Risk-limiting audits: did your vote count?

This action originally appeared in the Indivisible East Bay newsletter on June 14, 2018. At that time, the deadline to make a call was Monday June 18; we will update as the status changes.

June 19 update

  • Thank you for all your calls and letters — it’s working! Today, AB 2125 was heard in the Senate Elections Committee. The courtroom was packed. Just prior to the hearing, negotiations about troublesome provisions in the bill resumed in an attempt to salvage it. Author Quirk offered another set of amendments to satisfy some of the most important provisions that were previously lacking in the bill:

    • The audits will be based on paper ballots
    • Audits will include Vote-by-Mail and provisional ballots
    • Secretary of State to write regulations on public verifiability

Though not yet written up by legislative counsel, these amendments were read aloud to all in the courtroom. The bill passed committee: 3 – 0 – 2 abstain.

As amended, AB 2125 sunsets in 2021, essentially making it a pilot bill. Advocates for election security and transparency are cautiously optimistic that a workable pilot bill may result. There are still kinks to be worked out (especially because it is voluntary for counties as amended today) so please stay tuned. We may need to put up our dukes one more time before this reaches the Senate floor.

Again, thank you. Nothing is more important to democracy than the accuracy and transparency of our vote totals. You did this. You prevented damaging election legislation from becoming law. Now buckle your seat belt.

June 18 update: Please keep the calls coming in today! Crucial vote on the integrity of our vote-counting audits is happening Tuesday June 19 at 1:30 PM. Can you join us and CA Clean Money to help pack the hearing room? Here is our joint letter explaining problems with the bill.

If you can’t come to Sacramento, please sign this coalition petition urging the Senate Elections Committee to vote “NO” on AB 2125 unless it’s amended. We need election audits but they must be transparent and accurate — AB 2125 is not there yet!

California vote-audit bill falls short

Vote vote vote! But — how do you know it was counted? In 2017 California enacted AB 840, exempting many vote-by-mail and all provisional ballots from audit. Security experts agree: to determine whether election outcomes are correct, we need risk-limiting audits (RLAs) which hand count a small sample of paper ballots, then expand as needed. AB 2125, headed for a crucial hearing in the CA Senate on Tuesday 6/19, nominally requires RLAs but has no teeth. Please tell the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee: We need state-of-the-art post-election audits to protect our democracy from cyberattacks. Why would we settle for less?

What to say:

My name is ___, I’m a California resident and a member of Indivisible East Bay. I want our election outcomes to be verifiable and I strongly support risk-limiting audit legislation. But I oppose AB 2125 because the bill doesn’t meet best standards agreed upon by experts. California should lead with a model risk-limiting audit that makes our elections trustworthy. I ask Senator _____ to oppose AB 2125.

Senator Harry Stern, Chair
Phone: (916) 651-4027

Senator Joel Anderson, Vice Chair
Phone: (916) 651-4038

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IEB Meets With State Asm. Thurmond’s Staff

On May 29, Indivisible East Bay members Nick, Amelia, Ted, Melanie, and Mark met with Molly Curley O’Brien from State Assemblymember Tony Thurmond’s (AD15) office in downtown Oakland. IEB’s first-ever meeting with Thurmond’s staff was a positive experience.

We had sent Molly a memo beforehand listing the topics and state bills we wanted to talk about and to find out Thurmond’s positions. But first we asked a general question — why the Democrats didn’t use their super-majority advantage last year to push through more progressive legislation. Molly explained that negotiating between moderates and more progressive members was often tricky, with the worry that moderates would flip support to the GOP and doom more progressive legislation; this unfortunate dynamic illustrates why it’s so important for Indivisible groups to take an active role in holding Democrats accountable at the state level and electing progressives wherever possible.

Schools and Students

We began by discussing Thurmond’s support for AB-1502 (Free or Reduced Lunch Direct Certification) and AB-1871 (Charter schools: free and reduced price meals). These bills would provide crucial meals to low-income and poor students in both public and charter schools, and reflect Thurmond’s ongoing work to support students in California’s education system. We thanked him for these positions, which align with our progressive values; Molly was happy to hear our thanks, and it set a good tone for the rest of the meeting.

Stating that Thurmond believes our schools need more resources, Molly mentioned that he would like to tax private prisons to provide resources for public schools, especially for LGBTQ students. She also noted that Thurmond wants to find a solution for the lack of affordable housing for teachers.

After Molly mentioned that Thurmond’s priority focus on education is “his bread and butter,” we asked her to make sure that he remembers to support small school districts and their teachers’ associations, not just larger ones in major metro area. 

Criminal Justice and Policing

We turned to the topic of criminal justice and policing, particularly AB-3131. Introduced by Assembly members Gloria and Chiu, AB-3131 is co-sponsored by Indivisible CA: State Strong, the ACLU, the Anti Police-Terror Project, and others. It  would provide for civilian oversight of local police forces’ efforts to purchase excess military equipment, which is a newly allowed practice under the Trump administration. Molly said that the principles of this bill align with Thurmond’s values, and gave us hope that he would vote Aye on it in a floor vote.

Voting Rights and Election Infrastructure

We wrapped up the meeting with a discussion of voting rights and election infrastructure, including AB-3115 (Jails: Voter Education), AB-2165 (Election Day holiday), AB-2188 (Social Media DISCLOSE Act), and AB-2125 (Risk-Limiting Audits). The IEB expert on these issues, Melanie (the lead for our Voter Rights and Election Integrity team), began by describing the problems we’ve had trying to help with voter education and registration in jails, to illustrate why passing AB-3115 is so important.

We also talked about unintended negative effects of the Voters Choice Act, recent closures of neighborhood precincts, and the need to keep polling locations open and improve – rather than restrict – access to the polls. Melanie asked whether Thurmond could help move AB-2165 out of submission so it could get a floor vote this week in the Assembly, so Election Day would be declared a holiday, showing our commitment to voter engagement and civic participation.

On AB-2188, we explained that a technical ruling had exempted social media from last year’s DISCLOSE Act, which requires political ad transparency, and urged Thurmond to support AB-2188  to help prevent a repeat in future elections of undue influence by Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and others.

Finally, Melanie tackled a complex subject — Risk-Limiting Audits (RLA). She highlighted the importance of AB-2125, the RLA legislation currently moving through the Assembly, especially in light of AB-840, enacted last fall, which weakened our 1% manual vote tally by exempting late-arriving and provisional ballots. To impress on Molly the critical need for AB-2125 to be amended before it goes to the Senate, Melanie mentioned the UC Berkeley statistics expert who invented risk-limiting audits (Philip Stark), and explained that Stark’s and other election security experts’ proposals don’t line up with current language in the bill. She asked how Thurmond might help, including whether he could let it be known he’s aware that corrections are needed, and to push for a timely amendment. Melanie clarified that although California should begin using risk-limiting audits, AB-2125 must be amended to follow best practices, and we want to see a bill we can support before it goes to the Senate.

We asked for Thurmond to familiarize himself with these bills and others, and Molly seemed confident he would be eager to do so. She noted that protecting democratic practices is important at all levels of government, and promised to discuss our issues with the Chief of Staff at their next meeting.

We ended the jam-packed half hour meeting on a positive note with a photograph. We hope to have another meeting with Thurmond’s staff, perhaps after his campaign for California Superintendent of Public Instruction is over.

Photo by Nick Travaglini

Cambridge Analytica: What, When, How, Why

In early 2013, Canadian data scientist Christopher Wylie pitched an idea to his boss, Steve Bannon, for a company that would change how political campaigns use data to change minds. The two men secured funding for their project from Republican billionaire donor Robert Mercer and, excited by their idea’s potential, set about founding and building a company called Cambridge Analytica. Wylie turned whistleblower and told this story to a British newspaper in March of 2018.

Like many things to do with the alt-right, the elevator pitch for Cambridge Analytica sounds harmless: the company would gather and analyze social media profile data to better target events and news stories to eligible voters in the US presidential election, in the British EU membership referendum, and in any other election a paying campaign wanted to win. Using Wylie’s innovative data mining and analysis techniques, the company would offer better targeting and stronger results for its campaigns.

But, like everything having to do with the alt-right, there was a lot more to it.

Preying on Fear in the West

Cambridge Analytica hit the ground running. Between June and August 2014, the company harvested data from around 50 million Facebook profiles using a methodology that involved pulling data from friends of people who took a personality test set up by a Russian academic. Per British newspaper The Guardian:

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.

However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising.

Having access to such rich data allowed Cambridge Analytica to, as one of the firm’s managing directors put it in a video filmed undercover by a team from Britain’s Channel Four News program, “drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.” He added: “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion, it’s all about emotion.”

“Information Warfare”

Once the company built profiles of voters using their Facebook data, they set to work on behalf of the Trump and pro-Brexit campaigns. They created and disseminated fake news stories designed to prey on people’s deepest fears and concerns. In videos secretly filmed by Channel Four, the company’s CEO Alexander Nix boasted about all of the shady tactics his firm could set loose on both the people it has profiled and the leaders they follow. 


These tactics were summed up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as “information warfare.” In an indictment for several companies and people associated with Russian troll farms, the Special Counsel said that groups using unbranded memes, fake news stories, and videos, “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

How deeply their actions influenced the presidential election and Brexit referendum in 2016 is currently an open question – but it’s one that both America and the United Kingdom have a vested interest in asking.

Russian Influence, Western Consequence

There are multiple lines of evidence that connect Cambridge Analytica to Russian influence, elevating this from being a question of morals and privacy to being a question of national security. Additional revelations suggesting that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Global, had high-level contractor access to the British Ministry of Defence and the US State Department have raised the stakes even higher.

Within days of Wylie’s story being published in the British press, the British Parliament and parts of the U.S. Congress had called for representatives from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook to appear before them to answer questions.

Facebook has taken a pummelling from the developing news stories (including news that its employees shared office space with Cambridge Analytica in San Antonio during the Trump campaign), with its stock tumbling rapidly while its executives remain silent. For its part, Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO and continues to protest its innocence.

We Can Help Take Them Down

There’s no question that Cambridge Analytica and the companies that supported it in its work deserve to face transparent justice. The West needs to thoroughly investigate the extent of the company’s undue influence over critical, history-making elections held throughout 2016. With both of its senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee, California residents have outsized power to make sure this happens.

 

Image courtesy of rawpixel via Pixabay.

In Counting There is Strength

Many of us were shocked by the results of the 2016 election, and months later still grapple with an ever-growing pile of reasons that added up to the Democrats’ devastating losses. But most of the 100+ experts and activists at the October 7-8 Take Back the Vote Conference were not surprised; to them the results were the predictable outcome of problems they’ve been warning about and working on for years.

Take Back the Vote conference
Photo © Heidi Rand

Hard truth time: no matter how many voter registration and get out the vote drives we run, no matter how many hours we spend canvassing and phone or text-banking, our efforts will amount to a hill of uncounted ballots if we don’t restore the soundness of our election infrastructure.  

The non-partisan conference “to advance the conduct of American elections – how votes are collected, counted and cast,” featured 25 speakers, a Who’s Who of nationally recognized election integrity experts and activists, computer scientists, professors, lawyers, journalists and election officials as well as federal, state and local legislators. They presented findings, shared and debated ideas, and answered tough questions. To see their bios, click the “speakers” link on the NVRTF website, and view or download the Conference program at the “schedule” link.

The audience, ranging from seasoned activists to new volunteers, passionately discussed necessary next steps and strategies to restore publicly verified democracy in the United States. The issues are complex, many have no easy answers, and reasonable minds differ about best practices. In coming weeks we’ll follow up this conference report with in-depth looks at issues covered, including:

  • propaganda and political communication
  • internet voting and cybersecurity risks
  • open source election software
  • election suppression
  • auditing options; including risk limiting, hand-count, two-tier, and digital ballot audits

Despite differing opinions on issues, had we taken a vote at the conference it likely would’ve been unanimous that our country is careening down the path of having our democracy stolen from us, and that protecting our elections from internal and external attacks will take ALL of us becoming educated, engaged, and involved in the process.

What can you do? Get involved! A good start – watch videos of the conference at the “videos” tab of the Voting Rights facebook page. Next, work with IEB’s voting issues team – no experience necessary, we’ll get you up to speed! Email us for info.

And to learn Everything You Wanted to Know About Voting But Were Afraid to Ask, check out these websites:

boss tweed cartoon vote with caption small

 

Help Preserve All Votes

Voting is the bedrock of our democracy: if it can be broken, every other right we rely on can be taken away. Many IEB’ers are doing critical work registering voters and canvassing in swing districts. To make sure those hard-won votes are counted, we must improve the security of our elections.

Expert Jim Soper explains that “the foundation of election security is based on paper ballots and random hand counts of the ballots.” On August 24, the authors of California AB 840, originally intended to ensure a thorough vote audit, inserted last-minute amendments that exempt millions of vote by mail ballots from the manual tally.

Under the amended bill, approved by the California Assembly on September 15, 2017, no provisional ballots and only ballots counted before midnight on Election Day will be eligible for audit. Why does that matter? In 2016, about 4 million California ballots were still uncounted after Election Day.

What can you do?

First, please call Governor Brown’s office TODAY, and urge him to veto the bill.

  • Office number: (916) 445-2841 
  • What to say: My name is ____. I live at [zip code]. I’m opposed to AB 840 because it exempts millions of vote by mail ballots from the election audits. Please protect the election audits. I urge Governor Brown to veto the bill. Thank you.

Next? Sign up for the Second Annual Take Back the Vote National Conference. Over 30 nationally recognized election integrity leaders will convene in Berkeley to discuss the current crises in our elections. Among the speakers or guests are computer scientists, professors, lawyers, journalists and election officials as well as federal, state and local legislators. They’ll present their findings, answer questions, and organize a national effort to restore publicly verified democracy in the United States.

  • When: October 7 and 8, 2017; 10 AM – 6 PM both days
  • Where: South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis Street, corner of Ashby Avenue
  • More info and register here. Early bird discount: $40 for 2 days. No one turned away for lack of funds
  • Can’t make it? If you can afford, please donate. Volunteers and speakers are tireless but unpaid, and contributing their time.

Take Back the Vote

There’s more! ACLU’s People Power is launching a 50-state voting rights campaign. Kickoff events to campaign for voting rights tailored to each state are planned for October 1st. Find an event or sign up to host one! You’ve got more than 20 to choose from in the Bay Area.ACLU People Power voting launchFinally, want to work with IEB to organize around voting and election issues? Email us.