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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.
In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.
In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.
“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.
Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.
“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”
The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.
But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.
The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.
The Arizona Template
In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.
Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.
The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).
“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”
Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.
For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.
“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”
When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.
It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.
In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.
“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”
When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.
Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.
“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”
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.
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The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.
The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.
When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.”
It’s not clear that the Biden administration looks like the America that so many of us occupy.
Five years ago, researchers estimated that about three percent of the country – and 15 percent of Black men in the United States — have spent time in prison. Eight percent of the country and a third of Black men had felony convictions. Dr. Sarah Shannon, a sociologist who led the study, limited the data to the year 2010. Incarceration peaked in 2008 and reached its lowest level since 1995 last summer, according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center. Decarceration has added many more people to these totals since that 2010 snapshot; I think it’s much higher than the “20 million” number that gets appended to discussions of hiring people with criminal records.
So this part of America looks like it’s growing — and isn’t well reflected in the employee pool that staffs the Biden administration.
Some structural barriers prevent potential applicants with criminal records from filling federal posts, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Former President Barack Obama signed an executive order to turn the practice of allowing ex-felons to work in federal government into a formal regulation. At least three people with criminal histories worked in the Obama administration, mostly toward the end of his second term.
If the White House had remained in Democratic hands in 2016, even more former incarcerees might have found their way into federal employment -- but Obama’s successor erased much of that progress. The Trump campaign hired people with criminal backgrounds but not the Trump administration. Trump’s team actually wanted to expand the disqualifying criteria for federal employment to include having charges that were disposed through a pretrial diversion program. They wanted to exclude people who didn’t have a felony conviction record with an even harsher criterion: Merely a brush with the criminal legal system would have served as cause for rescinding a job offer.
Biden said he hopes he’s the polar opposite of Trump; one way to prove that would be to embrace the Beltway adage that “personnel is policy” — coined in a 2016 op-ed by Ronald Reagan’s Director of Personnel, Scott Faulkner — and rewind the reputation he’s earning for himself that he doesn’t care about doing better by the 157,596 men and women penned in the country’s 122 federal correctional facilities as of January 13.
While he promised to phase out reliance on private prison management companies early on (a vow some advocates question), Biden hasn’t made any commutations or pardons. In December, the White House ordered an “expedited clemency screening program for drug offenders with less than four years left on their sentences” but it hasn’t reorganized the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Biden lost some support in the reform community when he rebuffed a request from the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls to commute the sentences of 100 women in his first 100 days.
While Trump touts the First Step Act as the pinnacle of reform, Biden’s Department of Justice has slow-walked its implementation. People restricted to home confinement could have completed their sentences years ago if the Department of Justice had applied the law’s signature “Earned Time Credits” to their sentences when they earned them. Instead, Attorney General Merrick Garland finally ordered it done the week of January 10, 2022, taking over a year to do what could have been accomplished very quickly.
The director of the Bureau of Prisons isn’t a Cabinet member per se. The office is filled by the attorney general and doesn’t require Senate approval – an aspect of the job that may change if a House bill introduced January 13 requiring confirmation hearings and a Senate vote to install a new director is made law.
Even though the Bureau of Prisons remains the only Justice Department agency whose head doesn’t require a Senate vetting, the choice is important to the entire tenor of an administration. Carvajal’s short stint mirrors the president he served; certain prisoners hoarded large sums of money in their inmate accounts and dodged financial obligations and a certain lawlessness pervaded federal prisons, which had nothing to do with the people convicted of federal crimes. A 2021 Associated Press investigation found more than 100 correctional employees have been arrested and/or convicted of crimes since 2019. It was a lapse significant enough for Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to call for Carvajal’s ouster in November 2021.
Naming a director who has a rap sheet would leave very few critics of Biden’s commitment to reform. Of course, this proposal will inevitably invite accusations that the Biden administration is allowing the inmates to run the asylum — as if that’s necessarily worse than who’s running it now.
But, surprisingly, it seems that even the most fervent reform advocates fall just short of saying that the new director should be a formerly incarcerated person.
The same National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls that sought to free at least 100 women a year ago, released a statement on January 12 and an open letter to President Biden asking for a director who has “a deep understanding of the causes of mass incarceration and a track record of combating institutional racism in keeping with this Administration's oft-stated -- but rarely seen -- commitment to racial justice… [and is] committed to decarceration of people who should not be in prison: the elderly, ill, survivors of domestic violence, and long-timers.”
The National Council did not return a request for comment on whether that “deep understanding” really means someone who lived deep inside a cell. Neither did representatives from Just Leadership USA, an organization that trains formerly incarcerated people for leadership positions. [Disclosure: I was one of JustLeadership’s “Leading with Conviction” Fellows in 2018.]
I’m not suggesting that someone slinging meth on a corner because his criminal record locks him out of legitimate employment should slide into Carvajal’s seat. More than enough former prisoners are qualified to do his former job. Among the millions of people who’ve re-entered society, there are two MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant award winners (1, 2), one of whom made Time Magazine’s 2019 Top 100 list, as well as law professors, elected officials, business pioneers, non-profit founders, authors, journalists, and artists who have accomplished more than other people who’ve never walked the line.
It won’t be some rough-riding abolitionist either who would deliver a surprise — or even illegal — exodus from federal pens; I don’t think an abolitionist would take the position. And that highlights the real risk of carving out Carvajal’s job for someone who’s been through the criminal legal system. It’s not a dearth of talent or responsibility; it just may be that none of them really wants the job of managing people confined to the same spaces they once were.
But if called, one of us should serve, even if only for a short period. To be the first person to leave one door of a prison and walk in another would too much of a revolution to ignore. And this president and his Department of Justice should kick it off by picking someone with lived experience to lead the federal government’s prison system.
Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns will now appear regularly in The National Memo.