A Letter to the Author of a Very Misguided Article About the Hacking of American Elections

Dear Michael Harriot,

Your latest article in The Root—arguing that Russia hijacked the 2016 presidential vote count (that was taken down due to mistaken assumptions—such as that the computers with voter databases are the same as vote counters; they’re not), and the “updated” essay attempting to clean up those errors but not backing down—isn’t merely another edgy musing with dots that don’t that connect, or substituting your gut feeling for proof.

You’re doing something much more destructive. You’re sending the wrong message to a slice of prospective 2018 voters who don’t need to be reminded about what’s wrong in America. You’re telling them voting doesn’t matter, their votes don’t count, and it’s worthless to think otherwise this fall. Why? Because you’re arguing Russians stole the election for Trump with targeting so astute and precise that it pierced key nodes in computers spanning America’s 6,467 election jurisdictions, 168,000 voting precincts and thousands of vote-count tabulation centers—and nobody saw, stopped or looked into it.

As your updated piece summarizes, “I contended that the evidence showed that it was ‘most likely’ that votes and voter rolls were changed in the 2016 election. The problem with this argument, though, is that it rests on the idea that just because one cannot prove that something didn’t happen, it follows that it did.”

There are many reasons why Hillary Clinton lost—including black voter turnout that dropped by 5 percent compared to 2012, including the three final states where Donald Trump won by less than 1 percent. Let’s not get into Hillary. Your view that a giant electronic conspiracy has rendered everything else about voting moot is not new. It’s been a fixture on the left since 2004’s Ohio defeat of John Kerry by George W. Bush. It was picked up by Trump in fall 2016, and predictably discarded once he won. (I was among those who contributed to this narrative—and made incorrect assumptions along the way, but more on that later.)

I’m no stranger to feeling frustrated by America’s democracy. But it’s a big error to assume our process of voting is not chaotic, unpredictable, or opaque, and many in the ruling classes of both major parties are fine with that. When it comes to modern voter suppression, whose top proponents are the Republicans, they have deployed a “do everything” strategy because elections are unpredictable. They cast wide nets over entire states, over-policing the process in myriad ways, which they publicly justify by fabricated excuses of preventing a phantom menace of illegal voting. In reality, and they have been caught saying this, they don’t always know how voter turnout will break. Therefore they nickel-and-dimed the process to tilt the likely popular vote results their way. That’s what’s behind extreme gerrymandering—segregating voters, stricter voter ID laws, new limits on early voting, students, etc.

Sorry if this begins to get a little weedy, or granular, or technical. That’s the reality of voting in America. The Democrats, supposedly the party defending wider participation, have their anti-democratic features too. But let’s not digress. Many people who have studied and reported on these obstacles, including myself, know that the only way that the current GOP regime will be stopped from imposing a racist, theocratic, oligarchic and thuggish agenda is if this fall’s turnout is disproportionately high among Democrats and independents. How high? That is the very question your Russia-stole-it diatribe eclipses.

How about calling it like it is? There are smarter forces, not just darker forces, gaming the nitty-gritty of American elections. The smarter forces are happy to have writers like you telling distracting narratives that have nothing to do with what’s really going on. So what’s really going on? The GOP, in swing states, has created structural advantages this decade (gerrymanders segregating voters by district, stricter ID peeling off turnout, etc.) that add up to a 10-point lead before the votes in typical elections are counted. To win this fall, the percentage of Democrats and independents voting has to be 60 percent or more of their base, to simply attain popular vote majorities in local counts. (Actually, it needs to be higher, because there are always polling place snafus and other unintended human errors that end up disqualifying votes). The Republicans have been smarter than the Democrats, because they tilted the rules so they could likely triumph based on turning out their most reliable voters—like 2008’s John McCain voters, their worst presidential defeat this century. Democrats, instead, pin their hopes on newly registered voters, who somehow don’t sufficiently materialize on Election Day. This is smarter, not darker.

Why not tell your audience how partisans have been rigging the rules and winning? There’s no shortage of real evidence—from academia to the courts. Why not tell them that these smarter forces have devalued the vote—just as they have devalued the public interest in campaign finance law, where anonymously spending big money has more constitutional protections than an individual’s right to vote? This is at the heart of what perpetuates inequality. This transcends party. This is about what citizenship means, what representative government means. It’s not some sci-fi fantasy that Russia may steal it again, so why bother to vote?

Consider this quote about conspiracy theories from Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra, about the recruitment-gone-awry of Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy assassination:

“If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some right sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find some coherence in some criminal act. But maybe not.”

My Mistaken Assumptions

I have been covering voting rights, and presidential vote counts, as much as anyone since 2004. I have been part of teams that have done the research you say investigators didn’t do—with examining evidence—after the 2016 election. (Actually, some journalists tried, but let’s not go there.) In 2004, I helped raise the funds (by putting people on national radio) that paid for Ohio’s flawed recount, and paid investigators to examine the ballots for months afterward, and co-wrote articles and books describing how the Republicans had stolen the presidency for George W. Bush. Yes, stole it.

We made lots of discoveries that were shocking—and ignored by mainstream media. We broke the story that the Ohio Secretary of State’s official website, posting the returns that every news organization took to be facts, was hosted on servers with scores of other GOP websites. So when results froze after midnight, with Democrat John Kerry ahead, and then unfroze with Bush winning Ohio and the presidency, we thought we knew how the Election Night count was flipped: the GOP had backdoor access to alter the Ohio’s reported results. Over time, we drilled down into where the totals could have been padded to cover those inflated results, and found traces of apparent ballot stuffing in Ohio’s Bible Belt counties.

We found the GOP’s do-everything-to-win catalog, which still endures. But we couldn’t prove definitely that Republicans went beyond playing dirty to outright cheating. We had lots of suspicions. We also made assumptions—dots we connected in articles and books, some of which turned out to be wrong. One has always been glaring to me. We looked at voter turnout in urban and neighboring suburban precincts, where voting machines weren’t uniformly deployed (black precincts had fewer and long lines, white precincts had more and no lines). We conservatively tried to say how many more votes would have been cast for Kerry if all voters were treated the same. We estimated 17,000 Kerry votes were lost in the Columbus area alone. (The Washington Post trashed us, later estimating a slightly lower figure.)

But guess what? I was back in the same precincts four years later. Ohio had a new Secretary of State, a Democrat, who made sure there were enough machines in city precincts, on universities and colleges. The race was Ohio’s primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a point in 2008 when they ran neck and neck. There was every reason for the Democrats’ historically underrepresented cohorts—non-whites, poorer people, women, and young people—to vote. And guess what? The turnout was terrible. Instead of approaching 50 percent like we estimated it should have been in 2004, it was closer to 30 percent.

You can’t say that wasn’t a race with nothing to vote for—the most cited excuse for lousy turnout. I’ve been around the election beat for a long time, initially discovering things that were truly maddening. I’ve connected dots based on real reporting that glossed over gaps. I was pretty embarrassed to later realize that there was more going on than what myself, co-writers, or researchers were so sure of.

There was no one reason why Kerry lost Ohio in 2004, just as there was no one reason why Hillary lost Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2016. (Actually, she probably won Michigan because of GOP-led institutional racism that disqualified a majority of ballots cast around Detroit, but that’s another story.) If you’re going to write about voting, try to understand the true nature of the process and the obstacles—and conversely, where there has been serious progress opening up the process if people were willing to vote. But you’re not helping anyone by perpetuating a narrative that voting doesn’t matter.

Let me tell where this it-can-be-hacked-so-why-bother narrative has led. There’s a cottage industry of voting conspiracy promoters that emerged on the left starting in 2004 that continues today. There are some legitimate grievances there, all tied to Congress’s idiotic embrace of privatized paperless voting machines after Florida’s 2000 election. But there also are people—including book editors I’ve had—who say what you wrote: just because you haven’t seen the proof doesn’t mean it’s not out there or isn’t real.

That stalemate is how conspiracies endure. But they come with a cost. If supposed watchdogs are crying wolf, or saying the next election will be stolen no matter what, no one will heed real problems in real time—like the mass disqualification of Detroit’s ballots before that red-run state shut down its presidential recount and certified Trump as the winner. This entire narrative tells people that the one limited form of power that they have to change who is running the government is worthless.

I’m not going to get into where your Russia-stole-it theory erred. You didn’t even know the basics about the different computer systems used. But you’re not alone in making that mistake. Politico just had a report making the same error. It complained that money appropriated by Congress in April wasn’t going to help states buy new machines before 2020—saying that was not going to address hacking. Those threats have little to do with what technology is used. Meanwhile, possible Russian hacking is being addressed so aggressively in 2018 that it froze out the GOP’s top voter purge organization.

I’m glad you’ve been drawn into what’s screwed up in voting in America. But what are you doing to change that? You argue that Russia electronically hacked the vote count—with no proof—and may do it again. You generated eyeballs. You generated heat. How about shedding some light?

If you want to do more than vent, why not explain to readers that in November, because of many ways Republicans have changed the rules of voting in many states, Democrats have to bring out at least 10 percent more voters than Republicans to achieve popular vote majorities? That’s because of gerrymanders. It is because of stricter voter ID laws. Those aren’t conspiracies; those are facts with real metrics.

Why not start arguing it’s time to increase the perceived value of voting? Why not tell your audience what has to happen to break the GOP lock on federal power? Explain the obstacles. Say why the GOP has been smarter than Democrats. Don’t make up crazy stuff about Russia hacking that only reinforces the narrative that voting doesn’t matter. It’s the only hope that sane Americans have in 2018.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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