South Florida is the headquarters of the hanging chad, the originator of the butterfly ballot. So perhaps it should be no surprise that this year's New Times Readers' Poll appears to have been hacked.
How or why we're not sure, but it has become clear that the poll we made live on the internet ten days ago has fallen victim to some kind of, well, let's call it voter irregularities.
The problem first became clear last week, when John Todora called. He's the owner of Whiskey Tango, the joint in Hollywood that was winning in the Best Bar category. Winning is an understatement:
Nearly 25,000 votes were tallied for Whiskey Tango, about ten times the closest competitor.
That all sounded good until Todora explained that he thought the numbers were impossible. Sure, the bar had been promoting it to patrons, but he watched his vote tally increase by thousands a day, far exceeding the number of people the bar told. "I thought it was cute for a couple of days that someone was voting for us," he said. "But then it became clear something was wrong. I mean, 5,000 votes in one day?"
Anonymous emails sent to New Times claimed that the automated poll system we were using, from Polldaddy.com, had been hacked. (It's worth noting that our parent company paid Polldaddy a pretty penny to run these polls, which are supposedly hack-proof.) The emails claimed that at least one local business had posted an ad to mturk.com looking for a computer programmer to create an algorithm that would automatically vote hundreds or thousands of times a day.
We couldn't find evidence of that. And Polldaddy didn't respond to an email request this morning looking to check whether the poll program had been hacked.
Update: Polldaddy issued this response by email:
it looks like your poll was hacked with some script. However you can see from the poll reports that the majority of votes are coming from the same IP address. You can simply remove these votes if you would like to make the poll more balanced. There is no cast iron way to prevent polls from being hacked, we have procedures in place to make it as difficult as possible but there are ways for someone motivated enough. The poll reports allow you to identify suspicious voting, blacklist their IP address and remove fraudulent votes. The onus is on the poll owner to be vigilant. Also if you know your poll votes are not originating from behind a proxy, you can set the poll to also block by IP address.
We will soon be adding extra restriction measure to polls that you may find useful in preventing your poll from being hacked in the coming months.
Thanks for sending on the information by the way, its a shame I don't have the script that the hacker used, as this would be useful in optimizing our procedures to prevent the same script from working again.
-- Eoin Gallagher | Support Polldaddy.com
But then, there was the smell test. As in, something smells as fishy as Pat Buchanan picking up votes in Boca. For instance, our Best Strip Club category had tallied 186,000 votes. Sure, we like our strip clubs in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but it's not possible that we were picking up an average of 13 votes a minute for ten days straight.
Then there were our readers, who questioned the validity of the poll in the comments fields. Take this one from Helena from six days ago on our Best Restaurant in Broward County poll: "Wow, this is strange. I friend of mine voted a couple of hours ago and tried to talk me out of voting for Canyon because as she said, they already have a bunch of votes but Rok Burger only has 18. Imagine my surprise now that I was able to cast my vote for Canyon and Rok Burger has over 640???!!! How is that even possible in only a couple of hours??"
Good question, Helena. So much so that it became clear we had no choice but to halt the Polldaddy-driven system.
That doesn't mean we're giving up on this year's Readers' Poll. We are, however, scrapping the results so far, and admittedly that stinks for the thousands of you who voted legitimately. It stinks for the businesses that went out of their way to promote it on Facebook and Twitter and appealed to their customers to do them a solid. Yeah, that part really blows.
So now we're working on a more accurate system that will allow for internet voting without the fear of hackers and repeat voters. We will also be rolling out a text-message voting system that worked well last year -- one vote per phone number means no ballot-stuffing.
Have ideas on how we can create a better Readers' Poll? If so, leave them in the comments field. And hopefully soon, we'll have a poll that has a better voting record than, say, the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office.
Eric Barton is editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Email him here, or click here to follow him on Facebook.