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Inside the Recount | New Republic ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

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Immediately after the phone call, while he was still in the air, Halderman logged on to a secure online chat service called Slack and created an invite-only channel he named “Voting.” The encrypted conversations, which were obtained by the New Republic, provide a minute-by-minute log of the seven weeks of the recount effort and its aftermath. Halderman deputized Matt Bernhard, one of his doctoral students, as a co-administrator, and the two men began assembling a group of 30 that included some of the world’s foremost computer scientists and statisticians. There were academics from top universities, expert advisers to the Defense Department, and activists who have spent years decrying vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines. None of the participants was a political player or professional partisan. Their goal was not to bring down Trump, but to study and strengthen America’s election system. Some in the group dubbed it the “A-Team.”

From the start, the Slack conversations made clear that the A-Team never wanted to conduct the full statewide recounts that would eventually be pursued in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Instead, they preferred what is known as a “risk-limiting audit,” or RLA. Writing in USA Today five days after the Slack channel was created, two members of the A-Team—statistician Philip Stark from the University of California, and cryptographer Ron Rivest from MIT—spelled out the benefits of an RLA. Hand-checking a total of 700,000 ballots in the 29 states won by Trump, they explained, would provide “95 percent confidence that the results are correct.”

At the time, the computer experts were optimistic that Podesta would ultimately sign on, and they focused on preparing for an RLA. The problem was that the A-Team had no idea how to actually go about conducting an audit.

“What would it take to conduct a statewide RLA for a state that is not prepared for it?” Jefferson, the scientist from Lawrence Livermore, asked in Slack on the first day. “How can we select random ballots from across the state when they are held in many separate counties? We would need either the extraordinary cooperation of all county election officials, or a federal court order, no?”

“Are counties even allowed to do this voluntarily?” Halderman asked.

“Good question,” Jefferson replied. He suggested focusing on a single state where turnout was lower than expected, then arguing that the anomaly could have been the result of “technical attacks” on electronic scanners. “This is a technically stretched argument,” he conceded, “but I am looking for an argument a court might buy to justify an audit order.”

“Sounds reasonable,” another expert interjected, “but I’d prefer to focus on what will help technically and let the campaign figure out legal and strategy angles.”

There was also discussion of arranging a security briefing at the White House, Congress, or the Defense Department, to secure their support for an audit. “I reached Podesta via text,” Simons wrote. “He said he’s willing to ask about a security briefing but he’s not optimistic. I asked if perhaps someone higher in government than he might be able to make it happen. (I’m not shy.) He hasn’t responded.” The briefing never happened.

The Slack conversations are filled with technical debates about how to analyze precinct and voting data to identify an anomaly that could be explained only by malfeasance. At one point, the A-Team created a spreadsheet with 20 different ideas for lines of inquiry, involving ten states. “We appear to be having some strange data coming out of Wisconsin,” Bernhard wrote at one point. Trump had outperformed Mitt Romney by nearly 20 percent in some counties, while Clinton underperformed Barack Obama by almost 30 percent. “It could be that these are just swing-y counties,” he allowed, “but those are *huge* swings.”

Discussions also focused on the countless ways someone might execute an election-altering hack. Last summer, the FBI notified election officials in Arizona and Illinois that Russian hackers had infiltrated their voter registration systems, stealing voter data and the username and password of at least one election official. The A-Team theorized that attackers could have used such voter records to cast absentee ballots in swing states. There was precedent for their concern: In 1994, a state Senate race in Pennsylvania was invalidated after Democrats were caught using the names of Puerto Rican residents to cast absentee votes. “So the hypothesis is that someone registered a whole mess of people, and then requested absentee ballots for them,” one scientist said. “That’s certainly possible (absentee ballots are a weak link, especially now that it’s feasible to request them by the truckload via online systems).”

Much of the debate centered on where to conduct the RLA. Members of the A-Team tried to “think like an attacker,” as Halderman put it, to figure out which states they would most likely have targeted. “Who has done the calculations about possible paths for fraud making a difference?” he asked. “What’s the smallest fraud in the smallest number of states that would have flipped the outcome?” Bernhard offered to crunch the numbers, but Stark disagreed with the premise of the question. “I don’t think the ‘minimal path’ is the best question because I don’t think that’s the computation an adversary would do,” Stark wrote. “I’d meddle where it’s hard to find because there’s little or no paper, e.g., PA, and/or where it would be written off to bad election administration, such as FL has had historically.”

Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania soon emerged as the prime targets. In falling to Trump, all three had defied both the polls and their own electoral histories. Taken together, they also included enough electoral votes to change the outcome, which made them worth attacking.

Planning for an RLA continued, without much progress, until November 16, when a veteran activist jumped in and hit the A-Team with an overdue dose of reality: No state had laws that allowed for a limited audit. “Doing an RLA is not a THING, not legally and not as a strategy pursued by any of the parties committed to pursuing a recount,” the activist informed the team. “A recount is a process defined by law and carried out by the election officials. It’s not carried out by the third party and the third party has no standing to say, ‘Oh we only want to count the votes like this now.’ There is no path to ask for a recount and do an RLA, please don’t represent to anyone that there is.” The whole idea was a legal nonstarter.

The A-Team had hit a dead end. Even if they convinced a state to conduct a recount, it would cost millions—a sum far beyond their reach.  

The A-Team had hit a dead end. They couldn’t do an audit, and the Clinton campaign wasn’t going to participate without the kind of evidence that could only be acquired after a recount. Even if the scientists somehow managed to convince a state to conduct a full recount, it would likely cost millions of dollars—a sum far beyond the reach of the A-Team, which was unable to meet its goal of getting 110,000 people to sign an online petition calling for an audit. To make matters worse, in one of the states they wanted to pursue, Wisconsin, only a presidential candidate could call for a recount. And the A-Team had no presidential candidate.

Not, that is, until Jill Stein got involved.

“History came knocking,” Stein later told me. “Who was I to say no to this effort to verify our vote?”

Stein was drawn into the recount effort by John Bonifaz, a Massachusetts attorney who tried and failed to stage a recount in 2004, after George W. Bush narrowly won Ohio. He was also upset by the 2016 election results, and had spoken with Barbara Simons about voting “anomalies.” But he didn’t know about the November 13 phone call with Podesta, nor was he invited to join the Slack channel.

Still, Bonifaz had his own contacts. When a friend pointed out to him that any candidate who could foot the bill was entitled to demand a recount in Michigan and Wisconsin—both of which were so close that their vote totals had yet to be officially announced—Bonifaz went to work to recruit Stein, the Green Party candidate. The narrative that Stein was “simply a puppet for the Clinton campaign is completely false,” says Bonifaz, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant for his legal work on behalf of voting rights. “I took the information that she could do this to her.”

On the same day that Simons and Halderman were on the phone with Podesta, Bonifaz called Stein. He knew it would be better if Clinton led the recount, since her campaign had far more resources, but he also knew Stein would be eager to get involved.

Bonifaz suggested that the effort wouldn’t require much from Stein. “You can take a minimalist role if you want,” she recalls him saying. “If you want to just be the plaintiff of record, you could do that.”

“No,” Stein told him. “If I’m going to do it, I want to come out swinging and really fight on the issues that I think are really important. I’m not just going to be a name.”

Bonifaz didn’t give up on Clinton. On November 16, he spoke with Jake Sullivan, a longtime Clinton adviser. The next day, he was included on another conference call that Simons arranged with Halderman, Podesta, Sullivan, and Marc Elias, the general counsel of the Democratic National Committee. By then it was clear that the campaign was not interested in participating unless a recount would change the election results. “They gave reasons why they saw obstacles,” Bonifaz says, “but I didn’t find any of them convincing.” Halderman, too, was frustrated. “They kept asking us what evidence we had that something had happened, and I kept saying the evidence is in the ballot box.”

Two days later, on November 18, Stein’s name entered the Slack discussion for the first time.

“*Oh boy.* I just had a phone call with an attorney who’s … now representing Jill Stein,” one of the scientists wrote. “He’s keen to go to court and file election challenges in Stein’s name. This could well be the ‘public face’ of the lawsuits that everybody’s been talking about, but it’s also something that’s going to require some coordination.” There was never any debate about whether turning to Stein, a candidate who had received only one percent of the vote and was widely seen as a spoiler, was a good public face for the recount.

Four days later, news of the recount effort broke in New York magazine. Relying on anonymous sources, reporter Gabriel Sherman published a story entitled, “EXPERTS URGE CLINTON CAMPAIGN TO CHALLENGE ELECTION RESULTS IN THREE SWING STATES.” Sherman named Bonifaz and Halderman as leaders of a recount effort that had “found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.” According to Sherman, the group believed that “Clinton received 7 percent fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots. Based on this statistical analysis, Clinton may have been denied as many as 30,000 votes; she lost Wisconsin by 27,000.”

The Slack logs show that Halderman and other members of the A-Team believed no such thing. While there was some speculation about possible anomalies in Wisconsin vote totals, no one ever suggested that there was “persuasive evidence” of manipulation. From the start, the argument was only that there were worthwhile reasons to take a closer look. Weeks later, Halderman remained irate. “I’m furious about it,” he said. “I never would have said that.”

The numbers, it turned out, came from Bonifaz. He admits that he spoke to Sherman, but insists that he never mentioned Halderman by name. “The question was presented to me as to what data was being presented,” Bonifaz says. “That was one of the points I made, but I never attributed it to Alex.”

But the damage was done. The message was clear: Computer scientists have evidence that could save the world from Donald Trump! Minutes after Sherman’s piece was posted online, Halderman was besieged by calls and emails from journalists around the world. He quickly stopped listening to them. Only weeks later, after the recount was over, did he discover that he had missed a voicemail from his congresswoman, Representative Debbie Dingell, who had reached out to offer her help. “I would love to hear what you’re willing to share about what you’ve found out,” she told him. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call her back,” Halderman told me. Having a member of Congress on his side might have helped.

The next day, Halderman published a response to Sherman on Medium, entitled, “WANT TO KNOW IF THE ELECTION WAS HACKED? LOOK AT THE BALLOTS.” He denied having knowledge that could turn the election, but stood by his assertion that the results should be verified. “The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence — paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts.”

Stein, in her many interviews about the recount, largely stuck to Halderman’s message, expressing concerns about security vulnerabilities and talking about the importance of making sure that every vote was counted. But many observers, including her own supporters, wondered why she was suddenly going to bat for Clinton, a candidate she had vilified during the campaign. Stein’s own running mate, Ajamu Baraka, told CNN that the recount effort made it look like Stein was “carrying the water for the Democrats.”

The way Stein handled her fund-raising efforts didn’t help matters. On November 23, she told supporters that she needed to raise $2.5 million to cover the initial filing fees for recounts. After the initial goal was reached in less than 12 hours, the figure rose to $4.5 million. Then, on November 25, Stein boosted it to $7 million, saying she planned to cover the total cost of the recounts, including legal fees. The rapid pace of donations tapered off as the Thanksgiving weekend came to a close, but on November 30, Stein again increased the goal, to $9.5 million.

Each time, Stein cited unexpected expenses; eventually, her team had lawyers deployed in all three states fighting legal battles to defend the recounts. But the ever-increasing demand for more money had the odd effect of uniting Republicans and Democrats. Trump called it “the Green Party scam to fill up their coffers by asking for impossible recounts,” while comedian Samantha Bee responded to a clip of Stein defending the recount with an earnest plea: “Oh, fuck off!” The A-Team, true to form, wondered whether the online counter that kept track of all the fund-raising pledges was working properly. “I very much hope that it’s not somehow falsified,” one scientist wrote on the Slack channel.

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