Candidates Must Protect Election Security: Scrutineers, Part V

Dear Candidate
Reading Time: 17 minutes

Elections rightly belong to the public. Yet not only does the US allow proprietary voting systems, but laws in many states specify that only candidates have the legal right to challenge election outcomes.

Because of this, candidates for public office must start taking their unique role in election protection seriously. It is a huge responsibility, says today’s guest, April Smith, who is a volunteer with Scrutineers.

To make it easier for candidates to understand their role, Smith has created a template letter that people can send to candidates running for any public office, from city councils to the presidency. Her letter briefly educates the recipient about past elections where significant evidence indicates likely electronic manipulation, and makes the case for serious attention to election security.

Smith discusses with host Emily Levy actionable ways to get the letter to candidates so they can be prepared to take action should the results of their race be suspect. See and download the Candidate Caution letter template here

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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. My guest today is April Smith, who’s a member of Scrutineers, a valued member of our community and an election integrity advocate who’s working hard to move the needle forward. In fact, when she joined Scrutineers, she said to me, “What’s the thing that I can do that will make the biggest difference?” April, welcome. I’m so glad you’re here today.
April Smith: Thank you, Emily. Thanks for having me.
Emily Levy: I really appreciate your work in Scrutineers and especially the initiative that you’ve been taking to start projects that are important to you. We’re today going to talk about a specific project that you’ve recently started that you’ve called the Candidate Caution letter. So do you want to tell folks what that is?
April Smith: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. It’s a pre-written letter that constituents can send to their candidates in their jurisdiction to, two basic things, caution them about the risks to their election via electronic vote counting and help guide them to protect their own election from errors or malfeasance. My strategy was, I think candidates might be particularly motivated to protect their own election and I thought if I composed a document that could easily be forwarded to individuals, that they would be motivated to send it to their own candidates in their own jurisdictions.
Emily Levy: So is this something that you’re hoping people will send to candidates they support specifically?
April Smith: I’m guessing that’s how they’ll use it, but it can be used for anyone. I think any candidate deserves to have their votes accurately counted and their voters deserve to have their votes accurately counted.
Emily Levy: Well, I am thrilled that you’re doing this project and I have to just admit that I’m having a little bit of a visceral reaction to hearing the way that you’re talking about it, which I know is how candidates tend to talk about elections. Like, “my voters” and “my election” and “counting my votes,” but really the election belongs to the people, not the candidates, and the votes belong to us and not the candidates. I know it’s fine that you’re talking about it that way. I’m not at all trying to criticize you. I just feel like it’s important to make the point that it’s a false frame for the election to talk about it belonging to candidates, and yet that is a lot how the laws are written. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, one of the reasons you’re doing this is that there are some kinds of election challenges in some places that only candidates have legal standing to file because the election is thought of as belonging to them.
April Smith: Yeah. Each state is so individual and that’s part of what makes this complicated to try and capture and catalog all the different combinations and permutations that govern this process of audits and recounts. So one of the things I say in my letter is to please check the rules and regulations around those things and be prepared in advance and decide how you want to check and audit your… Protect your own election, how you decide you want to do that, within the confines of the laws in your particular state. I agree that elections belong to everyone, not just the candidate. I wanted to make the point to the candidates that they have standing that the voters don’t in that they can decide that their election contest is complete maybe before they should. I am urging them to please wait until the votes are counted, especially now with a lot of absentee voting happening and counting happening afterwards, after election day. So please let’s have all the evidence come through before you decide you want to end your campaign.
Emily Levy: So we have in this election, particularly in the presidential election this year, one of the two major party candidates, Trump, has said that he will not necessarily trust the results when they come in. We have the other major party saying, and I haven’t heard specifically if it’s Biden, the candidate for president saying this, but voices in the party saying we absolutely have to trust the results. Scrutineers is a nonpartisan organization and I don’t see this project that you’re doing as partisan at all, but I’d like to hear your thoughts about that and those different positions that are being taken and how it fits in with what you’re trying to communicate.
April Smith: I’m trying to communicate that within the confines of the laws, we should verify our election. So if there’s an opportunity, whatever the auditing rules are, let’s use those. If there are recounts that are called for, states often have certain margins that they’re automatically triggered, let’s use those. So I’m trying to emphasize the verification of it and let’s have an evidence-based election with-
Emily Levy: Well, that’s downright radical.
April Smith: … with an outcome that we can feel comfortable with, that was checked beyond just trusting the electronics that count and in many cases capture our votes.
Emily Levy: So there’s a part of this letter where you are talking about concerns that you have, which I absolutely share, about the trustworthiness of the voting systems, of the electronic systems that count our votes. You’ve got some examples in there of problems that have occurred in the past. Do you want to talk about any of those or how you chose examples to put in the letter?
April Smith: Sure. I think before I get into individual examples, I think it’s important for people to recognize that that our elections are largely unverified. The National Election Defense Coalition says that about roughly a quarter of states don’t conduct manual audits of election results. Verifiedvoting.org has an audit database, a searchable audit database. It’s down right now for maintenance. I hope it will be up soon. But when it was up, when I checked it, I plugged in absentee ballots and it said that only 17 states audit absentee ballots. I hope that number goes up, especially with this election, because we have so many absentee and mailed ballots coming in.
Emily Levy: It’s so [crosstalk 00:08:40].
April Smith: Yeah. The other aspect that I wanted to mention is that computers and the systems that count our votes are protected from inspection because they’re corporate property. So we can’t actually look at the code that counts and captures our votes. So it makes auditing and verifying elections super, super important. The examples I chose of funny outcomes, I’ll call them funny outcomes, where it looks like elections were fiddled with electronically-
Emily Levy: I think that’s the technical term.
April Smith: I was really careful to choose ones that I thought had a lot of support and documentation and verifiable information that you could check. So I tried to find, and in some cases I was able to find, court documents that with the preponderance of evidence of electronic election theft. It’s tricky because it’s often hard to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt so they look at this term preponderance of evidence.
Emily Levy: There are various reasons it’s tricky to prove. One is the voting system vendors claiming proprietary interest and not being willing to show the source code. So we can’t say, “Oh, there’s something in the source code that’s flipping votes or that’s dropping votes,” or that sort of thing. Another thing is that election departments and boards of election rarely will give the public or even candidates access to the information or even the media access to the information that would be needed to prove that an election has been manipulated. So there’s always this catch-22 thing of we get told, “No, you can’t have this evidence unless you can prove that something has gone wrong,” but it’s the evidence that we need to prove that something has gone wrong. So it sounds like you were up against that quandary in your research.
April Smith: Sometimes the evidence disappears, especially if it’s all in electronic form.
Emily Levy: Just like the coronavirus was going to. One day, it just disappeared. It was a miracle. So in this letter, so do you want to mention one or two of the cases that met your criteria for the preponderance of the evidence indicating that there may well have been electronic manipulation of the vote? What are some of the ones that you ended up putting in the letter as examples?
April Smith: Sure. Yeah, I’d like to do that. This one, and I hadn’t heard of this one ahead of time, not as famous as the 2000 in Florida or the 2004 in Ohio, but in Arizona in 2006, Pima County, this was a… It wasn’t a candidate vote. It was for a ballot initiative or a… I forget what it was for.
Emily Levy: I think it was a bond election.
April Smith: Oh, yes. That’s what it was.
Emily Levy: So Pima County is where Tucson is, and it’s the second most populous county in Arizona.
April Smith: Right, right. That’s right. A bond election. So through the legal system, in a nutshell, they found that the county illegally altered the programming and memory cards that control the precinct ballot scanners so that caused the scanners to print false results. They also found that the central count database that adds up all of the tallies from the precincts, the database files were altered as well. That’s all been in a court filing and I’ve referenced that in the letter. So that was one example. The example in Tennessee, in 2015, Shelby County, they discovered that 40% of the votes from predominantly black precincts in Memphis were not counted. Other precincts were counted at 100%. So those are two examples. I give some others as well for added reference if people are interested in looking at them up.
Emily Levy: I hope that candidates will really check all the links in your letter and see how well-documented it is and that these are not the only instances. They’re not the only ones you mentioned, but even those you mentioned in the letter are not the only ones that exist, and that this really is a serious issue because it’s been not taken seriously enough around the country ever yet. So let’s talk a little bit about… So you’ve got a few specific… We’ve touched on it, but let’s go a little bit more specifically into what it is you’re asking candidates to do, and then let’s talk about how you’re suggesting that people get this letter to candidates and where they can find the letter.
April Smith: Sure. Yeah. So as I touched on earlier, I’m really urging candidates to think of the election as not their own, as solely their own, and to ensure that all ballots are counted. I don’t want candidates to run to the podium and concede because they feel they’re a sore loser if they don’t want or whatever. It’s not about sore loser. It’s about evidence. I’m asking them to verify the results in terms of the extent allowed by law. So to read up on their recount and audit protocols in their specific state, and if they have a say in whether they can do hand counts or machine counts, to do hand counts. Because as we know, if the machine was counted, if you just count on a machine, you’re not getting ahead of the process. You can just repeat the same mistakes.
April Smith: There are red flags that sometimes proceed elections that get messed with. Audit Elections USA has a candidate guide that lists some of those, so I referenced that. There are things that they can ask volunteers to do on their behalf. Photograph poll tapes that each scanner, tabulator and touch screen machines print out that document the activity on that particular machine, the number of votes and how many votes each candidate received.
Emily Levy: That particular method of election verification is so well-suited to a campaign because it’s something you need one person, or actually probably two people, one to hold a flashlight late at night and one to photograph or videotape the poll tapes. So you only need a couple of people, but you need them in every precinct and campaigns tend to have people in most every precinct at the end of voting at election night. They’re there doing their other duties and they’re right there and they can take the photographs. There are a couple different organizations that are involved in helping people then match up the totals that they see on the poll tapes to the results that are announced later. That’s something that we’re training people about in Scrutineers, about how to do that and how to connect with the groups that are helping people analyze the information they gather that way.
April Smith: Right. Those two organizations are linked in this letter as well so people can look up on that. Also to do a ballot image audit if the precinct scanners create ballot images and a lot of them do, that’s another way that an ordinary individual can verify an election. So poll tapes, valid image audits are two ways that a candidate could enlist help of their volunteers.
Emily Levy: That valid image audit method, again, is something we’re training people on in Scrutineers. So the folks who are contacting candidates could come learn more about that and also candidates could have their field directors join and get the training in how to do that or they could join themselves. We’re a nonpartisan organization, but candidates from any party can join and get the training about how to protect the elections in these ways.
April Smith: Excellent.
Emily Levy: So we have those resources about how to take the information in your letter farther than even people will get from following all the links that you’ve got in there. So how would you like people to use this letter? How would you like them to get it to candidates, and do you have suggestions about approach that might get the best results, the best response from a candidate?
April Smith: Well, first you have to look up the candidates addresses. It can be emailed, or it can be sent in a paper form. I would say, I mean, it’s in there in the letter. There’s some important points about the computer systems that count votes and I’d like you to make sure that you stand up for voters as well as your own election because it’s so important. I think it’s best delivered by a candidate’s constituents because those are the people who candidates are beholden to. So I think this is a good way to spread this information across the country.
Emily Levy: This isn’t just for presidential candidates, but for candidates in any office.
April Smith: Absolutely. Yes. The systems all work the same, whether you’re running for a local election or you’re running for State Senate or US Senate or Governor or what have you.
Emily Levy: People who are running for election and may be nonpartisan or from a smaller party than the Democratic or Republican parties also have standing. If they are actually registered candidates, they do have the same standing, I believe, in most cases, not a lawyer here, but to challenge elections. It’s a way that candidates in smaller parties can sometimes have a big impact. I mean, when Jill Stein, after the 2016 election, when Jill Stein, who was the Green Party candidate for President, called for and paid for recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, it wasn’t because she thought she’d won the election. It’s because she wanted the outcome to be correct.
April Smith: Right. I was looking t some of the information. It’s hard to parse it all, but some states allow voters to initiate recounts. I don’t know how well that goes and I don’t know the nuances, but-
Emily Levy: Sometimes they have to pay and it can be really expensive.
April Smith: Yes.
Emily Levy: But recounts are only one kind of election challenge and there are different kinds available in different states, but they have to happen quickly and that’s why it’s so important that you’re encouraging people to bring these issues to candidates’ attention before the election so that they can be prepared to take action immediately after the election before the results are certified.
April Smith: Right. Plan ahead. Definitely.
Emily Levy: I actually ran a project similar to this a number of years ago in the, I think it was around 2006, it’s hard to remember, called Standing For Voters that was part of the election protection strike force of an organization called Velvet Revolution that I worked with. We actually had a pledge that we were asking candidates to take to not to concede or declare victory until all the votes had been counted and all challenges resolved, and there were a couple of other things that we were asking people to make commitments to, and we actually asked them to sign this pledge and if possible, take a video of them reciting the pledge. I think some of those videos are still on YouTube. We didn’t get a lot of candidates to do it, but we were trying to get people to not only send this pledge to candidates, but show up at their campaign events and ask them if they would take the pledge. So I think that’s another thing.
Emily Levy: I mean, people can decide whether they want to put candidates on the spot and bird dog them about it, or whether they want to quietly find a campaign staff person who can get the letter to the candidate maybe after they come off the stage or that kind of thing. I think there’s a bunch of approaches that are possible. So where can people find the letter? Were you going to say something else?
April Smith: Oh, yeah. So what inspired me to write the letter initially was what you were just saying is, I had an in with a candidate who was running the primary in Massachusetts. I knew someone working for his campaign and I thought, “Gee, if I could send that person a letter, the key points that I want to get across, and encourage them to think about electronic vote counting and what they can do to ensure that the most accurate result that is possible,” I thought, “Okay, yeah, I can send this person a letter.” Coming from this person that we both mutually know, I felt like that person might pay attention. Plus he was running as a technologist interested in technology and computers and I thought, “Okay, he’ll get this.” Then I realized there’s so many new people in Congress who may not really understand the landscape totally of electronic vote capture and vote counting. So then I thought, “All right, if I write this person a letter, I may as well share it.”
Emily Levy: Well, I’m so glad you did. What you just said actually brings up two other important points about how to approach this. One is that you tried to go through someone you knew who worked for the candidate. I think many more of us know people who are volunteering for campaigns, or even maybe are on campaign staffs, and actually know candidates. So think about, who do you know who could get something to a candidate? That’s one way people can think about this. The other thing that you said is that this was the first candidate, the candidate who you wanted to approach him, and that which gave you the idea for this open letter, is that the candidate was running as a technologist. So taking something that the candidate has taken a stand on or has experience in, and tying that in with the topic of the letter is also more likely, I think, to get their attention. I think those are both really important points.
April Smith: So the letter link so people can find the letter, it’s tinyurl.com/candidate-caution.
Emily Levy: Tinyurl.com/candidate-caution. Sometimes with those link shorteners, you actually have to type in the http:// at the beginning. So if the link is giving you trouble, make sure you’ve added that part. So people can, from that… You’ve got the letter in Google Drive, so people can download that and either email it or print it out and-
April Smith: Yes. Yes.
Emily Levy: … send it to candidates running for any office.
April Smith: Right. Yes.
Emily Levy: Is there follow-up that you recommend that people do?
April Smith: I would say yes. I think it always helps to try to follow up either electronically or make a call. People get tons of stuff in their email boxes and a call from someone, a potential constituent or existing constituent if the candidate’s already in office, can make a difference to highlight something that you’ve already sent them.
Emily Levy: Great. I think that’s a good idea. I want to ask you one question that’s not about the letter precisely. Well, I’m really thrilled that Scrutineers is a place that you can post this letter and there are hundreds of people who can see it there, get it, ask you questions about it, have conversation about what happened when they tried to send it to candidates. I hope we’ll have some dynamic conversations and idea sharing and things like that, that it’s great to have a platform where that can happen. I very much appreciate that you’ve introduced this letter there and I’m sure you’ve put it other places as well. I know that you have, over time, worked with a few different election protection groups, and I’m wondering what you’re finding to be different about Scrutineers.
April Smith: I think Scrutineers… So I’ve worked with three or four, I guess, different organizations and they all have a little different focus. I feel like Scrutineers has an infrastructure, an existing inference structure, an organization, that I’m not seeing in some of the other projects, the other groups. So I think that is a potential way to grow the movement, to have that existing structure available already. Other groups are maybe more singularly focused in a particular project or particular area within the movement. I think Scrutineers is a way to bring all different methods and mechanisms to the process, and anyone on the site can easily communicate with anyone else.
Emily Levy: Yeah. That’s a great thing for the most part. It can get a little overwhelming sometimes. I don’t know. For me as the director, I get a lot of communication, but I really appreciate that that can happen. One of the things that I think this project illustrates is the opportunity for people to take the specific interests and skills that they have and put them to use. I know you have background as a technical writer, and clearly you also know how to do internet research. You write very clearly and know how to back up your arguments and then know how to use the online tools to make this available. What I’m finding is people are coming in with very different skill sets and finding ways to put those to use to protect the elections.
April Smith: Yes. All different skill sets. I think it’ll become easier, as Scrutineers grows, how to plug in and where to plug in to match your skill sets to a project.
Emily Levy: Yes. Actually, we’re working on that this week on making it easier for people to find the project that they most want to focus on for this time leading up to the election. Anything else you want to add before we close?
April Smith: Download the letter. Read it. Even if you don’t have a candidate in mind to send something to or you’re not sure, there’s lots of useful nuggets of information even if you don’t have a lot of background in election security. So poke around in there and just read up on the topic, if not send the letter.
Emily Levy: Great idea. Also, there are candidates on your ballot who are running for all kinds of different offices. There’s no reason to only send it to one candidate. If you’re going to be-
April Smith: Absolutely.
Emily Levy: … doing the work to check out the letter, make sure you agree with it, find it online and those things, you might as well send it to a bunch of different candidates. So again, the link to get the letter is tinyurl.com/candidate-caution. Thank you so much, April Smith, for being with me today and for being a treasured member of Scrutineers. I hope some of the folks listening will decide to join and help advance this project and the other projects we’re working on there. I wish you luck with this project. If there’s any way we can be more support to you in advancing it, speak right up.
April Smith: Oh, thank you, Emily. It’s posted on the website and people can find it there, so that’s great. I appreciate your having me on.
Emily Levy: Sure. Thanks again for being on.
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 at 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’re 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.

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