by Jonathan Simon
June 26, 2017
The Special Election to fill the Georgia Sixth Congressional District seat formerly held by Republican Tom Price, appointed to Donald Trump’s cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services, was the focus of extraordinary attention and expenditure. More than any of the other 2017 special elections, GA-6 was seen as a proxy for approval or disapproval of the Trump presidency and as a clue to the Democratic prospects for retaking the US House in 2018. Held in a CD that had long been solid Republican but that had given Trump the barest 1.5% plurality in 2016, this election was also the subject of intense media focus.
The Democratic candidate, 30 year-old Jon Ossoff, a former Congressional staffer and first-time office-seeker, faced a field of 16 other candidates in a preliminary contest held in April. Among them was Karen Handel, former Republican Secretary of State of Georgia, and a host of less serious challengers. If no candidate polled 50% of the total vote, the two top finishers would meet in a June runoff. With the wave of Trump disapproval mounting ever higher, Ossoff was polling over 50% going into the April 18th election. On Election Night, as the returns were coming in, Ossoff held over 50% until a supposed “glitch” in Fulton County (the three counties in the Atlanta suburbs that comprise GA-6 are Fulton, Cobb, and DeKalb) paused the returns for two hours. When reporting resumed, Ossoff’s total had dropped below 50%, where it remained through the final count. Handel finished second with just over 19% of the vote and went through to the June runoff against Ossoff.
A “glitch;” a sudden shift from “win seat” to “runoff;” a “red shift” from the tracking polls; the fact that all but the mailed-in (and a few “provisional”) ballots were cast and counted on DRE (aka, touchscreen) computers with no capacity for recount, audit, or verification; and the extraordinary security breaches disclosed at the Kennesaw State University Election Center, the outfit entrusted with the programming of the computers and the management of voter databases–all of these factors raised red flags of suspicion about what was reported with a straight face as a “disappointing” Democratic result, as Ossoff fell 1.9% short of the magic 50% number.
The stage was then set for the June 20th runoff. The perceived proxy significance of this election was mirrored in the funds that poured in for both sides–more than $50 million, an all-time record for a congressional seat. The tracking polls consistently recorded a lead for Ossoff, ranging from 1% to 7%, and never recorded a lead for Handel. Nonetheless, solely on the basis of my own long experience observing and handicapping US elections in the computerized voting era, I publicly predicted that Ossoff would lose to Handel by a margin of 3%-5%, a prediction that proved spot-on when Handel split the uprights and won by 3.8%, 52% to 48%. Kellyanne Conway summed up the reaction among leading Republicans when she tweeted “Laughing our Ossoff.” The Democrats, oh-for-five in special elections and seemingly unable to win anything in spite of Trump’s lead-balloon popularity, started wailing about new strategies and new leadership. The bounteous and bitter fruits of apparent victory and apparent defeat.
Prior to the election, legal action to compel that votes be cast on paper (and counted by optical scanner), to provide a durable record for verification purposes, failed when the judge ruled that it would be too burdensome on the state to print ballots for GA-6 and to use its existing optical scanners (“Opscans,” which were being used to count mail-in ballots) to count Election Day ballots. So only mail-in ballots–approximately 10% of total votes cast–were cast on paper and in any way verifiable. The remaining 90%? Well, we’d just have to trust Kennesaw State, it’s Director Merle King, and their stellar security protocols. It is worthy of note that this was a single-contest election and could have been counted observably, in public, by hand, within two hours of poll closing at minimal expense (though volunteers would have poured in). The Dutch, having taken one whiff of our 2016 elections, and aware of the security holes for computerized counting, changed their protocol after two days of consideration, and counted their 2017
Verifiable vs. Unverifiable Counting: A 35% Disparity
The Georgia Secretary of State Elections website helpfully breaks down vote totals by type of ballot cast. Effectively, leaving aside a handful of what are known as “provisional” ballots, there are three types of voting: Election Day in-person voting, Early in-person voting, and Vote-By-Mail. The first two are cast and counted on DREs. Mail-in ballots are cast on paper and counted on Opscans, the paper then being retained, by federal law, for 22 months. It was brought to my attention, once the unofficial vote totals were posted on the State Elections website, that, while Handel had won the election by about a 4% margin, Ossoff had won the Vote-By-Mail ballots by a stunning 28% margin, 64% to 36%. With the election already under a cloud of known security breaches at Kennesaw State, the larger cloud of known vulnerability to hacking of unverifiable DREs, and the still larger cloud of more than 15 years of vote counting anomalies and red flags in the computerized voting era, this particular glaring disparity warranted deeper investigation.
If it turned out that GA-6 Democrats had displayed some historical tendencies to mail in their ballots, that would suffice to establish a benign explanation for the disparity–though it would hardly serve to remove the clouds of a priori suspicion. It was a simple enough exercise to download and organize the archived data for the past several GA-6 elections from the GA Elections website. As shown on the chart below, it is not Democrats but Republicans who ordinarily and consistently prefer to vote by mail in GA-6. That is, until 2017. In the two Ossoff elections, preliminary and runoff–that pattern spins on its heels and all of a sudden it is Democrats (or, more precisely, voters who selected the Democratic candidate) who flocked to the mailbox to vote.
Or did they? Voters who selected the Democratic candidate appeared to be more than twice as likely to choose to cast their ballots by mail–rather than vote in-person, either early or on Election Day–than they had been in any previous election for which records are available. But this sharp reversal of pattern assumes that the unverifiable count of in-person votes was accurate. What if the mail-in votes are not so wildly divergent from the in-person votes? What if the unverifiable in-person votes were manipulated–exploiting one of the numerous known security breaches–to alter the result of the election?
If this question seems far-fetched, you owe it to yourself (and to democracy) to ask the “opposite” question. What proof exists that the 90% of the votecount conducted on unverifiable and manifestly vulnerable DREs was not hacked, mis-programmed, altered in the pitch-dark of cyberspace? Carefully consider. Certainly feel free to ask Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, or any of the other good stewards who conduct and control elections in GA-6 and throughout the state. Do not expect any answer, let alone a satisfactory one.
The surge of Democratic mail-ins in the June runoff may have been prompted by progressive organizations urging VBM as a protection against DRE-based fraud. That is a benign explanation worth investigating (ad content, flyers, call scripts, etc. could be examined for that specific message). But so is the hardware and software that recorded and counted 90% of the GA-6 vote in endless strings of 1s and 0s. Right now, pending further investigation (which is essential and must be insisted upon), we are basing national leadership, policy, and direction–all of it–on those 1s and 0s and on blind-faith trust in the Merle Kings, Kennesaw States, Command Centrals, Triads, Diebolds, ES&Ss, Hart Intercivics, and Dominions of the world. That’s a planet riding on something none of us is permitted to see, and on the ethical self-restraint of actors with every motivation in the world not to exercise it. We as a public are free to make bad choices–that’s democracy–but the minute those choices are made for us, in our name, false–that is something else. It could well be fascism via fraud. It is, at very least, a lie.