With Midterms Approaching, the Recount Fight Continues for Elections We Can Trust
From the start, the 2016 Presidential recount was not simply a call to retabulate the vote. It was a demand for elections we can trust, that are accurate, secure and just, and free from the scourge of Jim Crow. While there’s been progress since then towards greater cybersecurity, our votes remain vulnerable to a spectrum of cyber threats. But that’s not all. On multiple fronts, our right to vote itself is under attack, along with other basic rights at the foundation of our democracy, including our rights of protest, privacy, freedom of the press and more. With democracy increasingly under fire, trustworthy elections are more critical than ever. For all these reasons, the recount fight continues as a battle for election protection and voting justice, a fight being waged in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.
The past year and a half has seen both mounting threats and important progress, including notable successes in ongoing recount-related efforts. This includes the adoption of crucial reforms the recount helped shine a spotlight on, and hard-fought legal progress towards much-needed scrutiny of secret, privately-controlled voting software.
The announcement of the recount just before Thanksgiving 2016 unleashed a torrent of support for bringing integrity to our elections. Donations poured in over the holiday weekend, reaching over 7 million dollars in just over a week from 161,000 donors contributing an average of 45 dollars each. Just as quickly, thousands of volunteers came forward to assist as observers for re-tallying the vote.
The recount called for verifying the vote in three states with vulnerable voting machines and statistically unlikely results that begged for verification - including large deviations from exit polls and high numbers of ballots with blank presidential lines. While democracies around the world use recounts as a routine safeguard, the US recounts were fought tooth and nail by the Republican establishment and largely ignored by Democratic leadership.
In each state, the recount asked the question: “Do we have elections we can trust, that are accurate, secure and just?” The answer was a resounding “No.” In Michigan, political operatives leaned on partisan judges to stop the recount. In Pennsylvania, thousands of voters calling for a recount were thwarted by a bureaucratic nightmare of vague, obstructive rules requiring at least three voters in each of 9,000+ precincts to file notarized requests by undefined deadlines at unknown locations. And all this had to happen within mere days following the election. In Wisconsin, under-resourced communities of color - at highest risk for voting machine dysfunction - were denied a reliable hand recount, having their votes recounted instead by the very machines whose accuracy was in doubt. This adds to the burden of widely recognized forms of voter suppression targeting communities of color, including voter ID laws.
To remedy these ongoing problems, we continue to fight key legal battles that began early in the recount. In Wisconsin, we are in a protracted legal battle to examine a critical piece of voting software that controls the actual counting and tallying of votes, referred to as “source code.” Incredibly, despite years of warnings from experts about the vulnerability of voting machines, there has never been an in-depth examination of voting machine source code after an election. This examination, conducted by computer voting experts, would check for evidence of human error, intentional interference or tampering - whether by foreign powers, criminal networks, domestic partisans, or corporations that control the voting software.
Given the evidence of cyberattacks on multiple components of the voting system in 2016 - from voter registration files to private software companies - as well as the hacking that has become commonplace in virtually all sectors of society - from Equifax to the WannaCry attacks - the need for crosschecking the cybersecurity of our elections is paramount.
While the Wisconsin Elections Commission has acknowledged our legal right to examine voting software, the voting machine corporations are trying to prevent us from sharing any findings with the public. So as our computer experts prepare to get down to work, we are continuing the legal battle to ensure that we will not be gagged in reporting any important findings. The effort of the private voting software companies to shield this critical component of our elections from scrutiny underscores the need to put the infrastructure of our elections back into the public domain.
After the recount was thwarted in Pennsylvania, we brought litigation against the state for effectively violating its citizens’ Constitutional right to vote through a double whammy of dubious paperless voting machines and recount procedures that prevent verification of these uncertain votes. The suit also calls for an extensive ”forensic” examination of voting equipment and software in order to verify the accuracy of the vote.
On another legal front altogether, we’ve also had to defend the recount from false accusations surrounding the Russian interference investigations. The recount was cited by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a major reason for their investigation of my campaign - along with my appearance at a Moscow conference to advocate for diplomacy.
According to Chairman Richard Burr, "She [Jill Stein] was the one that actually initiated a recount campaign. Where'd that money come from? Millions of dollars…We want to look to see if there's any Russian connections to anything that happened in any campaigns." This is no small irony, given that the recount would have exposed interference by Russians - or any other intruder - in critical states had the recount been allowed to proceed. Unfortunately the Senate Intelligence Committee seemed to have responded to a set of politically-motivated smears in its decision to investigate my campaign. Pulitzer Prize-winning Glenn Greenwald described this kind of political targeting as “way beyond McCarthyism”. Failing to find anything in their investigation that could link the recount or the campaign to Russian interference, Burr and the Senate Intelligence Committee did not seek a follow-up interview.
Although the investigation was unwarranted, we used the press coverage of the investigation as an opportunity to give valuable exposure to the recount campaign’s crucial message on Russiagate – namely, that election integrity is the best defense against election interference from any source, foreign or domestic. Expanding on this theme, we leveraged the intense media interest in the Russia investigation to lift up an urgent call for a comprehensive defense against the many potential forms of election interference. Almost a year and a half after the recount campaign first raised the alarm for elections we can trust, Congress finally took a substantial step in the right direction in March 2018, voting to allocate $380 million toward improving election infrastructure and security.
In other recount developments, there has been important progress in each of the three recount states. This is thanks to public attention brought to problems exposed by the recount, as well as grassroots engagement by concerned citizens, and legal pressure from ongoing recount litigation. As Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said, "Jill Stein's recount showed mistakes and has led to improvements in our election process. Those things wouldn't have come out if the recount didn't happen." After the recount effort revealed the failure of Detroit’s voting machines, state officials announced that voting machines across the state would be replaced by the 2018 primaries.
Wisconsin soon followed suit, decertifying a voting machine discovered during the recount to have produced inaccurate vote counts, which was used in 136 municipalities, including all of Racine County. This marked the first time ever that Wisconsin officials decertified a voting machine, a little-noticed but remarkable admission that the officially reported 2016 election results had been distorted by voting machine errors.
In Pennsylvania, the pressure from our legal challenge to state election laws, combined with tireless grassroots organizing by election integrity advocates, has resulted in perhaps the biggest step forward yet. In April 2018, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State ordered all counties to replace their aging voting machines by the 2019 elections with voting systems that use paper ballots.This is a remarkable turnaround, considering that Pennsylvania state officials had previously claimed in response to our lawsuit that the state’s voting system was fine and needed no changes.
While important recount battles have been won, there have also been setbacks.Legislation in Michigan and Wisconsin will make it more difficult in the future to use recounts to verify the vote. These new laws aim to make checks on election integrity even rarer by allowing recounts only in elections decided by narrow margins, defying the reality that whether big or small, officially reported margins of victory can be tainted by error, interference or fraud.
Making recounts even more difficult to initiate can only hurt the cause of election integrity. And although the Congressional appropriation of $380 million to replace insecure voting machines is a step in the right direction, 11 of 13 states that use paperless voting machines will still not receive enough money to fully replace them, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.
In addition, the integrity of our elections has been under assault for years, as votes are increasingly denied, degraded and otherwise interfered with, especially for communities of color.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision flung wide open the floodgates of big money that has been corrupting our elections for decades. The Shelby County decision of 2013 gutted key sections of the Voting Rights Act and worsened voter suppression already underway through tactics like voter ID laws, voter purges through Interstate Cross Check, cutbacks on early voting, elimination of same-day registration, and gerrymandering.
Voter choice in the United States has long been suppressed by a system that limits alternative parties and independent candidates through restricted ballot access, media blackouts, exclusion from debates, and first-past-the-post elections that encourage people to vote against what they fear, rather than for what they value.
The Democratic National Committee demonstrated another form of voter suppression in tilting its own party’s primaries, effectively disenfranchising millions of Bernie Sanders’ voters. Corporate media showed its ability to tip elections for its own benefit by giving Donald Trump billions in extra free airtime because he was “damn good” for network profits, to quote the CEO of CBS. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal unveiled the abuse of private data on a massive scale for the purpose of microtargeting vulnerable individuals for mass manipulation and military-style psyops.
For all these reasons, the recount campaign has called for a nonpartisan Emergency Commission on Election Protection & Voting Justice to oversee immediate and longer-term solutions to ensure a secure and just vote.
Such a Commission can advance many urgently-needed solutions. We must end voter suppression schemes and ensure the constitutional right to vote for everyone. We need a rapid transition to paper ballots, cybersecurity best practices, universal rigorous post-election audits, and routine post-election recounts as warranted.
To begin addressing the abuses of big data, privacy protections must be created for personal data and online communications. In the rush to guard against propaganda and fake news, however, we must ensure that the rights of free speech and political opposition - increasingly stifled in current social media and conventional press - are restored and protected.
We can break the stranglehold of big money on our elections by establishing public financing for political campaigns and free air time for ballot-qualified candidates, which would greatly reduce the cost of political campaigns. We can expand voter choice and end fear-based elections through Ranked Choice Voting, which liberates voters to vote for what they want, instead of against what they dislike. And we can ensure voters are informed about the greater range of choices that they are clamoring for - by creating a new presidential debate commission not controlled by the two establishment parties, like the current debate commission.
To effectively deal with foreign election interference, we must address the fact that the US is not only a victim of election interference, but a leading perpetrator of it as well, whether through nonviolent or violent means. Given our track record, it is simply unrealistic and unethical to expect other countries to respect the sovereignty of foreign elections unless we commit to doing so as well. Effectively ending election interference requires international diplomacy and treaties.
The Emergency Commission would provide consistent long-term public education, advocacy and watch-dogging that will be required to overcome resistance to the reforms required to achieve truly fair elections. Establishing this Commission is a critical first step to restoring Americans' confidence in our democracy with a voting system we can trust, that is accurate, secure and just.
July 8, 2018