Talking fraud with an election expert.

Was the election really secure?
Isaac Saul Dec 18, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You’re receiving this Friday edition because you’re a paying member of Tangle. It’s behind a paywall, but feel free to forward it to friends or share on social media. If someone sent you this, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 16 minutes.

Over the last few weeks, something scary has been happening to me.

Anyone reading Tangle or my Twitter account knows that I have been tracking claims of election fraud, researching them, and trying to explain them. When I began obsessing over these claims, I did it with an open mind. But as time went on, two unsettling developments unfolded.

First, I noticed myself becoming angry — angry with the public officials, social media personalities and pundits who so gleefully lie to our faces. Last night was a good example. A video went viral online of a Texas elector claiming in a “hearing” that when Texas’s election challenge reached the Supreme Court, a staffer saw the justices go into a closed room and “heard screaming through the walls” as Justice Roberts and the other liberal Justices insisted they not take the case, afraid of what would happen if they did the right thing.

The video was shared thousands of times, including by Republican politicians. There’s just one tiny problem: The Supreme Court hasn’t met in person in months. Because of COVID-19, they’re working remotely. So the story is obviously made up out of thin air — complete and utter fanfiction. And yet there was nothing I could do or say to slow the lie down. It’s infuriating.

Second, I’ve noticed myself becoming skeptical about the election, too. There’s fascinating psychology about what happens when you hear the same thing over and over again, even if it's a lie, and even if you know it’s a lie. The human brain can’t help but start to believe it. So now I find myself, while immersed in these conspiracies about the election, starting to justify them in my mind even when I find clear evidence that undermines them. I catch myself starting to wonder if the election really was as secure as all the evidence I find keeps showing me it was.

So I called up one of the election experts who has really impressed me during this time: David Becker.

While you’ve seen me write about fraud, what you haven’t seen is the background legwork required to best understand those allegations. Part of that legwork is emailing, calling and messaging election security experts, cybersecurity professionals, election officials and reporters. And few have been able to satisfy my inquiries as effectively as Becker.

He’s the Executive Director and Founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research — an election security group that has intentionally gone out of its way to work with election officials on both sides of the aisle (right up Tangle’s alley). Before that, he worked at Pew, where he helped develop the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which has helped dozens of states track millions of voter records as citizens changed addresses. He also spent seven years working in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. In other words: he’s qualified.

And for the last few weeks, he’s been trying to scream from the rooftops about what he’s seeing — but he’s struggling to get the same platform or traction as the people claiming the election was fraudulent. I recently interviewed him for my positive news YouTube show The Upside, but the interview was really a softball conversation about his work and what he was seeing. This time, I wanted to dig in on some specifics and ask some questions Tangle readers might have. I also wanted to satisfy my own doubts and curiosity. Below, you’ll find a full transcription of our interview, with the exception of a brief conversation that David and I had off the record (don’t worry, that part wasn’t as interesting as it sounds).

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Tangle: So my readers know about your background, and I know you've been beating the drum that “this is the most secure election that we've maybe ever had.” So I'm just curious: how do you know that and what are the outlines of the 2020 election that make you feel that way?

Becker: There are several reasons I know that and it's not even really arguable. One: Nearly everyone in the United States voted on a paper ballot this year, including every single voter in all of the Battleground swing states. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, I could go on.

And that paper is a big improvement on 2016, when states like Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania were either entirely or had large sections of their elections that were digital-only ballots, which could not be audited or recounted. The paper ballots can be audited and recounted. And we've seen that firsthand, we've seen that in Georgia where they just ran a statewide audit of all of the ballots. The statewide audit was a hand audit, it involved no technology, it doesn't matter if the tabulators had been hacked because the tabulators weren't counting the ballots in that recount. It was human beings.

And what did they find? They found those tabulators worked actually just fine. They found that the counts were the same, basically, that the outcomes were the same.* We're going to get results today from Antrim County, Michigan, which has been part of some extremist conspiracy theories on social media about possible hacking of the systems and there have been fake claims that try to demonstrate that there's been hacking of the systems. Well, they're doing a hand recount of all of the ballots in Antrim County today. It's going to be released any minute now, and what it's going to show is the result is the same.**

*Georgia’s recount did not find anything nefarious or any issues with their voting machines. But election officials did discover two “USB sticks” that contained thousands of votes that were either uploaded improperly or not uploaded at all. One Georgia official who made the mistake of not uploading the votes, which amounted to 2,600 total votes, was fired. But the overall margin between Biden and Trump changed by 891 votes — of nearly five million cast.
**Just minutes after David and I hung up the phone, Antrim County, Michigan, which had been at the center of allegations alleging Dominion Voting Systems machines were flipping votes to Biden, released the results of its full hand recount. The vote total margin changed by 12 votes in favor of Donald Trump.

Tangle: Okay, but —

Becker: But anyone who's worked in this field knows how this works. This is why recounts, when you have a statewide margin of more than a few hundred votes, are pointless — because the technology works.* This is why the Jill Stein recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were pointless, because Donald Trump won those states in 2016.**

He won them all by around 10,000 votes or more, and similarly, all of the states where there have been recounts were won by 10,000 votes or more. So that was the first reason. The second reason is because we had — I believe — over 60 percent of all of our votes were cast early this year either in person or by mail.** If there had been an attack on voter files or our election infrastructure, we would have discovered those early, because people would have tried to vote and find there was a problem. But we didn't see that. We hardly saw it at all, not even a few episodes. I mean, it was remarkable how well run this election was.

So you can imagine if someone gets into a voter file, hacks into it, and changes the address of ballots or creates new voters with new— first of all, you can't do that because there are ID requirements for new voters under federal law. But if someone goes and changes existing voters’ addresses so their ballots go somewhere else so someone else can vote with them... some of those people are going to show up to vote! And you're going to find out about it [because the system will flag it when they vote twice].

So there is absolutely no question. This election is the most secure we have ever held because of the paper ballots, the audits, the early voting, the protections against election interference that we built over the last four years, and Republicans and Democrats basically agree with that. The only people who don't agree with that are the people who lost the election.

*I think David’s point is fair here, though it’s worth noting the votes found during the Georgia recount changed the vote total by 891 votes in Trump’s favor. Had it been a closer election, that could have been huge.
**In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein requested several recounts across the country. In Wisconsin, her recount turned up 131 more votes for Donald Trump.

Tangle: On that note, obviously one of the reasons this election was really unique is actually because so many people voted by mail and voted early. And contrary to what you're saying, a lot of the talking points on the right are that that's exactly why this election was so dangerous and why there was so much potential fraud. I mean, what is the infrastructure that is in place that would stop, say, a political operative from gathering a thousand absentee ballots that are blank, filling them out and dropping them off at a polling place, which is what a lot of people are saying happened in this election?

Becker: Yeah, so first of all, in all of the swing states with the exception of Nevada, you had to specifically go through a validation process just to request a mail ballot. That validation process confirms that your address is the same, it confirms your identity, that you are who you say you are compared to the voter lists. You have to have all that information. You can't just say, “send me a thousand ballots.” You can't just go pick up a thousand ballots somewhere and return them. That's not how this works. So I think it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the variety of checks and balances in place that already existed.

Mail voting wasn't new, it was just on a larger scale. Florida has had mail voting for years and years. In 2016, 25% of their ballots were cast by mail*. It was higher this year because of the pandemic, but Florida has extensive experience with that. Georgia has extensive experience with that. Arizona went from probably 80% mail ballots to probably 95%. They do a lot of mail voting, Nevada does the same. I mean, this just was not a wholly new thing. It was one of the myths of the election cycle that mail voting was some newfound thing that we had no idea how to secure. We've been doing it since the Civil War.

We absolutely know how to secure it, and mail voting creates multiple checks and balances and multiple pieces of evidence. You've got envelopes with signatures on it. You've got ballots. You've got multiple checks in place when you have to request a ballot. That ballot has unique identifiers on it and it's compared to who requested it to make sure that the person who requested it is the person who is returning it. And then there are obviously signature matches and other identity validations that are done on the ballots to make sure they're properly counted before they're processed.

So, you know, it's — I guarantee you, do you recall how many of Trump’s supporters were complaining about mail voting in Florida in 2016? Or Arizona in 2016? Or Georgia in 2016?

Tangle: Not many.

Becker: Right. The fact is, the only thing that's changed is who won the election [laughs]. The laws in Florida and Arizona between 2016 and 2020 did not change with regard to mail voting.

And the other big thing is if you have a problem with election procedure under federal law, under state law, you have to bring those problems to the court's attention prior to the election. You can't wait and see if you lose.

You have to bring them up ahead of time. That opportunity was given to both campaigns throughout the election cycle. Pennsylvania passed its mail voting law in November 2019*, which was one of — I think one of the newest ones, but that was pre-pandemic. It was passed by a Republican legislature. Michigan's laws: passed by Republican legislature. Wisconsin's laws: passed by a Republican legislature. Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and we can go on and on.

I mean, these are Republican legislatures. So you're essentially saying, what you're hearing from people in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, is “we shouldn't have been allowed to set up the rules that we set.” That’s not a very effective argument. And I think that's one of the main reasons that the Trump campaign’s post-election litigation record is somewhere around 1 and 60 right now.**

*The bill, called Act 77, was actually passed in late October. Every single Republican member of the Pennsylvania state legislature voted for it. Ironically, it was some Democrats who opposed the bill, because along with expanding mail voting, it ended single-button straight-ticket voting, which often helps Democrats.
**According to Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who is fighting Trump’s allies in court, they are now 1-59 in post-election lawsuits.

Tangle: You know, it's funny you bring this up. One of the things I've been thinking about that seems really interesting to me, just hypothetically speaking — I think you and I both agree that there's been no evidence brought forward that could compel any of these states to overturn the results — but you know, let's say that Trump had a case that there was massive fraud in one of these states. Is there a recourse that he would have there? Would he be able to change results or get a new election to happen? I mean, what's that process look like if we were in a situation where maybe one of these theories that have been thrown out there was actually real?

Becker: First of all, I’m going to reject the premise of your question, because almost all of the things that could have happened, there were preventive measures in place to ensure that they would have been caught beforehand and we would have identified them before voting ended.

So for instance, let's say someone hacked into the voter database and changed a whole bunch of voter files and who could vote or receive a ballot — we would have identified that weeks before the election. That would have been a really clumsy attack that would have been easily detected. It would have caused some consternation in terms of how we fixed it, but it could all have been fixed before Election Day.

Let's say someone had somehow gotten into the software on the tabulators as we're now hearing and changed how the tabulators read the ballots so that Trump votes look like Biden votes to the tabulator, which is one of the things they’re claiming. This is the beauty of paper ballots. Recounts, audits, would confirm it. This is why there are recount and audit laws.

In Wisconsin, the Trump campaign could have asked for a statewide recount. They chose not to — they didn't choose a single county that has Dominion Voting Systems machines. The two counties that they went to, I believe, used a different vendor.*

Why did they do that? Probably to save money, because they have to pay for the recount. But they could have recounted the whole state, and Wisconsin is 100% paper ballots, and they could have forced a recount of all of those ballots to confirm this technology counted them correctly. Michigan: a hundred percent paper ballots. They didn't ask for a recount in Michigan. They could have. Why didn't they? You can ask them.

Pennsylvania, they could have asked for a recount. They didn't. The paper ballots are the protection against this, because the paper ballots can't be changed remotely through a hack.

*This is true. It’s also true that in 81% of the swing state counties where Dominion Voting Systems machines were used, Trump won.

Tangle: I presented this argument to somebody who was sort of under the spell, I guess, of these election fraud claims. And I said a similar thing to what you just said, and what they said to me was that in some of these states that you're describing paper ballots, what you actually do is vote on a machine that prints out a paper ballot with your vote. And that a lot of people don't look to check, to make sure that their vote was actually counted properly.

Becker: It's funny because one, that is exactly the argument the extreme left has been using, arguing against the machines Georgia has put in place within the last two years. So there they are echoing an extreme leftist argument. Two, the only state that uses those statewide, of the states at issue, is Georgia.

And yet, the ballots that were most heavily provided weren’t those. They were the one in four of all ballots — 1.25 million —that were hand-marked, that were mail ballots. Mail ballots are all hand-marked. The mail ballots actually increase the integrity because we now have 25 percent of the ballots in Georgia that were marked by hand. In other words, the machine didn't do it first.

By the way, I don't want to get too much into it, but the argument that the machines could print out bad ballots and people don't look — it's garbage. It's a completely fallacious argument and I guarantee you that when you get that ballot printed out, the first thing you're looking for is did it show Biden or Trump on there. Now, is it possible you can miss the dog catcher race 27 lines down? Maybe.

I guarantee you that you know whether your ballot says Biden or Trump on it. But let's put that aside for a second.

One-fourth of all ballots cast in Georgia, and probably a higher percentage in other smaller jurisdictions had that, something other than what's called ballot marking devices. Philadelphia uses them [ballot marking devices], Allegheny County uses them. They're not used anywhere in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada.

So the only places where that would even be at issue would be Georgia, Philadelphia, Allegheny County. But in all of those places, 25-plus percent of all the ballots cast were hand-marked. They didn't use these ballot marking devices at all because they were mailed out.

So if that's the case, we would see a variation, we would see those mail ballots, those hand-marked ballots, actually reflecting a higher percentage of the vote for Trump. We're seeing the opposite. Those are the ones that are most heavily for Biden. Why is that? Well, because the president himself poisoned a key choice for voters, mail voting, in the eyes of his voters.*

So none of this makes sense. None of this holds water under even the slightest scrutiny. Because we have a healthy percentage of hand-marked paper ballots. It's one of the reasons mail balloting as an option in addition to in-person balloting is so important, because it provides us a way of comparing two different voting systems to see if one of them is behaving weirdly.

*Throughout the 2020 campaign, President Trump repeatedly told his supporters to vote in person and insisted mail-in voting was fraudulent. Many, many Republican election officials were dismayed by this, as Republicans typically rely on heavy mail voting to up their turnout, especially in states like Florida.

Tangle: Okay, so I know we have about 10 minutes left. I want to get in one more specific question about some of these allegations and then just one or two questions about the solutions — how to make this stuff better, from your perspective. Another one of the big claims from the president around Georgia has been really about the whole signature matching process. He called the recount “fake” and said that they're not allowing signatures to be looked at and verified. So can you explain to me what that process looks like down there? And whether signatures were actually matched or not in the recounts?

Becker: Georgia has one of the most robust signature matching requirements in the nation. They match the signatures twice. They’ve done so under the training of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. They are absolutely confident. The Republican legislature passed these laws and the Republican Secretary of State is absolutely confident in the application of these laws. And I think all you need to know is they knew what the laws were ahead of time and they didn't try to change them. They knew exactly how the ballots were going to be validated, they didn't try to change them.

They [the Trump campaign] did try to change it in Pennsylvania. So they knew they could bring lawsuits. They failed in Pennsylvania, but they knew they could bring lawsuits. But they didn't. They waited until after the election. And are they arguing the same thing in Florida? North Carolina? No. Florida and North Carolina have good signature matching requirements, but they are probably not as robust as Georgia. But no one's raising that, and frankly, the president's win in North Carolina was very, very narrow. It was more narrow than [Biden’s win in] Michigan.

So, that's my answer to that. I mean, Georgia is a model for signature matching and verification. There's so many checks and balances in the period when someone requests a mail ballot, comparing it to the voter file, when the ballot goes out, when it comes back in, they’re matching signatures, they’re matching barcodes, they’re matching a variety of different things to confirm that that ballot is coming from the person who it was sent to. And that the person was a valid voter. Just like they did in Florida, just like they did in North Carolina, both of which the president won.


Tangle: So one of the things that I really love about speaking with you and that I find really interesting about your positions on all this is there's actually some synergy between you and some of the people out there saying there’s fraud, which is that you also are not a big fan of electronic voting in general. So I'm just interested if you could tell me about what kinds of changes you hope to see, maybe why you're not so crazy about electronic voting, and how we can shore things up even further in 2024 and 2022.

Becker: So there's a big consensus that digital-only voting, in other words where the ballot itself is digital and not paper, is potentially vulnerable. Even though there's never been a case where it's actually shown a vulnerability. And it could be corrosive to voter confidence.

So yes, I — like almost everyone in the field — think paper ballots are really important. Now, I don't like the term “electronic voting.” We use electronics in voting all the time. There are ways to make that work. Every state has a statewide voter registration database. That's really handy, that makes sure that if someone moves from one county to another county they’re not unregistered. They're still registered in the state. It ensures that in some cases you can do really effective early voting through vote centers. So for instance, in Georgia and Colorado, and many, many states, you can go during early voting to anywhere in the county and go to an early voting site. And the way they do that is they have the full countywide registration list that they’re constantly syncing with the statewide list.

You want to have protection against people voting twice, obviously, right? So you can do that through technology. Every place in the country with the exception of maybe New Hampshire and some places uses technology to count ballots. Why is it that we have electronics to count ballots? Because computers are much better at counting things fast and accurately. Humans are awful at that. They're slow and they're wrong.

So we use technology to count the ballots, but we need to have a check in place to make sure the technology is working properly. And the biggest threat isn't actually a hack. It's a malfunction in technology. We all know this. We use technology all the time. Sometimes technology doesn't work like we intend it to. And it's not because they've been hacked. It's just — it's a glitch. So it's really important we have the paper that we can go back to.

Why is paper the only way we can do this voting? Because of the secret ballot.

Every other transaction we have in our lives we can do it electronically because it is connected back to us. When we do a banking transaction or some kind of commercial transaction, when I do that online, they know it's David Becker. And I have to prove it in some ways, in some cases, right? I might have to give them special information that only I have, or have a password. We don't want that with voting. We want a vote to get there and be the same vote that the person made but we don't want to ever be able to go back and connect it to that person.

And there's no way to currently do that with security without using paper. And so that's why the paper has been so important. We still use technology. I don't talk about “electronic voting” because actually, I'm a fan of the kinds of devices they have in Georgia — called these ballot marking devices — because the touchscreen interface is something that most people are very comfortable with. It allows for flexibility for early voting, for people who have disabilities, particularly sight disabilities as people get older, people that have language needs, you can literally just call up a new language on the devices.

They do that in Los Angeles County where I think they do 13 languages. And then it prints out a ballot and you can review the ballot, you're reminded to review the ballot. We saw very high levels of verification of the ballot. Then the ballot is created and you put the ballot into a separate device to tabulate it.

And those ballots can then be audited to confirm that the device counted them properly. So there's a variety of checks in place. Electronics will always be a part of voting, but the paper is really important to be able to verify that the vote tabulation was accurate.


Tangle: Alright, so last question and I'll let you go. I'm just really interested — did you see anything from this election that concerned you? Were there instances of fraud or allegations of fraud, maybe on a small scale level, where whatever that popped up, you looked at it and you thought, “you know, that doesn't look right this needs to be looked into.” Are there any cases bopping around that you're kind of keeping your eye on because you think they need to be investigated or looked at?

Becker: Yeah. I saw something that concerned me a lot. We just ran an election with the highest percentage of voter turnout we've ever had since universal suffrage, with 160 million people. Over 20 million more than 2016 participated in the middle of a spike in a global pandemic and we didn't see hardly any lines or problems or concerns. This is the quietest election day I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been doing this for 22 years.

And instead of celebrating that, we have some sore losers who are casting doubt on how well it was run, who are encouraging violence and death threats against public servants. Imagine getting an A on a paper, having someone go out and claim it was an F and also encourage people who didn't like you to engage in violence against the teacher that gave you the A.

That's what we've got going on right now. It is a shameful episode in American democracy at a point in time when we should be celebrating a triumph in American democracy. This is the most successful, secure, transparent election we have ever held, and we did it in the middle of a spike in a global epidemic. I mean, that is — it's unbelievable.

And the public servants who pulled off this miracle are still, today, six weeks after the election,  after the Electoral College voted, they're still under 24/7 police protection. I'm talking to several of them. I talked to one who took his children out to go sledding yesterday in the snow and had two armed police officers with him. He had to.

That is — yeah, there's something wrong. But it wasn't how the election was run. It’s in the inability of some to accept that sometimes democracy means defeat.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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