In an age of digital and online voting, there is no way to know if the announced results of any given election faithfully express the intent of the voters. This is not only because digitized voting machines can be hacked or manipulated. The fact is, modernday ballots are not available as public documents — even after elections.
Dr. Jonathan Simon, executive director of Election Defense Alliance, tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman that this is a risk we should not be taking when so much is at stake. Simon makes a data-driven argument that our computerized voting system is frighteningly vulnerable to corruption and partisan sabotage — at a time when corruption and partisanship are rampant. He argues that we have sacrificed transparency for convenience and speed, and that nothing short of votes counted observably and by hand can undo the damage to democracy.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
All of these many months, even years, of election mania will soon come down to one thing, the counting of the votes of some 140 million Americans. But the results will only be as good as the accuracy of the counting of those votes. Today, the methods used to count votes vary widely, from the most primitive system of counting by hand, to highly automated computer count. But do these methods have an impact on outcome? Is there reason to worry as more and more votes are counted in cyberspace? In an era when our finances and banking, our bills, our communication, and even our taxes are all conducted online and in the cloud, why should we worry about votes being counted the same way? My guest Jonathan Simon worries a great deal about that. Jonathan Simon is Executive Director of Election Defense Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring observable vote counting in electoral integrity. He’s also the author of Code Red: Computerized Election Theft in the New American Century. Jonathan Simon, Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Jonathan Simon: Thanks Jeff, it’s great to be here.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. In a world in which we do so much online, we trust it with our finances, our taxes, almost every aspect of our lives now is conducted online, why should we feel differently with respect to voting and elections?
Jonathan: That’s a great opening question. When we go down to the bank and we use an ATM, when we send in a check or whatever, we have a certain amount of faith in the functioning of the computers and the honesty of the institutions that we’re dealing with. But, if that faith is somehow betrayed or undermined, we’re going to get an indication of that. We’re going to see a bank statement, we’re going to get a receipt from the ATM, we’re going to get a credit card statement, and we’re going jump all over it, as people will do. So you know the difference with voting is that once that ballot is cast, you don’t get a receipt and you certainly don’t get an indication of how all the other votes are being counted. So it’s basically a black box, and an entirely faith-based process where there isn’t going to be an indication if there has been either error, glitch or fraud. You’re not going to see it, and you’re just going to take those electoral results on blind faith.
Jeff: What about in situations where there’s so much polling today, both pre-polling and exit polling, and there’s consistency of results between what the polls might indicate, what the results might be, and what exit polling will show?
Jonathan: Yeah, well, if there were consistency of results, indeed, that would be something that we’d have to look at and try to understand. And in fact, there is a feedback loop that tends to generate some consistency of results. Poll… polling firms are not in business to get elections wrong, so they keep tweaking their sampling and their methodology based on electoral results. That having been said, there’s great inconsistencies. In fact, if you looked at the Democratic primaries in 2016, for instance. The exit polls, in state after state after state, were shifted, and all in the same direction basically. Then you looked on the Republican side, and they were basically spot on. So we have what we call forensics, and unfortunately, forensics can be fairly eye-glazing and it may be an exercise in futility trying to prove that these elections have been manipulated. But the forensics are pretty strong year, after year, after year. They came up very high in the 2016 primaries. And again, it’s more than just this exit poll, or that pre-election poll, being off from the results. It’s a consistent pattern, and what we call second-order comparisons, are particularly strong. And by that I mean it’s not just with the exit polls were off in this, this, and this race, on the Democratic side. It’s that they performed brilliantly on the Republican side on being administered by the same firm, Edison Research, on the same day with the same questions being asked, by the same questioners at the same precinct. And when you’re looking at the Republican races, and Republican voters, they did splendidly. And when you’re looking at the Democratic ones, it was so far off that they had a cancel the last three or four exit polls because they were frankly embarrassed by the consistent miss in state, after state, after state, and of course it was pretty much all in the same direction.
Jeff: And if there is partisan movement behind any manipulation of election, why would you be seeing it to that degree in a primary?
Jonathan: Oh, you know there’s some pretty strong motives to control the field of candidates. And as a matter fact, the fact that we saw it in the Democratic primary, is pretty strong corroboration in the way of that motivation. I mean, Bernie Sanders, and I’m going to leave my own partisanship out of this and just be sort of an objective analyst looking at how the country is viewing these horse races. Bernie Sanders was the one candidate in the major parties who basically was threatening to the corporate elites. He was the outlier as far as what would be brought to the table and a general election. And so, you eliminating him from contention could be seen as a very strong partisan, not necessarily Democratic versus Republican, but if you look at it from, let’s say, the 1% versus the 99%, or the corporate control versus the populist sentiment, there was very, very strong motivation to take him out of the running. So when you control the field, and this goes not just for presidential politics, but it goes down to the level of the House of Representatives, state legislatures, the infrastructure of American politics is built not in the White House. The White House tends to be more transient. The more permanent and there are many reasons for this, gerrymandering and advantages of incumbency. But the more permanent infrastructure is built at the state legislative level; it’s built in the US House of Representatives. When you control the field for those races, that’s a huge part of controlling the outcomes if you’re not giving voters the choice that they would otherwise have. So primaries turn out to be, a) extremely important in the overall outcome of our elections, and they tend to escape scrutiny. They don’t tend to be exit polled to the same degree. The turnout is less. The media attention is less. This provides a very good illustration of how somebody with either an outcome vision of how they want the political structure of America to look, or a lot of money to spend, and a client who has a view of how they want things to come out, one of the unit chief targets would be primary elections.
Jeff: If that were true though. If in fact the corporate elite were somehow manipulating results for Bernie Sanders not to be victorious, certainly on the Republican side you could make the case that they were far more attractive candidates in the Republican field to corporate interests than the one that ultimately won.
Jonathan: Yeah absolutely, and I in a sense walked straight into the trap because when we’re trying to deal with who did it, why did they do it, how did they do it, we get off into a lot of speculation. Is it a cadre, is it the Russians? Is it Karl Rove? Is it a group of true believers? Is it the moneyed interests? Is it the Koch brothers? And we can’t answer those questions. That would be a challenge for, let’s say, an FBI investigation. But we don’t have the resources. You can speculate, but fundamentally we don’t know. We don’t know what the game plan is. We don’t know what masterminds could be thinking, whether it’s foreign or domestic. We can safely say, there are enough forces out there, given the stakes involved in American elections, in American politics, and the impact on the whole world, and certainly on the financial sector as well. You can well imagine that there could be those who have a stake, have a horse in the race, and have the money to spend. The key problem is really not who did it. We’re not looking to rerun any past elections, you know, take George Bush out of office, or make Bernie Sanders the Democratic nominee. The key problem is the vulnerability of the system. So we can go one of two ways. I mean, I can spend a lot of time and energy trying to prove an election theft has happened. And because we’re denied access to all the hard evidence, the actual voting marked ballots, the memory card, the code, corporate correspondence – all of that is off limits, it becomes a very difficult thing to do. You wind up with statistical patterns and you work pretty hard at making sense of those patterns and drawing some conclusions. But at the end of the day, it remains circumstantial evidence. So we fall into the trap. And I found this more and more. I began with forensics back in 2002, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I have some colleagues who have been doing it for a long time, and we do it pretty well, amassing a pretty strong, really mountains of evidence. But at the end of the day, the real, the takeaway from all that, is this is a hell of a stupid risk to take, to have votes be counted unobservably, outsourced to private corporations of whatever partisanship; to have the votes counted essentially behind the cyber curtain and to trust those results in an age where you know you got state nations doping their athletes, you’ve got the steroids, you’ve got Volkswagen cheating through the programming of the computers in their cars. You just have so many examples of where the stakes are high and nobody can look, that the ethics don’t step up to the challenge, and that advantage is taken of these vulnerabilities. And that really is the issue. Can we go forward with this unobservable vote counting system and trust it. And part of the problem now is that trust is breaking down. Whatever I think, whatever you think, and however you would view Trump as an avatar of electional, electoral integrity, the bottom line is that that trust is breaking down and people are getting to the point where they’re not likely to accept electoral outcomes and that’s true whether manipulation has taken place or not. And the problem there is that the vote counting process is unobservable.
Jeff: Given the diversity of systems that exist in the country, given that vote counting takes place on essentially a county level, on the local level, with different systems, different officials, talk a little bit about the impact of that, and isn’t that some kind of a bulwark against the kind of manipulation we’re talking about.
Jonathan: Yeah Jeff, Obama, our president, made precisely that point, and you know, I have a lot of respect for his intelligence, and he rarely says things that have, me scratching my head, and this was one of them. Because in fact, the system is not very diverse. It’s a few corporations that supply virtually all of the equipment. The administrators, whether it’s on the state, or the county, or the precinct level, generally don’t have the technical chops to really monitor that equipment or keep track of what’s going on in it. So they rely on the vendors and the vendor satellite corporations to basically do the programming, do the testing in the vast majority of cases. So it really wouldn’t take much of a sophisticated operation to get to know what machines are running where, what their vulnerabilities are, how to take advantage of those vulnerabilities. And again, it wouldn’t take a big operation to provide malicious code in memory cards, or in central tabulators. The diversity, the fact that we haven’t federalized elections, doesn’t make it any more difficult for somebody looking and planning on how to target various elections and steal those elections. The equipment is all very, very, very vulnerable. And again, this is something that could be done. You know, this is a scary thought, but really a high school level programmer, I’m not an IT specialist, but I know quite a few, you know, checked this out. It is not something that requires a tremendous amount of sophistication. I’ll just give you an example. If you want to change the results of let’s say the House race. What you could do, and it’s probably the simplest of all manipulations, is change the zero counters. You have an optical scan machine, that most are familiar with voting on, and you have about 500 to 700,000 lines of code on that memory card that interprets the ballot and tabulates the votes. With three lines of code you can change the zero counters. And what that means that, let’s say you have Clinton, Sanders, and you want Clinton to win. You basically set Clinton’s zero counter to plus x: +100. You set Sanders’ zero counter to -100. This takes, as I said, about three lines of code out of 500,000 on the memory card. At the end of the day what happens is, that the total number of votes, it’s a wash. You got +100 here; you got -100 there, so the machine registers the right number of votes to match the number of voters who signed the poll book. The election administrator looks at it and says, “Looks good to me,” certifies the election and you’ve just shifted a net of 200 votes. It’s basically undetectable. You could do it in self-deleting code, but you really wouldn’t even have to bother since nobody other than the corporation has access to that memory card. PDQ, you know, that’s per machine. So you do that, I don’t know, a hundred machines, you’ve got 20,000 votes shifted and you’ve just changed the outcome of a competitive race. That’s a scary thought. I mean there are other ways of manipulating that are also pretty much child’s play.
Jeff: Do we need to be looking at, if not hand ballots or observable counting, do we need to be looking at more logic and accuracy, independent logic and accuracy testing, observable testing of these machines before and after they count votes?
Jonathan: Well, testing has always been a problem and a bit of a sore point since, as with many industries, the testing process is often in-house or committed to labs that are being paid by the vendors. The fact of the testing, which happens at this point, and I mean there is testing. What’s tested three months before an election, or even a week ago before an election, doesn’t indicate what’s going to run on Election Day. Again, these are computers, and you know what you can do with computers. They can pass the test with flying colors, and then literally minutes later, run a completely different program. Again, if we did that, we’d be asking the citizens, and the voters, to basically believe that this testing process was taking care of the problem, and of the vulnerabilities. And I don’t think, again, it just becomes another level of trust. What we really need is public observation, where there is the opportunity to not just count the votes, but to observe the count being done and to reconcile that through a reconciliation tree from the lowest level, the precinct level, all the way up to the county level and the state level, and to be able to ensure that the ballots are cast in private but are counted in public. This is a public trust, and that’s the fundamental principle here. Whose ballots are they? Who owns these ballots? Why do they become corporate property and off-limits to all inspection or investigation? I often these days draw the parallel to Deflategate, because there, you know, the footballs were impounded, and the cell phones were impounded, and millions of dollars were spent investigating how much is the air pressure in those footballs with Tom Brady cheating. And you look at this and you say, “Are we living in reality or are we living in Wonderland?” as in Alice in Wonderland. Because football matters, you know. It’s headlines for over a year. The investigation is thorough. And in the case of elections, are the stakes that much less? Do we view the stakes of elections as being somehow less than victories and losses and yards gained in football? And this is this crazy inversion of priorities. And now, Jeff, the chickens are coming home to roost, because we’re seeing the breakdown of our political system right before our eyes. And you know, we maintain, those of us looking at election integrity and taking this problem seriously, that a big part of that breakdown is the distortion of the public will that takes place when you don’t count elections honestly and accurately, when you don’t count votes honestly and accurately, when it’s not observable, when it’s been outsourced. We as citizens have not just the right to an observable count; we have the duty to be participants in that process. If we really want a democracy, we’ve got to work for it. And we can’t just prioritize ease, convenience, entertainment. “Hey, I want to go vote, I want to go home, I want to watch NBC or Fox,” or whatever it is and see all the blinking charts and be told who the president is and who our government is. You know, go to bed at 10 o’clock. You know, this is lazy, and democracies were never sustained by lazy publics. So a big part of it is on us. Yes, the media has led the way. The media has made this about entertainment, about speed, another Super Bowl. Basically that’s what it’s become, another entertainment event. If we continue to look at it that way, we’re going to continue to get the kind of warped stuffed animal of democracy, rather than the real thing that we’re seeing now reflected in this election.
Jeff: In Florida, in 2000, we had very much the observable counting of ballots. That didn’t work out too well. Is that some kind of a touchstone that we should look at?
Jonathan: Florida 2000 is really interesting, because the investigation that’s been done by such as Greg Palast and others at the time, indicated that there was a certain amount of, hush-hush I call it, sandbagging of self-sabotage of the counting system through the punch cards, and the kind of paper that it was done on or whatever, that led to this debacle, I guess this very iconic photograph of some poor guy looking through a magnifying glass at the ballots, and you know, how silly that all looked. And that of course gave rise to the Help America Vote Act and the computerization of American elections. So it had the result, if not the intention, it certainly had the result of saying what, “Well we can’t do this anymore, we have to computerize everything.” We went from the frying pan into the fire. When you’re counting ballots under those conditions. When you have political folks, I guess would be the best word for it, pounding on the windows. When you have the kind of magnifying glass, and you have the kind suspicions that were going on down in Palm Beach, and in Miami, and in Florida, and you’re not prepared for it. There was no preparation. It was just something that just sprung out of the emergency of the situation. It’s not going to look very good. It’s going to be hard to organize. As a matter of fact, a lot of recounts that are done, not that that many recounts are done, but when they’re done, it’s also very difficult because they really haven’t been prepared very well. This is something that you have to build a culture, and set up, and organize a restoration of a normal process of vote counting. And yes, we have to probably wait past 10 o’clock, or 11 o’clock at night. We might have to wait till the next day or maybe even two days to get the full results. But, and yes, it could be contentious. Politics are contentious. But I think those two days are worth spending to have a public that says, “Okay, we know that either I, myself or representatives of my interest, were able to watch this counting process, it didn’t take place behind the curtain.” It wasn’t outsourced to a few corporations that are basically unvetted. We now have real confidence in the electoral results, which is evaporating very quickly. And again, there are other countries in the world, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands – there is quite a long list now that came to exactly that conclusion and basically said, “Yeah, computerized vote counting is very convenient but we can’t trust it anymore,” and they went back to a hand count, observable vote counting process.
Jeff: Is there an argument to be made for going to the extreme opposite, a computerized system, an online system that’s nationalized, that everybody partakes in, that is checked, and checked and rechecked again, and independently monitored? Do we need to go to the other extreme as a way to accomplish both security and speed?
Jonathan: That’s also a good question. As I said, I’m not an IT expert, that’s not my profession. However, what we hear from the people who are IT experts, and who are working on this, is that reliable truly verifiable internet voting is decades away, if ever. The reason for that is that in the world, in the cyber world, pretty much the minute you make something secure, there’s someone out there that’s going to undermine that. And we’ve seen examples of that with the Pentagon, the IMF, the credit card companies, institutions that have literally billions of dollars to spend on encryption and security, and have gone really to the moon and back to make their system secure, and have been hacked. So the idea of Internet voting is very appealing on many fronts. It would make voting more convenient, would probably increase turnout. It sounds great, we do everything else online. But you know the experts pretty much are unanimous in saying that we’re not there yet. And a good proportion of experts say we may never get there, or certainly not in the short term. So the other little gloss on internet voting, my colleagues are, I would say, horrified by the thought and universally against it. And I weighed in, being something of a contrarian, and said, “Well, wait a minute, the voting system that we have now is the equivalent of what the Mafia would call a closed city.” You know the opportunities for manipulation are very strongly concentrated in those who run the process in those four, five, six corporations. Ironically, we’re now worrying about Russian hackers and whatnot, but the real danger, very hard to acknowledge since we tend to externalize our enemies, the real danger, is insider, because that’s where the access is. The access is very strong and is very limited right now to these insiders. If you had internet voting, you would kind of open up the city in the Mafia idea. In an open city anybody can come in and wreak to their hearts content. Given the security in place at this point, you have a kind of free-for-all. You’d have rigging, and counter-rigging, and thwarting, and God knows what. To me, in certain ways, that’s better than what we have now, because at least the whole thing would blow up relatively quickly, and people would say, “Well, we can’t trust the system and it’s very obvious.” It would also be obvious to people, if you were voting on computer at home, that is actually a computerized system. I think right now there’s a lot of misunderstanding when people put their ballot into an op-scan machine. They don’t necessarily see that as a computer. It looks very safe. “Well, I marked my ballot it still exists, and here it goes into the slot and there’s no computer involved.” Well, an optical scanner, just like a touch screen, is a computer. It’s a fairly sophisticated computer. Those results get digitized. They get sent off to a central tabulator which is an even more sophisticated computer. They get piped through to the Associated Press on an even more sophisticated computer. So the system right now is very much computerized. The access to the actual voter marked ballots is nil, so they exist, but it’s false reassurance because they never, 99.99% of the time, will never see the light of day. So we’re on a computerized system now, and it’s a system that again, there’s very close control of what goes into it, and that control is very much in the hands of a few private corporations.
Jeff: Certainly historically, there was voter fraud, election rigging, long before there were optical scanning machines. Doesn’t the system require inherently a certain amount of trust, a certain amount of faith, whether it’s observable counting, whether it’s optical scanning, or something in the future?
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean, elections are high-stakes affairs. Where you have high-stakes affairs, there is certainly an incentive to cheat. The difference is, this was best put by a Republican IT pro, whose name was Chuck Heron – I’m going to paraphrase, but he basically said – and I can’t do the southern drawl: “You know, it takes a long time to change 10,000 votes by hand, it takes me three seconds to do it on a computer.” And that’s the main difference, that the old what we call, retail fraud, and you know, we have examples from 1960, JFK and Illinois, and obviously Lyndon Johnson in his race in Texas, are pretty much established examples of ballot box stuffing and people voting twice or 50 times or whatever. That was basically equal opportunity. It was very labor-intensive. It took a lot of effort to generate even a relatively small move of the needle, very difficult to cover up, so it was pretty much overt – by and large a wash because both parties could do it. Anybody was pretty much free to do it. Locally it wasn’t a wash, because if you had control of the South, or if you had control of the state or the city, you were going to have much more power to do this. But when you looked at it on balance, in terms of the direction that America was taking as a whole, it was pretty much equal opportunity. It was retail, it was very modest in terms of the limitations of what you could do. What we have now is just the opposite, it’s very much directional because the control of these companies is, if you go through their pedigree, it’s quite partisan, and so the opportunity is much more limited, much more directional. And the overall efficiency, the impact, is orders of magnitude greater. A single person, and this has been established, this is not the stuff of conspiracy theories, this is the Brennan Center, Princeton, Caltech, and the GAO, you know, really that a single person could change dozens, if not hundreds, of electoral results. You don’t require the big labor force to do it. It’s relatively, it’s very efficient process. So the dangers are not only much more directional in the sense that there is a partisan element to it, but much, much greater in magnitude. And we think, and we looked at the forensics from 2002 forward, we see a pretty consistent pattern illustrated by the, what we call, the Red Shift, where voting results, electoral results, come out to the right of exit polls, pre-election polls, hand counts, you name it, pretty much on a very, very consistent basis, with just a very, very, very few exceptions. In most cases, those exceptions, there was something identifiable to explain it. The overall pattern is very consistently one-sided, and it does appear to correlate with control over the vote counting process.
Jeff: And to what extent finally, Jonathan, do you think that this issue is going to be front and center in 48 more days?
Jonathan: That’s a bit of a cloudy crystal ball because a lot of it depends on how things go. I took Code Red up to basically the beginning of September, and my prediction in there, and it includes the call to action to how we could go about reclaiming the sovereignty, reclaiming control of this process, make it observable. But it’s pretty much resigned to the fact that this is not going to happen in the next 48 days. And so we’re looking at an election where there has already been a lot of rumbling of mistrust. Our work is really not to identify the perpetrators, you know, “Hillary is going to rig this,” or “Trump is going to rig this.” It’s basically identifying the fact that the system is an incredibly at-risk system. And what we’re seeing now are reports of concern about hacking, the NSA getting involved to try to set up a task force to control the process, which again is a double-edged sword. That degree of centralization could be very scary. Look at a country like Russia, “Yeah, they got control of their elections all right, Putin will never lose.” That’s a scary thought. It’s hard. It’s hard to represent the public, and the public interest, without turning it over to the same insiders that could be very inimical to that interest. It’s hard for the public to get together and assert their rights in an organized way. We’re looking conceptually, at a very difficult situation; pragmatically, it wouldn’t be all that hard to count our votes observably. But the inertias that are in place are very, very strong. It’s going take some serious, serious public commitment to change this process. And what’s going to happen in 2016, I don’t know. Most of us tend to naturally, us the public, tend to be riveted on the presidential race. We think that most of the real damage has been done, from a forensics evidence standpoint, down ballot, down in the House of Representatives, down in state legislatures. So you know, an election like 2014 goes under the radar and everybody just sort of moves along. Where elections like 2004, and potentially this year, generate a lot of interest, a lot of concern. But as for what’s going to happen, and who’s going to scream foul, if they’re going to scream foul, and whether anything constructive will come out of that, where I’m going to sit back with you, sort of await developments, I have to say it’s not an encouraging place in terms of what has become of not just political dialogue, but the entire political process. You got a lot of angry people out there. You got a lot of angry Bernie Sanders supporters. You have a lot of potentially angry people from whoever loses this election, and trust is really breaking down. Really, the way to restore that trust is to make the process observable. At the very least, institute a well-designed and transparent audit process which could operate as a deterrent. I’d like to see hand-counted paper ballots. I think it could be very communal for a congregational, a way of coming together, after elections. People do very well, you know, it depends on circumstances. You know, white people and black people get together and do very well in one circumstance, and they become enemies in another circumstances. And this has been established by sociologists. And in a similar way, Democrats, Republicans, right-wingers, left-wingers, can be the bitterest enemies in certain circumstances, but if you make the right circumstances, you put them in a room together and give them a task to do and say, “Hey we’re all Americans here, we’re all people who care about this country,” then you bring out the best in those people. I see hand-counting as something along those lines, where people of very different views come together to participate in the process, and participate in it fairly, and perhaps, that’s absurdly idealistic. But if we can’t get there, then I don’t know where we really can get as a nation. So I see it as a very healing prospect. That having been said, if we can’t get to hand counting paper ballots, we at least need a much much stronger system of audits, and recounts, and access to ballots as public records. What we’re seeing instead, is that more and more states, especially the states taken over by Republicans, at the legislative, and the administrative level, are taking ballots and removing them from public records, access. They’re exempting ballots from public records law, so it’s becoming less transparent, less of an opportunity to observe directly what should be really part of the public domain. We’re moving in certain ways in the right direction, but certainly not fast enough, and there’s a very strong countercurrent of both with regard to voter suppression, which you know we know about. Greg Palast has done remarkable work in that area. It’s now certainly made it to the courts. The courts are looking at it and they are recognizing voter suppression and the cynicism of that. We are in many ways going in the wrong direction, and it’s showing up in the kind of politics that’s being foisted on us at this point.
Jeff: Jonathan Simon, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Jonathan: Thanks, Jeff. Thanks for talking to me.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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