Americans have been told that they can trust the election system and that recounts of paper ballots are one way to ensure its integrity. But how valuable are recounts really when officials and courts at all levels throw up roadblocks that prevent an accurate count?
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The existence of paper ballots is generally touted as the ultimate backstop guaranteeing the integrity of American elections, because “if there is a problem or any doubts, those ballots can always be recounted.”
They can be — but will they be?
Now we have seen three “recounts” up close and learned that, in practice, this amounts to a false and dangerous assurance. The effort to recount these ballots, where they do exist, has been blocked, subverted, and turned into a sham in each of the three states in which it has been attempted this month.
The sheer number (and variety) of obstacles that have been thrown in the path of the recount efforts in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania begs the question: What evidence are these blockades trying to hide?
In the same spirit that Rosemary Woods managed to erase just those 18 minutes of an hours-long Nixon tape that many believe to contain the “smoking gun” about the Watergate scandal, so we are led to suspect the Election 2016 smoking guns may be in places that refuse to recount by hand — counties that destroy or prevent the creation of ballot images by scanners; states that ruleagainst recounting in precincts where ballot bag seals are broken, or the number of voters does not match the number of ballots; and states whose courts, by partisan majority, simply rule that the recount cannot go forward at all.
A combination of administrative, financial, judicial, and operational tactics were used to hamper or stymie the recount effort in each state in which it was undertaken. A few examples of these tactics:
• Refusal to hand count in Wisconsin in the very counties with the brightest forensic red flags — Outagamie, Brown, Rock, e.g., where Trump vote shares dramatically exceeded expectations.
• Determination by a Republican Wisconsin judge that state law barred her from orderinga statewide hand count despite her own preference for one as the “gold standard.”
• Fees inflated in Wisconsin from an estimated $600,000 for statewide hand recount in 2011, to $3.9 million for a less laborious mixed machine/hand count in 2016. Racine County, e.g., charging more than 50 times to count by machine what it charged for its last county-wide recount, which was done by hand.
• Suits filed to block recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan by the Trump campaign or surrogates.
• Interpretation of Pennsylvania law to mean that more than 27,000 individual petitioners had to file in more than 9,000 precincts in order to proceed with a recount at all.
• Pennsylvania state court requiring the posting of a $1 million bond by Green Party candidate Jill Stein to even consider her petition for a statewide recount.
• Michigan lower court halting the recount on the dubious legal basis that Stein can’t win (there is no such requirement in applicable state law) and that no “credible” evidence of fraud (which of course was what the recount was looking for) had been presented.
• Michigan Supreme Court affirming a lower court ruling on straight 3-to-2 party-line vote, concluding that Jill Stein is not an “aggrieved candidate.”
• Bush-appointed federal judge stating in his ruling that it “borders on the irrational” to suspect hacking occurred in Pennsylvania, where the vast majority of ballots were electronic and non-recountable, while ignoring tens of thousands of provisional (paper)ballots, which could have been recounted.
This is not the behavior of campaigns confident of the validity of their victories. Nor of administrators confident of the security and accuracy of their electoral processes. The result was a partial recount in some places and none at all in others, leaving the whole enterprise riddled with gaping holes and dark, inaccessible crevices where evidence may lie concealed.
Media coverage has ignored or soft-pedaled most of these roadblocks, misreported the actions and motives of Jill Stein, and adhered tightly to the “nothing to look at here, folks” theme. Jeffrey Toobin, writing in The New Yorker, went so far as to attribute the entire motivation for the recount to Jill Stein’s “narcissism.”
While allegations swirl about possible Russian interference in our election, the very process by which light might have been shed on such, or any, interference has been stopped in its tracks withbarely a raised brow or a whimper of protest from our supposedly free press.
The recount — a major and massive effort to protect democracy by shining light on an electoral process designed for concealment — has thus far been of dubious, if not negative, value.
But the lessons learned can be invaluable:
1) The American vote-counting process has been revealed as a process designed to conceal;
2) Recounts and, by extension, paper ballots, unless hand counted in public on election night, are in no way sufficient to ensure the honesty, accuracy, and fidelity of that process; and
3) American vote counting must, by public demand and public action, be brought into the light and made openly observable so that faith in the most fundamental of democratic processes can be restored.
Jonathan Simon is Executive Director of Election Defense Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring observable vote counting in electoral integrity. He’s also the author of Code Red: Computerized Election Theft in the New American Century.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from counting ballots (PBS NewsHour / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0).