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How Bernie Sanders Can Win the Democratic Nomination

Updated on June 7, 2019
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Ralph Lopez majored in economics and political science at Yale University. He has been published in the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun.

In April of 2017, the Democratic National Committee of the Democratic Party in America revealed its true attitude toward democracy. Arguing in a South Florida courtroom for the DNC, in a lawsuit brought by Bernie Sanders supporters, DNC attorney Bruce Spiva said that the Democratic Party leadership need not abide by the wishes of voters in any fair primary process. Spiva said the party could even choose its nominee, if it so desired, in a smoke-filled room reminiscent of the party bosses who held the party in their grip before the present primary system was instituted.

Even Sanders has acknowledged that the 2016 primary was rigged against him. At a town hall this month, hosted by Fox News, Martha MacCallum asked him, "Are you worried that the DNC might put its finger on the scale again, the way that they did to you back in 2016, with Hillary Clinton?"

Sanders answered that "We went through that in 2016, and I think we have come a long way since," thus implicitly agreeing that all the hard work of his supporters had been stolen. Moreover, despite Sanders' reassurance that "we have come a long way," the DNC has never renounced the position articulated in the Florida courtroom that the leadership had the right to handpick a candidate over whiskey and cigars, if it felt like it.

DNC attorney Spiva in essence told the judge that all that primary stuff was sort of a joke, window dressing, and that:

“We could have voluntarily decided that, ‘Look, we’re gonna go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way,’”

File under moments of perilous candor.

The present primary system did not come without cost. It was an attempt to restore faith in the party's processes after the bloody summer of '68, when Mayor Daley's police were shown eagerly busting the heads of protesters against the Vietnam War, on national TV, at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The new system resulted in the nomination of the first outsider president in 1976, Governor Jimmy Carter, a relatively unknown peanut farmer from Georgia.

Carter was the first president to stop his motorcade on inauguration day, and walk with his family among the people the last mile to the White House.

The DNC lawsuit had been filed by Bernie Sanders supporters after the release of leaked DNC emails revealed that the organization had violated its charter rule to remain neutral in primaries, and not favor any candidate over any other. The emails showed that, under the chairmanship of Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, Sanders never stood a chance.

In one email from Wasserman-Schultz commenting on a CNN report, the DNC chairwoman wrote:

“This is a silly story. He isn’t going to be president.”

Fast forward to 2019. To the pleasant surprise of many, Sanders, age 77, has announced again. As in 2016, he has staked out ground to the progressive left, and speaks forcefully of the plight of the working poor, college debt, the increasing concentration of wealth, and the prerogatives of millionaires, of which he freely admits he is one. Sanders is the author of a bestselling book, and his wife is a college president.

And therein lies the rub, or whatever you want to call it. Because for all the organizing and energy and fundraising that backers of Sanders' vision engage in, the DNC's true position is known, and has not changed. The fundraising and organizing mean nothing, because the DNC reserves the right to rig the nomination. It said so flat-out. There is nothing ambiguous about going "into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars."

The trudging through the snow to knock on doors in the bitter New Hampshire winter - an early primary - is a fool's errand, because the winner has already been determined. And under the present system, it will never be an outside-the-mainstream, Wall Street-bashing, granola-crunching candidate like Bernie.

At a time when hacking and other forms of interference in elections are on the front page every day, the US election system remains remarkably vulnerable, whether the attackers might be American, Russian, or any other nationality.

The good news is, this can be changed, were a few things to happen between now and the primaries. Not least of these would be for the DNC to publicly proclaim that it will stand by the results of an honest primary process, and relinquish the "right to rig." The second thing that would need to happen would be for the Democratic primaries to be secure, transparent, and verifiable.

There are many parts to election stealing, with tactics and methods not mutually exclusive, which are often used together. Although the conservative right tends to focus on voter fraud, that is amateurish and risky, since any voter's registration can be challenged. Illegal immigrants who are afraid even to go to a hospital for fear of discovery and deportation are unlikely to undergo the same risk for the intangible reward of participating in democracy.

On the other hand, it is an easy matter to Strip and Flip, to use election-stealing shop talk. Anyone with the right access can strip your opponents' voters from the voter rolls, or tamper with their registrations so they cannot cast a regular ballot. Force them to use a provisional ballot, which often winds up in the trash. Then "flip" votes from one candidate to another, by hacking into vote-counting machines, either at the precinct level or at the central tabulation level. Experts say any vote-tabulating machine can be hacked into, whether or not it is connected to the Internet.

Strip-and-Flip should arouse the most interest among those committed to a fair primary, because it is the sneakiest and most cunning form of election-stealing. Until it is made very difficult, any reform aimed at other tactics won't mean much.

Tactics like voter suppression and voter fraud are easy to see or discover. For example, a vote that traces back to someone who is dead can be challenged, by law. A motivated candidate can call these out because he or she can see them, and demand remedy.

In Arizona in the 2016 Democratic primary, voter suppression occurred when, in the brutal August heat, the number of polling stations was reduced from previous elections. Lines extended down blocks in Maricopa County, the most populous county which includes Phoenix. Some people stood until midnight. Since the Sanders demographic tended to be young people who could better stand such punishment, and the mail-in vote tended to favor Clinton, it was Sanders who was clearly harmed.

In Brooklyn, NY, a Sanders stronghold of young urban hipsters, at least 125,000 voters on election day found themselves suddenly not registered or registered incorrectly. The courts were clogged for days with people brandishing proof that they had registered correctly, and demanding to be allowed to vote.

On the other hand, the "Flip" part of Strip-and-Flip is invisible, safe, and effective. A hacker with the right access can hack into a targeted precinct's vote-counting machines over any connections they have to the outside world, or hack the memory card which goes into the machine. As demonstrated in the HBO documentary Hacking Democracy, on a machine still widely in use across the US, a hacked memory card can add bogus votes to one candidate or subtract votes from another, or both.

This is the fast way to steal an election. Want 10 extra votes? Type in the instruction. Want a hundred? Add another zero. Want a thousand? Add yet another zero. Subtract the same from other candidates so that the total votes come out the same. Adding ten or ten thousand is pretty much the same amount of work, once you are hacked in.

The Hacking Democracy demonstration made it abundantly clear that it was possible, and that machine was not even connected to the Internet.

The answer, of course, in cases where foul play is suspected by a candidate, would be to look at and count the votes on the paper ballots. But this is where there is a solid, impenetrable Catch-22, and hackers know it. In the current state of affairs, paper ballots never see the light of day. The reality is that, in practice and by institutional opprobrium, election departments and US courts hate ever allowing hand-counts of the paper ballots. Why this is so is a very good question. A full paper ballot recount has never been granted by any court in the country for any federal election.

Even with $7 million raised by Jill Stein to pay for paper ballot recounts in 2016, in the Michigan - Wisconsin - Pennsylvania recount effort between Clinton and Trump, state courts ordered a halt to full hand recounts. In PA many counties still used touch-screen voting machines with no paper trail, so there was nothing to recount.

And as if to remove any doubt that something fishy was going on in US elections, in 2017 a challenger to none other than DNC establishment epitome Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had asked to see the ballots in a lawsuit, not believing the results in which Schultz won handily. But when a judge ordered the ballots delivered, Broward County election supervisor Brenda Snipes, an open Schultz ally, simply destroyed the ballots before they could be viewed and counted by the aggrieved challenger. This was illegal, and violated both state and federal law. When asked about it, Snipes gave a dog-ate-my-homework excuse that it was an "accident."

When the only evidence which could show whether an election was rigged or honest disappears, at the hands of an election supervisor of 20 years experience, it can be fairly assumed that the election was indeed rigged.

In 2015, after the Memphis municipal elections, a Memphis computer programmer discovered a very interesting feature in the vote counting machines in his city. He found out that they allowed votes to be expressed as fractions. The programmer, Bennie Smith, figured out that the only useful reason for this, a programming decision, would be if someone wanted to choose a percentage margin for victory ahead of time, and then needed to work the math backwards for specific numbers of votes. There is no such thing as a fractional vote.

What is the solution to the stone wall raised by officialdom at all levels between the people and the true results of elections which their taxes pay for? Including those officials' salaries? What is the solution to an official culture where those charged with holding fair elections feel entitled to cheat, steal, and chose candidates in smoke-filled rooms? Literally? Since primary nominees tend to become the only viable general election candidates you can chose from, the process is rigged from bottom to top.

The solution, say election integrity activists, is a system in which machine vote tallies can be verified, by the voters themselves, and in which requirements for voting systems are strictly mandated. The US has arrived at the point where the government is a self-perpetuating machine, where, having control of the voting process, it can keep re-electing itself.

Solution in Sight

Fortunately for democracy, activists have been working tirelessly to find solutions. And they have found them. But voters need to be aware of and push for the changes that must happen for elections to be secure. To be secure, elections must be transparent and verifiable.

Transparent, because regardless of what some officials say, any vote counting machine can be hacked, and again, this is whether it is connected to the Internet or not. Even vote-counting machines which do not connect to the Internet during voting have modems to transfer results to central systems, and modem connections are still part of the Internet.

We know the litany of oft-recited requirements for secure elections - secure chain of custody for all ballots and equipment, employing 24/7 surveillance cameras, the minimization of mail-in ballots, which cry out for mischief. Now in addition, a discovery by activists makes it possible for the ordinary citizen to verify the results of any polling station, to a high degree of confidence.

In short, it is now understood that most vote-counting machines in use across the country, over 60%, employ a technology which generates a digital image of each ballot as it is fed into the machine, and stores it in memory. It is an easy matter to post these images online, or onto DVD. They are entirely anonymous, as all ballots are in America. In the US there is no way any ballot can be traced back to the person who cast it.

But if hackers can manipulate the vote totals, couldn't they manipulate the ballot images as well? The fact is, that kind of hacking and manipulation would be enormously difficult and time-consuming on any appreciable scale. Image manipulation leaves evidence, "artifacts," at both the image and code levels.

Nothing is foolproof. But that doesn't mean the stealing of elections shouldn't be made as difficult as possible. Especially as it would cost essentially nothing. Paper ballot vote-counting machines which take ballot images are in use in roughly half of US voting jurisdictions.

With the following list of demands, Sanders' We the People-style power could force a reform of the US election system which would make it difficult to Strip-and-Flip, or at least difficult to not get caught at it.

These would also make it harder for election stealers to utilize most standard tactics in election stealing. A list of demands for a fair primary process would read:

  • First and of bedrock importance, disallow any ballot-marking system but voter hand-marked paper ballots, as the standard for casting votes, of course with exceptions for disability. At the present moment, election departments across the country are updating or getting ready to update the last generation of voting systems, relics of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding cycle. But in what should be generating outrage from voters, in some states, like Pennsylvania, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, counties are ignoring activists' recommendations and ramming through more easily hackable systems. Why they would want to do this does not lead to comforting answers. One development to be especially vigilant against is the use of BMDs, ballot marking devices, except in cases of disability. These are touch-screen devices by which the voter touches a screen to make choices and then the machine prints those choices on a paper ballot. These are inferior to hand-marked paper ballots, because gone are the unique, hand-markings which distinguish each ballot from every other. It would be laborious to make a large number of bogus ballots by hand marking them. But when a machine prints out the ballots, making large numbers of them would be easy.
  • Securing the right of voters to vote within a reasonable amount of time, by mandating a per-voter minimum requirement for the number of voting stations.
  • A mandated re-vote for counties in which large numbers of inaccurate or missing registrations are reported.
  • For vote-counting machines, unless a jurisdiction hand-counts its ballots, which is always an approved option to election transparency activists, the only acceptable technology is that in which a voter hand-marks a paper ballot (with exceptions for disability,) and then feeds it into the kind of optical scan device which generates a digital image of each ballot, and then stores it in memory. These are already in use in over 60% of US counties. The images should be posted on the Internet or made available on a DVD for any citizen to recount any precinct. In the event that there are significant discrepancies with the official vote count, that is the signal, and a strong one, for a court to order a hand recount of the paper ballots. At the forefront of efforts to make these images public record are citizen's groups like Audit USA, and citizen activists like Bev Harris, John Brakey, Harvey Wasserman, and Bob Fitrakis.
  • A secure chain of custody for all paper ballots, vote-counting machines, and related gear and electronic media, under watch by surveillance cameras 24/7.

There are presently a number of bills in Congress seeking to address election systems reform, all of which fall very far short of the reforms above. One of which is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's Securing America's Elections Act 2018, H.R. 5147, which unforgivably allows the indiscriminate use of ballot marking devices, and says nothing about requiring ballot images to be generated and made available to the public. Another is Jim Sarbanes' (D-MD) H.R. 1, For the People Act. In their present forms, both bills are such that the election system would be better off if Congress passed nothing.

Sanders once again faces an uphill battle, as more centrist candidates like Kamala Harris and Joe Biden wait in the wings, ready to suddenly pull miracles that defy exit polls and crowd sizes. But by organizing and demanding the above reforms before the primaries, activists can make Strip and Flip and other tools of the trade far more difficult to pull off, as opacity gives way to transparency, and verifiable elections. Some activists are circulating a related petition.

These are not comprehensive, but they would constitute a devastating head start toward a fair playing field. With Sanders now at the head of the pack, some supporters will undoubtedly work their hearts out for the campaign. As Sanders likes to talk about "Our Revolution," how revolutionary it would be if all the votes were counted, and all the ballots posted for the world to see.

Jimmy Carter leaves limousine on inauguration day to walk to White House.
Jimmy Carter leaves limousine on inauguration day to walk to White House.

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