Experts Say Stopping Michigan Recount Is A Corrupt Exercise Of Power
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Michigan is the new Florida in American elections, an infamous state where Republican judges shut down a presidential recount before the votes were counted, leaving Americans with unanswered questions about Donald Trump’s closest margin of victory on election night, November 8. Thursday morning, no county election offices were continuing with the recount, even as Green presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign was taking its fight for the recount to Michigan’s Supreme Court.
Make no mistake, a travesty has occurred. On Wednesday in courtrooms and government boardrooms across the state, a series of legal dominos fell on Stein’s statewide presidential recount. In state legal venues, the linchpin was a three-member appeals court of Republican judges who ordered a state vote canvassing board to shut down the recount. That board then voted to reverse its earlier decision allowing the recount to start. Later Wednesday evening, a federal court judge lifted his prior restraining order preventing Michigan officials from calling off the recount. On Thursday, Michigan counties had suspended the recount. “It’s stopped,” said the receptionist answering the phone at the Wayne County Election Division in Detroit.
What follows are seven statements from election integrity activists and computer security experts who supported the recount.
1. John Bonifaz, co-founder and president, Free Speech For People: ”It is an outrage that the voters of Michigan are being denied their right to have their votes properly counted. Because of a partisan state appeals court decision, Americans will never know the truth about what happened in this election. But the fight for our democracy must go on, now more than ever. History will record that, at this critical moment, people across the country stood up to demand that we verify the vote.”
2. Douglas W. Jones, associate professor of computer science, University of Iowa: “In a healthy democracy, elections are run with sufficient transparency that partisans of the losing candidate can convince themselves that they lost fair and square. Recounts in close elections are a necessary part of this transparency, particularly when the margin of victory is exceeded by an unusual number of ballots that were cast without reporting any vote in the election. Trump’s fight to stop the recount only serves to fuel speculation that he has something to hide.”
3. Mark Halverson, founder and former director, Citizens of Election Integrity Minnesota: “On the basis of our research into state recount laws, I take issue with the court’s assertion that no court has ever endorsed the use of a recount for purposes of determining whether or not voting machines functioned properly and counted votes accurately. For example, Tennessee recount statutes allow ‘any court, primary board, legislative body, or tribunal’ with jurisdiction over election contests to initiate a recount of ballots under circumstances including an indication of fraud, or the malfunction of a voting machine, whether the malfunction would be in a sufficient amount to alter the election outcome or for ‘any other instance’ in which such a body ‘finds that a recount is warranted.’ California and Delaware have similar provisions.”
4. Barbara Simons, board of advisers, U.S. Election Assistance Commission: The co-author of Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? says, “Michigan citizens are fortunate to have a sound method for casting their votes: they mark paper ballots which are then counted by computers inside of scanning machines. However, computers can have software bugs, programming errors, or election-rigging malware. Fortunately, we can determine if there are any problems with the scanners by comparing what the paper ballots say to what the scanner thinks they say. But if we don’t look at the paper, then we can’t know if the scanners are correct. We have a choice. We can honor our democracy by routinely checking computer-declared results after every election. Or we can accept computer-declared results on faith, even though they may be wrong. Our democracy will fail if we continue to allow unreliable computers to decide our elections on our behalf.”
5. Phillip B. Stark, associate dean of mathematical and physical sciences and professor of statistics, UC Berkeley: “This decision halts the collection of priceless evidence about how well the infrastructure of our democracy works. Counting the votes accurately and checking the count carefully should not be a partisan issue. We should check election results against cast paper ballots in every election. There are more efficient ways to do that than full recounts: we need laws that require non-partisan, risk-limiting audits to catch and correct errors. But first, we need all voters to use paper ballots, and we need all jurisdictions to protect those ballots.”
6. Poorvi Vora, professor of computer science, George Washington University: “Statistician Philip Stark and computer scientist David Wagner of Berkeley have defined ‘evidence-based elections’ as those where voters and observers are provided evidence in support of the election outcome. The recount was to have provided evidence for or against a very unusual number in the Michigan election this year: 75,000 voters—a number seven times the margin in the race—voted in the election but did not vote on president. However, in the early days of the recount, there have been reports of other, more troubling facts from this election: mismatches between voter turnout and ballots, scanners jamming, insecure storage of ballot boxes. This is not the time to stop the recount. This is the time to press on with it to obtain more evidence and understand more completely the election process in Michigan.”
7. Dan Wallach, professor in Rice University’s Department of Computer Science and manager of Rice Computer Security Lab: “I’m disappointed that Michigan isn’t seeing its recount through. We have legitimate concerns about foreign nation-states trying to manipulate our elections, and Michigan offered an important opportunity to either prove or disprove these concerns. The discrepancies in Detroit (broken seals, mismatching counts) already point to flaws in Michigan’s election processes that need to be improved, and even a recount that failed to change the outcome would be able to provide a definitive count of how many Michigan votes were handled so poorly that they cannot be properly recounted.”
Recount Continues in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin
The Stein campaign also filed for recounts in Wisconsin, which started last week, and in Pennsylvania, which has gotten off to a rough start and where it has sued the state in federal court over what it says are unconstitutional obstructions to the process.
Pennsylvania’s election system allows for a state-run recount if the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent, which is slightly below Donald Trump’s latest lead over Hillary Clinton. That has prompted the Stein campaign to try to file for citizen-initiated recounts, where any three voters from one precinct can submit notarized petitions. As of midweek, 1,300 voters filed petitions, but many jurisdictions either refused to take them or haven’t acted on them. Republicans have also filed legal challenges, tying up recounts in courts, where more often than not local judges have rejected the recount.
When the Stein campaign filed a legal petition seeking a statewide recount with 100 signatures on it, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court demanded that they pay $1 million to be able to move forward with their case, which prompted the Stein campaign to sue the state in federal court. The case will be heard Friday. In Wisconsin, where the recount is nearing completion, the state inexplicably more than tripled its estimated $1.1 million filing fee to $3.5 million, which Stein’s campaign paid.
But the most dubious opposition to recounting the ballots was in Michigan, where the state election department told counties they could disqualify local precincts from a recount if there is discrepancy between the number of voters in a precinct’s poll book and the number of ballots in the ballot box. That standard meant 392 of 662 precincts in heavily Democratic Detroit—or 59 percent—of the precincts were deemed ineligible for a recount.
In interviews with the Detroit Free Press, nationally known election scholars criticized that disqualifying standard. Larry Norden, Democracy Program deputy director at the Brennan Center at NYU Law School, said, “It seems like to have such a strict rule is a bad idea because it potentially incentivizes someone who doesn’t want a recount.” The Free Press added, “Norden said a rogue poll worker could simply add one name to the poll book at the end of the evening to ensure the precinct couldn’t be recounted.”
Ed Foley, an election law expert at Moritz Law School in Ohio also said Michigan’s disqualifying standard was out of step with other states. “In most states, if it’s [precinct ballot totals and poll book sign-ins] only off by one or two, it’s usually poll worker error and absent any other evidence of fraud or impropriety, they’ll treat the ballots as valid. The thinking is that those mistakes even out. Michigan is sort of out of step with that prevailing practice.”
But like Wisconsin, where state actors changed the rules in the middle of the recount process, Michigan Republicans have not stopped going after the Greens. In their GOP-controlled legislature, the House Elections Committee has passed and sent to the floor a bill retroactively requiring the Stein campaign to pay more for the recount.
Not What Democracy Looks Like
Voting in the presidential election didn’t start on November 8. It began weeks before, where civil rights attorneys in many states were in court to prevent partisan election officials, almost all Republicans, from creating barriers to the vote such as closing early voting sites in communities of color and toughening voter ID laws to get a ballot. And the presidential election didn’t end after Election Day, when states took weeks to officially certify their counts and a call came to verify the vote count in the states that purportedly elected Trump.
Americans need to know who elected Trump and why, instead of seeing a morass of vote count obstructionism that’s as alarming as the October surprise delivered by a partisan FBI, which targeted Hillary Clinton in the final weeks of the campaign. While the Clinton campaign refused to demand accountability on behalf of its voters, Stein’s campaign surprisingly took on the job. What did her 100,000-plus small donors get for their millions? They have placed new election integrity issues before the nation. They showed it is not just partisan voter suppression before and on Election Day, but a rickety ballot and vote counting machinery manned by too many officials who don’t want to account for votes, compounded by partisan courts pre-empting the vote count, that sit at the center of the electoral process. Perhaps American elections have always been this way, but many voters do not think that’s the way a democracy is supposed to function.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights, campaigns and elections, and many social justice issues.
IMAGE: A sign points the way to the room where Oakland County clerks count election ballots during a recount of presidential ballots in Waterford Township, Michigan, U.S., December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook