Election Day Is 165 Days Away… Be Afraid!

Poll Workers, Brooksville, FL
Citizens need to get involved with their local elections to ensure a secure election in 2020. Experienced poll worker Jeanette Grier (right) helps Delores Atkins (left), a first time poll worker, during a training workshop given at the Supervisor of Elections Office in Brooksville, FL, on October 16, 2012. Photo credit: © Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPRESS.com
Reading Time: 19 minutes

No matter which side of the political debate you’re on, election security seems to be the issue of our time. Both sides accuse the other of trying to steal the next election. Ironically, it may be one of the few issues that both parties can agree on, but that’s where the agreement ends.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with election expert Emily Levy about her organization, Scrutineers, and about some of the specific election security challenges that will dominate the next 165 days.

Levy gives us a primer on the many ways — both overt and covert — that bad actors may interfere with elections. She also discusses federal vs. local election laws, “black box voting,” what it really means to audit election results, and why election officials’ assurances about the “logic and accuracy” of voting procedures mean nothing. According to Levy, we shouldn’t fixate on “swing” states: only massive nationwide voter turnout that produces an overwhelming and incontestable victory will prevent chaos the day after the election.

She reminds everyone that neither anxiety nor hope is a strategy — but by learning more, reaching out to local officials, and engaging in direct activism, anyone can make both a personal and political difference.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman.

The proverbial elephant in the room, in all of our political conversations today, is the integrity of our upcoming elections. Like the joke about the elephant though, it can’t be eaten all at once. It has to be broken down into small bite-sized pieces. In a way, that’s how we have to understand our election process. From the politics to the technology, from the activism to the addition, each part is subject to foul play, misunderstanding and manipulation.

Jeff Schechtman: In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we’re going to talk to Emily Levy, founder of Scrutineers, an online community with the goal of mobilizing a force of thousands to protect the elections this year. She’s a longtime election expert and activist, and it is my pleasure to welcome Emily Levy to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Emily, thanks so much for joining us.
Emily Levy: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Emily, as we look at the subject of election integrity, one of the things that I think is confusing for a lot of people is what that phrase means, first of all. But also, how many component parts there are in the broader subject of thinking about the integrity of our upcoming elections. Talk a little bit about first, what those parts are. Kind of break down the specific areas that people can look at, focus on, and that you’re dealing with, in terms of addressing this broader issue.
Emily Levy: Okay. One of the ways I like to think about this is if we think about the election cycle, there’s a lot of things that happen before people actually vote. Then there are things that happen right around election day or the election period, when there’s early voting. It’s really much more than a day now, when people are actually voting. And then there are things that happen afterwards. So when we look at the period before people vote, a lot of that work focuses on making sure that people get to vote, making sure that they’re not disenfranchised. In other words, not prevented from voting, that people register. And this year we need people to register and vote in numbers unlike we’ve ever seen before. We need absolutely, this is an all hands on deck election this year. So in the time before the election, there are the voting rights things that happen that are more traditional, people think about. Those organizations are very well organized and good at motivating people to write to voters and call potential voters, call people and get them to register, which are all really effective things to do.
Emily Levy: And also, in the elections’ offices and in the legislatures, in states and nationally, there are things that happen before elections that really impact elections. Like for example, right now there is an attempt to get funding in Congress for increased security in elections and for states to move to absentee voting or vote by mail because of the pandemic. So those things are all happening before the election. And during the election, there’s the get out to vote, get people to actually go to the polls and vote. And there’s also being poll workers. And this year we’re going to need a ton of new poll workers because traditionally it’s retired people who tend to work the polls, and they’re at very high risk for COVID-19. So we need younger poll workers. After the election, there’s a lot of stuff to look at also, and I’m simplifying here because in each stage there are really many, many things to do.
Emily Levy: After the election, generally speaking, we like to have a lot of volunteers going into local elections offices and watching the processing of the votes, watching how ballots are being handled, watching the matching of signatures on provisional ballot envelopes and vote by mail envelopes, and all those procedures that happen. That may be a little bit different this year because volunteers – monitors – may not be allowed in election offices. And that’s one of the things that we are taking a look at. So that’s kind of an example of the range of things. And Scrutineers really exists to assist organizations that are doing projects, like some of the things that I just mentioned, to help train people, to participate in their project and to amplify their work. Especially the groups that are focused on election security are small organizations, often made up of people whose backgrounds are in technology or statistics or sometimes legislation and they’re not so much community organizers or educators. They’re also really, really busy and they don’t often have time to bring new folks who want to help, up to speed.
Jeff Schechtman: What has been your experience at this particular point in time, or certainly over the past several months, in terms of getting people to focus on this issue, the importance of this issue, given all that is going on, given the concerns and fears that people have right now?
Emily Levy: Well, I think that the concerns and fears that people have right now fall into a few big categories. There’s the, “Am I going to get sick? Is someone I love going to get sick? Are the people in my life who are already sick going to survive COVID-19?” There’s that set of concerns. There’s the economic concerns and family concerns about kind of how are we going to survive this? And I think that people also are really concerned about the election. They may be concerned about a particular race, whether it’s a presidential race or any other race happening in their communities. And I think that this year, they’re concerned not only about who do the most people support, but are those supporters going to get to vote and are their votes really going to be counted without being interfered with? So I think that there’s really a lot of fear, which in some ways and sometimes is a good motivation for people to act. Fear is sometimes a good motivation for people to act and it doesn’t necessarily drive us to take the most fun out actions, but it can get people really motivated. And a piece that I think is missing is people understanding that there are actions they can take that can really make a big difference.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we see is the vast difference in voting situations from state to state. In a way, your organization and organizations that are active in this space, are trying to get people from coast to coast to focus on the importance of this. Talk about that in the context of every state being different in terms of the challenges it faces. Certainly the situation here in California and the big focus on vote by mail here in California and the challenges that poses are very different than some of the problems in Georgia, Wisconsin, or somewhere else. There’s a vast array of differences.
Emily Levy: Sure. And you and I are both in California and actually neither of us is in LA, which is sort of a country unto itself when it comes voting.
Jeff Schechtman: Right.
Emily Levy: Los Angeles, just this year, just in the primary election in March, rolled out their brand new voting system that they’ve been developing for years, that’s called VSAP, Voting System for All People. And it was a huge disaster for a number of different reasons. And Los Angeles is a bigger jurisdiction than many states. There are so many people there. So even within states, the issues are different. And so let’s talk about what some of the differences are. There are differences in laws. For example, in some states, there is what’s called no excuse absentee voting or no excuse by mail, that anybody who wants to can cast a vote without having to go to the polling place. In other states, you have to fit into a really narrow category or one of several narrow categories of voters. Voters, for example, with disabilities, voters who are going to be out of the country, things like that. So those laws vary state to state. And this year, we need to absolutely make sure that there’s no excuse absentee or vote by mail voting everywhere.
Emily Levy: There are also differences in terms of, in some states, when it comes to challenging questionable election results, in some states only candidates have the legal standing to do that, which I personally think is really wrong because elections don’t belong to the candidates, they belong to the voters. So, there’s all kinds of laws that vary from state to state. There are different voting systems in use in different places. And those voting systems both impact how people vote. Do people vote on a paper ballot or do they vote on a touch screen, for example. So there are those differences and then the different voting systems have different vulnerabilities and in some places, the votes are tabulated at the precinct level. In some places they’re tabulated at the county level.
Emily Levy: I should say, also, another difference is who actually runs elections. In some states, many election decisions are made on a statewide level. In other states they’re made on a county level. And in other states they’re made even on a smaller level than that, like township or town or city. And I think it was a great question to ask because it’s one of the reasons why even people who have a good sense of what can be done to help protect elections, have a hard time answering a general question, about what’s the most important thing for somebody in the United States who’s concerned about elections to do? Because the answer is going to be different depending on where you live.
Jeff Schechtman: Do people that are active in the field of election integrity and the different areas that you’ve touched upon, that your organization looks at, is there any kind of consensus as to what is preferable at this point? Either some kind of national standards that we should look at for elections, or is there some advantage to the sort of hodgepodge state by state, in some places county by county, system that we have now?
Emily Levy: It’s a complicated question. And the first thing I think that’s important to understand is that the federal government only has jurisdiction over federal elections. Meaning elections where there is a federal office, president, or congressional representative or senator on the ballot. So when the federal government makes laws about elections, those elections only legally apply to those particular election years, so when there’s a federal race on the ballot. Not to the year, but to the elections where there is one or more federal race on the ballot. Which is why, for example, the Election Assistance Commission, which is a national commission, when they issue their guidelines, the guidelines are called voluntary because the feds can’t tell the states what to do. It’s a state’s rights issue. Many states have laws that say, “We must abide by those voluntary guidelines that the feds have.” But from the federal perspective, they are voluntary.
Jeff Schechtman: Let me just sort of narrow the question a little bit. Is there some advantages, as you see it, in the kind of quilt system that we have? Because at least there is a certain amount of safety indifference in some respects.
Emily Levy: There have been a bunch of statements from federal spokespeople over the last number of years that have said our election systems are secure, nobody could hack into them because we’ve got thousands of different systems going on all over the country. That is a smoke screen. That is a very misleading thing to say. We have basically three voting system vendors in the country. And no matter whether your election where you live is run by your state or your county or your township, they are almost invariably using a voting system built by one of these three companies. There are different models and different types of systems that the companies make, but not very many. So in most cases, states certify election systems. I’m not sure in most cases. I’m most familiar with California where, and I know that it’s true at least in some other states, where the states decide the counties can choose from between these systems that we’ve decided are okay. But there really, really is not a lot of variation in how people vote or how those votes are counted.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the biggest concerns that you have as you look around the country right now, where you think the biggest focus should be in terms of volunteers and in terms of organizations. And also in terms of money, the kind of support from a dollar point of view that’s going to be needed to address some of these problems.
Emily Levy: So a lot of organizations are focused on the states that they consider to be the swing states. I absolutely understand that strategy. It’s really hard to be everywhere doing election protection work at all times. That said, there’s difference of opinion about which states are going to be the swing states. And there are some really big security holes that mean that even a state that’s not ordinarily a swing state, with enough election manipulation could become a swing state. Also, when we talk about swing states, we’re talking about the presidential election, and that’s not the only important thing that’s on the ballot this year. There are statewide races and local races in areas all over the country. There are congressional races, there are other races that really make a big difference. I don’t want to write off any election anywhere as not needing attention.
Emily Levy: So one of the ways we can deal with that is teach people how to take action in their local areas and keep watch over their local elections, to the extent that that’s possible, given that our election systems are much too secret, that we have black boxes where we actually can’t see what’s going on. So in terms of money, it’s really important that when election administrators are told what to do, are told changes they need to make, that they are given the financial support to make those changes. And that doesn’t always happen. It’s called an unfunded mandate when they’re told to do something and not given the money to do it.
Emily Levy: And that’s one of the reasons why having congressional allocation of money to states is really important right now. It’s also important that that money have some strings attached to it, have some accountability and not just become another giant handout to the horrible election vendors, like is what happened with the Help America Vote Act in 2002. So there’s some changes actually that colleagues and I are pushing for in legislation that’s currently on the table in Washington, to make sure that that money is actually used effectively.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the degree to which volunteers sometimes and people that hear this, that want to do this work, are in some ways intimidated by the system, by the process, by officials in their community. And why they shouldn’t be and how they can overcome that.
Emily Levy: Well, I’ll tell you a little story. I, earlier in my life, was disabled by a chronic illness. And during that time, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed. At the time, I lived in Santa Cruz, California, and I saw an announcement in a local paper that said the city was putting together a committee to figure out its response to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to devise its plan to comply with that really important law. And they were looking for community members to be on that committee. And I thought, “I didn’t need to pay attention to what that committee does because when they make their final report, I need to go and tell them it’s not good enough.” And I noticed after I said that, why they’re asking for people to help create it, to make it good enough. So why is it that I’ve already written off the possibility that that could happen or that I could have any impact except to complain afterwards?
Emily Levy: So I applied to be on that committee and I thought, “Oh, they’ll never choose me. I don’t know enough. I’m not an expert. I just know my own experience.” Which wasn’t true, I had plenty of other experience with friends and family members, etc., who had disabilities. Not only did I get chosen for the committee, but I ended up being asked to chair the committee after people saw the quality of my work, when we’d been working for a while. And when we came up with our plan and we had our public hearing to present it to the community, I sat in the mayor’s chair in the city council chambers and I chaired that meeting. And disability advocates from around the county came and not one of them said this plan isn’t good enough, because we made it good enough. And it was actually used by other cities as a model. So I tell you that story because I see so many people selling themselves short about what impact they can actually have. And I want to invite you to, in this case, follow my lead and become one of the people who makes it good enough.
Jeff Schechtman: As you look out at this, what is your biggest fear, your biggest concern at this point?
Emily Levy: I believe that it’s going to be chaos. And I want to talk about a concern because I have many big concerns, there’s a bunch of different things I could say in response to your question. I can talk about voters who were being thrown off the voting roles and not allowed to vote. I can talk about my concern about intimidation at the polls, I could talk about the systems not being secure and books being manipulated, totals being manipulated. And people listening to this have probably heard all those things before.
Emily Levy: What I don’t hear anybody talking about is what the current federal government is likely to do in the wake of a chaotic election. I really believe, and I should say here, Scrutineers is a nonpartisan organization. And what I’m about to say is not a partisan comment, but it’s a comment about the absolute fact that we currently have an executive branch that does not believe in following the law, and has no respect for the law. I really believe that Trump’s goal, his intention of being reelected is that he has a plan. And that that plan is first to try to win. And if it looks like he can’t win, to try to steal the election. And if it looks like he can’t hear his, it wouldn’t be him personally, but that he can’t get the election stolen on his behalf, that he will accuse the winning candidate of stealing the election.
Emily Levy: And if that doesn’t fly, that he’ll refuse to leave office. So that I will leave as his four point plan. I believe that not because I’ve read it anywhere and not because anybody whispered it into my ear, but just kind of looking at things he’s said and ways that he’s acted through his presidency. And that’s what scares me most.
Jeff Schechtman: If that were to be the case, if that were a hundred percent accurate, there’s really very little volunteers or organizations or grassroots efforts or anything else can do about that. Arguably it’s kind of discouraging for people.
Emily Levy: Yeah. So here’s something that I think we can do about it. One thing is that in the past, a lot of the election security advocacy work has focused on trying to catch errors and evidence of incorrect election results. This year, I’m not sure when we do that, that anybody is going to be able to take effective action even if we have the proverbial smoking gun. We need to make sure that we outvote any election manipulation to the extent possible. In other words, this giant effort that’s going on by many organizations around the country, both partisan and nonpartisan to get people registered and get people voting in bigger numbers than we’ve ever seen before, is one of the very most important things to do for election security. Because we need to have overwhelming victories in every election. I’m not talking just about the presidential election, but we need the will of the people to be loud and clear, whoever the people are supporting.
Emily Levy: Another thing that I think is really likely to happen, if I’m right about that four point plan, is that election officials at the state and county and local levels around the country are going to be called upon to prove that the election results from the election that they’re responsible for are correct. And right now, they can’t do that because they’re using systems that, like we said before, where votes are tallied inside a black box. They can’t see what the software is doing. And so one of the things that I think that volunteers and organizations can do, that’s really important, is go to our local election officials and talk to them about this and say, “When you are called upon to prove that these election results are correct, how is it that you think you’re going to be able to do that?” Because we need to have a plan and put it into action now. And having community members ask those questions is going to be really important in getting those plans to be put into place.
Emily Levy: So for example, a likely answer that an election official will give you if you start asking those questions is, “Well, we do logic and accuracy testing of our machines.” So that means that when they’re preparing for an election, they run basically a mock election with stacks of ballots, where they know exactly what the vote counts are on those ballots. They run them through the machines. They see that the vote counts are the way that they’re supposed to be. And they say, “Now we know that our machines haven’t been hacked.” Well, those tests are really a placebo.
Emily Levy: And the best way to understand that is to look at what happened with the Volkswagen emission scandal, where cars were programmed to behave one way when they were in test mode and a different way when they were on the road. So that when they were being tested, they could pass the emissions test, but they were actually polluting much, much more than that when they were on the road. A very similar thing can happen with election systems where any manipulation of the software doesn’t impact the election in test mode. Or even if tests are run in election mode, rather than test mode, they can be programmed to run accurately on every day other than election day, and have some exploit going on during election day. So logic and accuracy testing, if that’s your local elections officials’ answer, it’s not good enough.
Emily Levy: One of the things that they absolutely need to do is have a plan for a robust auditing of election results, comparison of the paper ballots, hand marked by the voters, which not all places have. And we need to be pushing for that in every place we can. And that’s actually something that having a lot of vote by mail is really going to help with this year, because those are hand marked paper ballots. We need to be comparing the hand marked paper ballots to the machine results in a robust auditing protocol. And there are different protocols available, including risk-limit auditing, which people may have heard about. So again, one of the things I think is most important to do this year is for people to be building relationships with their local elections officials and talking about when you are called upon after this election, to prove that the election results are correct. Given that the votes are counted inside computers, how are you going to be able to prove this? And keep pushing until you get answers that are sufficient.
Jeff Schechtman: If people are interested in helping in doing things in their individual communities or their state, how can they do that? How can they get in touch with the proper people?
Emily Levy: Great question. So they can, if they have internet access, go online and look up their county elections office, and there will be a phone number there. There will usually be an email address there. Ordinarily, you could actually walk into the offices and talk to them. With shutdowns, because of the pandemic, that’s not going to be an option in most places right now. But you can contact them that way.
Emily Levy: And you can also, if you don’t have internet access, there’s the phone book. And look in it, in your government listings, and find your board of elections. It’s called different things in different places, but your local elections office. There are resources online to use to estimate the number of voting machines that are needed, based on demographic data. And that’s important because where there aren’t enough machines, there are long lines and long lines deprive people of the right to vote because not everybody can stay in the line for a long time. So there’s resources that your elections office may not know about that you can help them by telling them about. So as much as possible, we want people to be creating positive relationships, not adversarial relationships, with their election departments.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there other places that people can go, other resources that you want to possibly suggest?
Emily Levy: Yeah, there are a ton of resources online. One of the tools that we use a lot is a tool called the Verifier, which was created and is updated constantly by verifiedvoting.org. In the Verifier, you can look up your State, your county, even your township or whatever is the local breakdown in your state of where elections happen. And you can find out what election systems are in use, and you can find name and contact information of your election official. So that’s also a good place to start.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there any website, phone number you want to give one last time?
Emily Levy: Yes, scrutineers.org. And I’ll spell it for you.
Jeff Schechtman: Yes.
Emily Levy: S-c-r-u-t-i-n-e-e-r-s.org. And there you can join Scrutineers for the whopping membership fee of, it’s a onetime fee of $1.99. And the reason that we do that is to decrease the likelihood of the site being invaded by bots or by people who are coming in just to disrupt. And so far that strategy is working. So yes, you will have to take out a debit card or be willing to pay online. And if that’s a problem for you, you can send us a message through our website and tell us that’s a problem for you and we’ll help you out.
Jeff Schechtman: And one last thing, Emily. You’re going to be doing a series of podcasts, a series of programs, talking to lots of people that are involved in this area. Give us a little preview of that. Tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be doing.
Emily Levy: I have been attending recently, a lot of online forums and town halls and things like that, run by different organizations, who really are trying to get people involved in election protection. And so far, every single one of them has only been focused on getting people to register to vote. We’ve already talked about how important that is and we will have some of those conversations on the podcast for sure.
Emily Levy: I also want us to be talking about what else people can do. So we’re going to be focusing on guests who are taking on a really specific piece of the election protection puzzle, who either have a project that you might be able to support or be involved in, or an organization or an outlook that’s unusual and will give you a broad view as you listen over time, of what the different ways are that people can get involved. It will help you feel less hopeless if you’re active. Really, activism is the only thing that keeps me hopeful these days. And I know I’m not alone in that.
Jeff Schechtman: Emily Levy, her organization is Scrutineers. Emily, thanks so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Emily Levy: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from mohamed Hassan / Pixabay.

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