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Ahead of next month’s midterms, WhoWhatWhy has not just put a team on the ground in key states to investigate voter suppression, problems with election procedures and other shenanigans, but has also decided to turn over our usual slot for the Sunday editorial/cartoon to election integrity experts. This is the first piece in this series.
It’s been two big weeks for election integrity in America. It all kicked off late last month when the New York Times Magazine led with an article titled “The Crisis of Election Security,” which seemed to leap out of the perennial MSM comfort zone and, for the very first time, treat the peril of concealed, computerized vote-counting seriously and urgently — as the crisis that it is.
In addition, other news outlets which often remain on the sidelines while plucky organizations like WhoWhatWhy expose cases of blatant voter suppression, have published articles on the issue this month.
In a related event (bear with me), Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as our newest Supreme Court Justice, his nomination rammed through as Republicans gave the virtually unanimous finger to public disapproval and outrage.
What the Kavanaugh confirmation had to do with election integrity may not be immediately apparent, but first it told anyone in our cruelly divided country who may still have been harboring any doubts, that elections matter.
America was just profoundly shaped by a virtually party-line margin of two senators — for the rest of many of our lives. The Senate voted on a nomination by a popular vote-whipped president put in office by the electoral votes of three states, which he won by an average margin of slightly more than one half of one percent.
At least a half dozen of the senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh were themselves in office courtesy of razor-thin electoral victories in 2012, 2014, or 2016.
All these elections mattered.
The Kavanaugh battle and its outcome showed us a Republican Party behaving as if the word had been passed that it was immune to all electoral consequence. It is a party that has serially doubled and redoubled down on a historically divisive and unpopular president; joined hands with him like Thelma and Louise for what should be, according to the classical (i.e., pre-computerized voting) laws of political physics, a disastrous plunge over the electoral cliff; and thrown down the gauntlet to the electorate: “Good luck voting us out!”
When you put together the Times piece and the Kavanaugh power-play, what emerges is a setup for November that one dares to hope might finally be enough to tear the protective veil off the sacrosanct computerized voting industry, and the vagaries of concealed vote counting that have been all but overlooked by media observers searching for the causes of both the veer and the corrosion of American politics.
Put very crudely, Trump lovers are outnumbered by Trump haters almost two to one.
Let me explain the connection. The GOP — with vanishingly few exceptions, nearly all of whom are, in one way or another, exiting politics — has thrown its lot in with, and bet the political farm on, Donald Trump and given a full pass to his most offensive and divisive words and actions. This should be political suicide, the Dow be damned. To grasp just how unpopular Trump actually is, you have to look beyond his bad approval/disapproval numbers to the strength of feeling and conviction behind them. Thus, while the margin between approvers and disapprovers has settled into the negative 10-15 percent range, when voters are asked how strongly they feel about it, strong approval is stuck somewhere in the low 20s — while strong disapproval weighs in at a formidable 40 percent.
Strong feelings — especially strong negative feelings — are what motivate voters in midterm elections, and strong feelings were running against Trump by a nearly two-to-one margin pre-Kavanaugh. Yes, Trump has a “base,” but these consistent polling numbers tell us it’s not half of America or anywhere near it, but closer to one in five.
Put very crudely, Trump lovers are outnumbered by Trump haters almost two to one. Yet, by doubling down on Trump and now Kavanaugh, the GOP has chosen to let November be decided on that basis: Trump love vs. Trump hate. It begs the question of just where they believe their winning numbers will come from on November 6.
Which brings us back around to the New York Times and its lead Sunday magazine piece. Its author, Kim Zetter, not only identifies America’s privatized, partisan, and hermetically sealed voting equipment industry as itself among our most serious national security risks, but she is even greenlighted by the Times’s editors to include insiders and domestic operatives among the threats to the accuracy and honesty of our vote-counts.
Up until this moment we have been told not only that no evidence had been uncovered that any election results were altered by “meddling,” but that the only entities posing any threat to so “meddle” might be foreign-state actors, like the Russians, attempting (but failing) to hack into to our networks.
Zetter explodes both those official stories, making it clear that: 1) No evidence of actual vote-count manipulation has been found only because the investigators — such as DHS and FBI — that might have had the access necessary to look for it, decided not to; and 2) Insiders within the voting equipment corporations — and domestic political operatives with access to them — would be at least as interested as “the Russians” in determining winners and losers, not just of the presidency, but throughout the infrastructure of American politics.
And she makes this astounding (astounding because it appears in our national “paper of record”) statement:
[I]n the United States, it’s safe to say, though few may utter it publicly, that the ballot box has failed many times and is poised to fail again.
In context, it is crystal clear that the kind of “failure” she is referencing is neither “voter fraud” (i.e., the all-but-nonexistent fraud Trump has alleged is committed by millions of “illegal” voters) nor “glitches,” but intentional cyber-meddling — computerized election theft. Remarkably, Zetter is saying it has occurred — and she is saying this (and more), not in an obscure blog, or even the Guardian or the Intercept, but in the New York Times.
I cannot overstate how great a sea change the Times article represents. It falls far short of telling the whole story (there are books for that, among them one that I have authored), and it comes catastrophically late in the game (for more than a decade we have been sounding the alarm everyone claimed not to hear), but it hits some of the key low notes that have never before been considered “fit to print.” In fact, my election forensics and election integrity colleagues and I have been (for close to two decades) routinely branded “conspiracy theorists” for suggesting just such things about our vote-counting system. Now we have a high-end “conspiracy theory” bearing the Times stamp of approval just in time for whatever goes down in November.
All our past work suggests that what does go down in November will be somewhere out to the right of what the electorate intends. Call it meddling, call it manipulation, call it rigging: the forensic red flags have been flying over our elections throughout the computerized voting era and long before anyone claims the Russians took an interest. But there seems always to be a “cover story,” some organic or benign explanation for the suspect results, ranging from the barely plausible to the flat-out ridiculous. The Trump-GOP game plan, as it is now predictably unfolding, is to create the illusion that the Kavanaugh confirmation is a winning issue, that the great fury out there is that a crazy and dangerous Democratic lynch mob victimized a good man. More than a good man; an epitome of goodness (“see, he chose four women as his clerks!”), an archon with every imaginable virtue and an unblemished record in every facet of life, Justice Apple Pie.
Forget, good people, about the euthanasia of Merrick Garland, the power-play theft of the Supreme Court for the rest of your lives; forget about the respect shown to Judge Kavanaugh by the Democrats who questioned him and the conspiracy theories he spewed in return; forget about the ridiculously caparisoned and compromised sham FBI “investigation”; and forget, above all, that, when the choreographed dust all settled, it was yet another “We won. You lost. Get over it” scalp on the Trump-McConnell-GOP belt. No, the “victimization” of Brett Kavanaugh is now being set up, in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, and transcribed onto cue cards to “explain” how the GOP once again wins the turnout battle and holds onto the Senate and perhaps even the House next month. They won and they’re furious. It’s like the Spaniards screaming “Remember the Maine!” — but will it actually work?
“It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.”
God knows it shouldn’t but, given the Zetter-Times warning and the forensic record, any cheap scheme to pull America even further to the right would seem to have a damned good chance. Because it doesn’t have to actually work, as long as it provides cover for suspect electoral results. The fact is, until we heed that warning and so demand the restoration of public, observable vote-counting to our elections (hand-counted paper ballots or at least serious, uniform, public audits), we’ll have no way of knowing — so that everyone in this most distrusting age can trust it — what our nation wants. Last week was, in its way, a good week for election integrity because we were warned and because the stage is now set to put that warning to what may be its clearest test yet.
Joseph Stalin is rumored to have said it best: “It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.” American exceptionalism notwithstanding, such thoughts have a way of crossing borders. Games are games, wherever played, especially games for all the marbles. We have collectively ignored copious and compelling evidence that we, the people, are being played, our nation stolen without a shot being fired, in a rolling and relentless coup. Perhaps that is the predictable consequence of playing fast and loose with our democracy, wanting it on the cheap, off-loading the burden of counting our votes and observing that count, wanting Election Night to be put-your-feet-up-and-watch-those-red-and-blue-blinking-states entertainment, yet another media property.
But elections matter. Never more so than in a nation torn in two. They are our official scorecard — our only official scorecard. Their real-world consequences, at this time especially, would be hard to overstate. You’d think we’d take better care of them.
Jonathan Simon is executive director of Election Defense Alliance and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.