Trying to Stop the Election Attacks: Scrutineers, Part VI

mail-in ballot, ballot, drop off
Reading Time: 19 minutes

A recent Public Service Announcement from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warns that cybercriminals may circulate false election results. 

The PSA encourages the public only to trust election results coming from local and state election offices. What are the implications of this given that election officials cannot see inside the insecure, software-based systems that produce those results? 

Scrutineers Series host Emily Levy is her own “guest,” in this episode, talking about how the election protection community should act in an environment where the elections must be protected both from unsecured election systems and bad-faith, politically-motivated accusations.

Levy, a 16-year veteran of election protection work, has advice for political parties, election officials, and the public about the role each must now play in ensuring that there is a solid basis for voter confidence in the election results.

The episode concludes with her answer to the often-asked question, “What’s the safest way for me to vote?”

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Full Text Transcript:

Emily Levy: Welcome to the Scrutineers Series. I’m Emily Levy, Founder and Director of scrutineers.org. I’m delighted to be collaborating with whowhatwhy.org to introduce 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. We’re training a fairness force to help make sure no one stops you from voting and all votes are counted accurately.
Emily Levy: Today, we’re going to do something a little bit different. Usually on the Scrutineers Series, I interview a guest who’s an expert in some aspect of election protection. Today, I’m simply going to talk to you. I have some things that I’ve been wanting to say. And as a relatively new podcaster, I’m discovering that I don’t always get to say what I have to say when all my episodes are interviewing other people. And messages have been building inside me that I really want to share with you and they’ve been made more urgent by recent news. So today, I’m going to talk some about some of the ways that our elections are under attack, not only from foreign interference, but also domestic interference, and even interference by our very own government.
Emily Levy: And I want to make sure that you know that there are things that each of us can do before, during, and after the election to make it safer. And we really need your help right now. This is a time when, even if you have never before taken action on your beliefs about the way things should be in this country and what needs to be different, this is a time for you to take action. And there are some very simple things you can do that could really make a big difference. You don’t have to be an expert in the way elections are run or even know what you think about every issue, to be able to take action to make the elections themselves safer.
Emily Levy: So I want to start today by actually reading to you a public service announcement that was issued on September 22nd by the FBI and the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, that’s called Foreign Actors and Cyber Criminals Likely to Spread Disinformation Regarding 2020 Election Results. This is alert number I-09220-PSA, if you want to look it up. It’s available online, that’s where I found it. So notice that the title is about disinformation about election results. This is something that honestly has never occurred to me before, as someone who’s been involved in election protection since 2004, that we could have a situation where people are misinformed about what the actual results of the election are. And that’s what this PSA is about. So I want to read it to you and then I have some things I want to say about the implications of it and what we need to do.
Emily Levy: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, are issuing this announcement to raise awareness of the potential threat posed by attempts to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections. Foreign actors and cyber criminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in US democratic institutions. State and local officials typically require several days to weeks to certify elections final results in order to ensure every legally cast vote is accurately counted. The increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night.” And I’ll interrupt this reading to say the results of will be incomplete. Not just that they could be, but they will be incomplete on election night. Okay, back to the PSA.
Emily Levy: “Foreign actors and cyber criminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce election results by disseminating information that includes reports of voter suppression, cyber attacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections illegitimacy. The FBI and CISA urge the American public to critically evaluate the sources of information they consume and to seek out reliable and verified information from trusted sources, such as state and local election officials. The public should also be aware that if foreign actors or cyber criminals were able to successfully change an election related website, the underlying data and internal systems would remain uncompromised.
Emily Levy: Recommendations: and there is a bullet list here. “Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials. Verify who produced the content and consider their intent.” The next one is, “Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.” Next bullet, “For information about final election results rely only, rely on state … .” I’m sorry. “For information about final election results rely on state and local government election officials.” Next bullet, “Report potential election crimes, such as disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting to the FBI. Finally, if appropriate, make use of in-platform tools offered by social media companies for reporting suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information about election related problems or results.
Emily Levy: The FBI is responsible for investigating malign foreign influence operations and malicious cyber activity targeting election infrastructure and other US democratic institutions. CISA is responsible for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure from physical and cyber threats. The FBI and CISA provide services and information to uphold the security, integrity, and resiliency of the US electoral processes. Victim reporting, and additional information: The FBI encourages victims to report information concerning suspicious or criminal activity to their local field office, www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field. For additional assistance in best practices in common terms, please visit the following websites,” and the links are long so I’m not going to read them, but they are Protected Voices, election crimes and security, and #protect2020.
Emily Levy: I will put the link to this PSA in the show notes for today. There are a few things I want to highlight about this before I go on to say some other things. One is it tells us to rely only on state and local government websites to know what the real election results are. And I agree, that well, the way that other places get the election results that they report is that they get them from those state and local government websites generally or from the agency that’s posting that information. So they might go to a local election website and get the results there or they might talk to someone in that same election office and get the results directly from them.
Emily Levy: But either way, those results are coming from the count that’s done at usually the county election office. And I trust most election officials to accurately report the counts produced by the election machinery. However, those counts are not necessarily accurate because, as we know, and as we’ve discussed on this show before, and you’ve probably heard about in many places, the systems that count our votes are software based. They are not secure, they’re vulnerable to attack and manipulation both from inside the companies that produce them inside election offices, and they are connected to the internet, despite what you’ve been told and are therefore quite vulnerable as well to people from outside the system.
Emily Levy: So we’re being told to trust results that we actually have no reason to trust completely. So because again, they’re produced by software. So we have this problem. And for those of us who work to protect elections and have been doing this for a long time, this moment calls upon us to do something differently and to think differently about the situation. Because we’ve worked for years to expose the lack of security in our election systems, such as what I just mentioned, with the intention for those systems to be made more secure. For the most part, not enough of that change has occurred to actually harden our systems and make them less vulnerable to attack.
Emily Levy: And now here we are in 2020 approaching the general election. And now we have a situation where our elections must be protected both from the insecure systems that we’ve been dealing with for years and from bad faith, politically motivated accusations against even the more secure aspects of our voting system like hand marked paper ballots. Now here, I’m not referring to the PSA I just read to you, but to a statement made by the president that the ballots are fraudulent. And it was a really vague statement, certainly designed to make people less confident of our election results, and maybe also designed to make people trust the machines more than they trust paper ballots, which is the opposite of what we in the elections security movement believe people should be doing. Hand-marked paper ballots are the most trusted way and most secure way to vote. They are not by themselves, a solution to the problem because they are still counted by software based machines.
Emily Levy: So it’s very complex and I know it’s easy to get lost in it. And I’m trying not to go down any rabbit holes and keep this really understandable. So what the heck do we do now? If we have an election where the country doesn’t trust the results, and we have people manipulating and announcing results that are incorrect, we have chaos. And we have a situation where we’re really vulnerable to crackdowns from the federal government to deal with the chaos that would understandably ensue. It’s very important that we have an election where voter confidence is as high as possible, where we can really trust the results. Yet the systems as they stand don’t deserve that full confidence yet.
Emily Levy: So what do we do? Here we are close to the election, what do we do? And I’ve been thinking and thinking about this and what becomes clearer and clearer to me is that transparency is the answer. That making the election processes and the vote counts as transparent as possible is really the only thing we can do at this time to have any hope of a secure election. That’s tricky because as we’ve talked about, votes are counted inside computers which are not transparent. However, there are some windows into the system that allow us to see the process along the way and check and make sure that the numbers that should match match and things like that, that do increase the transparency.
Emily Levy: So I want to talk a little bit about what a few of those things are to give you an idea of them. There are more than I’m going to talk about today, but I want you to have a sense of what some of the ways are that we can make elections more transparent, even now as close as we are to the election so that we have a way to determine whether in fact the results are accurate.
Emily Levy: So one of the things is that all of the information that is available that shows the different stages along the way in an election, all of that information that should be public record must be made available to the public immediately as it is created so that the public can check the accuracy. So there’s a huge amount of data and it needs a lot of people checking. And it’s in some cases as simple as look at this number where it appears in one place and look at a number that corresponds to it that appears in a different place and make sure that they’re the same. So if you have the ability to look at two numbers and make sure that they’re the same and look at two more and make sure that they’re the same, we need your help because we’re going to need a ton of people doing this.
Emily Levy: So information that can be made public needs to be made public. That means that the public needs to be allowed to observe in a meaningful way the processes of setting up and testing the election equipment, of processing vote by mail and absentee ballots, which are basically the same thing, and provisional ballots. Of observing in a meaningful way to make sure things are happening accurately, of observing the chain of custody of election materials as they move from the voter into the custody of, in some cases, the US mail or election officials picking up ballots from drop boxes, ballots being carried from polling places to the central count facilities.
Emily Levy: There need to be video cameras monitoring all of the places that these things are happening. And in situations where due to COVID, it’s not safe to have the public in the office with people observing, the processes need to happen on a computer screen where people can be watching from home what’s happening and actually seeing close up; not watching video from a camera that’s at the ceiling in a corner of the room shining down on the whole room, but actually being able to see the computer screens.
Emily Levy: So one of the things there is for us as a concerned public to do, is to be talking to our local boards of election or election departments about how they are going to provide the ability for the public to have meaningful oversight, do meaningful monitoring of the processes so that we can take their side when it comes to potential challenges to the process and say, “No, we were watching and we saw that it was done right.” So we need to approach this not from a we’re going into the election offices and we’re going to catch you doing something wrong, but that we, the public, are here to protect our public servants and their work, and make sure that we are in a position to be able to stand behind them and say, “They really are counting our votes accurately.”
Emily Levy: So one of the other specific things that we can advocate for them to do and make sure is happening that is actually required in most states, is that at the polling place on election night, after the close of polls, when the election workers are closing everything up and doing all of the accounting that they need to do of how many ballots were used, how many votes were cast, packaging everything up to take back to the board of elections or county election office.
Emily Levy: One of the things they’re supposed to do in most places is to print out what’s called a poll tape from each voting machine, or each machine that tabulated votes. It looks like a cash register receipt and on it it says how many people voted on that machine, it shows that the total votes on the machine were zero at the beginning of the day, then how many people voted on the machine, and then for every race that’s on the ballot, how many votes were cast for each candidate. Or if it’s a ballot proposition or question or levy, those are called different things in different places, how many people voted yes and how many people voted no.
Emily Levy: Those poll tapes are supposed to be posted in most places in public view. So not just on the wall of the polling place that’s in some church basement that’s going to be closed and no one can get to it, but actually on the outside of the building or inside the window facing out. And it’s a very, very important and quite simple election protection activity to go around to polling places after the close of polls, either that night or early the next morning, and take photographs or videos of these poll tapes so we have the earliest produced totals we can on a precinct level, at a precinct level that we can later compare to the precinct level election results announced by the election office. Because they should absolutely be the same and if they’ve changed, something’s wrong.
Emily Levy: There are a couple of different organizations that are running projects to help people with this process of photographing or videotaping poll tapes and making that data available to others who want to see it. One is a member organization of Scrutineers called Democracy Counts, and you can check them out at democracycounts.org. They actually have apps for both Apple and Android phones that you can use to upload the photographs into a database where other people can look at them and analyze them. So that’s one of the ways that we can increase transparency of a system that has some elements that are not transparent. So if we know that the vote count that is going into that central count machine, we know what that vote count is that’s going in and we can see what the vote count is coming out of that system. If it changes, we know something funky is going on inside the central computers. So I hope that makes sense.
Emily Levy: So again, this is an element of the transparency that we need to be pushing for. We need to make sure that we are showing up to observe the processes at our election offices, and in Scrutineers, we are teaching people about what those processes are and why they’re important and what to look for when you’re observing them and that sort of thing. So I’m going to tell you in a few moments how you can join Scrutineers to learn more about how to do that kind of public oversight of the elections.
Emily Levy: So another thing that needs to happen is that some of the voting systems that are in use now where people vote on paper ballots are called digital scan systems. So the paper ballots that people mark by hand are fed into scanners, which are computers, that scan those ballots that make a digital image of each ballot. And that then actually count the votes on the image, not on the ballots themselves. So the images of every ballot are available and those can actually be posted online or they can be given to community groups, or candidates campaigns, or even individuals who are interested in counting the votes on those ballots and making sure that they match up with the official vote counts.
Emily Levy: So making those ballot images available to the public immediately after the election, rather than waiting to see if the public is going to submit public records requests, and then taking time to fill those requests, that’s a way that election departments that are concerned about being accused of not conducting fair elections. Which seems like it’s going to be happening, that they’re going to be accused of that, can enlist the public’s help in documenting that the election results actually are accurate. By making these images of the ballots available and inviting the community to check the computer counts of the votes. That’s also something we train people about in Scrutineers.
Emily Levy: So again, the most important thing we can do right now before the election is to help our local election offices make sure that they are using as transparent practices as they can and let them know that we, the public, are going to be watching so that we can stand up for them if there are accusations that the election results are incorrect. But that in order to be able to do that, we need to actually be able to see that the election results are correct. And we can share with them some ways that even with the electronic systems that they’re using, that we have the ability to have checks on the system. We also need to insist that there is robust, independent auditing of the vote counts, and there are different ways that that happens and the laws are different in different states.
Emily Levy: So I want to encourage you to find out about what audits happen in your state and to observe them if there are in fact audits happening and to observe them down to the level of observing the process of random selection of the parts of the election that are going to be audited. So the audits of an election generally do not include auditing all the ballots to make sure they are counted correctly, but there’s generally a random draw of a portion of the votes that were cast that are then counted at best by hand. Unfortunately in some places, they’re run through the same machines over again, which is really not a reasonable audit. So there have been situations, like in Fresno County, California, some years ago where it was announced in advance which, I believe it was, which precincts were going to be audited. That’s not acceptable because then if someone were manipulating the election, they could just make sure to leave those precinct clean.
Emily Levy: So there’s very specific ways and time that random selection is supposed to be done and that’s something that you should be able to observe. You may be able to find on your local election board or election department website a calendar of the events that can be observed by the public. So you can observe as much as possible. Again, that may be virtually over video conferencing software, or it may be in person that they make available, or there may be a choice. And I want to encourage you to get your friends to observe too, because it’s hard to be there all day every day.
Emily Levy: So I want to talk for a moment about … Scrutineers, the organization that I run, is a non-partisan organization. We are about the election results reflecting the true will of the people. And that means making sure that everyone who has a legal right to vote gets to vote and that the votes are counted accurately. We’re not about who gets elected, we’re about making sure that whoever gets elected it’s because the constituents truly wanted them and voted for them.
Emily Levy: But I want to take a moment to speak separately to Republicans and Democrats who care about democracy. And I didn’t prepare a message for Independents and people who are members of smaller political parties, but I think you will be able to find what applies to you in what I’m about to say. To Republicans who care about democracy, the leaders of your party right now are saying that we can’t trust the elections, are saying that you should try to vote twice. Specifically in North Carolina, that you should try to vote by mail and in person. I strongly recommend against doing that, it is a crime. I encourage you to encourage the leaders of your party to actually work to protect the election, not just to say that the election isn’t safe. But to work to protect the election by insisting on transparency and insisting that no one interfere with anyone’s right to vote.
Emily Levy: To the Democrats I say this, when the Republicans say that the election system is not trustworthy, I hear you responding to that by saying, “Yes, it is.” It’s almost like eight-year-olds arguing and one says, “No, you can’t.” The other one says, “Yes, I can.” This is not a situation where just saying the opposite of what the other side is saying is enough, because it’s not actually true that our system is safe the way it is. It can be made safe, and it can even be made pretty darn safe with what we’ve got to deal with now in most states.
Emily Levy: I’m not ready to say that it can be made safe with the equipment that’s used in all states, but that this transparency piece that I’ve been discussing today, really needs to be brought to bear. And that rather than saying, “Trust the election system the way it is,” we need to say, “Let’s all get out there and make sure that it’s safe. Make sure that it’s as transparent as possible. Make sure people are watching. Make sure that where there are concerns they’re addressed. Make sure that where election crimes occur they’re addressed.” And here I’m talking about election fraud, I am not talking about voter fraud, which is pretty much non-existent as has been shown by study after study.
Emily Levy: So for all of you, what I am saying is we need to insist on transparency and we need to participate because just having a window into the system isn’t enough if no one’s looking in that window. So we need to be there looking in that window. So how do you find out more? How can you find out more about how to look in the window and what to do with what you see? So I want to give you two options. We are scrutineers.org is available for you to join any old day. You can find us again at scrutineers.org. Become a member, we’re a membership site. We have a lot of training on how to do the kinds of election protection activities I’ve been discussing today. And you can also come to our public event that we are having on October 1st at 8:00 PM Eastern, 5:00 PM Pacific, which is called How You Can Help Make Sure Our Election Results Are Accurate, How You Can Help Make Sure Our Election Results Are Accurate.
Emily Levy: This is an online event, you can register for it at https://beascrutineer.eventbrite.com. So I’ll say it to you now with the punctuation, it’s be-a-dash-scrutineer.eventbrite.com. And we will put that link in the show notes as well. This is an introductory event and we will be talking a little bit more about the details of the kinds of things you can do to protect the elections and why they’re so important.
Emily Levy: We need thousands and thousands of us working to protect the elections this Fall. And I want to say to those of you who are working on campaigns and are really focused on doing that, which I know many of our listeners are, that campaign work generally ends when the polls close election night. There’s no more get out the vote work, voter registration is over. All those sorts of activities that you’re doing, the campaigning, the passing out door hangers, those things are all over by then. But the election isn’t over yet, there’s still much to do. And I want to really encourage you to learn now what will be needed from you after the polls close on election night in the part between when the voting is complete and when the real winners are seated.
Emily Levy: Finally, a lot of people ask me, “What is the best way to vote? Should we be voting by mail? Should we be voting early? Should we be voting in person? Should we be voting on the touchscreen machines? Should we be voting on paper ballots,” et cetera. And I know it’s really confusing. And part of why it’s confusing is that there’s not one clear answer that applies everywhere because the situations are really different in different places. For example, in some states, not everyone can vote by mail. You have to have an excuse to do that and the number of excuses allowed is small.
Emily Levy: So what I want to introduce you to is a principle to think about when you’re deciding how you’re going to vote, which is that it’s important to vote in whatever way creates the shortest distance between your choices and how they’re counted. We want as little as possible in between how you decide to vote and what your vote is counted as being. So that means the least equipment possible in between you and your vote. You absolutely do not want equipment in between what your fingers say and what is recorded on your ballot. So a paper ballot that’s marked by hand, not by a computer that puts marks on paper, is very important. Similarly, we want the least distance and in actual miles and distance of time between you making your selections and them being counted.
Emily Levy: And so that means if you do vote by mail and you have the ability to keep that ballot in your possession, in its envelope, with all the information filled out correctly and carefully on the outside of the envelope. If you can keep that in your possession until it’s all the way at your board of elections or department of elections office and deposit it in a secure ballot box or Dropbox there, that is much preferable to letting go of it at a mailbox and letting it be delivered, carried from person to person within the mail system. As much as we love the USPS, it is better for you to get your ballot as close as possible to where it’s going to be counted. So think about, and find out about what the options are where you live. And we can talk more about that in Scrutineers, and also perhaps at our event on October 1st.
Emily Levy: So I want to thank you all for listening to this somewhat ranting information today. I really appreciate your interest in this issue. I can’t tell you how good it feels after so many years of having, it seemed like very few people in this country cared about whether our elections were secure. Now the country is paying attention. It’s tragic that the reason for that is because of the degree of attacks on our elections. And at the same time, I appreciate the interest and that action that so many of you are displaying right now. Now, if you don’t yet know how to get active, come find out at scrutineers.org or follow us on Twitter @scrutineersUS. Thanks so much for listening.
Emily Levy: And find a rough transcript 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.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.

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