Scrutineers Series, Part II – Bennie Smith

Bennie Smith
Shelby County Election Commissioner Bennie Smith. Photo credit: Courtesy of Bennie Smith
Reading Time: 26 minutes

What happens when a financial analytics manager applies his skills to how we determine the winners of elections?

In this episode of WhoWhatWhy’s Scrutineers Series, Emily Levy interviews Bennie Smith, an election commissioner in Memphis, TN. When losers of a local election came to him claiming their races had been stolen, he set out to prove them wrong. 

Instead, he discovered a high-risk tampering mechanism built into US election systems. 

Smith explains what he found, its implications, and how election officials and members of the public can detect this “feature” of our voting systems that belies the principle of “one person, one vote.” 

In this episode, Levy and Smith also discuss Shelby County’s selection of a new voting system, and how Smith’s was the only Election Commission vote against adoption of unauditable ballot marking devices for all voters. At the time of the airing of this episode, funding for this purchase remains in question. 

Learn how you can get involved in protecting our elections at Scrutineers.org or here at WhoWhatWhy. Bennie Smith is a member of Scrutineer’s Advisory Committee. Emily Levy, host of the Scrutineers Series, is the Founder and Director.

googleplaylogo200px download rss-35468_640
Click HERE to Download Mp3


Full Text Transcript:

Emily Levy: Welcome to the Scrutineers Series, a series of election protection podcasts designed to help you understand the risk to our elections from voter suppression to lack of security. We’ll be talking about what you can do to protect the voters and protect the votes. I’m Emily Levy, founder and director of scrutineers.org, where we’re training a fairness force to help make sure no one stops you from voting and all votes are counted accurately. I’m delighted to be collaborating with whowhatwhy.org to introduce you to real people dedicated to ensuring election results truly determine the consent of the governed.
Emily Levy: The contributions of today’s guest to the cause are tremendous. I am really honored to have the opportunity to interview Bennie Smith of Memphis, Tennessee today. Bennie has a passion for election integrity and full disclosure; he serves on the advisory committee for scrutineers.org. When I started that organization, he was the first person that I called and asked to be on our advisory committee, and I’m so honored to have him. He’s also on the technical advisory team for SMART Elections. In Memphis, Tennessee, he’s most known for his micro-targeting application and predictive analytics method that forecasts voter turnout. But nationally, he’s more known for something called Fraction Magic, which is a proof of concept application he developed, and we’ll be talking about this and a research series he participated in examining vulnerabilities in our election systems.
Emily Levy: His work was covered by Bloomberg in its cybersecurity segment, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He uncovered an extraordinarily high risk tampering mechanism in our election systems, and we’re going to be talking about that today. It absolutely should have been in the top of the news for a long time when he discovered it and instead has largely gotten buried. He has testified in Congress, and his work has been the basis of some of the procedures that have been developed for protecting elections. Having done this work for a while, he actually became, and is now an election commissioner in Shelby County, Tennessee, where Memphis is. So welcome, Bennie. I am so thrilled to have you here.
Bennie Smith: Thank you so much for inviting me, Emily. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Emily Levy: As we’re recording this, you are in addition to your national work, in the middle of a local struggle in Shelby County over what election systems will be used there. Will you tell us a little bit about what’s going on there?
Bennie Smith: Yes. I preside in a … though we are a majority Democratic county, minimum 60/40 but more like 70/30 because of the state legislature which is Republican, I sit as a minority member on a five member board. We just had our commission meeting to select the type of voting equipment that we’re going to use for the next decade. It was a four to one vote. We actually had one of the Democrat commissioners that voted alongside the Republican led commission in favor of ballot marking devices. Obviously I cringe at that knowing the type of technology that is being used and being in the technology space, I’m a technocrat for sure. So bless their hearts, I get that they looked at it from a fiscal financial investment, and I looked at it from the whole spectrum of voting software and the fiscal responsibility.
Emily Levy: So you were the one vote against using a ballot marking device system for all voters at the polling places in Shelby County, right?
Bennie Smith: That’s right, that’s right. I took a beating.
Emily Levy: And not everyone listening to this knows what this controversy is about ballot marking devices. Do you want to describe that briefly?
Bennie Smith: Yeah. At the heart of voting, every device that we use to cast our vote at its core is still a computer. And computers can be manipulated, they can be hacked, they can malfunction. In most other procedural ways we have virus protection, we have Sarbanes-Oxley to make sure code is reviewed with publicly traded companies. There’s a whole industry around the auditability of our software, but this is a niche area that does not carry the same level of scrutiny until now, scrutiny … Scrutineers, until now when a lot of citizens have taken their levels of expertise, me being a finance and software developer and also I understand politics, taking those levels of expertise and now putting that type of scrutiny on this space of hardware, and those ballot marking devices are as some of the most vulnerable of technology that we do see in this modern era.
Emily Levy: So one of the vulnerabilities that we have highlighted a lot in the election protection movement recently is that while they are computers that spit out paper that shows some votes on it that the voter cast, they also have a barcode or in some cases a QR code that is actually what encodes the votes that are counted by the scanners. So that’s part of the problem. Part of the problem with these systems is that the voter can’t verify that what’s being counted is actually the votes that they cast. Do I have that that right?
Bennie Smith: Yeah. That is the most disturbing piece of the delivery of counting our votes. The reason being is we interact with barcodes all the time, yes, but we do so in the perspective of inventory. And we’re not inventory, we’re people. The best example I can give is where you are a gallon of milk with the same barcode as where I am, can cost different depending on when you get to the register. That one fact alone that a gallon of milk with the same … Turner is going to make milk jugs. They don’t make Memphis milk jugs, they just make a milk jug on an assembly line, and that barcode allows them to keep track of the inventory. So if they want to have a sale, or if the date changes to where they can’t sell enough of it before it expires, then they can reduce that cost and allow all the other places that are moving this inventory to adjust without having any problems.
Bennie Smith: Well, what does that mean when you apply it to voting? It means that whatever you were, or whatever you should be, can be modified by a simple barcode, and that is the single most devastating thing that can happen when you consider that the other subject that we’re going to talk about kind of enables the facilitation of this inventory movement.
Emily Levy: Yes, and we will get to that in a few minutes. So let’s focus in on Shelby County. So you lost this four to one vote about purchasing BMDs, ballot marking devices for Shelby County elections, but the fight isn’t over. I know you’ve got a meeting later today which already will have happened by the time people hear this, but let’s give them enough information to be able to look up the results of the next step if they want to know what becomes of this situation.
Bennie Smith: Okay. So as a result, the way that our county is structured, there is a county board of commissioners, which is a 13-member body that controls funding for any monies that are spent in our County. Now the County Election Commission which I serve on is a 5- member body that’s basically making a request to the Board of Commissioners to purchase this hardware and equipment, the solution that our body voted for. They are entirely the arbiters and the party that’s responsible for funding it so they do have a say in it. They can entirely choose to reject our recommendation. And the pressure that has come as a result of the scrutiny of the machines and the pressures that are coming nationally with outside influencers and inside influencers and the overall lack of transparency to this space in general, has caused those members to have to now pay attention because whatever they vote for, if there is problems, they are going to be the persons that our citizens should look to as having failed us.
Bennie Smith: So it’s going to them either today or in a week or so. They have to vote on whether or not to approve our funding, so that would be the next round of what will happen in this kind of a saga now. We’ve had outside organization, and I think it was a little unfair to our commissioners because they didn’t realize that this was a national movement. So-
Emily Levy: Surprise!
Bennie Smith: So me being one of those key players in the … I think I’m a key player because everybody keeps telling me I am.
Emily Levy: You are.
Bennie Smith: But me being a key player in this movement, I was aware that this would come with so much sunlight, and I don’t think they were aware. So now lots of national organizations, Audit USA being the largest organization that put a lot of scrutiny, they started just fine tooth combing in the state of Tennessee, and they found a lot of alarming things about the people who represent us, and it’s not all clean. It does seem to be all bad. And they are peppering the commissioners with lots of facts that if they read them, they should definitely be trying to rule out some of the things that have been raised before entering into such a binding agreement for so much money.
Emily Levy: Having to do among other things, with conflict of interest.
Bennie Smith: Yes. There were lots of not accusations, these were documentation layouts of potential … at least for sure, for me as a sitting commissioner, the mere appearance of impropriety should be enough when you deal with public dollars, so it’s been alarming for me to see. I take some of the people at their word for it, but I definitely want to see the facts play out to see what the end conclusions of those revelations are.
Emily Levy: Great, thank you. It’s very troubling to see jurisdictions around the country adopting these ballot marking device systems for all voters. I know that you mentioned that the commissioners who voted in favor of it in Shelby County were looking at it from a financial perspective, but these are actually among the most expensive systems, especially compared with hand marked paper ballots. Isn’t that true?
Bennie Smith: Yeah. So we reside in a county where … I may get in trouble for it, but the tail wags the dog. Our board of commissioners, it’s five of us who are the bosses of our administrator, but yet the commission functions and operates as where she’s the boss of us. So she can make recommendations, and she is basically laying out a case that hand marked paper ballots, you can’t make this up. She said it was going to cost $24 million over 10 years, and then it changed to $13 million. I don’t know how you can get $10 million without showing how you got there. She hasn’t showed any … usually you have places like Deloitte to come in and give you analysis like this, right? But she’s done it all on-
Emily Levy: I don’t know what that is actually, Deloitte.
Bennie Smith: Deloitte is a really large company that can come in and look at a company and throw a number of analysts to look at a procedure and determine the cost factors and kind of un-turn every stone to see financial … That’s what large companies do, they hire people to come in and look at, if you’re going to downsize a company or acquire a company, you hire somebody like that to come in and look. So it’s very troubling because I actually operate in that space. My career has been in these publicly traded companies where you do this type of thing. But she’s done it wholesale on her own, probably on a spreadsheet, and she hasn’t shown the math of how she gets there. Unfortunately for our five member body, they are taking her at her word for these costs and … but being in the space, I’ve seen the OSET study where they said it’s twice the cost. So I think they’re being misled-
Emily Levy: OSET is what?
Bennie Smith: I don’t know the acronym, but it’s an institute that did a study and I’ll send you the link. But they did a study on the cost and I think they used Philadelphia and they did a 10-year cost comparison with a moderate use of printing paper, a cartoon number of printing paper using ballot marking devices, and the cartoon number was still like 20 million cheaper.
Emily Levy: I just looked it up. It’s the Open Source Election Technology Institute is what OSET stands for.
Bennie Smith: Yeah.
Emily Levy: Okay. So I really hope that by the time this episode airs, that the money for those ballot marking device systems will have been turned down, especially since this year we’re going to need to be because of the pandemic, using primarily hand marked paper ballots that people mark in their homes and either drop off or send in, and that’s going to need to happen throughout the country. So thank you for your work in trying to get the best sys… well actually, I didn’t ask you. What would you like to see Shelby County adopt as its voting system?
Bennie Smith: Absolutely hand marked paper ballots. Listen, my background is in analytics, finance, heavy programming, heavy data sets. I developed a COVID-19 dashboard, you can use it for your organization. It’s www.smartsoft.llc, and there’s a link to view COVID-19 cases. I track the cases worldwide, and one of the things that I really did find alarming, there is some positivity in it, but Wisconsin, they had their election on April 7th, but the last time I checked was maybe three or four days ago, 84% of all of their positive cases came on or after that election, and that was a really disturbing number. What was positive is not as many people are dying, and you don’t want anybody to die. But it’s morbid to see that I’m a black kid in America, there are two Americas for me and as of this recording, there is literally civil unrest about the brutality and the African American community.
   
Bennie Smith: But the places where the cases are high in Wisconsin are in black areas. And put that with the historical context of my ancestors, my forefathers, they died so that I could have the right to participate in elections, but never would I imagine that I could die for actually exercising that right. You’re supposed to die for a right to do something, not get sick doing the thing and die. So you end up with this reverse effect of, I call it the law of reversed effort, right? You say you want to get turnout by suppressing the turnout, inadvertently either omission or commission, I think they’re both the same, you want participation, but you do something that doesn’t allow participation. And it is dangerous, to your point.
Emily Levy: And there is a lot of it going on this year.
Bennie Smith: Yeah, yeah. It’s a lot of it going on, it’s pretty disturbing to see.
Emily Levy: I want to move on and talk a little bit about the amazing contributions that you’ve made and particularly around your discovery about what we referred to as the extraordinarily high risk tampering mechanism that turns out to be built into many of the vote counting systems in this country. So we need to go back in time a little bit to … and I know I’ve heard you tell this story and unfortunately we don’t have time in this episode for the whole story, so we’re just going to hit a few of the highlights of what happened. So you are somebody who didn’t really believe that elections were manipulated at the beginning of this story, is that right?
Bennie Smith: Solid in the no column. Solid like this is ridiculous, let’s stop playing. Yep.
Emily Levy: What happened? What happened to change your mind about that?
Bennie Smith: Well, a number of candidates, there was something that happened in 2010, they kind of jingled … tickled a part of your brain to say wait a minute, this one doesn’t look normal. One of the most formidable candidates in 2010 lost, and-
Emily Levy: This was in a local election and-
Bennie Smith: Yeah, in a local election. And then 2014 rolls around where there’s a slate of, there’s some good candidates, some bad candidates. But there were some really household names on there, and then there was a complete sweep of all of the … think about it. I’m in a Democrat dominated county, but it was like a complete Republican sweep of the entire county, you’re talking 10 positions. So a lot of those candidates came, and I’m still in the no column at this point. A lot of those candidates came to be in-
Emily Levy: No column about believing that elections are manipulated.
Bennie Smith: Yeah, manipulated. So a lot of those candidates came and everybody who loses say it was stolen, right? So I’m like, “You probably just lost.” Right? I do predictive analytics, I help people get elected. So I’m like, “Man, you didn’t knock on no doors, enough of the doors or something. You passed out cards to people who don’t vote. You got to target this thing.” The analytics side of me is what’s speaking. But then I started giving it a little credence. It started off as a consolation prize. I basically said, “I don’t believe you, but I’ll take a look at it, and that’s the best I can do.” So I got the documents from court cases, Blackboxvoting.org got these documents through court cases. And I just took … and examined the systems and what I saw, oh my God. It was just like somebody tell you the Bible ain’t real. It was morbid to see that the systems had this framework that was built inside of it, and there was no denying that its purpose is to do what I thought it was.
Bennie Smith: And that’s when I said, “What if I’m wrong?” Still I’m a programmer, any time I write any code and it don’t work it’s because I’m wrong, so you learn in my world to think that you’re wrong first anyway. So I basically went through an exercise where I said, “Well if I’m wrong, this can’t be here,” and I went and it was there. Well, this wouldn’t work if this isn’t there and I would look at that and it was there. I went through the five stages of grief and I went all the way and I was like no, I’m pretty sure that this is … either unintended or intentional, it is the same vulnerability regardless of how you look at it.
Emily Levy: And what does that vulnerability do?
Bennie Smith: It allows us to be counted like money. And what that means is I can be one whole vote which I should be, but I could also be .2 or .4. Or if you like the deeper meaning I could be .6, which is 3/5. That is not something that belongs in any type of software that’s supposed to be a transfer of unfettered access and power. There’s no … I’m not going to ever vote in an election where I’m not represented as a whole number, and that capacity should just be completely removed. But the deeper revelation was it wasn’t a bug that I discovered, it was a feature.
Emily Levy: So I want to pause for a minute and make … I want to try to restate what you said which I think was clear. And admittedly, I’ve heard you talk about it many times before and had the opportunity to have you explain it to me over and over again one afternoon when we were together speaking in Florida, until I really understood it. This really helped me, and so maybe it will help the listeners. I thought about when I use a spreadsheet, I can format a column of numbers so that it only will hold the whole numbers. And if I try to type something else into there, depending on what software it is it’s either going to give me an error message or it’s just going to round it to a whole number or put in a whole number. Or I can make a spreadsheet so that if … and this is I think what you mean when you say counting us like money, whereas I’m going to type in two, and it’s going to put 2.00-
Bennie Smith: Point 00, yes.
Emily Levy: … and if I … so what you’re saying is inside the software that counts votes in this country, instead of counting only whole numbers, it can actually register a decimal point and so it could count somebody’s vote as .6 or it could count somebody’s vote as more than one. It could count … it could be programmed to actually change votes that come in as whole numbers to be instead counted as fractions.
Bennie Smith: That’s correct.
Emily Levy: And what that does is create a weighted election where not everyone’s vote counts equally. Do I have that right?
Bennie Smith: Right. You got it, you got it. That was the feature, and the feature has a name and it’s called a weighted election. And the best example for it for your listeners is I’m going to be the loser, but Emily can be 1.6 and I can be .4. When you see it in the spreadsheet it’s going to still show two, but it doesn’t recognize-
Emily Levy: As the total, the total would be two.
Bennie Smith: … that, yeah. It’s going to transfer my vote to Emily where she’s two votes, and I’m zero after rounding. Then you got it.
Emily Levy: For this … so you discovered that it was a feature, and actually that it was a feature that the voting system vendors claimed they had put in there for a really dubious real reason.
Bennie Smith: Yeah.
Emily Levy: Can you say what that was?
Bennie Smith: Yeah. So there was … the examples are for property rights. If I own two acres of land and you own a half acre of land and we’re voting on something like land use, then because I own more land, I should be able to count for more representation or a larger weight in the outcome because I have more property at stake.
Emily Levy: And there are land use related elections that allow people to vote that are weighted for a reason, whether we agree with it or not. It’s the way those elections are designed to be run.
Bennie Smith: Right. And also corporate elections where the chairman can have two votes and everybody else has one. So there are times where you need those types of things but again, not to the tune of 200 million people.
Emily Levy: Yeah, it’s not something we should be … we shouldn’t have that ability in the election systems for all our elections because in some tiny percentage of elections it’s done that way.
Bennie Smith: Right.
Emily Levy: And so what was it like for you when you discovered that, when you reached the conclusion that this was in effect in our voting system?
Bennie Smith: So it reeked in the beginning. That was the most morbid feeling. But that was quickly overcome with calm and intrigue where I wanted to know why is it there? What can you do if you actually have this mechanism that nobody can really authenticate because you don’t even get to see that it’s active? And I basically set out to build based on the specifications that I saw in the manual, what the execution of something that functioned that way could actually do.
Emily Levy: So I’ve always been confused about this part. So basically you discovered through your research that this vulnerability advertised as a feature existed in the system, and then you sort of built something that would do the same thing so that you could investigate it farther and play with it and figure out what its capacity was. Is that what you’re saying?
Bennie Smith: So the way the … what I discovered was the structure and the framework. Just imagine that, just take your car, right? Your car has all of these intricate things that are inside of it, but if you take the battery out, it won’t crank. Right? So I saw this car and the only thing that I saw missing was the battery, so I built the battery and set it inside the car and it cranked.
Emily Levy: And then what did you discover from that?
Bennie Smith: I had … I get to be God without His permission when I do that. I could just pick winners and losers with untold Godlike precision. I can make a close race, I can make a blow out, I can make a controversial one, I can make a split race, I can make a virtual tie if I wanted to, and that is just not good.
Emily Levy: It’s not, it’s horrifying.
Bennie Smith: Yeah, it’s horrifying.
Emily Levy: It’s absolutely horrifying.
Bennie Smith: There you go, that’s horrifying.
Emily Levy: I have a few more questions about it. I want to talk in a minute about what can we do about it, and how can we detect if it’s going on, and are there races where if you want to speculate where you believe that this has been used to manipulate the outcome. First I want to ask, who has access to activate this?
Bennie Smith: The question I was trying to answer was, is something like this possible and if it was, is it repeatable? And if it was, could it be used like a service where you have a subscription, but you can buy a larger subscription and unlock more features. I quickly saw that that answer was possible, so that in and of itself was enough for me. That was the catalyst that made me see this is absolutely entirely true. I forgot the second part of your question. Can you tell me the second part of your question?
Emily Levy: Who has access to activate it?
Bennie Smith: Oh yeah, who has access. So the design in the design specs was basically for your local administrators, your technical representatives that program the election, anybody who’s on the inside. It was designed in a way because it’s an external component, you don’t see that the framework is there and that it doesn’t work without the external component. So whoever-
Emily Levy: The battery that you-
Bennie Smith: Yeah, the battery. So we’ll bring this fully functioning car and in this example, the car can drive without the battery but it works better if you use the battery, you can unlock more things with this special battery, right? You can get one that can crank it but if you put this other battery in it, it unlocks a bunch of other things. So middlemen, insiders, anyone with inside access is who this would be tailored to, or that would be the people that would use it. But as we know with computers, if you understand how something works and that’s typically what a virus is, an unintended execution of code that wasn’t designed to do that way, so if I rearrange your keyboard that every time you type the “H” that it shows a “B,” that’s an unintended structural change. So that’s all a virus really is. It runs what it wants to run instead of what it’s programmed to run.
Bennie Smith: So with access to the computer, anybody who can get access to that computer now has the capability of accessing it, so it extends beyond the insider because the computer at some point reaches to the outside world.
Emily Levy: Through internet connections or having a device that’s been connected to the internet and has malicious code on it, then on a soft …
Bennie Smith: USB.
Emily Levy: … file put on a USB drive plugged into the computer or that sort of thing.
Bennie Smith: Yeah, or a network connection that has an affected computer on the network that also talks to the computer that has this software running on it.
Emily Levy: Let’s say I’m an election official and I have done my homework and I’ve learned about this vulnerability, and I want to make really sure that it’s not going to be operative in the election that I’m responsible for running. Can I do that? Is there a way I can be sure that I’ve disabled it and prevented it from being used?
Bennie Smith: Yes and no. It’s such a stealth design that the best way that an election administrator could do it is to reach out to the vendor and tell them to disable it and publish for them the source code so that they can note it as disabled and know that it shouldn’t be running. The second thing that I would say is to move away from reliance on the electronic record and have some type of audit procedure as a way of authenticating the intent. And that’s the reason why audits are … I wouldn’t take credit for it for audits being popular now, but that would be one direct result of understanding that this can be done without your knowledge, it’s unknowable after you do it so you have to have some way of knowing what the official record is. And the closest thing you can get to an official record is voter intent, and the best way to capture voter intent is to let my hand and eye and brain coordination help me select what I want versus some other middleman that [inaudible]
Emily Levy: So hand marked paper ballots once again so that they not only exist but they’re actually checked, at least a really statistically significant sample of them to be sure enough that the announced results are correct.
Bennie Smith: Yeah. If you can authenticate the input, then you can predict the output. And that’s the problem with the ballot marking device and this entire industry in general. The input is, they say it in programming all the time and in reporting and analytics. Garbage in, garbage out. So if you don’t have a way of knowing what was put into the system then you … what comes… if you pick something we can all be surprised, right? The output, it’s unknowable especially in my world.
Emily Levy: How prevalent are the systems that can run these weighted elections in the United States?
Bennie Smith: So from when Bloomberg covered Memphis, they took a piece of this storyline which we haven’t discussed here. I’ll just give a brief primer on it. When I was studying and writing the Fraction Magic program, I was trying to figure out how I could beat myself. What I was looking at was anytime there was something that was more authentic than computation, and for me that was poll tapes because poll tapes, you don’t see in this space at all anybody commit anything until days or weeks afterwards. But those poll tapes, they’re committed on election night, right? That’s literally the-
Emily Levy: So for our audience who isn’t familiar with poll tapes, those are usually strips of paper that kind of look like a cash register receipt that are printed out when the polls close and show the votes that were cast on that machine. And in a lot of states, those have to be posted publicly viewable from outside the polling place. Sometimes they’re posted on the inside of a window facing out, sometimes they’re posted on the door or somewhere nearby. So you’re talking about one election protection project being done, and it’s being … there’s groups doing this all over the country, is to take pictures of or take videos of those poll tapes so that the totals on them can be compared to the totals after the data is run through the central machines where Fraction Magic could take place.
Bennie Smith: Because there are multiple threat vectors, that was what I surmised that this is something where at least something is being committed to the record. That’s why I went to my predictions, algorithms told me to go to a specific precinct. I got lucky. It was a high turnout precinct and I wouldn’t call it luck as much, I did find a different error as a result of going there. And basically the precinct tape committed the data to the record on election night, it said 548 people walked in and cast a ballot. But when it hit the central tabulator and the totals came out, that total was 330. So there is no possible way to lose 40% of your value unless you’re doing some subtraction, something really … some real stinkin’ thinkin’ is going on there, or you have an error that you definitely want to be aware is happening.
Bennie Smith: So we had a lot of missing votes at a predominantly black precinct. It turned out to be I think, 22 other precincts that had the same anomaly, and that was just the only thing that was committed to the record. So I would definitely look for ways of seeing what is committed already so that you can … The way it’s supposed to work is you’re supposed to have problems and you’re supposed to audit your way to prove why the problems were what they were. But typically what you see in elections now is you have problems and they try to make sure you don’t think that it was actually a problem so that they don’t have to authenticate what happened. And that’s not necessarily nefarious by nature, that’s just not wanting to do to the work or maybe not even being equipped to do the work.
Emily Levy: So somebody listening to this podcast who wants to do something about this, what are the options for really decreasing the damage that this is doing in the election?
Bennie Smith: The chain of custody is the most un-talked about piece of this. You should have very strict chain of custody rules. We have abysmal chain of custody in Shelby County. I’ve been asking, I’ve been on the election commission for a year and I’ve been asking for them. They just don’t give it to me.
Emily Levy: What’s an example of a vulnerability in the chain of custody in Shelby County?
Bennie Smith: So when … who delivered the machines? What was the serial numbers? What was the … did we get the zero tapes? Who had them, did we print them out? Where are they? Did we store those? Did we compare it? What’s the mileage? The election machine works like a speed odometer. An election will tell you how many votes has been processed so you can know when it’s reached its lifecycle. I can’t say … and that should authenticate. If I have a thousand miles and I drive a thousand miles, I now have 2000 miles. So the machine should actually have a thousand miles on it, there was an election, a thousand votes got counted, so now we should have 2000 miles. So there are lots of ways that you can authenticate the count. This simple exercise which should be record anyway, would have caught the 548 turning to 330 because it would have said there was zero votes and now there are 548 miles, but the total said 330 miles. How can the totals be different from the actual mileage on the machine? So there are lots of procedural things that you can do to tighten it up.
Emily Levy: And that’s true. And election monitors, people who are not necessarily working for the elections department or not necessarily even poll workers, can observe some of those things and report problems that are seen.
Bennie Smith: Yeah. I said this on a different interview. There are two Ps that don’t belong together, public and proprietary. Those guys are complete opposites of each other, that’s oil and water. And what we have is, casting a ballot, granted that’s secret. Counting it, that’s public. It’s publicly funded, we buy these machines with public dollars. I pay a good amount of taxes, so my money is invested in this. When it comes to authenticating anything through public means, you do not want some type of veil of proprietary, private means. So what happens is the public pays for this stuff, there is an election, there’s public interest in the outcome, and then we’re hit with a proprietary wall. And-
Emily Levy: Which is the voting machine vendors saying, you can’t see this software because it’s our property, it’s our intellectual property.
Bennie Smith: Right, like publicly traded companies. The private companies, they get a deal. I’ve been working in public companies like FedEx. If I worked for FedEx, I could get fired for the code I write. At FedEx, you got … look, when is Ernst & Young or KPMG going to audit election software and code? That gets audited in publicly traded companies because we had Enron. So Sarbanes Oxley was the result of Enron, and we don’t have a Sarbanes Oxley when it comes to this. And the reason why is because it’s a private firm and all of that is considered proprietary. Coca-Cola is a publicly traded company so KPMG can come and make sure that you ain’t altered the formula, but it’s still locked behind your proprietary means, but there is a public way of accessing it through some channels. And we just don’t have any channels like that when it comes to voting. It’s abhorrent that that doesn’t exist.
Emily Levy: We have such a long way to go to get to where we need to be with our election systems. And we unfortunately have significantly less of a way to go to get to the end of this podcast because we’re running a little bit long. I want to ask you two really I think, quick questions. One is you said earlier that you wouldn’t vote if your vote might not be counted as one whole vote. Are you going to be voting this year?
Bennie Smith: Absolutely. There are strategies that citizens should do. We should police our Republic, but we shouldn’t run from it either. I’m going to vote because I need to. At some point this is going to bend to the will of the people. At some point, it’s going to bend to the will of the people. But I’m going in there even if I’ve got to write all my candidates in, I would rather write them in. You can’t steal my writing in. Or if I don’t want to vote in the election, I’ll pick all of them so you can’t steal my vote. I don’t want to be the person that gave up on the institution. That’s another thing I guess I feel the need to say. We really are careening towards something very destabilizing in the region. I characterize it this way with coronavirus and the history of the Red Summer from 1919, the Civil War and 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. There are countries that really had a vantage point at the turmoil that America is going through. So we are really ripe for a 9/11 in the middle of a civil war, right? We are divided in a way that is destabilizing for it to be an election year.
Bennie Smith: And in November there is going to be a loser. There’s going to be a loser. And we’re going to either have to deal with sore winners, sore losers or doubters, and there is no way around it. The best thing that could happen to preserve the institution is to be able to authenticate that their winner was actually the person who won, and the loser was actually the person who lost. I don’t have a problem with Trump winning if the voters elected him. I don’t have a problem with anybody losing if they were the loser. That’s the institution. The institution should rise above any one candidate, right? So this is where election integrity is most critical now with what’s on the horizon because we are just trying to make sure that the truth is what we counted, not that the winner is who we prefer to win.
Emily Levy: Beautiful. Thank you so much.
Bennie Smith: I guess I got to give a shameless plug. I think you were the person that talked me into rising into the moment that was calling for people who understand this stuff to tell the public about it. So you know me well enough to know that’s not my comfort zone, though I may sound like a talker. But it is so important that anybody who has any question, let’s dissect it, let’s understand it. Because we don’t … we have to have this so that we aren’t discouraging non-participation, or encouraging non-participation. We’re not trying to make people not participate. We need to open up the books and be transparent and educate people so that we can be informed and have more faith in participating because we know what to look for.
Emily Levy: So well said. Bennie Smith, thank you so very much for your time today and for your work, your dedication. And best wishes with Shelby County and everything going on in this crazy, crazy year.
Bennie Smith: Thank you so much.
Emily Levy: You can find rough transcripts of each episode at whowhatwhy.org/podcast. You’re invited to get involved in the election protection movement by joining Scrutineers, that’s scrutineers.org. That’s S-C-R-U-T-I-N-E-E-R-S dot O-R-G. Whether you’re a seasoned activist or advocate or have never before worked for social justice, you are welcome. Both WhoWhatWhy. and Scrutineers depend on your support to keep our work going. If you appreciate what we do, please donate through our websites. You’ll find WhoWhatWhy. at whowhatwhy.org/donate. Remember to check your voter registration and help others do the same. And vote in every election. Thanks for listening.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from New Jersey National Guard / Flickr and Scrutineers.

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

There are 4 comments Our Comment Policy: Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

Our Comment Policy: Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.