On the “recount” issue

Why does Jill Stein want a recount in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?

Jeremy Arnold

Jeremy Arnold, Writer + analyst w/ deep interest in US politics on Quora.

Let’s start by being clear about what isn’t in dispute: the results of this election.

Trump won. Stein knows this. Clinton knows this. Alex Halderman (the computer science professor behind this effort) knows this. No one is really challenging that reality.

But you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking they were. For unclear reasons, the NYMag article that kicked off the firestorm certainly painted it that way. And, as happens too often, most of the other media outlets that picked it up repeated the same mistake.

Compelling as that storyline is, this recount effort has nothing to do with Russian hackers or some grand conspiracy to rig votes in rural Wisconsin.

As with many things, it’s about the intersection between personal agendas and a clickbait-crazed media unwilling to deconstruct the news instead of breathlessly “reporting” it.

Let’s do the work for them, shall we?

Agenda #1: Alex Halderman’s

Whether or not he made a phone call to Clinton’s campaign (or what he might have said) is beyond my paygrade. But he has since written an explanation on Mediumof his concerns.

In a nutshell, he’s a brainy professor who enjoys reverse-engineering digital security to identify problems that smart people with less enlightened ethics might take advantage of.

This is fairly common in his world. Teams are frequently assembled to do “penetration testing” (which is to say paid to find vulnerabilities that can then be patched before bad actors can find them and exploit them). Sometimes said teams do it without being asked.

Halderman just happens to have a special interest in political mechanics, having written papers in the past about electronic voting machines in India, online voting in Estonia, and design flaws in some DRE machines used in the US.

So, unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of this election, he and team ran some mathematical scenarios to show how the results could have been manipulated — using known weaknesses to paint a theoretical scenario where Clinton was robbed votes in key states.

Does he really believe it happened? I have profound doubts. Is he worried that it couldhappen if we don’t get serious about electoral security? Yes.

Hence his actions. He’s making a point he feels will cause needful change, in a way guaranteed to push the dialogue onto the national stage.

Agenda #2: Jill Stein’s

We must remember that this isn’t her party’s first recount rodeo.

Twelve years ago, the Greens, then led by David Cobb, worked with the Libertarians to file a similar request in Ohio.

Then as now, it had nothing to do with the results directly (especially as it concerned Cobb, who wasn’t even on the ballot in Ohio and only collected a total of 186 write-in votes).

His goal was more strategic and long-term. He wanted to prove that his party cared about fair elections. So he used Ohio to bring attention to the many deficiencies of the current system (see: a summary of his surprisingly reasonable grievances).

Though many mocked him for what was perceived to be a publicity stunt, it did lead to some positives — both in terms of some states adopting changes, and of his own party getting free press that, while alienating many, won over some new converts.

That same playbook is being used again today. If you read the text of their recount fundraising request, this becomes clear:

Our effort to recount votes in those states is not intended to help Hillary Clinton.

These recounts are part of an election integrity movement to attempt to shine a light on just how untrustworthy the U.S. election system is.

Of course, we can’t also expect them to include “PS — and also because we’re tired of getting just 1% of the national vote”.

“What have we learned, Charlie Brown?”

Even with that context, there are some deep concerns remaining.

The way this story has been framed has only pushed the political tribes further apart:

  • Some Trump voters are incensed that Clinton won’t lose gracefully (even though she isn’t the one pushing for the recount).
  • Some Clinton voters are giving money to Stein as a Hail Mary in the face of the inevitable (despite there being no evidence of actual tampering).

While a serious conversation about improving electoral security is indisputably good, the way this storyline has unfolded is bad for America.

There are some hard questions we need to answer:

  1. What caused Gabriel Sherman (the reporter at NYMag who broke the story) to report details that Halderman then disavowed as not being accurate?
  2. Should we hold computer science professors responsible to understand how their concerns might be spun by the media to add fuel to a national wildfire?
  3. How can we get our press to care more about due diligence than scrambling over each other for clicks (with similar disregard for effect on sociopolitical tensions)?

Here’s to hoping we can learn to have those conversations.

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