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New DNC ‘Descent’ Ad Hits Trump’s ‘Four Years Of Failure’

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Say this for the impeached popular-vote losing, white supremacist, wanna-be dictator, grifting demagogue squatting in the Oval Office—he makes for good opposition ad fodder. Like this one produced by the Democratic National Committee for Joe Biden called Descent.

"Five years ago Donald Trump descended to the basement of Trump Tower," the narrator says over video of that gross golden escalator ride he took to announce his candidacy. "For the last five years," it continues, "he's brought America down with him." Then the ad launches into a litany of what Trump has managed to destroy in just three-and-a-half years: "attacking health care for people with preexisting conditions; giving massive tax cuts to billionaires, not working families; praising white supremacists, stoking racial division; losing 300,000 jobs in a failed trade war with China; locking children in cages."

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Election Officials Fear Nevada’s Early Vote Count Won’t Be Accurate

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

As early voting began in Nevada’s 2020 Democratic presidential caucus, thousands of people had to wait for two hours or more before voting. The bottleneck was due to a shortage of pre-programmed iPads that the Nevada State Democratic Party gave volunteers to check in voters.

“I have been in line for one hour and 58 minutes. This is normal from what I can tell from this line today,” said a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, who didn’t want to give her name after voting on campus on February 15, the first day of the four-day early voting period. “This is my second voting location today. The line at the first one was even longer.”

“We’re excited. They’re all standing in line. They’re all very nice,” said Sarah Mahler, the UNR voting site lead and Washoe County Democratic Party chair.

“It’s never been done before in Nevada. It’s never been done before in our nation. It’s the first time we’ve utilized early caucus voting.”

Despite Mahler’s enthusiasm, there were signs that delays or problems counting early votes could shadow 2020’s third Democratic presidential nominating contest. These complications would unfold behind closed doors at vote-counting hubs run by the Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP). The possible problems concern the system used to scan and count tens of thousands of paper early ballots, as well as the database tracking all of the voters and their votes.

Nearly 75,000 people voted early, the NSDP said. That process continues on Saturday, February 22, with precinct caucuses across the state.

Top party officials have not responded to numerous requests to comment about the last-minute voter-tracking and vote-counting system that it will be using after it jettisoned the same reporting and counting technology that failed in Iowa’s Democratic Party presidential caucuses on February 3.

“Nevada Dems remain committed to executing the most accessible, expansive and transparent caucus yet,” Alana Mounce, NSDP executive director, said in a “not for distribution” memo on February 14 that was a “ballot processing update.” It said party officials would scan the early voting ballots in two locations where few observers would be allowed to watch. Those observers would not include “the public or the press.

Leaders of the state party, not government election officials, are running the caucuses. That means that they had to create the entire voting system, from voter registration to the counting of votes. They have done that by hiring many private contractors and consulting with the Democratic National Committee’s technology staff to vet cybersecurity precautions. But other potential issues besides cybersecurity received less scrutiny.

“Running elections is hard. It is not for the faint of heart or rank amateurs. And it takes a lot of logistics to do it,” said Larry Moore, senior vice president of Voatz (a firm developing a smartphone voting system) and former CEO of Clear Ballot, which is the nation’s most comprehensive vote auditing system.

At an early voting site on Reno’s north side visited by Voting Booth (and elsewhere, according to media reports from Las Vegas), weary volunteers were seen skipping a key check-in step to alleviate the long wait to vote. (Voting site coordinators said the party underestimated the turnout and did not have more iPads to use to help check in voters.) Thus, the response at some early voting sites was to skip a check-in step that electronically tied voters to their filled-out ballots. That data is at the heart of the party’s digital vote-counting system.

After waiting in line, voters would first show an ID to check in with a volunteer. That party worker would check if that person was a registered voter by looking them up on a PDF document on a party-owned iPad. (If voters weren’t registered, they would be asked to fill out a state registration form and join the Democratic Party.) But there was supposed to be a second step before the voter was given a paper ballot. That step involved entering the voter’s identifying information, including a PIN number matching a sticker that the volunteers put on their paper ballot, into a Google form on another party-owned iPad.

Harried volunteers were seen skipping the Google form step to speed up the lines. That omission meant that the data that the NSDP planned to use to pair those voters to their ballots and choices ranking the candidates (a caucus is not a secret ballot and involves two rounds of ranked-choice voting) would be incomplete, unless other party workers later retraced and filled in those gaps.

The NSDP spokeswoman and its caucus director did not respond when asked to comment on this issue, which could complicate tallying the early voting results. But Mahler raised her eyebrows when told of this skipped step. At the early voting site that she was running at the university in Reno, volunteers patiently made sure that all voters verified their information and PIN numbers that were entered into the Google form.

The NSDP is creating two records of the early voting: a digital and a paper record. It plans to use only its digital system to count votes, at least in the first instance, according to the “ballot processing” memo to staff on February 14.

While national media have warned about “chaos” that could affect the voting and results after statewide caucuses on February 22—echoing Iowa’s meltdown when its digital counting systems failed—issues that might arise earlier in the process are being overlooked. The skipping of the Google form step (and thus omissions in the underlying data used to generate results) was only one of the signs that the system being used during early voting could face delays or produce inaccurate results.

Caucus voting is not the same as voting in a primary where there is only one round of voting and the candidate with the most votes wins. The caucus is not as simple. Early voters are asked to rank three to five presidential candidates on a paper ballot by filling in ovals in rows ranking their choices next to a candidate’s name. Their first choice who gets 15 percent or more of the vote in their precinct is counted.

The “not for distribution memo” from NSDP executive director Mounce makes it clear that the party will scan the early paper ballots to analyze the ranked choices and tabulate the results. (Mahler, the Washoe County Democratic chair, reiterated the party plans to import those local early voting results onto the iPads that all of the NSDP precinct chairs will use in the February 22 statewide caucuses.)

But the party has released no details on that scanning operation, and the little that’s known about it worries seasoned election experts. Some career election officials who since their retirement from government have developed software for counting ranked-choice ballots (one version of which will be used to tally the early voting ballots, while another ranking system will be used in precinct caucuses) said that the NSDP is heading into problematic waters as it tallies early votes.

These officials and computer scientists who study voting all noted that the paper ballot used for the NSDP’s early voting did not have alignment or “timing marks” on its perimeter, which is how scanners in government elections are calibrated and tested to correctly read the ballots’ ink-filled ovals. (These marks help computers create a grid that then links ink-marked ovals to choices on the ballot—no matter what end of the paper is put into the scanner.) Also, the NSDP ballot is the size of half of a sheet of typing paper with fairly small ovals to be marked by pen, which additionally means there’s less leeway for the scanning software to read ovals.

“I would think it could be hard to scan ballots with no timing marks,” said Duncan Buell, chair of the computer science and engineering department at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and a county election official. “This ballot looks to have rather small places for marking. I can think that timing marks might be unnecessary if the bubbles were an inch big, but as we all know from scanning things on a photocopier, a skew of [a] quarter-inch or so can be routine.”

Reflecting on the absence of timing marks and small ballot design, Buell said, “I am surprised that Nevada would not have had that done by people who have a lot of experience in scanning.”

Other longtime election officials who have retired from government posts and are now working on ranked-choice ballot technology were worried that the NSDP was not using any system produced and certified by election professionals. They were worried that if Nevada experienced scanning problems—meaning it would have to revert to counting tens of thousands of early ballots by hand—that their work to nationally advance ranked-choice voting would be undermined.

“It would be very scary if they have come up with a home-made product [scanner and software] that they think will work,” said Gary Bartlett, who was North Carolina’s election director for two decades and now directs the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Resource Center.

“It looks like a paper ballot that you hand-count,” said George Gilbert, who works with Bartlett, after seeing a photograph of the NSDP’s early ballot. “It would take a while” to do that should hand-counting thousands of ballots be necessary, he said.

Gilbert has developed an open-source software tool to use for counting in ranked-choice elections. But neither he nor Bartlett was aware if the NSDP was using that open-source software, he said, adding that Nevada party officials were not interested in working with the RCV Resource Center.

Nor is the state party working with other groups like FairVote, which also advises election officials on ranked-choice voting, according to its president, Rob Richie. FairVote provided memos to the NSDP, he said, but it also was not asked to help. “They’ve been pretty closed-lipped. They’re not consulting folks like us.”

Richie said that Bartlett and Gilbert were among the nation’s top technical experts on ranked-choice systems. Gilbert said that his counting software would work if all of the ranked votes were accurately entered into an underlying spreadsheet, which, presumably, is the role that the Google form would play for the Nevada party.

But that scenario presumes that the party’s data set was complete (an unknown number of volunteers skipped entering voter information and ballot PIN numbers into the Google form), and that all of the paper ballots were accurately scanned and successfully imported to the underlying Google form spreadsheet.

“I have no idea how accurately they can do that or how rapidly they can do it,” said Gilbert. “That’s the question that has to be asked: How will this ballot be scanned?”

Bartlett added that there were many things that could go “wrong” with scanners.

“There are so many small things that can go wrong with that type of voting system when you fill in an oval,” he said. “Sometimes you have somebody with dexterity problems who cannot mark the target area dark enough for the scanner to read. Other times you see weird things where you [as a human observer] can read a voter’s intent, but a scanner cannot read the voter intent.”

Other Possible Delays

Another issue that could cause delays in counting Nevada’s early votes would echo a problem faced in Iowa, where that state’s party found that it had understaffed its operations center—when it had to shift from relying on an electronic system that failed to manually recording results from precinct caucuses across the state.

If there was an issue with scanning ballots, the February 14 memo from Mounce said that a “Ballot Review Team comprised of the General Counsel for the Nevada State Democratic Party and two other individuals appointed by the [party] Chair… will review, by hand, each ballot.”

In other words, in the party’s two early vote-counting centers (that are closed to the press and public—one in Reno and one in Las Vegas), only three people, so far, are empowered to hand-count what could be many ballots out of the nearly 75,000 early votes cast.

FairVote’s Richie suggested that the NSDP was making more work for itself by having conflicting counting rules for early and regular caucuses. Mounce’s memo said that the party will not count any early ballot if a voter only made one presidential choice (although it will count their ballot if that voter picked the same candidate three times). In contrast, caucus-goers can leave after the first round, and their vote will count.

Curiously, Mounce’s memo also said that the “Ballot Review Team” would judge voter intent issues on early ballots, but the party’s “Nevada 2020 Caucus Recount Manual” said that post-caucus recounts filed by candidates “will not allow for challenges to the intent of a voter’s preference”—an apparent inconsistency.

But the big picture is that seasoned election officials and technology experts have doubts that the NSDP’s automated electronic vote-counting system for early votes will be accurate—because the paper ballots don’t have alignment markings, and because the underlying cast vote record (via Google forms) may be incomplete.

These concerns all come before Nevada’s statewide precinct caucuses on Saturday, February 22. If the party encounters any of these problems behind the closed doors of its counting centers, it is an open question as to whether or not it would publicly acknowledge them. The presidential campaigns can have one observer at the vote-counting centers, Mounce’s memo said. (Election protection lawyers working with the campaigns did not reply to requests to comment for this report.)

Meanwhile, as the party looks toward Saturday’s statewide caucuses, it sent out a release on Wednesday announcing the “State Party will host more than 55 trainings in person and online before Caucus Day” and included a link to its training hub. “We need Nevada Democrats across the state to volunteer to help us make our 2020 Caucus the most expansive, transparent, and accessible caucus yet,” the website said.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

DNC Reverses Course on Phone Voting in 2020 Iowa and Nevada Caucuses

Cybersecurity concerns have prompted the Democratic National Committee to reverse course on offering a telephone voting option in 2020’s presidential caucuses in Iowa and Nevada. But those key early states may find another way for voters not present at February caucuses to take part—possibly by casting their ballots early at voting centers.

The DNC’s announcement on Friday came a week after the committee held its summer meeting, where its Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) continued reviewing each state’s 2020 plans. The DNC technology staff, an advisory panel, and the RBC co-chairs concluded that there was too great a risk of malevolent outsiders disrupting the “virtual voting” process that Iowa and Nevada had hoped to offer voters to increase participation.

“The statement will go into some detail on the views of the security and IT people at the DNC and their outside advisory panel. It will cite strongly the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian activity,” James Roosevelt Jr., the longtime RBC co-chair, said Friday.

Iowa, the first contest, and Nevada, the third contest, had been developing a telephone-based ballot—as well as related systems that registered voters, authenticated identity, counted votes and reported results—to increase participation beyond precinct caucuses.

“The DNC technology people are very skeptical about whether a reasonably safe system can be constructed,” Harold Ickes, a longtime RBC member, referring to online voting, said a week ago at the DNC summer meeting. “And point two, forget the technology, what if it melts down? What if the management of it doesn’t work?”

While there was much consternation—mostly aired in closed sessions—the Rules Committee faced a mid-September to approve how the state parties running caucuses, which also include Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming, will offer a way for voters to remotely participate. That inclusionary mandate was part of the post-2016 Unity Reform Commission report, which “requires absentee voting,” and its 2020 Delegate Selection Rules.

Roosevelt said the Rules Committee will hold a special meeting after Labor Day to formally vote on the recommendation to reject virtual voting in Iowa and issue a waiver that essentially would revert to the process used in 2016. An early voting or vote-by-mail alternative was being studied, although it might impinge on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

In Nevada, the alternative appears to be using early voting centers and special precincts on the Las Vegas strip. When asked what Nevada might do if it could not get approval for its virtual voting plan, its lone RBC member, Artie Blanco, replied that Nevada also planned four days of early voting.

Wyoming was also planning on using early voting centers. Hawaii was considering mailing ballots to registered Democrats. Alaska, in contrast, was still seeking to use a smart phone system that West Virginia and Denver have piloted for overseas military and civilian voters, as state party officials said cell phone service was more reliable than mail in rural areas where many Native Americans live.

Good Intentions, Gnarly Details

The goal of expanding participation in 2020’s caucuses goes back to healing the party’s splits from the 2016 presidential campaign. In its December 2017 report, the Unity Reform Commission said any caucus state should help people who could not be physically present to participate. Those voters include the elderly, shift-workers, people with disabilities, young adults and even college students.

A year later, the Rules Committee issued 2020 Delegate Selection Rules that built on the reform panel’s report. These rules said that “The casting of ballots over the Internet may be used as a method of voting” in caucuses. The rules also required caucus states to create a paper record trail for audits or recounts. Its members are the DNC’s procedural experts. They are not technologists. The RBC left it to state parties to fill in the details, and further relied on DNC technology, cybersecurity and voter protection staff to critique each state’s 2020 plans.

The virtual voting plans worked out by Iowa and Nevada were not the same, but they shared features. Both states wanted to use a telephone keypad for a voter to rank their presidential preferences. The ranking is intended to emulate the in-person caucus process, where participants vote in rounds as candidates are disqualified. (Candidates must receive 15 percent of the vote to be viable.)

A virtual caucus participant would have to register beforehand. They would receive instructions by email, including a log-in and PIN number. Certain dates and time windows would be open for virtual voting. Voters would dial in and hear recordings where candidates were listed in alphabetical order. They would enter numerical choices on their keypad to rank them, like paying a bill by phone.

Iowa divided all of its virtual voters into four precincts, one for each of its House districts. These votes would be tallied and added to the in-person precinct totals from the rest of the state. However, the virtual votes would only be awarded 10 percent of the night’s delegates. (As of this writing, the RBC has not yet approved that allocation.)

Nevada, in contrast, was more ambitious. It planned to give 1,700 precinct caucus chairs an app to let them announce the early voting results to people in the room, and then to report the in-person votes to party headquarters. A vendor would do the math combining the virtual and precinct totals for awarding delegates to the process’s next stage. (In June’s RBC meeting, Nevada party officials said that app was still under development.)

Both states had won conditional Rules Committee approval. However, final approval was dependent on having the DNC staff signing off on the systems to be deployed, as well as the committee approving the delegate allocation formula, and judging that any new process would be well-run. Suffice it to say that despite determined efforts by Iowa and Nevada state party officials, the DNC’s staff has so far not had completed voting systems before it to fully evaluate.

When the RBC met in July in Washington, it discussed the status of these virtual voting systems at a closed breakfast—but not in the open session. After meeting for five-plus hours on August 22, the panel was set to adjourn without discussing virtual voting states, when Ken Martin—DNC vice chair, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman, and president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs—spoke up.

“I want to be very careful in how I say this, but I want to express a deep, deep frustration on behalf of my colleagues in three very important states,” he said, referring to Iowa, Nevada and Alaska. “This is the third meeting we have now asked them to come to. They’ve incurred incredible expense to bring their teams too. And we put them on the tail end of a meeting, which we knew was going to go long, and leave no time for a very important conversation.”

At that point, Roosevelt replied that there were closed meetings scheduled the following day with RBC members, DNC staff, and party officials from the three states. “And I actually have more data that I would like to share with this committee in executive session as soon as we adjourn,” he said. The committee emptied the hearing room.

According to a report first published by Yahoo and Bloomberg, “the DNC [staff] told the panel that experts convened by the party [technology staff] were able to hack into a conference call among the [Rules] committee, the Iowa Democratic Party ,and Nevada Democratic Party, raising concerns about teleconferencing for virtual caucuses.” It continued, “The test and the revelation of hacking enraged party officials in caucus states who say the systems were not fully built and the hack of a general teleconferencing system is not comparable.”

Earlier in the week, the RBC, DNC tech staff, caucus state officials and vendors had a series of conference calls on security issues and to demonstrate certain system elements, said Roosevelt afterward.

RBC members later asked to confirm whether the DNC staff had hacked its own conference call would not comment. A contractor working with one caucus state said they had heard a rumor about the purported hack. An outside computer scientist critical of any online voting said the state party officials were correct; hacking conference calls was not the same as hacking a voting system.

However, it didn’t appear to matter. Showing the possibility of a hack, or even making the accusation, highlighted this approach’s vulnerability. Meanwhile, the larger takeaway among many RBC members was that debuting telephone voting was premature.

“Our tech team basically said that there was no company that can do this,” one member said, recounting the executive session.

Needless to say, Iowa and Nevada officials were upset. Committee members were also divided. Some said that the risks were too great to debut virtual voting in 2020’s early caucuses. Others said these states were doing what they had been told under the 2020 rules.

Looking for Alternatives

After that executive session, the RBC co-chairs, DNC staff and the caucus state party officials held more closed meetings. Those meetings continued this past week, culminating in Friday’s announcement to back off from virtual voting in Iowa. That decision was not unexpected.

As the dust settled at the DNC summer meeting, the sense gathered from hallway interviews was that the Rules Committee co-chairs were looking at other ways to expand participation, especially in Iowa. It appeared that a mix of voting by mail and/or early voting centers might be an alternative, if it didn’t conflict with the New Hampshire primary process.

Nevada’s RBC member, Artie Blanco, said her state already was planning on offering four days of early voting before the February 22 caucus. (Any voter would have to register several weeks beforehand.) Iowa, in contrast, did not anticipate offering an early voting option in its 2020 plan.

It would be premature to conclude that remote participation in 2020’s party-run caucuses will not occur. The Rules Committee has a history of looking for ways to meet their goals. It will be meeting after Labor Day, where it is expected to finalize the early caucus states’ plans, including possibly having early voting centers or a vote by mail option.

Report: Did Fox News Fabricate ‘Federal’ Source On Seth Rich Conspiracy?

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Fox News editors “came to have doubts” about whether the network’s sole source for its subsequently retracted bombshell report that murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had delivered tens of thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks “actually existed,” according to a new report from Yahoo News.

In May 2017, FoxNews.com published a story from investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman which relied on an anonymous “federal investigator” from an unnamed agency to claim that Rich had provided WikiLeaks with the emails, contradicting the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russian intelligence operatives had done so. That story — and the network’s strident on-air segments about it — amplified a long-debunked conspiracy theory that had circulated online since Rich’s death 10 months earlier, engulfing his family in a new wave of pain and sorrow.

The FoxNews.com article collapsed within hours, and a week later, Fox retracted it, saying it “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” The network promised an internal investigation into how it had published the report.

No findings from that internal probe have ever been publicly revealed. Yahoo News chief investigative reporter Michael Isikoff provides a possible explanation for why in a Tuesday story promoting “Conspiracyland,” a forthcoming Yahoo News podcast on the Rich conspiracy theories:

“Conspiracyland” quotes a source familiar with the network’s investigation saying that Fox executives grew frustrated they were unable to determine the identity of the other, and more important, source for the story: an anonymous “federal investigator” whose agency was never revealed. The Fox editors came to have doubts that the person was in fact who he claimed to be or whether the person actually existed, said the source.

“Conspiracyland” will also detail how Russian intelligence agents planted the initial spate of Rich conspiracy theories and then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s role in advancing the story, according to Isikoff.

Zimmerman reported that the unnamed “federal investigator” — whom Fox executives were reportedly unable to identify and whose existence Fox editors came to question — “said 44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments between Democratic National Committee leaders, spanning from January 2015 through late May 2016, were transferred from Rich to” a WikiLeaks operative.

Over the next week, Fox commentators would trumpet this claim as evidence undermining the conclusion that Russia had provided the DNC emails and thus debunking “the whole Russia collusion narrative,” as star host Sean Hannity put it.

Publishing a story that purported to dispute the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies based on a single unnamed source was journalistically questionable. But if that source didn’t actually exist, it represents malpractice on a truly shocking level that the network would be loathe to reveal (Fox “declined to comment” to Isikoff, “citing ongoing litigation against the news network brought by the Rich family”). And this isn’t the first time Zimmerman’s use of anonymous sources has been called into question.

No one at Fox has been publicly disciplined for their role in the Rich mess, as Isikoff noted. Indeed, several key players were subsequently promoted.

The network raised Greg Wilson, who edited Zimmerman’s story, to managing editor of FoxNews.com the following month. Porter Berry, the executive producer of Hannity’s show as the host went on nightly diatribes about the Rich case, now oversees all of the network’s digital content as a Fox vice president. Laura Ingraham, who suggested on air that the Rich family was covering up his death for partisan gain, now has her own prime-time show.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman still has her job at Fox, and Hannity speaks every night to an audience of millions. This lack of accountability is typical at the network.

“Most other news outlets, these situations come up, but they are dealt with appropriately,” a senior Fox News employee told CNN about the network’s response to its Rich coverage in 2017. “People are fired, they are disciplined or whatever. But this is like classic Fox. No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn’t true.”

(In May, Media Matters published a series marking the two-year anniversary of Fox’s publication of a story — retracted seven days later — that promoted the conspiracy theory that murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, and not the Russians, had provided DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Read part onepart twopart threepart fourpart five, and the timeline of events.)

IMAGE: Murdered former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.