GELFAND’S WORLD - We are now a year away from the next national election, and the country still has lots of people who believe that the last election was stolen. They don't exactly know how, but they think they know why. And that, apparently, is all they need.
On the other side of the political divide, there are people who are concerned about voter suppression, which is to say, the suppression of minority voters. They know how it is done -- by limiting the number of polling places in minority communities and demanding voter ID -- but they don't know what the actual numerical effect is.
And while all this has been going on, we are reading more and more that the Republican strategists and party leaders are willing to sacrifice democracy if it will keep Democrats out of power. How widespread is this among them? That's another number we don't know, although we can recognize it in the former president.
And finally, there is a developing movement for a change in the way we engage in the vote count. It would allow for relief of some of the stress on one of the above mentioned problems. Let's consider the idea of radical transparency, as one recent column calls it.
We'll start with an article you can find online in the Washington Monthly here. The central focus can be summarized briefly: Let's scan the actual ballots and put all the images up on the internet for anyone and everyone to look at. That way, there will be a chance for all the doubters to check for themselves on a precinct-by-precinct basis. There can be exceptions for small communities where there might be some risk of recognizing how individual people voted, but for the vast majority of votes, we just go with openness.
You can read the details in the article cited above. The enabling feature in modern American elections is that most states are now demanding some sort of paper trail, as opposed to any kind of voting machine that tabulates votes only electronically. In the voting machines I have used in the past couple of elections here in Los Angeles, there is a touch screen where you put in your votes, and when you have gone through all the screens, the machine prints out a paper ballot listing each contest and printing the name of the candidate that was voted for. The voter takes the ballot and feeds it into the reader. The machine keeps the ballot, thereby providing a paper trail (literally) which can be reviewed by election auditors. It is only necessary to review a small fraction of precincts by recounting the ballots to get a statistically significant estimate of the validity of the election counts.
The proposal described in the Washington Monthly article takes this approach one step further, by allowing all of us the opportunity to do that kind of ballot review.
Making the system transparent all up and down the line
Let me start by telling you a story from the old days when technology was not quite so advanced. The location is a small midwestern city at the end of election day. Things had gone a bit slow in the courthouse where the Clerk's office was situated. As midnight approached, it became apparent that the counting would not be completed that night, as everyone was dog tired. It was impractical to continue.
Some of the staff were preparing to close and lock the doors of the Clerk's office when one of the political party representatives intervened. "We're not going to leave these ballot boxes unattended!" He actually imposed his not-inconsiderable bulk between the ballot boxes and the door. It was agreed upon that at least one member of each of the major parties would be in attendance until the office opened and counting resumed the next morning.
An earlier form of transparency, but effective in its time.
The modern day
In the days after the 2020 election, Donald Trump argued that the election had been stolen from him. His supporters rallied to his cause. Observers reported on every little thing they had seen that might have seemed suspicious. Thousands of hours were spent running down such observations, with little, if anything, to show other than that the election system had worked. When the dust settled, there was no actual evidence of electoral fraud at a level that could have changed the results.
But a large number of Trump supporters listened to their leader and, absent expertise in the operation of elections, they simply took his word for it. I suspect that a considerable number of Republican voters have tired of the question and are looking forward to a redo in 2024. It is legitimate to do what we legitimately can do to prevent a repeat of the concerns of 2020, whether or not we view those concerns as merited.
And the way we reduce such concerns is to engage in radical transparency that goes beyond even the publishing of the ballot images.
How can we do this? Let me suggest that the way is to tackle the questions and concerns in advance. Invite all those with concerns to pool their efforts in observing the election from top to bottom, from start to finish.
That means that county election officials would have to make efforts to allow lots of observers into the process. The observers should be groups of two or three (or more) who represent the major political parties. They should be encouraged to work together and to report on their observations together. Imagine a trio consisting of a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green Party member who speak to a reporter as a trio: "We observed the opening of the ballot boxes and the handling of the ballots. We saw nothing unusual or untoward."
The inclusion of the third member of the trio would help to reduce the chance that one observer would either lie or grossly misinterpret, as the third member would be, in essence, the tie breaking vote. "With all due respect to my friend from the Republican Party, I agree with the Democratic observer that there was no hanky panky in what we were observing."
It's also the chance to call their bluff.
Let's make total transparency the policy starting right now, and let's broadcast it to the voters and the politicians so that they can act on it if they wish. Put together the system of observers and negotiate the ground rules for how they must behave in the counting rooms and polling places. Point out to them that whatever else, this is their chance to participate in a clean and honest election.
The flip side of the coin
Opening up our electoral system to increased observation might be seen as a concession to the Trump faction, but the desire for open and honest elections is virtuous from whatever side it comes from. I think that the liberal side can simultaneously support electoral transparency and denounce Trump's claims regarding 2020. If nothing else, the move to transparency is an attempt to inoculate the American people against another such Big Lie.
But we should also be keeping our eye on the overall principle, which might be expressed as follows:
Every eligible person gets to vote, and every vote is counted exactly once.
There is a little more to this principle than the merely superficial and the obvious. For example, the people of Florida passed a ballot initiative to reinstate felons who had served their time as voters. The Florida legislature and governor have done everything in their power to impede the former prisoners from voting, and that is something that -- under the above principle -- needs to be repaired.
Similarly, the approach taken by some states is to make it hard for minority voters to cast their ballots. They do it in various ways, but the standard way is to limit the number of polling places in minority neighborhoods.
So here is the grand compromise: We support full transparency in elections, and we have the right to demand that every voter have an equal chance to cast a ballot.
Limits to transparency
In a country which increasingly uses mail-in ballots, there are going to be elements of the election machinery which we cannot open to trios of observers. The most obvious is the process whereby you fill out a mail-in ballot, drop it in a mailbox, and expect it to be received by the county. Even the process of applying for a mail-in ballot can have its complications, and it is hard to see how this can be verified at every step for every voter. But there is a way to verify the process overall:
Well in advance of the election, each political party should recruit potential voters who will verify the dates on which they apply for a mail-in ballot, receive the ballot, and mail in their ballots. Every one of those mail-in ballots will then be verified as having been received by the authorities.
In addition, the election authorities will be required to report whether the ballot envelope passes all the requirements (proper signature, etc.) for the ballot to be removed and put into the stack of ballots to be counted. This is a way to test the overall mail-in process beginning with the original application and going from there. Some places already offer this information.
I have been using the term "radical transparency" because the authors of the above cited article used the term. I don't think it's that radical. It's just an attempt to use currently available technology to catch up with the often-opaque nature of governmental operations. We don't get to observe much that goes on in governmental agencies, but elections ought to be open and clean, and that principle implies public scrutiny.
Dealing with voter intimidation
There is one place where the idea of transparency is limited. The observers don't get to watch how you mark your ballot. There are lots of reasons for having secret balloting -- protecting voters from retaliation by employers and hostile governments being just the more obvious -- and this right has to be protected. In the past, some groups have tried to intimidate voters at the polls, but for the most part, this is not a major problem because political parties and local governments usually respond effectively. We must continue to do so.
One other thing. Some on the right wing love to complain that they are getting robbed due to the efforts of ineligible people who manage to vote. I can remember one congressional candidate in the south bay who continued to complain about this fanciful issue well after a losing election. In practice, there have been only a few cases (among hundreds of millions of votes) where someone who voted was investigated and convicted for voting illegally. Every study (except for the crackpots) of this issue finds that it is not a problem.
One last issue. In the first days after the 2020 ballot counting, there were a few remarks -- from the most crazy and crackpot -- to the effect that the system allowed for phantom votes to be cast. There were accusations that foreign powers had inserted votes into the count stream and, in one case, that a foreign leader had determined how the programming of voting machines was to be done so that voting results could be fabricated. We've been reminded of those accusations recently, as the remarks by Sidney Powell were replayed in response to her guilty plea. Making a few changes to allow for transparency won't convince everyone, but true transparency allows us to know the total number of votes cast and to compare this number with the number of mail-in ballots sent out, with the number of registered voters, and the number of votes cast at polling places, and then to verify that people who asked for mail-in ballots and know that they voted are, indeed, recognized by the system as having voted. Taken together, all these data points ought to be fairly convincing even to the skeptical.
And to those who remain skeptical even now, why don't you volunteer to be a poll watcher and an observer of the vote counting process, so that you can see for yourself that everything you observe is on the up and up. Then get together at your political club or convention or at the bar after the election and compare notes.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)