Problems with Electronic Poll Books: Scrutineers, Part IV

Jennifer Cohn, e-poll books
Jennifer Cohn, attorney and election integrity advocate (inset). Election workers plug in e-poll books as they prepare the early voting site at the Randallstown Community Center for the first day of early voting in the Maryland primary on July 21, 2020. Photo credit: @JennyCohn1 and © TNS via ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 22 minutes

In this episode of the Scrutineers Series, host Emily Levy interviews election security advocate and social media influencer Jennifer Cohn about the dangers of electronic pollbooks. E-poll books are used around the US to check in voters as they arrive at their precincts. Because the poll books are software-driven and use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, they’re vulnerable to manipulation and malfunction. And when voters can’t check in smoothly, long lines result, disenfranchising them.

Cohn and Levy discuss the risks of e-poll book technology and the vendors hawking these systems to jurisdictions around the country. They shine a light on examples of elections where they’ve already created problems.

You’ll also hear what you can do — as a voter, election advocate, or election worker — to help decrease the problems exposed in this episode.

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Jennifer Cohn is an election security advocate, writer, and freelance journalist whose election-integrity articles have appeared in the New York Review of Books, TYT Investigates, the Brad Blog, Salon, and here on WhoWhatWhy.

Since the 2016 election she has focused her professional efforts exclusively on investigating and exposing our country’s insecure computerized elections. A compilation of her written work and interviews can be found at ProtectOurVotes.com. She posts daily about election security via her twitter account, @jennycohn1, which has over 140k followers.


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.
Emily Levy: 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.
Emily Levy: My guest today is Jennifer Cohn, an election security advocate, writer, and freelance journalist whose election security articles have appeared in The New York Review of Books, TYT Investigates, The BRAD BLOG, Salon, and here on Who/What/Why.
Emily Levy: Since the 2016 election, she’s focused her professional efforts exclusively on investigating and exposing our country’s insecure computerized elections.
Emily Levy: You can find a compilation of her written work and interviews at protectourvotes.com. She posts daily about election security via her Twitter account @jennycohn1. Her last name is spelled C-O-H-N. jennycohn1, which has over 140,000 followers.
Emily Levy: Jennifer is an attorney who has previously specialized in insurance coverage, civil appeals, and criminal appellate law, though now she is focused entirely on election security. Jennifer, I’m so delighted to have you here. Thank you for being here today.
Jennifer Cohn: Emily, it’s my pleasure.
Emily Levy: We’re going to talk today about a specific issue, which is electronic poll books. I know that you have been doing some in-depth research on this little-understood part of the current election systems in the United States. Will you start out by telling us what electronic poll books are?
Jennifer Cohn: Yes. Electronic poll books are tablet computers that are used at polling places to check in voters, confirm that they are registered voters, confirm that they have not already voted. In recent years, they are increasingly being used to program the activation cards for a new type of touchscreen voting machine called a ballot marking device.
Jennifer Cohn: They have been around for years, these tablet computers. But most jurisdictions, until fairly recently, the past several years had used paper poll books. There’s been this seismic shift toward electronic poll books since about 2016.
Jennifer Cohn: Typically, at least on Election Day, using these electronic poll books is unnecessary. I fear that this is one of the most serious and under-reported risks of the 2020 election.
Emily Levy: I agree with you. I am very concerned about this. Before we get into what the dangers are of electronic poll books, are there any advantages to them?
Jennifer Cohn: Well, they facilitate and, I think enable, early voting, You can weigh in on this, but as I understand it, I think it would be more or less logistically impossible to conduct early voting without electronic poll books.
Jennifer Cohn: So that is a primary advantage that I see; the idea being that, trying to update on a daily basis, paper poll books; including whether voters have already voted; to try to do that in real time would really be impossible with early voting without poll books.
Emily Levy: Yeah.
Jennifer Cohn: But on Election Day, they are not necessary and they are promoted as making the check-in process more efficient. But what we’re seeing in many places is the opposite, where these poll books often require a WiFi connection or they use Bluetooth. If they can’t establish that connection, then the result is chaos. We’ve seen other problems with them as well that we can discuss.
Emily Levy: When you say the result is chaos, what does that chaos look like at a polling place?
Jennifer Cohn: It looks like really, really long lines and thousands of people waiting in line, angry and upset. This is what we saw. One of the first indications that this could be a serious problem in 2020 was during the primary in Los Angeles County, which, by the way, was before there was a lockdown. And before there was a great understanding of the need to social distance and things.
Jennifer Cohn: It had nothing to do with the pandemic, but they used these KNOWINK check-in computers, and they had connectivity issues all throughout the county. The result looked very much like voter suppression that we see in the South, only it was in Los Angeles County, and really throughout the county, in really all of the different neighborhoods.
Emily Levy: In Los Angeles County with the new system, they have what’s called vote centers. So instead of everybody having one place that they have to go vote that’s theoretically near their home, people can vote in any vote center.
Emily Levy: In addition to early voting, that’s another reason that system would not work without electronic poll books, because when someone goes to check in to vote, you got to know whether they’ve already voted somewhere else.
Jennifer Cohn: Exactly. That’s why I actually am very much against these voters-can-vote-anywhere vote centers. I think that the notion also that they’re … I mean, that many voters are saying, “Oh, I don’t want to vote at my neighborhood polling place. I want to drive to some other random location in the county to vote.” But I don’t think there are a lot of voters that make that decision. Certainly there may be some.
Emily Levy: Or some that need to vote near their work because of work schedules, for example.
Jennifer Cohn: I guess, okay; maybe that is the primary reason. But the problem is when you have voters can vote anywhere, you become much more tech dependent.
Emily Levy: Yes.
Jennifer Cohn: The Brennan Center says we should have backup paper poll books or electronic poll books. Frankly, we don’t need the Brennan Center to tell us that. It’s common sense, especially with reports that Russia, not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well, is using the Internet to attack election systems.
Jennifer Cohn: They did it in Ukraine in 2014. They took down their election reporting website in 2014 in Ukraine. So the idea that we are responding to this type of threat by doubling and tripling up on Internet connectivity at polling places, it is extremely upsetting and dangerous, in my opinion.
Emily Levy: What kinds of attacks are electronic poll books vulnerable to?
Jennifer Cohn: Well, as with any type of voting equipment, insiders could wreak havoc on them. But Internet hackers could do something like a denial of service attack, which means they could block. They could do the rolling blackouts, which we saw in Belarus. They had rolling blackouts.
Jennifer Cohn: I don’t think it was to take down electronics. It was to stop social media organizing. That type of thing could have a very serious impact on electronic poll books. It could make them not work.
Jennifer Cohn: If you’re using them, even if you had backup paper poll books, if you are using electronic poll books to activate the voting machines, then you may run into trouble activating. You would not be able to activate the voting machines unless poll workers are trained to do it manually, which they are not always trained to do.
Jennifer Cohn: So denial of service is the most basic. I believe ransomware is another type of attack. I also think you could have problems from corrupt insiders, or even just negligent, sloppy insiders screwing with the data and redirect, changing people’s polling places to cause havoc and disenfranchise voters- [crosstalk]
Emily Levy: Or changing numbers on their addresses or letters in their name or something like that.
Jennifer Cohn: Exactly. Or their birth date. They could change their date of birth, because that’s typically how, when you check in with a poll book, they look you up by your birth date. If those are wrong inside the poll book, then they’re not going to find you. At least not easily.
Jennifer Cohn: So there are lots of things that can go wrong with poll books. In Ohio, in Hamilton County; I don’t know what year this was. It was within the last several years, I believe. 4,000 voters were removed, were not inside the electronic poll book because due to a programming error, they put the wrong cutoff date or something in the poll books.
Jennifer Cohn: There’s just a lot of different ways that these poll books can be misused to have the opposite effect of what I think many election officials might intend when they buy them.
Emily Levy: Yeah. What do we know about the vendors, the companies that produce and sell these systems to election departments, election boards?
Jennifer Cohn: Much as we’ve seen with voting machine vendors, with the actual voting machines, there are just a handful of vendors that are dominating the electronic poll book industry.
Jennifer Cohn: I mentioned that the largest vendor appears to be, and I’ve been told by a former election official that it is, KNOWINK.
Emily Levy: Will you spell that? Because it’s kind of a [crosstalk]
Jennifer Cohn: Sure. It’s spelled K-N-O-W-I-N-K.
Emily Levy: Thank you.
Jennifer Cohn: Sure. Its managing director, and I believe its founder, is a guy named Scott Leiendecker, who is a former Republican election official from St. Louis. His product manager, according to his LinkedIn, was a member of College Republicans and campaigned for Ed Martin, who is now the president of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, which opposes the Equal Rights Amendment.
Jennifer Cohn: That’s what I know about the management at KNOWINK. Much like we’ve seen with the voting machine vendors, we are seeing vendors like KNOWINK making contributions, donations to election officials who then buy their equipment. And certainly KNOWINK is in that category.
Jennifer Cohn: Another vendor is Tenex. I haven’t studied it quite as carefully, but the same kind of thing seems to exist there where at least, in a few instances, they have made campaign donations to election officials who then choose their equipment. And I believe-
Emily Levy: So we have both potential conflicts of interest and partisan behavior.
Jennifer Cohn: Yes. I don’t know as much whether Tenex, I don’t know the partisan nature of whoever founded it or leads the company. I know that Mike Ertel, who was a Republican election official in Florida, was at least at one point in the past several years, was working with Tenex to promote them to Alabama’s Republican secretary of state. Because there was a photo by the Alabama secretary of state showing them the four of them and saying that they were all with Tenex.
Jennifer Cohn: I believe that, well, Ertel definitely did in 2015 demonstrate electronic poll books to a Russian delegation. I don’t know if those were Tenex e-poll books or a different brand. I thought they were Tenex, but I can’t say for sure.
Jennifer Cohn: So yeah. Then of course there’s VR Systems, which I think is smaller, but they’re in seven states. That’s the vendor where Russia, at least according to the intelligence community report, actually breached it.
Jennifer Cohn: Then they were able to sort of impersonate VR systems and create phishing emails to get into county election officials systems. That was VR Systems. It took two years for even the officials there to take the concern seriously enough about potential hacking of their system.
Emily Levy: Officials where?
Jennifer Cohn: This was in North Carolina. There were significant problems with those VR Systems poll books in Durham County, North Carolina in 2016.
Jennifer Cohn: Two or three years later, the Department of Homeland Security conducted a forensic analysis and could find no evidence of hacking. But it wasn’t clear to me from their report whether they would have expected to find it after three years or not.
Emily Levy: Yeah I think we have to be really careful. Whenever I hear, “found no evidence of hacking,”-
Jennifer Cohn: Right. Go ahead.
Emily Levy: … that doesn’t say that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t say that there was evidence that it didn’t happen. Because so many of these types of attacks can happen and there is no evidence.
Jennifer Cohn: Right.
Emily Levy: So to say that evidence wasn’t found, number one, doesn’t tell us whether it was looked for or not. And number two, doesn’t tell us that it was actually safe.
Jennifer Cohn: Yes, it’s such an important thing. If I can segue just for a second on that, there was no evidence; that was the common mantra right after the 2016 election that we sought the evidence that vote tallies were changed, But I read the book Rigged by David Shimer.
Jennifer Cohn: Apparently, according to four senior members of the Obama administration and John Brennan; I think maybe one of them is John Brennan, one of those four; Russian actors absolutely were in a position to change vote tallies in some places.
Jennifer Cohn: What the Obama administration had in place in 2016 was some state election officials let the Department of Homeland Security in 2016 monitor their state election systems. I believe it was 33. So 17 did not, 36 counties of the many, many, many, many, many, many counties throughout the United States, so just 36, had the DHS monitoring their websites.
Jennifer Cohn: When the Obama administration announced that they saw no evidence, it appears that they were referring to just these state systems that they were monitoring. When in reality, if you were a hacker and you wanted to actually change the outcome of an election, I personally believe you would target the counties.
Jennifer Cohn: Because if you’re only targeting, say the state reporting system, that would get discovered very easily just by adding up the counties. Anybody could do that and show that it didn’t match. It’s much harder to get someone to aggregate all the precinct totals independently and double check the county totals.
Jennifer Cohn: So yeah, the “no evidence” absolutely doesn’t mean that they looked, or that they looked in a way that would have discovered where hacking likely occurred.
Emily Levy: Thank you for that.
Emily Levy: Let’s say I am an election official who’s concerned about the possibility of hacking. And the jurisdiction that I’m in charge of does use these electronic poll books. What could I do to prevent the dangers that we’ve been discussing from materializing?
Jennifer Cohn: Well, I would absolutely suggest having backup paper poll books on Election Day. Again, I don’t expect that for early voting. It’s not logistically feasible.
Jennifer Cohn: I also think you need to see much more recruiting of young poll workers, and public messaging that they will have masks and face shields. Those are those plexiglass face shields, which are increasingly being recommended for healthcare workers and others who come into frequent contact with the public.
Jennifer Cohn: It’s an addition, not an instead of. And I think you message those two things concurrently. The more poll workers we have, the less reason there is to close polling places and move to any kind of consolidated vote center.
Jennifer Cohn: If you’re an election official and you are considering consolidating vote centers, I would strongly, strongly recommend rejecting Los Angeles County’s model, which was a voters-can-vote-anywhere model. I believe Dallas County has the same thing, and I’m sure other places do too.
Jennifer Cohn: Rejecting that, and doing something more like what Kentucky did, which was not perfect. I mean, there were voters outside once the polls closed, banging to get into the vote center. Nonetheless-
Emily Levy: Well, that was because the law says that anyone who’s in line at the time of the polls close can vote.
Jennifer Cohn: Oh.
Emily Levy: Instead, they shut the doors and shut out people who were in line in time to be allowed to vote.
Jennifer Cohn: Okay. Okay
Emily Levy: So that’s what happened at the end of the day there.
Jennifer Cohn: Thank you. I wasn’t quite sure what the problem was. So it didn’t have to do with the vote center model per se. What their model was, which actually worked quite well, other than the fact they shut the doors early; was that they had each corner of the room, or separate spaces within this large area, where they still maintain the separate precincts. But they were combined just within a common area.
Jennifer Cohn: So it wasn’t voters can vote anywhere. You still had your precincts, they still used hand-marked paper ballots, by the way. They didn’t use touchscreens is my understanding. I don’t know if they had backup paper poll books, but they could have. Whether they did or they didn’t, I hope they did. I’m going to try to find out if they did.
Jennifer Cohn: But if you have to combine polling places, that is a much, much better model that allows you to have these really, really critical backup paper everything on Election Day.
Emily Levy: It seems to me that early voting is really an important element that we have this year of how elections are going to take place. You said that that doesn’t work very well to have backup paper poll books with early voting. Is there any way to get that to work that you know of?
Jennifer Cohn: With early voting?
Emily Levy: Yeah.
Jennifer Cohn: I’ve tried to ask around, and I have been met with silence, from which I finally took the “no.” That no, there’s no way. It would be great if we could find a way.
Jennifer Cohn: I think if you’re talking about the paper ballots, you can use ballot on demand so that people could still mark their ballots with a ballpoint pen. But one thing that I have seen in, I believe it was St. Louis, is they used then the electronic poll books to program, to pull up the correct ballots from their ballot on demand.
Jennifer Cohn: I don’t know if it was in St. Louis or somewhere else, but there was a problem where a digit was missing from the barcode that used to do that, and they were dropping a race. That’s even with the ballot on demand.
Emily Levy: So the ballot on demand system is a system where, because each election, each county or election jurisdiction has a bunch of different ballot styles that they have to create, which are the combinations of the races that somebody can vote in, based on where they live. If it’s a primary, what party they belong to, and also what language their ballot needs to be in. So there’s all kinds of combinations of those things.
Emily Levy: With a paper ballot system, you’ve got to have enough paper ballots in each of those ballot styles. What a ballot on demand system does, as I understand it; please correct me if I’m wrong; is have all those styles computerized. When a voter checks in, a ballot can be printed that’s the right style for that voter.
Jennifer Cohn: Right. Generally, I think they’re preferable to a ballot marking device, which has a machine instead of a ballpoint pen actually doing the marking of the ballot.
Jennifer Cohn: But there is still a risk if you’re using these WiFi or Bluetooth or otherwise connected and networked electronic poll books too, and programmed electronic poll books in conjunction with the ballot on demands. I think that’s dangerous.
Jennifer Cohn: One thing I would recommend is … well, I would consider this. I’m not at the point of recommending it. I would consider whether you could just not use the poll books to activate the voting machines. If there’s a workaround.
Jennifer Cohn: Even if that’s too time consuming, and I certainly don’t want to create long lines. I don’t want to be responsible.
Emily Levy: It sounds like this using the poll book, electronic poll books to activate the voting machines is new information. And we’re not exactly sure yet how that works. Is that…
Jennifer Cohn: Well, exactly. But what I would say is that definitely poll workers need to be trained to do that activation manually without the poll book, in case the poll books don’t work.
Jennifer Cohn: That’s something that I look to see all the local news on what’s going wrong and what’s going right with things. That has been a problem, at least in one place where the electronic poll books, they couldn’t activate the voting machines because the poll books were down or the BNDs, maybe it was.
Jennifer Cohn: But they actually weren’t trained to do it manually. They could have done it manually, but the poll workers hadn’t been trained. So it’s really important to train your poll workers on these emergency procedures, which typically, or very often anyway, involve doing things manually and having paper backups.
Jennifer Cohn: It’s not enough just to provide, for example, backup paper poll books, or emergency backup hand-marked paper ballots for hand marking. The poll workers have to be trained to use them when things-
Emily Levy: Good point.
Jennifer Cohn: Yeah.
Emily Levy: When you think about the dangers posed by electronic poll books, what would you like to see advocates for voter enfranchisement, advocates for democracy and for election security and voting rights? What would you like to see us do in preparation for that?
Jennifer Cohn: A teenager named Bella … I was so excited by this, she is making some phone calls for me. She just volunteered it. She is calling, just at least in the swing states, a handful of the six or seven or eight swing states.
Jennifer Cohn: She’s calling the top three most populous counties for me and finding out if they’re using electronic poll books on Election Day? Will they have backup paper poll books. Because we need to understand the situation.
Jennifer Cohn: I know you’ve talked about doing this on a more broad scale as well. We need to understand what election officials are doing, so that we can then advocate these backup procedures. Right now we’re operating in a little bit of an information vacuum when it comes to electronic poll books.
Jennifer Cohn: Even in a similar vein, by the way, I did want to mention, I did write one article where I talk about these issues already. I wrote it for WhoWhatWhy.
Jennifer Cohn: The title would not suggest it has anything to do with electronic poll books. The title is Touchscreen Voting Machines and the Vanishing Black Vote. But I did include a whole section on electronic poll books and how they are using them to activate those new touchscreen voting machines.
Emily Levy: Great.
Jennifer Cohn: I had a quote from Professor Rich DeMillo of Georgia Tech, where he just explained that it’s this great … I can’t find the exact quote, but he explained that it’s this great unknown where no one has really analyzed yet. What would be the effect of inserting an activation card that has malware on it from one of these electronic poll books, inserting that into a ballot marking device.
Jennifer Cohn: What would be the effect of inserting an activation card that contains improper information such as the voter’s identity and whether they’re a registered Democrat or Republican? Could that be used to do something nefarious with the actual voting machine?
Jennifer Cohn: That really hasn’t been studied yet. I think it needs to be studied. I hope that this would be something that would be great for the DEF CON Voting Village to start looking into.
Jennifer Cohn: But your original question was about individual voters. I just really think we need to get the information, then maybe check in with my Twitter account @jennycohn1. I may try to organize some messaging, or maybe you can help me with that at Scrutineers where we can organize some messaging.
Jennifer Cohn: I think it’s one of the most important and just common-sense things that we can do to protect this election, is having those backup paper-
Emily Levy: Those backup paper poll books. I think one of the things that I think makes this a really great organizing opportunity, as somebody who’s always thinking about what can people do to make things better…
Emily Levy: …is for a long time, the election security advocates have talked about the dangers of electronic voting systems. The voting rights movement has largely not picked up that issue as part of the voting rights picture, which it absolutely is.
Jennifer Cohn: Yes.
Emily Levy: I mean, when we talk as election security advocates about the problems that we have with getting accurate vote counts that we can trust on electronic systems, the places that those vote counts are manipulated are most likely to be communities of color. So this absolutely is a voting rights issue. It is a voter suppression issue, that electronic voting systems as a whole.
Emily Levy: But I think because the voters in places where they vote on paper ballots and the ballots are scanned, the voters don’t really have that much interaction with the electronic equipment. That’s different when people vote on a touchscreen.
Emily Levy: But electronic poll books are a place where everywhere they’re in use, every voter is interacting with an electronic system, and may actually have the opportunity to see how it’s slowing things down. If you’re standing in a long line, you look at what’s at the beginning of this line that’s causing everything to slow. The problems are more visible.
Emily Levy: When electronic poll books have problems, those problems result in voters not being able to check in. That creates that chaos you were talking about where there’s a very visible effect.
Emily Levy: Whereas when touchscreen voting machines are messed with, the voter can’t see that effect. That doesn’t create a long line unless the machine simply doesn’t work.
Jennifer Cohn: Right.
Emily Levy: Right. It’s more a problem with what happens after the votes are cast. I think the fact that long lines are a known issue in the voting rights movement that is really focused on, and that these are one of the things that creates long lines, means that this issue of electronic poll books has the potential of raising awareness about the problems with electronic systems in the black community, and the voting rights community as a whole.
Jennifer Cohn: Absolutely. And disproportionate distribution. You just reminded me of that, of both electronic poll books and touchscreen voting machines. Both of those things can create long lines. Traditionally it has been much more of an issue in large urban centers, which are much more diverse and larger African American communities.
Jennifer Cohn: I know in Shelby County, there was a massive kerfuffle with electronic poll books.
Emily Levy: Shelby County, Tennessee? There’s Shelby Counties in many states.
Jennifer Cohn: Oh, I’m sorry. Shelby County, Tennessee, where our friend Bennie Smith is an election commissioner. I think this might have been before his time, but I’m not sure. But there was a problem there with their electronic poll books.
Jennifer Cohn: I don’t remember which vendor it was then. I think ES&S, actually. They had put in the cartridge from the wrong election, or database from the wrong election. And it mostly affected early voting. But in Shelby County, that is predominantly Democrat and predominantly African American, apparently.
Jennifer Cohn: So whether it’s voting machines going down or electronic poll books going down, yes, it is a civil rights issue. And yes, it does seem to affect … it can affect both. It can affect everyone, but disproportionately, it tends to impact communities of color.
Jennifer Cohn: One other thing I want to say about the electronic poll books is sort of a subtle thing. People think of them as part of the voter registration system, not part of the voting system. And I’ve seen reporters really try to hammer this home. It’s not the voting machine. It’s something totally separate.
Jennifer Cohn: Well, guess what, if you’re now using them in this bizarre new way to activate touchscreen voting machines, they are part of the voting system now, too.
Emily Levy: Good point, thank you. And on a point that you just made, Jennifer, about the allocation of equipment to different precincts.
Emily Levy: I don’t think a lot of people are aware that there are actually formulas available for election officials to use that predict how much equipment is needed. And that direct how much equipment should be provided to each polling place, based on the number of voters likely to vote, the number of voters that are registered, et cetera. That information can be found online.
Emily Levy: So an advocate who wants to make sure that the right number of voting systems are distributed can actually look up that information and use it in conversation with their election officials, and make sure that…
Jennifer Cohn: I did not know that. That’s a really, really helpful tip. And it would be a helpful campaign in some of these areas that are particularly susceptible to voter suppression.
Emily Levy: I’ll share that information with you, and you can send it out on Twitter. I don’t have it with me.
Jennifer Cohn: Yeah, that would be great.
Emily Levy: Are there any other risks with electronic poll books that we haven’t talked about that you want to make sure that we do?
Jennifer Cohn: Yes. I think I did mention it briefly, but I just really want to emphasize that I’m very concerned. Electronic poll books could be used to intentionally, frankly, they could be used to deliberately drop races from ballots.
Jennifer Cohn: In other words, you’re using them to pull up the correct ballot on the voting machine or on a BND. If they could be programmed so that certain races are either flipped or just disappear entirely.
Emily Levy: That’s something a voter is likely not to notice-
Jennifer Cohn: Exactly.
Emily Levy: … unless it’s a race for president or governor or senator.
Jennifer Cohn: Exactly. In particular, with down-ballot races, they’re unlikely to notice it. There was a study from the University of Michigan recently, which showed that voters notice only about 7% of flips or deletions from their paper ballots. So it’s especially true as to down-ballot races.
Jennifer Cohn: I do want to mention that state races and judgeship races are particularly important this year. Because in 2021, they will be the people who vote on the new maps that decide redistricting, where gerrymandering comes in. It will decide, really significantly, significantly, significantly impact control of the House of Representatives for a decade.
Jennifer Cohn: I guess if I’m trying to think of, if I were a bad actor, what would I do? I might drop those down-ballot state races and assume that no one is going to notice it, because probably they won’t, and I drop them strategically. And if I were a Republican, I would drop them strategically in Democratic areas.
Jennifer Cohn: And then so you don’t drop them everywhere. You just drop them where you don’t want there to be as many votes. Then you get more Republicans who are taking over these state legislatures. So that’s one way those…
Emily Levy: That’s something, I mean, that could happen in the other direction as well. I just…
Jennifer Cohn: Oh, absolutely. It could happen in either direction. But I will say the Republicans are much more focused on state races than Democrats are. And this is just if you’re a Democrat to generally focus on state races.
Jennifer Cohn: There are two things. There’s the redistricting is what is impacted. Also this movement for an Article V Convention of States to rewrite the federal Constitution. It is state lawmakers that would decide on that. That has been a long-term goal of the religious right.
Jennifer Cohn: There are some advocates, activists, and lawyers on the left who also want to hold a Convention of States to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. But whichever way it goes, it’s the state legislatures who decide these things.
Jennifer Cohn: I just worry very much that electronic poll books could be one mechanism to actually affect the ballots that appear on those voting machines. But even without the electronic poll books, this could happen with programming of the touchscreen machines.
Emily Levy: I’ve seen you on Twitter suggest that people bring their sample ballot that they get into the polling place if they’re voting in person. One of the reasons for that is to check and make sure that all of the races that should be on the ballot, are.
Emily Levy: So that you’re comparing what you receive in the mail from your elections office, from the state or local elections office that shows you what should be on your ballot, with what’s actually on your ballot.
Emily Levy: That’s something for people to do themselves and to tell their friends to do and to share about on social media, and also to make sure to vote in all the races on the ballot.
Jennifer Cohn: Absolutely. I’m so glad you reminded me of that. Yes. Fill it out, too. Bringing your completed sample ballot is one of the most important recommendations for this election that has had the least attention.
Jennifer Cohn: That study I mentioned from the University of Michigan, the only thing that brought up that 7% noticing of errors, the only thing that brought it up significantly was if voters had a prefilled slate, which would be just like a filled-in sample ballot.
Jennifer Cohn: It’s more or less equivalent to a prefilled slate that they could compare against the printout. Instructions from poll workers saying, “Don’t forget to review your printout from the voting machine,” did not bring it up significantly.
Jennifer Cohn: So yes, that would be a huge step forward in terms of trying to slow down … I mean, trying to speed up some of the lines and making sure that our ballots reflect our true intent.
Emily Levy: Thank you so much for your research, for being here today. I also want to really thank you for how much you have been talking about scrutineers.org on Twitter and sending your followers who want to know how they can get involved to Scrutineers to get active. We appreciate that so much.
Jennifer Cohn: Absolutely. Of course, we’re all in this together. We got to build each other up.
Emily Levy: Thank you so much, Jenny, for being here today. Again, you can find her Jennifer Cohn @jennycohn1 on Twitter. She also has articles on medium, and you can find a collection of her articles at protectourvotes.com.
Emily Levy: Thanks so much, Jennifer, and good luck to us all.
Jennifer Cohn: Thank you, Emily. Yes. Good luck to you too. Good luck to all of us.
Emily Levy: You can find rough transcripts of each episode at Who/What/Why.org/podcast. You’re invited to get involved in the election protection movement by joining scrutineers@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.
Emily Levy: Both Who/What/Why 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 Who/What/Why at WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.
Emily Levy: Remember to check your voter registration, and help others do the same, and vote in every election.
Emily Levy: Thanks for listening.

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

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