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Was the Democratic Primary Just Manipulated, or Was It Stolen?

Victoria Collier and Ben Ptashnik examine election irregularities and what progressives can do about them.

The debacle that was the 2016 primary season is nearly over, but the primary system itself may have destroyed faith in American democracy. Certainly it has divided the Democratic Party.

The Internet is awash with accusations that the Democratic primary was rigged; anger, confusion, and fault-placing are running wild, and so are the online right-wing “trolls” who feed the fires of discord between the two camps of the Democratic Party through misinformation and divisive invective.

With buyer’s remorse sweeping the GOP, election fraud lawsuits pending, millions of Bernie Sanders supporters crying foul and some vowing “Bernie or Bust,” many are even forecasting the breakup of the two-party system.

So where does the truth lie, and where do we go from here? How do we separate malfeasance from propaganda?

The Suppression of Democratic Party Populism

The truth is that the Democratic primary was hobbled at the starting gate by blatant partisanship on behalf of Hillary Clinton by the DNC and the mainstream media.

The heavy-handedness of the Democratic Party elite — particularly Debbie Wasserman’s actions as party chair in restricting debates, followed by her statement that did little to change public perception that the purpose of superdelegates is to crush the possibilities of grassroots candidates rising to challenge the party establishment — was called to account even by Democrats. Calls for Wasserman’s removal were not isolated.

The primary process was also one of the most distorted media political events we have witnessed in recent years, with the networks exhibiting an astonishingly destructive lust for profits by handing Donald Trump billions of dollars in free airtime in order to build ratings, even as they deliberately tuned out Sanders’ campaign.

The California primary finale provoked ubiquitous outrage as the Associated Press played queen-maker, anointing Clinton the nominee based on secret interviews of the superdelegates, who will not actually cast their votes until the Democratic Convention in July.

Going forward, all candidates and parties have a responsibility to make foundational election reform a central focus of their work.

This move came a day before the last major primary date, possibly suppressing voter turnout in our most populated state where registration had reached record levels. Even the DNC publicly protested what was seen as a pointless slap in the face to the millions of voters who had yet to cast a ballot. Such media interference only fosters overall distrust and the conviction that powerful networks are aligned with Clinton and manipulating in her favor.

It also conjures memories of the 2000 election when Fox News wrongly called the presidential race for George W. Bush in Florida, forcing Al Gore to contest the results. Meanwhile, the press shot him full of “sore loser” arrows, and he eventually rolled over to die quietly. This is presumably what the networks expected of Bernie Sanders.

Yet, the game has changed.

Social Media vs. Corporate Media

For the first time during a national campaign, the full force of online alternative news outlets and social media came to the plate, taking on the powers that be with relentless coverage and viral Facebook and Twitter posts, circumventing the editorial whitewash and blackouts of the corporate press.

When the networks ran with incendiary headlines claiming Sanders supporters had engaged in mass violence at the Nevada Caucus, online journalists and activists outed the story as false. Numerous cell phone videos proved them right.

In truth, that the Bernie Sanders campaign was born and lived at all is due only to his network of web-savvy supporters, sharing documentation of his speeches and actions from the 1960s through his career in office, posting the images from his nascent grassroots campaign, packing halls and overfilling stadiums. All of this was largely ignored by the corporate press, as though his skyrocketing underdog candidacy simply did not exist.

The result of all this manipulation is evident on websites for election integrity, voting rights and third parties which previously could count a few hundred interested supporters. Many find that the number of voters today who believe they are being lied to, and that the electoral system urgently needs reform, are swelling into the thousands.

Millions are registering their disaffection in polls, with 66 percent of the public now saying they distrust the primary system.

But there is a downside to this. With the social media revolution we are also confronted by rampant misinformation shepherded by an army of trolls. Confused voters are being goaded to assume election fraud at every turn and in every contest, and to blame Hillary Clinton and her surrogates directly, not just for all insider manipulations, but also for every possible flaw, glitch, and screw up in the voting system.

For example, we recently happened upon a Facebook post of a mainstream news article claiming two hundred deceased voters are still listed as casting ballots in California. The post headline screamed: “CLINTON VOTING DEAD PEOPLE TO WIN CALIFORNIA!”

The article in no way associated Hillary Clinton with this particular voting problem. Nevertheless, many supposed anti-Clinton voters joined the chorus of Facebook outrage.

Perhaps these people are well meaning but simply didn’t bother to read the article. However, it is also possible that right-wing trolls are instigating further dissent in the Democratic ranks through just this kind of hysterical and misleading social media posting. In fact, it’s likely that a good portion of the worst online bile spewed from both camps is actually trolling by people pretending to support Clinton or Sanders, to sow discord and deep seated animosity on the left.

A recent shocking Bloomberg article “How to Hack an Election” is an expose on Andrés Sepúlveda, who led clandestine operations to steal elections in Latin America through every kind of manipulation.

A hefty percentage of the suppression seen in the primaries can be traced back to the long-standing attack on voting rights spearheaded by right-wing forces since 2010.

His “package” deal included defacing campaign websites, breaking into opponents’ donor databases, spying, stealing, smearing, hacking smartphones, spoofing and cloning Web pages, and sending mass e-mails and texts — a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.

On the question of whether the US presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. “I’m 100 percent sure it is,” he says.

Sadly, it’s a new kind of challenge to discern the truth these days, but it’s more important than ever that we try, or we will not know where to focus our outrage or channel our efforts to effect reform. Additionally, spreading unfounded accusations can fatally undermine the credibility of a reform movement.

Are the Accusations of Fraud Backed Up by the Facts?

When it comes to accusations of fraud, the fact is that a hefty percentage of the suppression seen in the primaries can be traced back to the long-standing attack on voting rights spearheaded by right-wing forces since 2010. The American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC and the Tea Party coordinate these attacks with funding from the Koch Brothers.

The plot to suppress the votes of progressive and Democratic-leaning youth and minorities is well documented, and even admitted to by a number of Republican politicians and operatives.

Thirty-two states, mostly controlled by Republican Legislatures and Governors, have so far promulgated draconian voter suppression laws or regulations. Since the Supreme Court gutted section four of the Voting Rights Act three years ago, 17 states proceeded to apply wholesale gerrymandering and suppression of students and Native American, African American, Asian American and Latino voters.

These strategic assaults on democracy have led to the recent formation of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, Co- chaired by Representatives Marc Veasey (D-TX), Terri Sewell (D-AL), Bobby Scott (D- VA), and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-GA). Now 71 members, the Caucus is dedicated to restoring the Voting Rights Act, and reforming the insecure, aging voting technology that is used to count our elections results through the VOTE Act.

All progressive and Democratic candidates will be affected in November by voter suppression, including Hillary Clinton if she is the nominee. Yet, in the Arizona primary, the downsizing of polling stations from 400 to 60 were widely blamed on Clinton, even though the results clearly impacted her supporters as well. (The accusations against Helen Purcell, the Republican Maricopa County recorder who took responsibility for the shut-downs, is a good example of of online misinformation that goes viral.)

However, while some voters might be at times misled, it is wrong to accuse them of baseless paranoia for fearing the overt partisanship and conflict of interest in the elections establishment itself.

Partisan Oversight and Structural Deficiencies

In the United States, our elections are often administered by ultra-partisan secretaries of state and, in the case of primaries, by party officials who tend to have preferences and exploit their positions.

The fact that some secretaries of state, including Alison Grimes of Kentucky and Alex Padilla of California, are actively supporting Hillary Clinton even as they command the elections process in their state, contributes to an atmosphere of anxiety and honest concerns that strings may be pulled behind the scenes.

The same paranoia rightfully grips Democrats en masse when ultra-partisan Republican secretaries of state control the general election process.

In 2000, the infamous Katherine Harris of Florida manipulated the Bush v. Gore debacle, and Kenneth Blackwell presided over Ohio’s tainted election of 2004. That reelection handed the presidency to George W. Bush through mass voter purging and GOP-controlled computer servers that flipped the electronic vote results in the middle of the night before loading them onto Blackwell’s website. Blackwell was, at the very same time, the Co-Chair of the Committee to Re-elect George W. Bush. The certification of the Ohio election was challenged in Congress but failed to stop Bush’s coronation.

The 2016 primaries and caucuses laid bare not only the partisanship, but the structural deficiencies of American elections administration, built on a byzantine set of voting regulations and processes controlled by local and county administrators — a dizzying maze of procedures that dictate voter registration, auditing paper ballots and processing mailed-in and provisional ballots.

Provisional Ballots and Other Irregularities

It’s unclear how many hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of voters were given provisional ballots in the 2016 primary, either because they were purged from the voter rolls, their registration was mysteriously changed from one party to another (with some reporting their signatures were forged), they did not receive their mail-in ballot, or aging electronic voting machines broke down at the polling location. Voters reported that provisional ballots were being “given out like candy.”

These provisional ballots are a creation of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. They may or may not be counted as cast ballots based on the particular integrity of a given county and the so-called “eligibility” of the voter. The requirements for eligibility are unclear for voters who have to prove their registration was actually valid, even when they were wrongly purged or their status was changed without their consent.

According to the watchdog group Election Protection, areas with high percentages of racial and ethnic minority voters have the highest rates of provisional ballots, and a large proportion of these ballots are typically rejected.

Compounding the confusion and distrust are varying vote-tabulating systems in each state and in over 4,000 voting jurisdictions. Most are centered around privately programmed, “black box” electronic voting systems with code that cannot be inspected by the public or elections officials. A lack of rigorous audits means that no one can actually prove our votes were accurately counted. Throughout the nation, unaccountable companies like Dominion and Scytl — a foreign vendor and host of unknown sub-vendors — now control voter registration, voter rolls, voting machine software and the collating and reporting of voting results. Voting machines can sit unattended for weeks before elections, giving pause to all security experts.

Throw into this confounding mix poor poll worker trainings, too few polling locations, a lack of parking spaces, missing voter rosters, insufficient ballots and an overall stunning dearth of resources provided for American elections, and after a while it’s impossible to tell whether the problem is malice or incompetence — or if there’s even a discernible difference.

The only clear fact is that countless people were unable to vote, and even more don’t know whether their votes were actually counted.

Some voters have taken surreptitious video of the chaos they encountered in their polling location.

On June 7 alone, the nationwide nonpartisan Election Protection hotline received more than 1,300 calls as voters in California, New Jersey, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and New Mexico reported a litany of problems. More than half of the calls received were from California voters.

It is still unknown how many provisional ballots in California’s 58 counties will be rejected or accepted. The counting continues for weeks, with questions legitimately raised about oversight of the ballots.

Suspicions Run Rampant

Before we storm our local Boards of Election with pitchforks, we should remember that there are many competent, even exceptional election supervisors, clerks, and poll workers who do their best under pressure with shrinking resources and a populace who often can’t be bothered to learn the rules before complaining about the results (you know who you are).

However, the onus should not rest on the voters to inform themselves of rules and changes, to protect their ballots, or to defend their properly registered voting status.

Suspicions are now rampant that the 126,000 voters wrongly purged in New York, particularly in Brooklyn, were intra-party rigging targeting likely Sanders supporters.

The longstanding failure of the Democratic Party to address the many injustices and failures in the electoral process has led to a crisis point.

Although no evidence currently proves this accusation, concerns are augmented by the fact that the DNC voter lists firewall reportedly came down twice, giving both campaigns access to each other’s private lists. These lists may have included voter preference information, providing an opportunity for mischief, though so far no proof exists that these lists were used to purge Bernie supporters.

To prove the purges were targeted against Sanders supporters, evidence would need to show that they were disproportionately among the 121,000 given “affidavit ballots,” which are equivalent to provisional ballots. Currently, we understand that 90,000 of those ballots have been rejected. Meanwhile, the purged voters have reportedly been restored to the New York voting rolls, but that’s cold comfort for those whose votes were invalidated in the primaries.

Even less comfort could be found for the voters who claim that, during an electronic voting audit in Chicago, the machines had apparently not tallied all of the votes for Bernie Sanders. Witnesses at a hearing held by the Chicago Board of Elections reported that, instead of investigating the machine count, the audits were simply fixed to match the machine results, literally erasing Sanders’ votes and adding votes to Clinton’s tally.

If these allegations are true, one would think this would certainly qualify as fraud. It’s little wonder that many Sanders’ supporters are vexed.

The disturbing video of the voter testimony before the Chicago Board of Elections went viral. Another fact to emerge from the meeting is that the audit tabulation cannot be used to change the results of an election. It is only a means to test the voting equipment, rendering it useless for exposing and combatting election fraud.

Meanwhile, nationwide primary voting results are being called into question based on consistent anomalies in exit polling, which apparently affected only the Democratic race and not the Republican, with disparities favoring Hillary Clinton disproportionately. Exit polls are internationally considered a reliable indicator of election veracity and are one of the only “forensic” tools available in the United States to determine the accuracy of the secret machine counts. Before the final definitive primary races on June 7, including California, all exit polls were cancelled without explanation.

Grassroots organization nationwide have filed or are planning to file lawsuits challenging primary results and demanding access to raw voting materials including ballots and poll tapes that are often off limits to public inspection.

Going Forward: Fixing the Mechanics of Elections

Neither Clinton nor Sanders has fully addressed the maelstrom of election fraud fury swirling around their primary campaigns. This is perhaps to be expected from candidates who must stay afloat in treacherous political waters. Sanders in particular would be fatally vilified in the press for suggesting that the primaries were stolen.

But the longstanding failure of the Democratic Party to address the many injustices and failures in the electoral process has led to a crisis point where their candidates and the party itself are being injured. Lack of trust in the system is reaching a breaking point.

Going forward, all candidates and parties have a responsibility to make foundational election reform a central focus of their work.

The US currently follows none of the established principles such as public transparency that guide an honest and fair electoral process, so our elections cannot even be monitored by international observers. We are ranked 47th out of 139 countries in our integrity of elections, according to a Washington Post report.

“In the United States, the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 congressional elections were ranked worst of any long-established democracy, especially on campaign finance and electoral registration,” the report’s authors concluded.

The question now is how do we permanently reform our system, and what we can do in the next five months before the November elections, whether we support Sanders, Clinton, Jill Stein of the Green Party, some other candidate or no candidate at all. How can we build a just society unless we repair the mechanics of how our democratic elections are controlled?

What’s the Solution Going Forward?

The answer starts with making sure progressive voters are not disenfranchised through various voter suppression tactics, and that election technology is secure. We must ensure that every eligible citizen can easily vote, and that every vote is counted as cast.

Here’s a short to-do list:

  • Push for party platform changes in the Democratic National Convention this July through the delegates and committees. End the use of Democratic Party superdelegates to restrict grassroots and populist political campaigns. Promote transparent party primary elections administrators who are not working for any particular candidate.
  • Help educate Congress and state legislatures about the need for reform and that greater resources and training are needed for election workers. Lobby your legislators to introduce or pass legislation for clean, transparent, verified elections, not administrated by partisans, and to re-establish the strict federal laws that prevent suppression and gerrymandering of districts in the states and jurisdictions once governed by section four of the Voting Rights Act.
  • Fight to terminate control of Election Day technology from private vendors, make all vote counting processes transparent and publicly observable, and make voting materials accessible as public records.
  • Immediately outlaw the use of touchscreen (direct-recording electronic, or DRE) voting machines that are vulnerable to fraud and provide no paper ballot to audit results or recount.
  • Join organizations and coalitions fighting for elections reform.
  • Mobilize protests against voter suppression, corrupt voting officials and voting systems.
  • Become a poll worker yourself.
  • Vote and help others to register and vote. And be sure to check your registration status — right now!

When originally published, this article made the mistake of analyzing Debbie Wasserman’s first statement outside the context of her later statements. The paragraph starting with “The heavy-handedness of the Democratic Party elite” was amended on June 15 to correct this error.

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