Greens Face Rocky Start to Recount in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as Obstacles to Examining Ballots Emerge

The Green Party's presidential recount faced its first on-the-ground challenges in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Monday, as the first obstacles arose to the comprehensive recount it seeks and the party filed its first lawsuits to expand the process.

In Wisconsin, where the Greens' recount petition was accepted Friday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission set a timetable for the process starting Thursday, but rejected Jill Stein’s request that all paper ballots be counted by hand, as opposed to using high-speed electronic scanners. The WEC said each of its state’s 72 county election offices could decide what they would do. That led the Greens to file a lawsuit later in the day seeking statewide hand counts, supported by statements from a half-dozen of the foremost computer security experts in academia who have studied voting system vulnerabilities.

Later in the day, the WEC announced the recount filing fee would be $3.5 million, which is more than three times the $1.1 million estimate expected by the Greens as of last weekend. To date, Jill Stein's presidential campaign has raised $6.3 million.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the Greens, election integrity activists, Democratic Party members, and others were scurrying to file citizen recount petitions at county election offices. The Green Party faces an almost insurmountable obstacle. It needs three voters from each of the state’s 9,163 precincts to sign and submit petitions, a monumental task, at the same time as a five-day filing window for the recount is closing county-by-county across the state. In an estimated dozen counties, that filing period is already over. On Monday, it submitted recount petitions to 200 precincts.

The reality that the Greens were likely to get a patchwork recount in Pennsylvania prompted its lawyers to file a petition with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania saying the presidential vote count was “illegal” and urging the court to “hold this Petition in abeyance pending the outcome and findings of the recounts.” In other words, they want to preserve the right to go back into court to push the Secretary of the Commonwealth to order a full statewide presidential recount.

“The goal here is to find out what the heck is going on—and I have a feeling we won’t,” said Mary Beth Kuznik, a longtime election integrity activist, state Democratic Committee member and member of the state Democratics Party’s executive board, speaking of verifying the vote. “If we don’t, we need to pursue getting a voting system that can be audited and verified.”

Fine Print of Voting

The challenges that surfaced Monday are the first of many that are expected to come under the spotlight as the Greens press their case for an open and expansive recount in the three states that gave Donald Trump an Electoral College majority. The party, its legal team, the election integrity activists and computer scientists supporting this effort are aware they are pushing the edge of the legal envelope to expose how three states typifying American elections cast and count votes. (They will file in Michigan on Wednesday.)  

The states have different voting systems, including elements where recounts are not possible. That’s because some counties (in Pennsylvania) have entirely paperless machinery and their computers will print out the same results as on November 8. But there have been a series of red flags that could be investigated in Wisconsin and Michigan if county election officials went beyond standard recount procedures and let computer experts examine their system components for counting mistakes, security breaches or hacking. That schism, between the recount procedures used by these states and what the Greens want to examine, is likely to become the subject of numerous lawsuits. So far, Republicans have not stepped into the fray by filing any legal documents or challenges.

In Wisconsin, the vote count anomalies cited by the Greens include seeing differing margins of victory for Trump based on the voting technology used, inexplicably high voter turnout in many rural counties (85 percent or more), and record high absentee ballots filed. Their recount petition filed last week questioned whether hacking by Russia could have been responsible for inflating Trump votes and included an affidavit by University of Michigan computer security expert Alex Halderman discussing that scenario. They filed much the same documentation in Pennsylvania in their Monday petition to retain the prospect of a state-ordered recount. In that state, they pointed out that many rural counties use central tabulators that computer security academics use in their classrooms to show students how easily voting can be hacked. In Michigan, they also are suspicious of record absentee ballot counts.

The Wisconsin lawsuit filed Monday seeking hand counts of the paper ballots and the cashier-like tapes printed by touch-screen voting machines was supported by affidavits from a half-dozen scholars specializing in voting system security. Harry Hursti said paper ballot scanners, their computer memory cards, the various software elements, and the central control and counting systems all can malfunction or be hacked. The University of Iowa's Douglas Jones said optical scanning machinery cannot read every paper ballot and federal voting machine standards don't address malware. Ron Rivest of MIT said only a few altered voters per machine would be sufficient to change the state's presidential vote outcome and rescanning ballots "doesn't help" identify this prospect. The University of California's Philip Stark said skilled hackers could alter the vote and then erase any trace of their actions. George Washington University's Poorvi Vora said hand counts of all the paper ballots and vote count printouts were only the first step in determining whether the vote count had been altered. And Dan Wallach of Rice University said America's nation-state adversaries, like Russia, were more than capable of getting inside America's vulnerable voting systems and altering the counts.

Ignoring The Critics

The entrance of these scholars into the recount is unprecedented. Typically, they work with state governments, federal agencies and other researchers to improve computing systems and stay away from recount litigation. It's uncertain how their involvement will be seen, because the recount has generally faced growing criticism—from the chair of Wisconsin’s Election Commission and Democrat Mark Thomsen saying it won't change the presidential outcome to progressive publications like the New Yorker, which has called the recount a “road to nowhere.” In response, John Bonifaz, an attorney who helped organize the recount, has said that Americans have a right to know vote counts are accurate, especially in an election as volatile and important as the 2016 race for president.

“It is a false narrative that this is a partisan effort,” he told Newsweek. “The nonpartisan election integrity community has been engaged for many, many years dealing with issues around the integrity of the process of how we count votes and the question of who gets to vote. These are all questions having to do with democracy on a small d level, not a partisan level.”  

What’s likely to unfold between now and December 19, when the Electoral College meets, is the public will see snapshots of how America’s voter machinery works or doesn’t, and clear lines indicating where the public’s ability to verify the process starts and stops. On Saturday, Hillary Clinton’s campaign counsel Marc Elias announced that the campaign would participate as an observer, though it would likely not change the election’s outcome. The Clinton campaign’s involvement prompted Trump to issue a tweet storm, in which, among other things, he declared, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Trump's tweets prompted another line of blowback and criticism from authorities who said Clinton had won 2 million votes more than Trump, and from state election officials who said millions of people did not illegally vote. “We are getting attacked for participating in a recount that we didn't ask for by the man who won election but thinks there was massive fraud,” Elias tweeted in response.

There is a false equivalency at play here. Trump's accusation of illegal voting is shrewd political theater, because it is a conspiracy theory that muddies the waters with the Green's most hard-to-prove lines of inquiry, namely the possible involvement of Russia after its hacking of Democratic Party emails this year. The Greens' push for recounts, and the grassroots support that funded this effort (raising $6 million in days), reflects a legitimate desire to verify the votes in an election where the result still confounds them.

When a half-dozen of the nation's top computer security experts file count documents saying the voting systems in Wisconsin and other states are vulnerable, that's not a conspiracy theory. That's a call to patiently verify the votes, to the greatest extent possible, despite the technology's limitations and barriers to full disclosure. 

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