How Space Weather Can Influence Elections on Earth

Becky Ferreira

Becky Ferreira

The real alien voter fraud is genuinely coming from outside our planet.

There's a reason so many cultures worship the Sun. Our host star nourishes practically every living system on Earth, directly or indirectly, and gravitationally tethers our planet into its relatively stable orbit.

But there's one way in which the Sun influences our daily lives that has flown under the radar—voting in our elections. It's true: The Sun, which is emphatically not registered to vote, dabbles in casting ballots on Earth, according to a presentation given by Bharat Bhuva, a professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, on Friday morning at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

Bhuva specializes in assessing the risk of space weather damaging electrical systems on and around Earth, including electronic voting systems. He brought up one instance of a federal election held in the city of Schaerbeek, Belgium in 2003, in which one of the candidates ended up with 4,096 extra votes.

Solar flare erupting in 2012. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

"Everything was going fine, but then suddenly, there were an additional 4,000 votes cast [...] People were surprised and asked, 'how did this happen?'"

The culprit was not voter fraud or hacked machines. It was most likely a single event upset (SEU), a term describing the fallout of an ionizing particle bouncing off a vulnerable node in the machine's register, causing it to flip a bit, and log the additional votes. The Sun may not have been the direct source of the particle—cosmic rays from outside the solar system are also in the mix—but solar-influenced space weather certainly contributes to these SEUs.

Officially the error was ruled a "spontaneous random bit inversion" which David Glaude, a member of an e-voting watchdog group called PourEVA, told me "is the last explanation when you don't find a bug."

"The SUE explanation is the best of all," he said. "It reminds the world how much the magnetosphere protects us and how [sensitive] our IT infrastructure might be."

READ MORE: Here's a Trippy Simulation of Space Weather

These anomalies in electronic voting machines are extremely difficult to detect, as the offending particles are small and subtle, and normally don't leave any damage or recognizable fingerprints of having tipped the scales one way or the other. The only reason Schaerbeek officials caught the error was due to the improbable number of ballots cast. But for all we know, the Sun and its radiation buddies in the wider universe may have tampered in other elections and gotten away with it.

"I'm from Tennessee, and in Tennessee, there is no paper trail for the votes," Bhuva said. "You just cast it on the electronic system, and that's it. If 4,000 extra votes get in one column or the other, there is no way to tell other than counting the number of people who voted versus the total number of votes. In other states, people have paper copies of what they did, so sometimes there are checks and balances."

Bhuva, along with fellow panelists Jonathan Pellish of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Christopher Frost of Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, emphasized that these issues demand research into the effects of space weather in order to mitigate its damaging influence on our electronic systems, from satellites, power grids, planes, cell phones, driverless cars, and of course, foundational elements of democracy.  

To that, Leora Richard, an astrobiology undergraduate at Central Connecticut State University, asked the panel the question that was on everyone's mind: Who does the Sun vote for?

"If you go by the latest numbers, the three million illegal votes [repeatedly cited by President Trump], I guess the Sun went for the Republican Party in the last election," Bhuva joked.

It's probably best not to tell the Commander-in-Chief that, however, lest the "Fake Sun" is charged with voter fraud and threatened with deportation from the solar system.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the 2003 Schaerbeek election was local, when it was a federal election. An SEU was also not definitely confirmed to have been the reason for the error, though it is the most likely option after process of elimination. The article has been updated to reflect these facts.

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