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The No-BS Inside Guide to the Presidential Vote Recount

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 By Greg Palast, Truthout | News Analysis
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Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, speaks at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Aug. 23, 2016. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times) Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, speaks at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, August 23, 2016. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)

There's been so much complete nonsense since I first broke the news that the Green Party would file for a recount of the presidential vote, I am compelled to write a short guide to flush out the BS and get to just the facts, ma'am.

Nope, They're Not Hunting for Russian Hackers

To begin with, the main work of the recount hasn't a damn thing to do with finding out if the software programs for the voting machines have been hacked, whether by Putin's agents or some guy in a cave flipping your vote from Hillary to The Donald.

The Green team does not yet even have the right to get into the codes. But the question of flipped votes is not the core of the work.

The Ballots in the Electoral "Dumpster"

The nasty little secret of US elections is that we don't count all the votes.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- and all over America -- there were a massive number of votes that were simply rejected, invalidated and spoiled; they were simply not counted. Officially, in a typical presidential election, at least three million votes end up rejected, often for picayune, absurd reasons.

The rejects fall into three big categories: provisional ballots rejected, absentee and mail-in ballots invalidated and in-precinct votes "spoiled," spit out by a machine or thrown out by a human reader as unreadable or mismarked.

So, as Robert Fitrakis, lead lawyer for the recount, tells me, their first job is to pull the votes out of the electoral dumpster -- and, one by one, make the case for counting a rejected provisional, absentee or "spoiled" ballot.

Spoiled: Over-Votes and Under-Votes

How does a vote spoil? Most fall in the categories of "over-votes" and "under-votes."

In Michigan, the Green team has found a whole lot of people who voted for two candidates for president. They are the "over-voters" -- and their votes will count for neither candidate. Then, some folks didn't vote at all. They are the "under-voters."

But, Fitrakis and team suspect, many of these under- and over-voters meant to vote for a candidate but the robot reader couldn't understand their choice.

Here's how it happens. Voters in Michigan and Wisconsin fill in bubbles next to their choice. The cards, filled up with darkened bubbles for each race, are gathered and fed through an "optical scanner." These robotic eyeballs mess up all the time.

This is what Fitrakis, an old hand at vote-machine failures (both deliberate and benign), calls "the calibration problem."

Are machines calibrated with a Republican or Democratic bias? No, that's not how it works. But just as poor areas get the worst schools and hospitals, they also get the worst voting machines.

The key is an ugly statistic not taught in third-grade civics class: According to the US Civil Rights Commission, the chance your vote will be disqualified as "spoiled" is 900 percent more likely if you're Black than if you're white.

So, the Green Party intends to review every single one of the six million bubble-filled cards. They'll use the one instrument that can easily tell one bubble from two, or one bubble from none: the human eye.

As you can imagine, this will require several thousand eyes. The good news, Fitrakis reports, is that well over a thousand volunteers have already signed up. Training by Skype begins Tuesday morning.

Provisional or "Placebo" Ballots

According to the US Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), Americans cast 2.7 million provisional ballots in the last presidential election. About a million were simply discarded. What?!

Yes. Discarded, not counted. You show up at your normal polling station and they can't find your name, or they don't like your ID, or you're supposed to vote in another precinct. Instead of letting you vote on a regular ballot, you fill out a "provisional" ballot and place it in an envelope, sign your name, and under penalty of jail time for lying, affirm you're a properly registered voter.

The polls close -- then the magic begins. It's up to highly partisan election officials to decide if your vote counts. Hillary Clinton only won one swing state, Virginia, notably, the only one where the vote count was controlled by Democrats. She lost all swing states -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida -- where the GOP set the rules for counting these ballots and their hacks acted as the judge and jury on whether a ballot should be counted.

Wisconsin generally rejects votes cast in the wrong precinct, even if they're legal voters -- and, says Fitrakis, "even if their official precinct was just another table in the same high school gym -- and they were misdirected by poll workers."

(That's why I sometimes call "provisional" ballots "placebo" ballots. They let you feel you've voted, even if you haven't.)

In Wisconsin, provisional ballots were handed to voters -- mostly, it appears, students -- who didn't have the form of ID required under new Wisconsin law. These ballots were disqualified despite zero evidence even one voter was an identity thief.

Fitrakis says the Stein campaign will fight for each of these provisional votes where there is clearly no evidence the vote is fraudulent.

Mail-in, Early and Absentee Ballots Go Absent

If you've gone postal in this election, good luck! According to EAC data, at least half a million absentee ballots go absent, that is, just don't get counted. The cause: everything from postage due, to "suspect signature." In Fitrakis' home state, Ohio, you need to put your driver's license number on the envelope, "and if you don't have a driver's license and leave the line blank -- instead of writing 'no driver's license' -- they toss your ballot," Fitrakis tells me.

It's a "gotcha!" system meant to knock out the ballots the officials don't want to count. (Remember, your mail-in ballot is anything but secret.) Team Green will try to fight for each absentee ballot rejected for cockamamie reasons.

If the Recount Doesn't Change the Outcome, Can We Feel Assured the Election Was Honest?

Sadly, no. As Fitrakis says, "If a student is given a provisional ballot because they didn't have the right ID, or the state simply lost their registration, we can fight for the ballot to be counted. But most students who voted off campus didn't know their right to get a provisional ballot and most probably didn't get offered one.

Students and others were discouraged from voting because they lacked the proper ID (300,000 by the estimate of the experts with the ACLU -- that's 30 times Trump's plurality). But if you didn't cast any ballot, provisional or otherwise, no one can fight for it.

And final decisions may come down to the vote of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, God forbid. As Norman Stockwell, the editor of Madison-based The Progressive explained to me, formerly, elections law adjudications were made by a panel of non-partisan judges. These were replaced by this new commission of partisan shills appointed by GOP Governor Scott Walker.

Trump Says Millions Voted Illegally. Is He Lying?

Lying through his teeth. He has a reason to do so that affects the recount.

While the media dismiss Trump's claim that there are "millions of people that voted illegally," they have not paid attention to the details of his claim. Trump explains that millions of people are "voting many, many times," that is, voting in two states in the same election.

Trump's claim is based on a list of "potential duplicate voters" created by his operative, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach (a top dog in Trump's transition team) directs a program for hunting down fraudulent voters using a computer system called "Crosscheck."

It's quite a computer: Crosscheck identified a breathtaking 449,922 Michiganders who are suspected of voting or registering in a second state, a felony crime, as are 371,923 in Pennsylvania.

I spent two years investigating the Trump/Kobach claim for Rolling Stone. We obtained the "confidential" suspect list of several million citizens accused of voting twice. In fact, it was no more than a list of common names -- Maria Hernandez, James Brown, David Lee -- that is, common to voters of color. Read: Democrats. A true and typical example: Michael James Brown of Michigan is supposed to be the same voter as Michael Kendrick Brown of Georgia.

About 54,000 voters in Michigan, five times Trump's plurality, lost their right to vote based on this unfounded double-voter accusation. In Pennsylvania, about 45,000 were purged.

The problem for Fitrakis: While he eventually plans to file suit against Crosscheck purges, in the meantime, it's not clear he can challenge the denial of a vote based on a false accusation of double voting. And for those who found their names missing and didn't demand a provisional ballot, there's no hope at all of recovering their vote.

Is Jill Stein Going to Get Rich?

Fitrakis laughs at this one. "The FEC [Federal Elections Commission] has very strict rules on recounts," he says. "The donations for the recount are sequestered in a specially designated account and all spending is restricted to the recount."

The big problem is that the cost is somewhat out of Stein's control. Each state will bill the campaign for the "pro-rated salaries and benefits" of its county and state officials working on the recount.

To add to the cost and just plain drive the Green team crazy, the Wisconsin Election Board announced on Monday that each separate county elections clerk will decide if any given county will even let the Green volunteers directly view the ballots. Fitrakis and partners will have to get a court order to get into each county. How does one recount ballots without seeing them?

Hillary Joins the Fray

What will the Clinton camp add to the recount? "Lawyers," said Fitrakis, though he's yet to see them. The Clinton campaign is apparently helping find one voter in each Pennsylvania county, as one is required in each jurisdiction to file for a recount of that state.

And What About That Hack Job?

Fitrakis is not looking for Russkies in the computer code. He says, "We're more concerned with the private companies that control the keys to the kingdom -- to match what's on paper to the official count." The "keys" are the little machines, memory cards and other electronic gewgaws that are used to suck the data from the voting machine -- which are carried off to another state for tabulation by a private contractor. Will these tabulations at each step match what the volunteers find in the on-the-ground recount?

One problem is that the tabulation software is "proprietary." A private company owns the code to the count -- and its leaders will fight fiercely, with GOP help, to keep the ballot-counting code their commercial secret.

"Push and Pray" Pennsylvania

In the end, the single biggest impediment to a full and fair recount is that 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters used what are called "Push and Pray" voting machines -- Direct Recording Electronic touch-screens. Push the screen next to your choice and pray it gets recorded. Pennsylvania is one of the only states that has yet to require some form of voter-verified paper audit trail that creates an ATM-style receipt.

Therefore, the Keystone State recount will have to rely on hopes of access to the code, statistical comparisons to counties that used paper ballots -- and prayer.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Greg Palast

Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Greg Palast worked as a government consultant and an investigator for labor unions before turning to journalism full time. A self described "reporting investigator" as opposed to an investigative journalist, he became a writer in order to alert a wider public to abuses he saw committed by governments, corporations, politicians and lobbyists. For years Palast wrote a column for the Guardian called "Inside Corporate America," and his articles have appeared in magazines and journals including The Nation, Harper's and In These Times. Palast's 2002 bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which covered in detail the fiasco of President Bush's victory in Florida in 2000, appeared in 2002 and served as the basis for his documentary film Bush Family Fortunes. His latest film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: a Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, based on the his best-selling book about Donald Trump and voter suppression, was released in September.


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The No-BS Inside Guide to the Presidential Vote Recount

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 By Greg Palast, Truthout | News Analysis
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, speaks at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Aug. 23, 2016. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times) Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, speaks at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, August 23, 2016. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)

There's been so much complete nonsense since I first broke the news that the Green Party would file for a recount of the presidential vote, I am compelled to write a short guide to flush out the BS and get to just the facts, ma'am.

Nope, They're Not Hunting for Russian Hackers

To begin with, the main work of the recount hasn't a damn thing to do with finding out if the software programs for the voting machines have been hacked, whether by Putin's agents or some guy in a cave flipping your vote from Hillary to The Donald.

The Green team does not yet even have the right to get into the codes. But the question of flipped votes is not the core of the work.

The Ballots in the Electoral "Dumpster"

The nasty little secret of US elections is that we don't count all the votes.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- and all over America -- there were a massive number of votes that were simply rejected, invalidated and spoiled; they were simply not counted. Officially, in a typical presidential election, at least three million votes end up rejected, often for picayune, absurd reasons.

The rejects fall into three big categories: provisional ballots rejected, absentee and mail-in ballots invalidated and in-precinct votes "spoiled," spit out by a machine or thrown out by a human reader as unreadable or mismarked.

So, as Robert Fitrakis, lead lawyer for the recount, tells me, their first job is to pull the votes out of the electoral dumpster -- and, one by one, make the case for counting a rejected provisional, absentee or "spoiled" ballot.

Spoiled: Over-Votes and Under-Votes

How does a vote spoil? Most fall in the categories of "over-votes" and "under-votes."

In Michigan, the Green team has found a whole lot of people who voted for two candidates for president. They are the "over-voters" -- and their votes will count for neither candidate. Then, some folks didn't vote at all. They are the "under-voters."

But, Fitrakis and team suspect, many of these under- and over-voters meant to vote for a candidate but the robot reader couldn't understand their choice.

Here's how it happens. Voters in Michigan and Wisconsin fill in bubbles next to their choice. The cards, filled up with darkened bubbles for each race, are gathered and fed through an "optical scanner." These robotic eyeballs mess up all the time.

This is what Fitrakis, an old hand at vote-machine failures (both deliberate and benign), calls "the calibration problem."

Are machines calibrated with a Republican or Democratic bias? No, that's not how it works. But just as poor areas get the worst schools and hospitals, they also get the worst voting machines.

The key is an ugly statistic not taught in third-grade civics class: According to the US Civil Rights Commission, the chance your vote will be disqualified as "spoiled" is 900 percent more likely if you're Black than if you're white.

So, the Green Party intends to review every single one of the six million bubble-filled cards. They'll use the one instrument that can easily tell one bubble from two, or one bubble from none: the human eye.

As you can imagine, this will require several thousand eyes. The good news, Fitrakis reports, is that well over a thousand volunteers have already signed up. Training by Skype begins Tuesday morning.

Provisional or "Placebo" Ballots

According to the US Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), Americans cast 2.7 million provisional ballots in the last presidential election. About a million were simply discarded. What?!

Yes. Discarded, not counted. You show up at your normal polling station and they can't find your name, or they don't like your ID, or you're supposed to vote in another precinct. Instead of letting you vote on a regular ballot, you fill out a "provisional" ballot and place it in an envelope, sign your name, and under penalty of jail time for lying, affirm you're a properly registered voter.

The polls close -- then the magic begins. It's up to highly partisan election officials to decide if your vote counts. Hillary Clinton only won one swing state, Virginia, notably, the only one where the vote count was controlled by Democrats. She lost all swing states -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida -- where the GOP set the rules for counting these ballots and their hacks acted as the judge and jury on whether a ballot should be counted.

Wisconsin generally rejects votes cast in the wrong precinct, even if they're legal voters -- and, says Fitrakis, "even if their official precinct was just another table in the same high school gym -- and they were misdirected by poll workers."

(That's why I sometimes call "provisional" ballots "placebo" ballots. They let you feel you've voted, even if you haven't.)

In Wisconsin, provisional ballots were handed to voters -- mostly, it appears, students -- who didn't have the form of ID required under new Wisconsin law. These ballots were disqualified despite zero evidence even one voter was an identity thief.

Fitrakis says the Stein campaign will fight for each of these provisional votes where there is clearly no evidence the vote is fraudulent.

Mail-in, Early and Absentee Ballots Go Absent

If you've gone postal in this election, good luck! According to EAC data, at least half a million absentee ballots go absent, that is, just don't get counted. The cause: everything from postage due, to "suspect signature." In Fitrakis' home state, Ohio, you need to put your driver's license number on the envelope, "and if you don't have a driver's license and leave the line blank -- instead of writing 'no driver's license' -- they toss your ballot," Fitrakis tells me.

It's a "gotcha!" system meant to knock out the ballots the officials don't want to count. (Remember, your mail-in ballot is anything but secret.) Team Green will try to fight for each absentee ballot rejected for cockamamie reasons.

If the Recount Doesn't Change the Outcome, Can We Feel Assured the Election Was Honest?

Sadly, no. As Fitrakis says, "If a student is given a provisional ballot because they didn't have the right ID, or the state simply lost their registration, we can fight for the ballot to be counted. But most students who voted off campus didn't know their right to get a provisional ballot and most probably didn't get offered one.

Students and others were discouraged from voting because they lacked the proper ID (300,000 by the estimate of the experts with the ACLU -- that's 30 times Trump's plurality). But if you didn't cast any ballot, provisional or otherwise, no one can fight for it.

And final decisions may come down to the vote of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, God forbid. As Norman Stockwell, the editor of Madison-based The Progressive explained to me, formerly, elections law adjudications were made by a panel of non-partisan judges. These were replaced by this new commission of partisan shills appointed by GOP Governor Scott Walker.

Trump Says Millions Voted Illegally. Is He Lying?

Lying through his teeth. He has a reason to do so that affects the recount.

While the media dismiss Trump's claim that there are "millions of people that voted illegally," they have not paid attention to the details of his claim. Trump explains that millions of people are "voting many, many times," that is, voting in two states in the same election.

Trump's claim is based on a list of "potential duplicate voters" created by his operative, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach (a top dog in Trump's transition team) directs a program for hunting down fraudulent voters using a computer system called "Crosscheck."

It's quite a computer: Crosscheck identified a breathtaking 449,922 Michiganders who are suspected of voting or registering in a second state, a felony crime, as are 371,923 in Pennsylvania.

I spent two years investigating the Trump/Kobach claim for Rolling Stone. We obtained the "confidential" suspect list of several million citizens accused of voting twice. In fact, it was no more than a list of common names -- Maria Hernandez, James Brown, David Lee -- that is, common to voters of color. Read: Democrats. A true and typical example: Michael James Brown of Michigan is supposed to be the same voter as Michael Kendrick Brown of Georgia.

About 54,000 voters in Michigan, five times Trump's plurality, lost their right to vote based on this unfounded double-voter accusation. In Pennsylvania, about 45,000 were purged.

The problem for Fitrakis: While he eventually plans to file suit against Crosscheck purges, in the meantime, it's not clear he can challenge the denial of a vote based on a false accusation of double voting. And for those who found their names missing and didn't demand a provisional ballot, there's no hope at all of recovering their vote.

Is Jill Stein Going to Get Rich?

Fitrakis laughs at this one. "The FEC [Federal Elections Commission] has very strict rules on recounts," he says. "The donations for the recount are sequestered in a specially designated account and all spending is restricted to the recount."

The big problem is that the cost is somewhat out of Stein's control. Each state will bill the campaign for the "pro-rated salaries and benefits" of its county and state officials working on the recount.

To add to the cost and just plain drive the Green team crazy, the Wisconsin Election Board announced on Monday that each separate county elections clerk will decide if any given county will even let the Green volunteers directly view the ballots. Fitrakis and partners will have to get a court order to get into each county. How does one recount ballots without seeing them?

Hillary Joins the Fray

What will the Clinton camp add to the recount? "Lawyers," said Fitrakis, though he's yet to see them. The Clinton campaign is apparently helping find one voter in each Pennsylvania county, as one is required in each jurisdiction to file for a recount of that state.

And What About That Hack Job?

Fitrakis is not looking for Russkies in the computer code. He says, "We're more concerned with the private companies that control the keys to the kingdom -- to match what's on paper to the official count." The "keys" are the little machines, memory cards and other electronic gewgaws that are used to suck the data from the voting machine -- which are carried off to another state for tabulation by a private contractor. Will these tabulations at each step match what the volunteers find in the on-the-ground recount?

One problem is that the tabulation software is "proprietary." A private company owns the code to the count -- and its leaders will fight fiercely, with GOP help, to keep the ballot-counting code their commercial secret.

"Push and Pray" Pennsylvania

In the end, the single biggest impediment to a full and fair recount is that 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters used what are called "Push and Pray" voting machines -- Direct Recording Electronic touch-screens. Push the screen next to your choice and pray it gets recorded. Pennsylvania is one of the only states that has yet to require some form of voter-verified paper audit trail that creates an ATM-style receipt.

Therefore, the Keystone State recount will have to rely on hopes of access to the code, statistical comparisons to counties that used paper ballots -- and prayer.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Greg Palast

Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Greg Palast worked as a government consultant and an investigator for labor unions before turning to journalism full time. A self described "reporting investigator" as opposed to an investigative journalist, he became a writer in order to alert a wider public to abuses he saw committed by governments, corporations, politicians and lobbyists. For years Palast wrote a column for the Guardian called "Inside Corporate America," and his articles have appeared in magazines and journals including The Nation, Harper's and In These Times. Palast's 2002 bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which covered in detail the fiasco of President Bush's victory in Florida in 2000, appeared in 2002 and served as the basis for his documentary film Bush Family Fortunes. His latest film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: a Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, based on the his best-selling book about Donald Trump and voter suppression, was released in September.


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