PDA’S History With Election Integrity – By Our Fruits Ye Shall Know Us

Apr 28, 2021 | PDA Blog

By Mimi Kennedy, Board Member – Progressive Democrats of America

At PDA’s recent Zoom memorial for Steve Cobble, so many spoke of Steve’s value as a personal carrier of decades of political history that I realized my best contribution to our PDA Election Integrity panel might be simply to relate my personal history with the topic since PDA’s founding in 2004.

Too much has happened to get it all in. But here’s the thumbnail version: 

Voter Suppression is always racist. If monied conservatives are to continue controlling our laws, budgets, and social engineering, they must discourage poor people from voting. Poor people, because of systemic racism, are often people of color. So it’s people of color who are most often kept from voting by threats, laws, and arcane procedures.

Voter suppression in this country is now on steroids. This is partly due to PDA’s Election Integrity work being successful. In coalition with countless grassroots groups, we have managed to restore the paper ballot in many places in the USA from which they’d disappeared under the Bush Administration’s 2002 Help America Vote Act. HAVA mandated standards that could most easily be met by electronic voting machines ready-to-go from (conveniently) Republican-friendly manufacturers. Their DREs – Direct Record Electronic machines –could count the vote without any paper ballot at all: voters touched a screen and the computer registered the votes, counting invisibly, internally. There was nothing to check if things went awry, whereas, with paper ballots, the people’s choice could be proven . With paper ballots restored, opponents of democracy must choke off votes at the source to control elections. They must prevent the “wrong kind” of voters from casting paper ballots. 

Back in 2004, Tim Carpenter gathered progressive delegates from the primary campaigns of Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, Al Sharpton, Howard Dean and Carol Mosley-Brown during the Democratic convention. He invited them all to join Progressive Democrats of America, which would stand against the war, though our nominee, John Kerry, would not.  

Kerry was defeated by Bush in November. Ohio decided it, and the circumstances were as  troubled as Florida 2000; there, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was a Bush campaign chair, had purged 96,000 mostly voters of color from the rolls before the election, but a paper ballot recount was about to give Al Gore the win anyway. A mob of young men, some of them congressional staffers, stormed the counting hall and stopped the process. Republican lawyers went all the way to the Supreme Court to stop it permanently. The Roberts Court ruled for the Republicans and Bush was declared the winner. Ohio, 2004, was slightly less visibly messy because the state had counties with digital voting. But activists monitoring the results published on the website of Ohio’s Secretary of State – Ken Blackwell, also a Bush campaign chair – noticed strange fluctuations and sued to look at the paper ballots in counties that did have them. The case went on for years. A star witness died.  By the time a judge granted access to the paper ballot, most of them had been destroyed with impunity.  

PDA held its first national meeting in 2005, during Bush’s January inauguration.  The “Summit in the Snow” proceeded during a blizzard that shut down the city, but we hunkered at the University of District of Columbia Law School, courtesy of Joe Libertelli, a UDC faculty and PDA Advisory Board member. Tom Hayden was with us, warning that it could take decades to end the war, as it did with Vietnam.  Hearing our frustration at trying to elect anti-war candidates on invisible ballots and invisible vote counts that were spreading, and always seemed to favor Republicans, he said he was “amazed” at “how many of you seem to think this election was stolen.”  

We did; because George W. Bush’s first-term priority, after the post-9/11 War on Terror and invasion of Iraq, had been the Help America Vote Act(HAVA). This election “reform” was sold to Congress as the solution to paper ballot errors that everyone had seen snarling the election in Florida 2000. Computer voting was promised to end long lines in minority communities, so Democrats came aboard. Voters with disabilities cheered computers’ ability to let them vote without assistance. Election officials welcomed the prospect of having infallible computers, rather than overworked election staff, to tally up the votes.  

So paper ballots disappeared, state after state. By 2004, a majority of Americans trusted their votes to invisible digital software. Where paper ballots were retained, they were counted by computer too – optical scanners read the ballots and the paper was rarely looked at to check the computer count. There were DRE electronic voting machines that produced a “paper trail” for states that required it, but the trail was a flimsy thermal slip that faded long before the statutory 22 months for preserving federal election records. It, too, was rarely checked. In Georgia, 2002, popular Democratic Congressman Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam vet, lost his race for Senate. It was the first time Georgians had ever used the new touchscreen voting system from Diebold. There was no paper to count, and the unexpected loss was attributed to the “red wave” moving across the country. This turn to the right was heavily covered by media that somehow failed to notice, or investigate, that it tracked quite synchronously with HAVA’s spread of digital voting. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/30/us/the-2002-campaign-the-states-georgia-about-to-plunge-into-touch-screen-vote.html) Kennesaw State University was contracted to be the cyber center for Georgia’s digital election system. Its security lapses were massive, and it was finally relieved of duty in 2017. (https://diverseeducation.com/article/104918/)

Voting legislation is a jealously guarded state’s right, and voting systems can vary by state or county. PDA learned early on that Election Integrity work required local grassroots action.  As Advisory Chair of a national organization, I wanted to make sure our federal legislators were aware of the challenge. Too many were not. At an LA Fundraiser, I asked then-Congressman Ben Cardin (D-MD) how his constituents voted – and I meant on what voting system; I hoped he was factoring that in to his GOTV campaign. He said, happily, “67% Democratic! Once I’m past the primary, I’m fine.” I clarified that I meant their voting system, since I didn’t know at the time, but it would, I assured him, affect his race.  He shamefacedly confessed that he’d voted absentee for so long, he wasn’t sure what his voters faced at the polls.  In fact, I later learned, they faced paperless Diebold DREs, the worst kind of election security.  Ben was a centrist who defeated his primary opponent, former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, the local progressives’ choice. He is still in the Senate, and presumably better informed as he supports HR 1 and S1 –  which mandate paper ballots and audits. 

PDA Advisory Member Joel Segal was a staffer to our first Congressional Advisory Board member, Chairman John Conyers of House Judiciary.  Around 2006, he invited me to address a committee hearing on the problems with electronic voting. I wrote and distributed a glossary of terms, starting with the basics: DREs – Direct Record Electronic voting machines that cast and count votes invisibly inside the machines; VVPAT – the Voter-Verified  Paper Audit Trail, that some DREs produce, but it’s a fragile thermal receipt that is kept inside the machine and rarely checked;  Opti-Scanners – computers that count paper ballots by doing rapid scans; they can also lie if their digital count is never checked by a hand-count of at least some of the paper. I could tell some of my audience was shocked, but not Jerry Nadler. He said, as we left, “That was very informative, thank you. I knew DREs were bad news, but I never knew you could f**k with a paper ballot, excuse my French.”

Yes, you can f**k with a paper ballot if you rely on the computer scan only.

In 2006, LA County , the biggest voting jurisdiction in the US, still had paper ballots. This helped elect progressive legislator Debra Bowen as Secretary of State. Democrats were mad, after the attack on our state by which the GOP recalled governor Gray Davis in 2003 and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger , their hope for a new Reagan. Davis was smeared as mismanaging the state’s energy market, but the blackouts we suffered were found later to have been purposely gamed by Enron Corporation taking advantage of the state’s newly-deregulated electric grid. In 2007, Secretary of State Bowen  assembled computer scientists to test the security of all the state’s voting systems. They were all found wanting. She mandated that all systems used in CA produce a paper trail and that it be used for the state’s mandatory 1% audit.  She made powerful enemies among the vendors and election officials. But she saved democracy. I still have the book on my shelf that she recommended to me fifteen years ago: “Beyond Fear.”

The glorious sight of paper ballots being hand-counted in that Atlanta, Georgia arena proves the success of so many unsung activists’ work. Georgia is finally back on paper. And it has Stacey Abrams, brilliant strategist, who mobilized the black vote and educated on the details of absentee voting, so necessary during the pandemic.  She knows the value of Election Integrity. She narrowly lost to Brian Kemp for governor in 2018, in the last election conducted by Georgia’s old paperless Diebold system, the one that had defeated Max Cleland. Kemp, as Secretary of State, was overseeing his own election. The election software was admitted, by Kennesaw State, to have sat unguarded on the internet for months.  

I like to think that Max could see that arena, from Somewhere, and watch the paper ballot recount that elected a Democratic president. Later, paper ballots elected two Georgia Democratic senators. 

It’s a weird time to be an Election Integrity activist. That phrase was on some banners of the insurrectionists of January 6, along with Trump and Stop The Steal. Where were they when elections really could be stolen, invisibly and undetectably, and there was plenty of evidence, if not courthouse tangible proof? A day late and a dollar short, I say. I’ve encountered a lot of false friends doing this work and I judge them, and whether I want to work with them, by the words, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Stop the Steal activists are ignorant. They quote reports from excellent election journalists like Brad Friedman – only the reports are years old. Conditions have changed, but Stop the Steal seems neither to know nor care. They don’t want to stop voter suppression; they still cry the bogus Republican complaint of Voter Fraud to support suppression, though the few instances of illegal voting that have been found have often involved Republican voters. Stop The Steal, and their legislator-enablers, have no interest in HR 1 and S1, excellent bills that can help restore Election Integrity nationwide, on the vote-casting side, and the vote-counting side. 

Much work remains. Expanded no-excuse mail voting must continue. It’s a life-saver during a crisis, and its success reveals how many people can’t get to the polls because of work, child care, and lack of transportation. Registration should be automatic at age eighteen; that’s when ID must be checked. Federal digital election records must be preserved along with paper records. Ballot images – the digital pictures taken by scanners during tabulation – must be preserved as part of a publicly available check on official results. The image file must be protected from hacking. All computer counts must be publicly verified by human eyes on paper ballots. Several ways to arrive at results helps deter getting away with fraud using one method.

PDA will continue its efforts. Andrea Miller, one of the nation’s leading voting rights activists, was co-executive Director of PDA with Conor Boylan after Tim Carpenter died. She registers, informs, and restores the rights of voters of color. The gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act made her work crucial. The Roberts Supreme Court ruled that states with a history of Jim Crow election laws no longer had to pre-clear new voting legislation with the Justice Department, because racial discrimination at the polls, Roberts opined, was a thing of the past. So the burdensome regulation was ruled unconstitutional. 

The minute the decision came down, voter suppression laws proliferated. Many states had prepared them in anticipation of the victory.  

Paper ballots, in Chairman Nadler’s words, can be f**ked with.  Democracy requires upscale cyber security and we must actually count the paper ballots, at least in robust audits of computer results. Registration rolls must be secured; surely there are hackers working right now to manipulate them. Ballot image files must be protected so their usefulness is not destroyed. To cheat with them you’d have to substitute both a fraudulent image and a substitute of the matching paper ballot. It would require a messy conspiracy. Fraudsters prefer easy and quiet. Election Integrity means making it harder to cheat and easier to cast a legitimate vote.  And our nation depends on fair, clean, transparent, accessible and verifiable elections. They are the foundation on which rests  our whole aspirational project of government by, of, and for the people.

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