Ten years ago, when I started making an investigative documentary into what happened in the 2004 election in the deciding swing state of Ohio, I wondered what thwarting an election might look like and how I could even show such a thing, let alone make it watchable and credible.
I would end up interviewing election officials, newspaper editors, investigative reporters, authors, bloggers, activists, lawyers, professors, party leaders, statewide candidates, community organizers, lobbyists, whistleblowers, elected leaders, religious leaders, the Secretary of State of Ohio, and local voters.
I discovered no lack of evidence that the 2004 Ohio elections had been subverted; I found more damning information than I could even fit in the film. I had to learn a lot about how elections were administered to be able to comprehend the myriad of ways one can screw them up.
For instance, I found out that each of Ohio's 88 counties had its own methods of casting votes and counting them, selected from voting options provided by the Secretary of State. I came to understand that while everyone is looking at the totals on election night, efforts to undermine the election can be underway long before--and after--that night.
I was so compelled to find out what was happening at the polls in Ohio, I co-founded Video the Vote to report on voting problems on Election Day 2006. The goal then was to be able to report on any issues while the polls were open, using a new website YouTube.com, working with a bucket brigade of videographers, runners, and uploaders responding to voter hotline calls.
Whereas I had hoped just to find a few people in Ohio to help, we ended up having thousands of volunteers nationwide. Come Election Day, I was given a front row seat to election problems across Ohio and around the country: long lines, poll workers giving wrong instructions, voting machines that didn't work, polling places that didn't open on time or even have ballots, misinformation tactics, voter intimidation, purged voters, the list goes on.
We worked tirelessly to release this documentary to raise awareness during the presidential election in 2008, since it showed how the last two presidential elections were gamed in 2000 and 2004. When it was released, FREE FOR ALL! was well-received but met with resistance to the idea that our elections might be rigged somehow. Some didn't want to appear conspiratorial, some doubted it outright, some were worried it would discourage more from voting.
Ten years later, faith in our elections appears to be at an all time low. I see state after state confront massive electoral dysfunction, citizens unable to vote because of new state laws intended to make voting harder, along with some asserting that any election their candidate didn't win must be rigged.
In FREE FOR ALL! we investigate and list a staggering number of approaches to voter suppression and election theft: Biased officials, voter registration prevented, wrongfully purged voter rolls, voter intimidation, voter misinformation, confusing polling places, untrained poll works, voter ID barriers, long lines, provisional balloting, and that's all before you even get to cast your vote on what may be a touch screen voting machine unable to verify your vote was properly recorded.
I also learned that there are a lot of election officials who take their job seriously, want to be fair, and are trying to operate with equipment they have been issued by state officials who may be partisan, or may be responding to voter demand with new systems. It's the presumption of working professionally and transparently that allows partisans to run rampant given the chance to oversee themselves.
Seeing as how it took generations of struggle for this democracy, and that our right to vote is written in blood, I believe it is a fundamental responsibility to vote, and it is also our responsibility to make sure every vote is counted. Privatized election companies threaten the transparency of our vote totals if their voting machines, tabulators, and electronic poll books can't be audited due to trade secret. Boards of Elections in each county and your Secretary of State are the ones who determine vendors for election contracts.
There's a reason Diebold voting machines were abandoned in Ohio, California, and elsewhere--mobilized citizens with proof of DRE's fallibility were persistent in making the case to their elected officials and the press that touch screen voting machines were unreliable. Even skeptical journalists had to take note when the C.E.O. of Diebold promised in a letter to Bush donors that he would deliver Ohio's votes for George W. Bush.
When we started Video the Vote in 2006, we needed a video camera and a tape deck to upload a video to YouTube; today smart phones let us broadcast live worldwide immediately, but we still need to know what to look for. While there has been much attention to exit polls of late, and we cover the disputed exit polls from 2004 in FREE FOR ALL, the surveying of a small fraction of voters is a sampling aimed at finding out why a voter voted the way they did and what types of people voted for what, it's not an effort at a parallel election. If we want to rely on elections that count every vote, it seems misplaced to over-emphasize a sampling of dozens, perhaps hundreds of voters, out of hundreds of thousands of people voting.
That's not to say discrepancies in exit polling do not belie vote flipping--just that it is not logical evidence of votes being changed.
Similarly, there has been much attention to voter purges in New York, Arizona, and elsewhere following primary elections where thousands of people discovered they were not registered to vote. I observed that Maricopa County, AZ, was a hotbed of voter complaints on Super Tuesday in 2008, so the electoral meltdown this year was not surprising. A state's voter rolls do have to be purged over the years to remove dead people and old addresses, an important step in preventing voter fraud. Given the under-funded bureaucracies that administer and process local elections, it can be hard to determine if a would-be voter was not registered because of a mistaken purge, or they didn't update their voter registration with their new address, or the DMV failed to process their registration properly, which is often.
That's not to say there aren't voters purged from voting rolls with the intent to disenfranchise--as we cover in FREE FOR ALL, Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush purged hundreds of thousands of Florida voters illegally in 2000 claiming they were felons (so we can stop blaming Ralph Nader already). In 2004, the RNC organized a massive operation to challenge voters who did not respond to certified mail, a tactic known as "caging."
But these tactics are just playing cute when it comes to passing legislation outright with the clear intent of making it harder to vote, like the restrictive voter ID laws that sprung up since the Supreme Court ruled in April 2008 to uphold Indiana's photo ID law in Crawford vs. Marion County. Given that the Supreme Court saw fit to gut the Voting Rights Act in June 2013 for Shelby County vs. Holder, the urgency of filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court can't be stressed enough, as this is an opportunity that comes once in a generation.
There is no one way our votes are at risk, and there is no one time we need to be paying attention to our local elections. Since all elections are local, you have a right from living where you are to make sure your elections are secure, your vote is verifiable by recount, and your registration is accurate. That means getting involved in the election integrity movement, beyond your candidate's campaign. This means pushing for laws that expand voting, it means refuting myths of in-person voting fraud which are used as justification for disenfranchising voters with selective photo IDs. It means learning your state's voting technologies and making sure your voting machines are not "cheap pieces of crap," as we discover in FREE FOR ALL. This means making sure you are registered, and like Santa's list, you are checking it twice.
We can't always tell the difference between maladministration and malfeasance when it comes to fixing our broken elections. But we can start now on making it harder to not get it right.