Election fraud is making the news these days, mostly in the form of voter ID laws. Kansas’ Secretary of State, Kris Kobach estimates the problem in his own state at hundreds of fraudulent votes per year. The folks at the Election Defense Alliance also see a problem with election integrity, but one that is far different than those addressed by voter ID laws. I recently had a chance to interview the Executive Director of the Election Defense Alliance and author of Code Red: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century, Jonathan Simon about election fraud.
When was the first time you noticed something wrong?
The 2002 election was a real red flag. In modern elections, exit polls have always been eerily accurate. In fact, at a certain point they were too accurate. Polls would be released in the afternoon of voting day and because they had such a strong reputation for accuracy, late-day voters of losing candidates would feel discouraged from voting.
At a certain point pollsters agreed to delay the release of exit poll results until the polls had closed, to mitigate this unintended consequence. In 2002, poll results were held entirely, never released. This was odd because exit polls had served as an informal audit of sorts and suddenly, in 2002, that external check was missing. That got my interest.
OK, so you’re interested. I’m interested in a lot of things. Why take up this issue? Why is this your fight?
Of course, first and most obviously, this is a matter of principle. Winston Churchill famously said, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time …” And I believe that’s true. Free and fair elections, participatory voting from citizens – they’re the cornerstones of democracy.
Right now, we don’t have observable vote counting. I open my book with this analogy: who would trust a system where we handed our ballots to a man dressed as a magician who went behind a curtain, counted, and shredded all the ballots, and returned to tell us who had won? Especially if this magician were wearing a “So-and-So for President” button or some other visible symbol of loyalty? More especially if that magician’s secret counts always came out the same way, favoring his candidate. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing.
More than principle, I’ve always been politically involved; I worked as a pollster during the Carter administration. This is a really big deal. As Americans, we have genuinely difficult problems to face both as a nation and as a species: climate change, over-population, food and resource distribution, weapons control, privacy -- just to name a few.
Compared to these big challenges, vote counting -- in an observable way -- that ensures the legitimacy of our elections and vouchsafes the public an undistorted voice in the making of all these hard choices -- seems an easy assignment. Or, at least it did when I started.
Why should we care? Isn’t this just another tin-foil hat conspiracy theory?
We actually have a lot of data. For example, in the 2004 election, due to a computer glitch, unadjusted exit poll results stayed up much longer than usual. I was able to screen-cap the results for most elections. At the time, I thought lots of people were doing the same but I was the only one. These real results were way off from the actual election results and the later-issued adjusted exit poll results.
The interesting thing is, when you look at the data, not every state has a big mismatch between exit poll numbers and actual results. Certain states have bigger discrepancies and will sound familiar to lots of people who followed that election closely. States like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa had larger swings. This tells a story of targeted rigging.
By about 4 a.m. on November 3, I had reams of data. It felt like that James Taylor song, Fire and Rain; I had a written a song but had no one to send it to.
But, I did put it out there and it was picked up a New Zealand news site, of all places and they were calling it “the Simon data.” This caught the attention of Steve Freeman at the University of Pennsylvania, and Director of Election Integrity. We wrote papers, knocked on doors, but like you suggest, people dismissed us as being a little too out there.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to dismiss unpalatable ideas as “conspiracy theory.” History alone tells us that there have been lots of conspiracies and subterfuge that were anything but theory. Look at something as seemingly trivial as steroid use in sports and how hard people have worked to not believe it and it’s easy to see why people invested in America as a beacon of democracy would want to dismiss uncomfortable information with the easy label, "conspiracy theory."
And honestly, I have limited time -- if my research had shown that there wasn’t much there, I wouldn’t have pursued it. Data and facts are what kicked off my research and what keeps it going.
So after you and Steve were able to prove irregularities, what happened?
The official explanation was that Republican voters were less likely to interact with exit polls (that they had an “FU” attitude toward being polled) and had a lower response rate, making their votes underrepresented in the counts. I coined the phrase “reluctant Bush responder” (RBR) for this theory and I disprove it in my book.
The short version is that I know from my own extensive experience with exit polling that polls are weighted and extrapolated to account for just this kind of thing. Furthermore, it doesn’t explain why the numbers were significantly more off in some states than others. Were Bush voters really more reluctant in Ohio and Pennsylvania than in Texas or Massachusetts? If the theory was that Bush voters can be characterized as less likely to respond to polls, that should apply to Bush voters in all states, but that’s not the story the data was telling.
How is this happening? Why don’t we notice it?
A big part of why this is happening is the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), sponsored by the likes of Bob Ney and Mitch McConnell and passed by Congress in 2002 in response to frustration with the technical difficulties prevalent in the 2000 presidential election. The Act has a good-sounding name but when you think about it, Republicans fare best when there is low voter turnout, so they have a history of making it harder to vote, suppressing votes. When you look closely at that law you see that the Act is not legislation that attempts to make voting easier or to increase voter turnout. Among other things, the Act sets forth the rules about electronic voting.
HAVA is a big reason that we have computerized voting and that it operates the way it does. From a tech standpoint, rigging would be very easy. Fewer than 2% of all ballots are counted by hand; all the rest are counted by computer. Both academic experts and the white hat hacking community have acknowledged how easy it would be to change computerized votes: the computers and networks are owned by private corporations, and we have almost no auditing.
[Author note: Politically engaged as I am, I didn’t even realize I was participating in computerized voting. I complete my ballot with pen and paper so I thought I was “voting on paper.” Jon pointed out that my ballot is going into an optical scanning machine that records my ballot, capturing my votes electronically; the paper ballots are almost never looked at.]
Wait. So our votes are being counted by private companies rather than the government? Why doesn’t that alarm people?
Correct. We’ve been moving toward privatization for a long time now. People are increasingly more comfortable with corporations performing government functions.
But look, if we announced that PepsiCo was going to be in charge of prison beverage programs, or that Disney was taking over music education in schools, I think that would get a different reaction than Halliburton taking over vote counting. Right? I mean, people would probably be OK with the first two privatizations, but alarmed by the Halliburton idea. It’s not like we accept all privatization as a good idea.
Yeah, the problem is that these companies aren’t Halliburton; they don’t have the kind of name recognition that raises red flags with people. They have innocuous names like Premier Election Systems, Diebold, Elections Systems & Software. One good example: in 2004, the late votes from Ohio were counted by SMARTech Inc., a vote-counting company in Chattanooga, TN. A company run by Mike Connell, who had been Karl Rove’s IT guy and whose company had hosted the infamous anti-John Kerry Swift boat veterans’ web site, as well as anonymous e-mail addresses for prominent Republicans.
In 2008, he was a key witness in Ohio’s investigation of possible vote rigging but he died under what many call mysterious circumstances before he could actually testify. People wonder why whistleblowers don’t come forward more often but it doesn’t take a lot of Mike Connells to make a point.
If Republicans are using rigging as a political strategy, why aren’t Democrats calling attention to this or doing their own rigging?
Well, there may have been counter-rigging of sorts in 2012. As the results came in and Fox News was calling battleground states like Ohio and Florida for Obama, Karl Rove was having what amounted to a meltdown. It was the reaction of someone who had complete confidence in a particular outcome. There are theories that groups from Anonymous to the Department of Justice may have kept rigging from being deployed. The fact that a Democrat won the presidency in 2012 doesn’t prove that vote theft was not attempted. Since 98%+ of all votes were counted unobservably, we’ll never know.
In terms of why Democrats don’t bring this issue to the forefront, Democrats are afraid that giving this any airtime will confirm the existing suspicions of much their constituency (particularly minority voters) that voting is a waste of time because their votes are not counted. Democrats struggle to get disenfranchised voters out to the polls -- both because of rigged voting laws and voter sentiment -- they don’t want to do anything that would keep more voters home.
What’s the biggest danger?
Look, there’s a small group of powerful people who are quite aware of the changing cultural ethos but who are implacably opposed to progress. History shows us that it doesn’t take a lot of people to control a government. At least one Fascist movement was started in a basement with a few dozen guys. People who will use any means necessary to impose an ideology over democracy are very dangerous.
But we average voters are actually an even bigger danger. Most of us assume that the first loyalty of any elected official is to democracy, but for a handful their first loyalty is to an ideology. Part of the reason voter theft flourishes is our own faith that it could never happen here; it’s a huge wall to getting anyone to pay attention or get interested.
In 2004, there was so much data pointing to vote theft, I thought it would be quite straightforward to raise a few million dollars to establish an independent center to audit the results of the election. The reality was that this problem is just too far off everyone’s radar. Since 2004, it’s been an uphill fight to get this real problem the attention it deserves.
But it’s not like people are apathetic about voting justice. There’s been lots of discussion and debate about voter ID laws, right?
Right, because voter ID is an overt tactic; people should get worked up about it. But voter ID laws are just one part of a multi-pronged initiative. Campaign finance reform, like Citizens United, also gets a lot of deserved media attention. The unprecedented huge amount of money in elections is having an effect.
But we also have more covert tactics like pervasive gerrymandering: creating districts where it’s impossible for a non-Republican to carry the majority. Another strategy that’s getting overlooked is the purging of voter rolls. Voter rolls are being purged to eliminate convicted felons and potential duplicate registrations but the purges eliminate everyone with the same name or even similar information.
If a convicted felon named Thomas P. Smith is purged and your name is Thomas P. Smith, your name is also purged. In some places, your name might be purged if you are Thomas R. Smith. The thing is, name similarity is more common in Black, Asian, and Latino populations. That’s no coincidence.
Estimates say that at least 4 million voters have been disenfranchised this way. Vote theft goes somewhere too dark and ugly for the American psyche to bear, and the denial only increases the more the person or group is a player in the system with a seat (even a lousy, dissenting seat) at the table.
So if you’ve been purged you can still cast a provisional ballot, right?
Right, though provisional ballots are rarely counted.
What do you think about the 2014 midterm elections?
Oh, they were an absolute rigfest. It’s the culmination of years of work – of shifting state and local legislatures toward Republican majorities, working to make sure those in charge of election administration, particularly secretaries of state, are Republicans.
I mean, Karl Rove was clear about his goal of permanent Republican rule, or the 40-year dynasty, or whatever you want to call it. He was less transparent about his plan which has been to take over infrastructure from the bottom up. The further down you go, the smaller the elections, in non-presidential election years, the less oversight and therefore more opportunity for low-risk rigging.
Just take a look at the votes on ballot initiatives. People overwhelmingly voted for legal marijuana and an increased minimum wage in multiple states -- states that elected Republican Senators and Representatives. How does that match? People theorize that the average voter doesn’t connect that Republicans are against these ideas.
Another theory is that, going into the elections, the polls on the ballot questions were showing stats like 60% or 70% approval. If those measures suddenly didn’t pass on election day it would be suspicious, it would call attention to the accuracy of the election results. The ballot questions may have been too high-risk to rig.
You know, I just saw Jimmy Carter speak recently. One of the main missions of The Carter Center is to ensure free and fair elections. Have you ever thought of contacting them to request help with U.S. elections – as a publicity stunt?
Oh yeah. I’ve contacted them. They said we don’t meet all of their criteria for help.
So you’re saying we meet some of their criteria?
Is it too late? What can we do?
[Laughing] Well, I wrote a book! I’d really like everyone to read it, to think about vote theft as a real danger to our democracy. We can also start counting ballots. We did some polling and we actually asked people if they would be willing to give up 4 hours of their life to count ballots as a civic duty, akin to jury duty, and the overwhelming majority of people polled said they would be willing.
I’ve done the math. Four hours from each of our lives and we could have observable, audited elections that would serve as a major disincentive for anyone looking to rig an election.
We may be beyond a political solution. It may take an uprising of sorts -- citizens demanding open, observable vote counting -- demanding it as a priority.