMMER also pushes an agenda of EFF-style policies, which ultimately work against him. Some obscure law some mayor was pressured into passing for a town comes into play for the presidential election. Canada and/or Mexico make a land grab in the chaos portion of the program, or maybe California finally decides to declare its independence.

Posted by mikepop at Fri Apr 21 2006 11:23

Just to add, I think it would be a great twist if the coalition of rigged winners were more interested in improving the country than (just) money or power for power's sake. This way you have the conflict of having to rise up against a force that has brought a period of prosperity (say, balance budget, improve healthcare, alt energy) to the country.

So, who wants to start the casting process?

Posted by Mark Dominus at Fri Apr 21 2006 16:35

I dunno. Isn't there a hit show about a guy how gets put in prison so that he can break out his brother, who is condemned to die? It seems to me that at the end of the season they either break out or the brother is executed. I imagined they'll find a way to continue it for a second season, but there's your example of a premise that ends at the end of the season.

Posted by FA 22 at Fri Apr 21 2006 16:52

Trust me there are plenty of voting conspiracies to fill up 5 seasons. Let's not forget Tammany Hall and Richard Daly predate even the chads. Let's through in some drug cartels, gangs and mafia and we're good to go. However, I think it violates the TV principle that all problems can be solved by a single hero who might need last minute help from someone who changes his/her mind from 'don't-get-involved' to the side of "good". Or an "evil" person who is willing to die to redeem himself at the last second. We must haves our characters arcs or no deal!

Posted by FA 22 at Fri Apr 21 2006 16:58

I feel like an idiot for spelling "throw", "through" in the above post. Can I get a rewrite!

Posted by Aaron Swartz at Fri Apr 21 2006 18:17

The next season the programmer and the politician simply rig something else (approval polls?). I also like the idea of a third plotline with the media and math genius trying to figure out what's going on.

Posted by Leonard at Fri Apr 21 2006 18:36

Mike, some more detailed criticism. Or rather, just picking out the stuff I like from the stuff I don't.

I like your math genius: a political statistics junkie. Like Aaron says, it opens up a third storyline. I like the programmer eventually taking control of the voting machine company. I'm a little bit confused about whether or not you think third-party guy becomes president and then gets assassinated, or what. I think he needs to become president and stay president throughout the rest of the show (ie. the show ends shortly after he resigns/is impeached/assassinated/elected legitimately/etc.)

I think an apocalypse is a little bit overboard but I like the idea of an infowar coup. I think you take too long in the lead-up: maybe the programmer's past experiments could be revealed in flashback. Finally, I like your honest senator.

Posted by mikepop at Fri Apr 21 2006 19:42

As written, I had the pres and vice pres both getting assassinated, then succeeded by the speaker, who had also gotten elected fraudulently and was deeply involved in the conspiracy with PROGRAMMER. So, either way you have someone in power who shouldn't be. It's not needed, I just got carried away with the 24-esque twists.

I kind of like that it starts off slow. Helps keep the viewers off guard. So it starts off as a medium dark/complex show - "look at those bad politicians PROGRAMMER is rallying against" - then you start hitting them with the darker twists and turns etc. You could shift everything from season to season - shooting style, pacing, cast focus (starts off with the scrappy, likable group of activists working for the idealistic pols, then things shift to deeper politics/the conspiracy until the viewer has no idea who they should be rooting for). I'll agree though that a flashback would accomplish a lot of the same story goals more quickly.

I like the idea of the viewers going into each season not wondering "how are they going to resolve/deal with X and Y" but rather, after witnessing the change in season 1 or between season 1-2, wondering "WTF is going to happen?"

Posted by Leonard at Fri Apr 21 2006 22:35

I think making the audience root for the guy who's subverting American democracy is a full-time job similar to The Sopranos making you root for the mob boss. Also, it sends the wrong message: that voting machine fraud would be great if you could control the direction of the fraud. Though that brings up an interesting point (suggested earlier by Sumana): this might work better as an HBO-style show with shorter seasons and more expected complexity.

I really think the show needs to start with the highest possible stakes: the presidency. Here's one way to keep it going at least three seasons while keeping the same basic outline I had in mind, and throwing in some extra corruption on lower levels:

The second season takes place over two years. The math genius and his unsung allies in government are starting to unravel the threads of the conspiracy. So in addition to some West Wing-style plots about the new president doing his job, you have investigation plots and counterinvestigation plots. The president and the programmer get worried, and break their silence to come up with a new plan: they'll fix the midterm elections and put enough members of their party in Congress that the president will be safe from impeachment.

After the third party won the presidency (in year x, end of season 1?), it saw a huge surge in popularity. The programmer fixed a statistically significant number of downticket races in that year to go for third party candidates. But in x+2, every Congressional district is running a third party candidate, and some of them have a pretty good chance. But, when viewed through the metrics the math genius has been developing, not good enough to see them get a majority in the House. Once the midterms happen, the math genius has a huge new set of statistics to crunch, and is finally able to pinpoint the problem. But they have only a few months to convince the Judiciary Committee that they need to impeach this guy (the Judiciary Committee's seats have been left alone just to prevent this). This is the second season clifhanger. Then in the third season and beyond we can have serious crises and extragovernmental attempts at resolution.

One minor idea I like: the candidate gets elected with a minority in the popular vote. He then pledges to work to revamp the voting system, eliminating the electoral college and standardizing voting systems nationwide (to the hacked system, of course). That's the kind of deviousness and cynicism I want in this show.

Posted by Nathaniel at Sat Apr 22 2006 01:36

I'm reminded of:

Oh, well, I can dream, anyway...

Posted by Sumana at Sat Apr 22 2006 08:49

Leonard's bit about the Judiciary Committee explained:

The voting-machine fraud conspiracy chooses not to rig the elections in which the incumbent members of the Judiciary Committees are campaigning to keep their seats. Since incumbents almost always win their districts again, those particular members would then feel secure and happy with the election result, and be less inclined to believe that the election was rigged. Therefore, they'd be less amenable to the activists' arguments.

Leonard says this idea was just a throwaway nuance. It sort of makes sense, but the massive third-party sweep isn't just going to leave these members unscathed. Their friends and colleagues will have disappeared, and maybe the coattails effect would get their constituents to vote them out too. And in the wake of this sweep, the GOP and the Dems would probably bond and band together in suspicion of the newcomers.

Posted by Sumana at Sat Apr 22 2006 09:03

Possible subplot or plot device:

An Indian call center provides tech support for the election officials or technicians at individual polling places. A young Muslim working there hears the same patterns over and over in the people calling her for help. While conversing with her brother, a jihadi-leaning unemployed engineering dropout, and her mom, a political science professor, she realizes what is going on the USA and thinks she's the only one who knows. She tries to make contact with activists in the US to tell them what's going on, but her estranged father pops up as a conspiracy member in the US -- maybe he's the token Muslim on some Governor's campaign staff, or a comrade of the disillusioned programmer -- and tries to convince her that no one will believe her, that he's actually doing this for the good of America or weakening America for the good of the rest of the world -- all sorts of villainous rationalizations. She tries to come to America and speak the truth to power but security apparatus people are suspicious and think she might be a terrorist, so everyone she tries to meet in the activist underground also comes under suspicion.

Posted by Sumana at Sat Apr 22 2006 09:10

Some ideas for how the programmer might get to work for the voting machine company:

He's ex-military or Army Reserve or National Guard, and some Stars-And-Stripes-type periodical that he gets advertises for patriots to come work for a voting machine company. He doesn't get that much scrutiny because he's ex-mil or whatever.

He works for a company that provides software or hardware for the voting machine company -- chips, source control, bug tracking, helpdesk, kiosk boxes, light pen input processing, whatever. They consult with him to fix some problem they're having, and are so impressed with his acuity that they invite him to work for them. Maybe he manufactured the problem to engineer their help request in the first place.

He used to publicly campaign against voting machines because of their security problems, so they think that by hiring him they'll get to co-opt him, get him to shut up, or (more benevolently) use his ideas to make their machines better.

Posted by mike at Sun Apr 23 2006 00:32

Also, it sends the wrong message: that voting machine fraud would be great if you could control the direction of the fraud.

Actually it challenges the show to send the right message: voting machine fraud is wrong even if you can perfectly and flawlessly pull it off, with no unintended consequences.

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