Jennifer Cohn

Will There Be a Legitimate 2020 Election?

Air Date: September 21, 2020

Election security advocate Jennifer Cohn discusses the importance of a handmarked paper trail, independent election oversight, and being watchful of an authoritarian president and corrupt companies that would steal votes.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m honored to welcome Jennifer Cohn to our broadcast today. She is an election security advocate and you can find her tweeting every day on this most important subject. Jennifer, thank you for coming on the program.


COHN: Hi, it’s my pleasure.


HEFFNER: Jennifer, as you campaign for hand marked ballots, so that we have confidence in this November’s outcome, where must those viewing our program right now draw their attention either locally or at their state or at the federal level to try to ensure that we have security in the legitimacy of the outcome this November?


COHN: Unfortunately I think it’s too late to get federal legislation mandating hand marked paper ballots. There has not been enough messaging, even from, out of Washington and even from the Democrats with the exception of Senator Ron Wyden; I would say that the place to focus our attention is at the county level and maybe at the state level, but mostly the county level. And what you want to do is, the alternative that I have been objecting to for the last several years, the alternative to hand marked paper ballots, that concerns me is these new touch screen voting machines. They’re called ballot-marking devices and they have been around for years for voters with disabilities. The concern is that they’re being deployed for most voters at the polling places. And I am also concerned that in many places they appear to be activating them via wifi connected tablet computers called electronic poll books that typically were used just to confirm voter registrations but now they’ve been made part of the actual voting machine apparatus in terms of activation. And so what I would suggest is when if calling your county and telling them that you want two things on Election Day at the precincts: you want back up at hand marked paper ballots, or you really would want them, ideally, for everyone other than voters with disabilities, but at a minimum, all voters should have the option to use hand marked, ballpoint pen, paper ballot, and then two, we need paper poll books as well. That’s something that I’ve only sort of added to my more and more aggressively these last several months is I’ve seen lots of problems with the electronic poll books. And again, they’re being used sort of together in a way that is very concerning and I think unprecedented.


HEFFNER: And to be clear for our viewers, you’ve been on this beat pre pandemic well before the pandemic, but you want there to be a paper trail. And for what percent of the American electorate is, will there be a paper trail, independent of any kind of petitioning or lobbying that you’re describing that our viewers might undertake themselves now, how many of us do have a paper trail right now?


COHN: Well, about 70 to 80 percent of the country already uses hand marked paper ballots, which is sort of the first step in toward election integrity. The concern is that there are enough that don’t to impact the outcome of an election. And a lot of them are in these sort of swing states sometimes, or really the most populous counties have moved toward these new touch screen systems. The thing that gets really tricky and part of what has been so tricky with the messaging is that these new touch screens do generate a piece of paper and election officials, and even some voter protection groups call that a paper ballot, but it is not what has traditionally been considered a paper ballot, which is a ballpoint pen marked hand marked paper ballot. They are marked by these touch screen systems. And most of them put your votes into a barcode. So this paper print out has a barcode on it and the barcode, which people can’t read and they can’t decode it with their phones. It’s a proprietary barcode is the only part that’s actually counted as your vote. Although there is small human readable text beneath this barcode, studies have long shown that voters, most voters don’t even look at these printouts and of those that do, they’re really unable to notice. They miss a very, very large number of deletions or flips in that human readable text that can at least in theory be used in a recount or audit. And so what a recent study from the University of Michigan showed was that 93 percent of deletions and other changes in that human readable text go unnoticed by most voters. The only thing that brings that number up where voters might notice if there’s fraud or error in that printout committed by the machine is if they bring a completed sample ballot with them. And so that has also been a part of my messaging lately is that if you are voting in person, bring, find your complete, find your sample ballot, you can look on your county election board website or called the county. If you don’t see it and bring it, print it out, fill it out, bring it with you. Even if you’re voting with hand marked paper ballots, they will speed up the lines using, having your slate already filled out for you will make it much faster for you to make your selections at the polling place. And if you use a touch screen, it’s really critical to check that print out, especially as to down-ballot state races, which will, the state lawmakers in 2021 will vote on the new maps that decide gerrymandering, the control of the House of Representatives for a decade. And so I’m very worried about state races in particular, the potential for fraud on those printouts or error with those races being deleted or flipped and voters not noticing. And so I really, really want to get this message on the sample ballot going.


HEFFNER: So when you described the barcode in effect, when you receive the receipt of your vote, are there states now or counties where that barcode does not exist with the context of who you voted for, or like a verifiable piece of information about what that barcode means?


COHN: Are there places where it’s just a barcode?




COHN: I don’t think so, but I could be wrong, there, there, the only place I saw some indication of that, and now I don’t even remember where it was, but I took note of it. They had an option and it was very misleading because it said – the way the computer would say is it gave you the option to use a secret ballot, which of course sounds really appealing what voter doesn’t want their ballot to be secret. And what that meant was it was just the barcode. It’s a secret, even from the voter, right? So that concerned me. It seemed that it might, that it was only that they were only using those computers for voters with disabilities. Typically that would be vision-impaired voters who might not use the human readable text anyway. But I was, that did worry me … but as not widespread


HEFFNER: Your concern, Jennifer goes beyond whether it’s printing something that you can see corresponds with your vote. What, because there are ways that for error and fraud to exist, even if the barcode does align with what you touch.


COHN: Exactly. The barcode is sort of the easiest thing. I think sometimes to message and for voters to understand, and in Georgia, for example, the way that, the way that lawmakers really pushed through this type of barcode system was telling them that there’s that human readable text. And therefore you don’t have to worry about the barcode, but of course, right now they, so far they’re ruling that the barcode is what’s going to be used even in a recount. So it was very, it was a scam. I mean, it’s incredibly misleading, but you’re right, even without the barcode, I have many grave concerns with these systems, having to do with the human readable text, being easy to scam as well. And most voters not noticing. And I’m also just very worried that these are, that they have to be activated again by wifi connected tablets, which is in Belarus right now, they’re having there were, there were a rolling block at rolling internet blackouts on election day. They have a dictator there who appears to have stolen his, this recent election. That’s what dictators do they like to have elections, but then they, they have to stay in power. And one of the things he did, I think it was more to stymie social media and protest, but there were rolling blackouts throughout Election Day. And when you have Internet connected election equipment, as we do in the U.S. in many, many places now is these electronic poll books you know, even if they weren’t using them to activate the voting machines, but if the Internet is down, you can’t use them to activate the voting machines. And, you know, we could just have, I’m envisioning in these large in large urban, largely Democratic areas, I’m extremely concerned that there will be connectivity issues and that could be deliberate or not deliberate. We saw it in Los Angeles County, massive chaos with these electronic poll books used to activate touch screens and there were connectivity issues throughout the county. It’s the largest county in the U.S. so …


HEFFNER: At one point we were worried about foreign actors: Russia. Now that Trump is president, we haven’t talked about the fact that as many as a quarter of our votes, possibly more, maybe early votes or mail votes, first of all, we don’t get any receipt. Well, we have no confidence when we put it in the drop box or put it in the postal service system or mailbox, that it’s going to be counted. There is no receipt. We don’t get a receipt. It, I mean,


COHN: Right. Well, there’s a reason for that. It has to do, I’m sorry, go ahead.


HEFFNER: No, please.


COHN: The reason we don’t get a receipt, it’s a balancing of evil. So the reason for the keeping our ballots anonymous, or trying to, to the extent possible and not giving receipts has to do with voter intimidation and vote buying. So if you have a receipt, you can sell your vote. And then you prove, this is how you voted by handing the person who bought your vote, the receipt and say, see, like I did what you asked, and then they pay you. And also there’s concerns about, you know, abusive husbands. We saw an image that was really telling of Trump, watching Melania vote, looking over her shoulder to see how she was going to vote. And that’s exactly the type of thing, you know, there can be very heavy-handed members of your family or your employer who want to know how you voted. And that’s the reason we don’t get receipts, but that’s also the reason it’s so difficult to secure our elections, is because there isn’t a way for voters to verify specifically that their specific vote was counted as it…


HEFFNER: Right. And Jennifer, in that particular instance of putting your envelope in the mailbox, you don’t want to know that the state or the country knows who you voted for. You just want to know that it got there and the USPS now, right? The USPS has come under a huge scrutiny, especially the new postmaster general for the fact that he has postponed, delayed suspended mail delivery service, and a lot of Democratic majority zip codes. So you compound that with all the factors you’re describing and on an average year, you’re going to have huge questions and dubious technology being employed with all of the pandemic concerns and it’s just a nightmare and waiting, but you’re, you’re trying to avert that nightmare. I know you’re trying to help us learn what the problems are and how to correct them.


COHN: That’s correct. So with vote by mail, what always been my biggest concern is just the hundreds of thousands and likely millions of voters won’t receive the mail ballots they apply for, because that happens regardless of a pandemic, it happens regardless of Trump having put in a mega donor Louis DeJoy as the new postmaster general, it happens a lot. And so I was very concerned about that because then these voters get forced into these in-person voting situations that in many places are going to be overly tech dependent, especially if they keep consolidating them, because we have a shortage of poll workers. So back to vote by mail, not receiving your ballot, and also there are things that we can do. So for example, not receiving your ballot on time, you can make sure to apply as soon as possible, the attacks on the postal service, you can try to use a drop box or drop off your ballot in person if your county allows it, you have to call in and plan in advance a little bit and make sure that your county does allow it following the instructions. 20 percent of absentee ballots, vote by mail ballots, in New York were rejected because voters apparently didn’t follow the instructions or their signature didn’t match. So a lot of voters don’t know to sign their vote by mail ballot. And that will be a huge problem this year with so many people using vote by mail for this first time. And it’s a real there’s a real learning curve. I actually wrote a new piece on Medium that I’ve been putting on my Twitter account @jennycohn1 that gives a lot of these tips about, and reminders about if you decide to vote by mail, I don’t really recommend one over the other because it’s very location specific in terms of the risks. Some people, some places probably do some places do vote by mail well, others won’t, but if you decide to vote by mail and there are certainly are reasons to do that, given the pandemic yeah, you want to request your ballot as soon as possible. You want to try to drop it off in person if you can, you want to make sure to sign it and you want to follow the instructions to a T. Things that might not seem important to you in the instructions can get your ballot tossed, you know, like the date, putting the date on or your birth date, none of their freaking business. But if they ask for it most places don’t, but some do you better put it on there. Those kinds of things.


HEFFNER: So if you are watching this now vote, register to vote if you still can, you probably can register to vote, request your absentee ballot. One of the things folks should know is that you can request an absentee ballot. Even if you don’t know whether you will be on the premises in your state and locality that day, you can request one, have it, send it back, if you determine you won’t be there, but you know, you have it. What you can’t do is you can’t mail it and then go vote. But what you can do is you can request it if you believe in anticipate because of the health condition, you won’t be able to get to the poll. So there is a layer of extra security for voters who may not know whether or not they will be able to vote in person. You talk about error and fraud. So you don’t, you know, we can’t operate from the perspective that the Internet is unmolested by foreign or domestic hackers and folks who want to, like you said, turn the lights off and the polling stations off in Atlanta and in Philly, when it comes to the, the distrust or the skepticism with which you view the technology, is it more fraud or is it more error that you are focused on?


COHN: I tend to focus more on fraud because I think that sort of the powers that be, the adults in the room thus far have pretended that fraud is not really a serious, significant concern. And I feel that it is. It’s hard for me to quantify, which is, has occurred more or less often because we, the one thing that experts say that you have to do, if you have, if you use electronics for voting is to conduct robust manual audits using paper ballots, ideally hand marked, and compare those against the electronic outcome conduct these robust manual audits or full manual recounts. And we don’t do that for the most part. I mean, think about it. Even in 2016, there was a recount effort, unfortunately, not by the Democrats, but Trump blocked it. The courts blocked it. And in 2000, in the 2004 election, we didn’t get a recount.

That was a very concerning election to many people. And John Kerry has since said he was the Democrat who ran in that election has since said they suspected electronic vote tally manipulation, but there was no manual recount, no manual audit. So, you know, one thing we can do is if, if there are suspicious losses, you know, unexpired, which I mean sort of unexpected, I think that we need to insist that our candidates not pretend anymore that our system is immune from fraud and to demand some sort of an investigation. And one thing they can do is by the way, to look at precinct totals and make sure that at a minimum that matches up with the reported totals, because a huge sort of vulnerability is these county and state reporting systems and tabulators that aggregate the precinct totals and what you want to make sure is that what happens at the precincts at least is the same as what ends out being reported to the public. And that’s something campaigns are not doing, but a group of women that I’m in We’re trying to organize this and I hope it gets bigger and bigger and gets more traction and that others do it as well. ‘Cause it’s really important.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you about the monopoly on our digital voting infrastructure, who controls that the computing, the, the, you know, the tablets, the who really controls all of the technological infrastructure of voting?


COHN: Like everything else. It varies from state to state and county to county in many places, but I will say, so you have two mega vendors that account for more than 80 percent of U.S. election equipment, the extent to which they do the programming before every election, that varies, but I think in many cases, ES&S anyway, which is America’s largest vendor. It’s one that I write about a lot. I have many concerns with them, including that they’ve donated $30 thousand dollars to the Republican state leadership committee since 2013, whose express mission is to take over state legislatures. Again, gerrymandering is a significant issue. So ES&S in many cases does that pre-election programming. So before every election, somebody has to program the ballots, meaning what races are on the ballot and what races will come up on, you know, will be recorded on those machines. And oftentimes it, sometimes it’s done by the county election officials, oftentimes some or all of it is farmed out to these vendors. Oftentimes ES&S, and we’re seeing it as well with the voter registration check-in tablets that I mentioned, the electronic poll books, some of that is, is farmed out to those vendors too. And we again have sort of a pause I’m monopoly. I think it’s called an oligopoly with just a handful of vendors having undue influence over the industry.


HEFFNER: But is this like the Commission on Presidential Debates in the sense that it’s duopoly or are the executives that run those technology companies, primarily Republicans?


COHN: Well, I they’re there for the most part they’re owned by private equity now. So you, you can’t, the executives, yeah at ES&S, I mean, this, their senior VP of systems security is very clearly a hardcore Republican I’ve written about it. He recently, somebody else found it and brought it to my attention on Twitter that he’d come from Health and Human Services under Trump. He wasn’t appointed by Trump, but he worked in that administration. And so it was, we started looking into it further and yeah, I mean, his account, all the people he follows are sort of the really extreme propagandists for the right wing Dana Loesch, and, you know, Sean Hannity those types. And not only that, he seemed to have gone out of his way to undermine a security program, cyber security program while at Health and Human Services. And that there was a big kerfuffle where he demoted some people that had run a very successful cyber security program at Health and Human Services. And he demoted them, put them in different positions. And there was a whistleblower complaint against him that was gaining traction and he suddenly retired. He, there was a death in the family. He says that that’s why, but he then moved to ES&S and is now senior, you know, in charge of voting machine security for America’s largest vendor. It’s a bit, it’s very disconcerting, whether he personally is in there, you know, doing the keys, I doubt it, but certainly there’s influence that trickles down from the top down in these companies. And,


HEFFNER: And he’s in that position currently,


COHN: He’s in that position currently, I mean ES&S was founded in the 1970s by two brothers with money from the families of two, you know, religious right activists. So whether that, those types of people are still in play, I don’t know exactly, but the


HEFFNER: Is that where auditing ought to be concentrated though, because I mean, theoretically, you could have a corporate infrastructure that is vetted and judicious and respected, and the outcome being some form of hand marked and, or digital receipts you know, that have integrity. And I’m just wondering if you would encourage our viewers to probe specifically one of the companies that you think deserves more scrutiny and could be responsible for corrupting results in November.

COHN: Yeah. I mean, I think it never hurts for, for companies to know that people are watching what they’re doing. ES&S’s systems, they had the touch screen systems in both Georgia and Tennessee where these precinct totals, when it’s something, some activists did that comparison. And it showed that votes from predominantly African American precincts were not making it into the reported totals. They were there at the precincts and not making it in. And I mean, it was reported in Bloomberg, but didn’t get much traction, the Tennessee issue. And then it was also reported in The Root and brief one episode on Maddow, but people forget, that’s all ES&S and I’m just, you know, they always just say, it’s a glitch. I just, I think.


HEFFNER: Is there any oversight body that has the right and or is involved in scrutinizing that?


COHN: Well, unfortunately the Election Assistance Commission, the federal Election Assistance commission was ostensibly created for that very purpose, but it is itself a very partisan organization and its control is largely illusory because its guidelines are, they don’t conduct penetration testing for example, which is how you would know whether a system can be, well, penetrated. They don’t focus that much. Their guidelines don’t focus much on security. They focus on whether the system works as it’s supposed to work under normal circumstances. So absent fraud and there are guidelines are voluntary and inadequate. And what has actually happened is that corrupt vendors and either uninformed or corrupt election officials often use certification by the Election Assistance Commission. They call it the EAC. They use that as a weapon to suggest that insecure systems are secure, well, it’s EAC certified and everyone thinks, you know, it’s a federal agency. Surely somebody would tell us if this is just a dog and pony show, well I’m telling you it’s just a dog and pony show. So this oversight really I’m sorry, go ahead.


HEFFNER: No, no, go ahead. Go ahead.


COHN: The House Judiciary, the House with the Democrats in it, you know, they have a majority, they have subpoena power, they could have done things like we found out in the last couple of years, thanks to cybersecurity journalists Kim Zetter that ES&S installed remote access software in systems in 300 jurisdictions. And they won’t say which ones. And then now they lied about it, well, misled about it previously saying, no, we hadn’t sold the systems with remote access software. I think maybe they were, maybe it was that they sent the modems along with it, so they didn’t technically install it themselves. I don’t know what kind of game they were playing, but in any event they finally admitted it. They claim to have confirmed that it’s been removed, that they don’t explain how they confirmed it. They won’t say when they confirmed it, they won’t say if this confirmation extends to the Diebold election systems that they, they took over a lot of the Diebold election is another vendor. They took over their contracts and about 2009, when they acquired the company before they dissolved the company. But they still have those contracts. And so, and we don’t know about the other vendors, if they have remote access software. And again, this would be in those county tabulators so the House can provide meaningful oversight. They had a hearing; the House administration committee under Zoe Lofgren, held a committee and it was also a dog and pony show, they just, it was all softball questions.


HEFFNER: Jenny, I’m sorry to interrupt. And this is such an urgent subject, but our listeners and viewers should go to your Twitter handle and check out whatever you’re reporting on this day, and future days until the election. I just want to ask you in the seconds and seconds is it is that we have left. At what point do we not accept the results on November 3rd as legitimate.


COHN: Depends on who you define we as …


HEFFNER: The citizens.


COHN: Well, I mean, if it’s me, it’s the problem is we don’t have a system that is sufficiently transparent to really know whether they’re legitimate or not. If it defies that exit polling that appears to be legitimate exit polling or defies the polls, I think it warrants investigation. And no matter what the result, I think we need to at least be doing these things where we’re comparing the precinct totals to the reported totals, to at least at least cover that base. All federal elections, really all elections should be robust, should have robust manual audits, and we don’t have that. We can try demanding it after the election and see what happens, but it’s not. Mitch McConnell killed legislation that would have required it.


HEFFNER: Jennifer Cohen, election security advocate. Thank you so much for joining me today.


COHN: Thank you very much for having me on the show.


HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.