A Denver Post opinion poll with suspiciously high turnout hints that someone wants to take down school board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes so badly they’ll twist the truth to do it. And ironically enough, the mystery hacker seems to have attacked her ethics.
The poll, posted on the afternoon of Sept. 18, asks: “Should Happy Haynes, who was recently appointed director of Denver’s Department of Parks and Recreation, resign her seat on the Denver School Board?”
The context here is that Haynes, a long-time Denver public servant and civic leader, was appointed by Mayor Michael Hancock to head up Parks and Recreation last month. And because the school district and the city occasionally butt heads over who gets to use what space – including one particularly controversial land swap in southeast Denver two years ago that’s still being litigated – Haynes preemptively requested an advisory opinion from the Denver Board of Ethics. That opinion has yet to be issued.
The percentage of voters on each side of the issue doesn’t stand out: 60 percent favor her resignation. But look a little closer, and something seems wildly out of whack: do that many people really care about this local civic issue?
As of Thursday morning, over 56,000 votes had been cast in the online poll — mightily trumping other polls that week that netted an average of just over 2,400 votes. The poll got several thousand more than the number of votes that got Haynes elected to the board in the first place back in 2011, according to official results on the county clerk’s website.
Director of audience development at The Post Daniel Petty called the turnout “very out of the ordinary.”
He explained that opinion polls like this one typically run in conjunction with an editorial or some topical issue that readers would want to weigh in on.
Haynes’ ethical predicament had been featured in news stories, but no editorials.
This past week, The Post ran polls on heated national issues (like whether the federal government should keep funding Planned Parenthood), state issues (like whether governor John Hickenlooper’s new $100 million bicycle initiative is commendable), and local issues (like whether the recent, allergy-related death of a high schooler merits banning peanuts at school events.)
Petty said he can’t recall any recent poll getting as many votes as the one about Haynes, who’s neither a widely-known or significantly controversial figure.
“Not even when the Broncos were in the Super Bowl did the numbers approach there,” he said.
The most popular Denver Post opinion poll featured a question about Magpul Industries, a massive firearms-accessories manufacturer that famously left Colorado after Democratic lawmakers passed gun control laws in 2013. That poll got around 190,000 votes. And while it’s undeniable that many cared passionately about that issue, Denver Post Editorial Editor Curtis Hubbard wrote a piece acknowledging that the high turnout was likely the result of digital ballot stuffing.
“This phenomenon is real,” he wrote. “Changing results of an online poll is simple and a common practice.”
Hubbard reminded readers that these online polls are not meant to be considered scientific.
“Like many things you find online, they should be viewed with skepticism.”
So did this Happy Haynes poll get gamed like that Magpul poll got gamed?
Sure looks like it.
After The Colorado Independent raised questions about the poll, The Post staff looked at their website’s analytics. Petty said they found that around 23,000 votes were cast from three unique IDs.
When a user clicks “vote!,” a unique ID is created tracking that a user voted. The browser stores those IDs as cookies, and prevents any more votes from being cast from that ID.
An ID is not the same as an IP address, which links the action to a location. Neither The Denver Post nor Digital First Media — the paper’s parent company — has access to a record of IP addresses. No representative from Digital First Media could be reached for this story. The Post’s analytics indicate the poll was almost certainly hacked, just not by whom.
Just about any novice programmer could pull this off, according to professor of computer science, at Metro State University, Steve Beaty.
“There are plenty of ways to subvert these polls,” he said. “For anyone with a year or two of computer science training, it’s not at all difficult.”
The simplest and most common way would be to use an anonymizing network, which anyone can find on Google, download and install. From there, one would run software — also readily available on the Internet — that automatically casts votes from random IP addresses around the world.
“So one machine could appear like a lot of machines. It’s pretty straightforward to write a script to tip the polls in your favor,” Beaty said.
Haynes herself isn’t aware of the online poll about her because she only reads the paper the “old-school way” — in print.
“I haven’t seen the result or anything about it,” she said.
Public reaction to her new post at the Parks and Recreation Department — which she began last week — has been “pretty limited.” It’s come up in one public forum and in questions from the media, but most see it as a non-issue, as she tells it.
For volunteer school board members, it’s common practice to work day jobs related to the district. And Haynes wouldn’t even be the first to head this particular department while sitting on the school board. It’s happened twice in the past.
The city ethics board first issued an advisory opinion on how to ethically navigate both roles when the situation first arose in 2001. In 2008, another board member was appointed to direct Parks and Recreation and that went smoothly too.
If and when conflicts of interest arise, Haynes said she feels “well-covered on both sides.”
The city and the district each offer plenty of rules, policies and legal counsel should she need guidance navigating her dual roles. Haynes said she eagerly awaits even further advice from the ethics board.
“I can only conclude that the undue interest in this [issue] is that I’m in a campaign.”
Her opponent, Robert Speth, certainly sees her new city gig as a critical campaign issue.
A self-described “concerned parent/citizen” from northwest Denver, Speth manages accounts for the Sprint Corporation. He jumped into the race at the last-minute, challenging Haynes for her at-large seat when he realized nobody else would. His primary motivation to run, as he told The Colorado Independent, is to diversify the board. Not racially — he’s a white man and Haynes is a black woman — but ideologically.
“There’s a clubiness going on there,” he said, referring to the 6-1 majority on Haynes’s board that breezed through policy decisions this past term.
The district turning neighborhood schools into charters worries Speth, as does the level of campaign spending in school board races and the legacy of former superintendent and current U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in the district.
“I’ll fight the fight to defend schools against privatization,” he said. “I’m the only one who would ever say ‘no’ to any significant policy.”
Speth thinks that even with guidance from the ethics board, it’s unavoidable that conflicts of interest would arise should his opponent be both Parks and Recreation head and school board president.
DPS and the Department of Parks and Recreation both serve large constituencies whose interests do sometimes overlap. “But at the end of the day, they have different charters and different missions. [Haynes] will say, ‘Oh, I’ll just recuse myself.’ But it’s just unrealistic to think [the Department of Parks and Recreation] won’t have any bearing on her decisions,” he said.
Speth had seen the Denver Post opinion poll, and agreed “the response is staggering.”
But far from raising red flags, the high turnout just shows that people are taking interest in the ethics issues at stake, he said.
“Where I come from, ethics is a big deal. Any time you have anything revolving around a potential ethical conflict, you have to take it very seriously,” he said. “Clearly it’s on people’s radar, and they’re speaking out.”
Helping to put it on people’s radar is Speth’s wife, Kristen, who’s a software consultant. She posted a screenshot of the Denver Post poll on the Strong Neighborhood Schools Facebook page with a caption that sums up everyone’s reaction to the results, regardless of their politics: “Wow!”
On her part, Kristen Speth said she’s been watching the poll with fascination ever since it was posted. She remembers early on there was an even wider margin in favor of Haynes resigning. “Then the ‘no’ votes shot up,” she said. “Like 20 a minute. That did seem a little suspicious.”
Did Mrs. Speth use her software skills to tip the polls in favor of her husband? “No,” she said. “I wouldn’t even know how to do that […] But it is interesting to see anomalies on both sides.”
Correction October 2, 2015: An earlier version of this story stated that Digital First Media tracked users’ IP addresses. The company does not.
Photo credit: The Denver Post