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"Stealing America": The Interviews
"Stealing America": The Interviews

"Stealing America": The Interviews

Dorothy FadimanDorothy Fadiman, director of documentaries such as “The Fragile Promise of Choice: Abortion in the United States Today” and “From Danger to Dignity,” has been producing media with a focus on social justice and human rights since 1976. She has developed and filmed movies about progressive education, change for women in undeveloped villages in India, and the AIDS pandemic and reproductive issues in Ethiopia. Her filmmaking has won more than 50 major awards, including an Oscar nomination.

Ion SanchoIon Sancho is an expert on election processes, as he has been the supervisor of elections for Leon County, Florida, since 1988. Ion was appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to count the votes in the highly-disputed presidential election of 2000.

In a recent conversation, they discussed their individual passions for accurate election processes, their concerns for the upcoming Presidential election, and suggestions for improvements in the voting process.

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What was the reaction at the recent Netroots Nation convention when the film was screened?

Dorothy:    It actually went over extremely well. We had a really good turnout of about 150 people. We had more attendees than any other film in the entire Netroots event. And people were eager to show it around the country and in their own communities and tell other people about it. So right now we have it scheduled in theaters in 13 states.

What are your ideas for getting a mixed group to see the film? Is the goal to get activists to see it, or for it to have a wide appeal?

Dorothy:    No. The goal is to make it clear that election integrity is a non-partisan issue. This story of elections having been irregular in ways that bears scrutiny is one that should concern everyone.

We are going with mainstream publicity, and we’ve talked with a number of agents, individuals, and publications which span a wide spectrum. They include FoxNews, CNN, Hollywood Reporter, etc. They’re not “liberal groups” per se. The goal is to make it clear that this issue should be a concern to us all.

Ion, as someone deeply involved in elections, would you talk about your experience with elections, and the extent of the concerns about election fraud?

Ion:    I have been the supervisor of elections for Leon County (in Florida) since 1988, when I was elected to that position. I really liked history; it was my first love, and I wanted to be a history teacher originally.

When I was a third-year law student, I ran for a county commission position in Leon County, and the supervisor of elections negligently programmed the voting machines. 5,000 of our 88,000 registered voters were prevented from voting at the polls. That’s what first sort of woke me to the issue that the assumption that I made that we had no modern-era voting problems was removed from my vision.

There are some excellent books that talk about the problems in elections that go all the way back to the Colonial Period. We have sort of created a Post-World War II myth that we’ve had this sort of idyllic voting process. But I can tell you that the reason that voting machines were invented by Thomas Edison in the 1880s was because paper ballot stuffing was happening rampantly.

The reason we got the drive for the municipal elections in the 1910s was because urban bosses were using people’s votes – something that Martin Scorcese perfectly illustrates in his movie “Gangs of New York.” The immigrant groups were basically manipulated so the urban bosses could stay in power.

This is not a partisan issue. As the documentary points out this sort of “gotcha” moment that Steven Colbert unleashes on Mr. Kennedy, when the Democrats were in power, they did the same thing also. The fact of the matter is you have to put this into historical context. Today, most of the apparatus of the political elections does lie in Republicans. But it’s not unique to them.

For example, in 1864, Abraham Lincoln moved the Union Army to border states, because the law in 1864 meant that wherever troops were stationed, that’s where their votes were counted. They didn’t have absentee ballots in 1864, so the issue is not a partisan one. It’s only a partisan one if you don’t know American history.

How do you approach a film like this, Dorothy? There’s a mass of information to take and turn into something people will engage with.

Dorothy:    At first, I tried to weave it all together like a tapestry, but people became totally confused. They were absolutely unable to figure out what led to what, and when. So I decided to do these little chapters: Vote Switching, Machine Shortages, etc. That has enabled people for the most part to go through the film, get a piece of information and digest it for a few seconds.

In terms of partisanship, I knew this was an issue. When Senator Bob Hagan from Ohio sees his vote switch, he calls headquarters and they say, “Don’t tell the media about this. We don’t want this to get out.” That’s a Democrat saying let’s suppress that.

Immediately after that, a Republican elected official speaks and he says, “When I was in charge, the Democrats were in charge of elections, and they were rigging elections in their direction.”

Certainly the examples most evident from the last 10 years were elections going in one direction, but the phenomenon is as old as America, and it should concern everyone.

Ion:    You know, I was a military brat. I believed the civics lessons I was taught. It’s quite disturbing to me. And I’ll tell you I’m only one of three election officials in the state of Florida who have no party affiliation. Election administration should not be partisan.

That’s one of the major problems in America is this de-centralized process. It’s controlled by partisans in too many states.

As you screened the film, how have viewers responded?

Dorothy:    We’ve gotten two similar responses not just from people who are considered “liberal,” but also from others who may be on the fence and not sure. One is, “I’ve never been able to put it all together before. I knew a little bit here and there.” On the whole the mainstream media has not done a good job of reporting these irregularities.

The strongest response is, “What can I do?”

So what we’re doing is developing a website that is truly non-partisan, which basically educates people how to become a pollworker, to make sure you’re registered to vote, how to step forward and challenge things if they don’t look good in your precinct. We want to give people the resources and tools so they can do something and also how to work toward getting paper ballots, for example.

Ion:    Paper ballots are critical to this process because the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is the chief governing agency, has stated that in fact, electronic voting, depending upon software, does not provide any recounts or audits.

You must have some software independent process to verify the electronic totals are accurate. Regardless, the same situation that happened to me is not deliberate fraud. It’s simply negligence. Someone made a mistake.

It’s irrelevant whether it’s negligence or deliberate, but the effect on the American is you lose your right to vote. I would think all Americans want accurate elections, so paper ballots, which have scientifically valid audits or even all manual recounts, are what we need to ensure that when citizens go to the polls on November 4th, their vote truly is their will and not some mistake or even worse.

It’s ironic that in this age of technology, the most accurate method seems to be paper rather than technology. Do you foresee any possibility of developing technology to replace the paper ballot and make the process faster?

Dorothy:    One the one hand, it is ironic, but on the other hand, the technology now exists to rig elections invisibly, which is all the more reason why we need to move for paper.

Ion:    One thing that’s important to realize is that speed is not important. As an election official, I’m concerned about the right to have votes counted. Accuracy is more important than speed, and being able to prove to every citizen in my jurisdiction that every vote was counted. Until we are able to replace it, that paper ballot, marked by your or my own handwriting, is the best evidence that we can count ballots.

We can use a machine to count it faster, but then if you do that, you’re going to have to hand-count a portion, or all of those ballots, to re-check that the electoral totals are correct. So speed is not the goal, in my opinion. Accuracy must be.

In talking about speeding up the process, I was thinking of the examples you had of people standing in line for hours. Why did that happen? Where I vote, I never have to wait. Is there a way to spread out the resources?

Ion:    Yes, there is, if you give the election officials the proper resources, or number of voting machines, in the proper precincts, and those officials are non-partisan officials.

The problems that occurred in 2000 and 2004 were largely unfortunately left to minority precincts. Even those jurisdictions that used electronic voting machines had too few to handle the voters that came.

   It’s also important to note that many machines malfunctioned. When I did my research, sometimes whole precincts had no voting machines that actually worked.

Ion:    And there were no emergency back-up ballots so individuals could vote. So essentially you had people waiting in line for hours and eventually giving up and walking away.

In America, in the 21st century, that’s simply not a way to conduct an election.

Who decides what technology is used in voting?

Ion:    It’s completely unregulated, and depends on the state you live in. For example, Florida leaves it up to the counties to make that decision. In the states of Oklahoma and Kentucky, they dictate what equipment you’ll use. There is no one overlooking the entire process.

We have a body that was created in 2002 called the “Elections Assistance Commission,” but they only promulgate voluntary guidelines. In Florida, we don’t follow the federal guidelines.

What hope of improvement do you see for this year’s election?

Dorothy:    What we see across the country is a rise in what we call election integrity movements. These are groups who are taking responsibility for educating others in their own community and who are working toward getting paper ballots where they can and recruiting pollworkers.

What we’ve seen, especially since 2000, is a rise in awareness, and it’s our desire to really move that forward. But it’s up to us, and it’s not going to happen by itself from the top down. It’s a matter of citizens speaking up and reaching out.

The last thing in the film is about a citizen who started a movement that led to paper ballots in New Mexico.

Ion:    And in the state of Florida, where I’m from, the governor who was elected in 2006 heard from the people that they wanted paper ballots, and in 2007, Governor Charles Crist’s first major initiative was to ban the electronic touch-screen voting machines that were causing the problems, and replace them with optical-scan voting machines.

So this is not a partisan issue, and the solution is not rocket science. People’s votes need to be counted, audited, and verified, and right now, the simplest solution is paper.

What kind of reception are you getting from officials who have seen this? Any senators or governors, or others who may be in position to do something about this issue?

  People have been very receptive, but what will happen as a result, I don’t know. It’s a little too early to say because the finished version of the film we could actually put out there just came out.

We do have a screening in Washington, D.C., for a week, and at that time, we’re going to make a considerable effort to invite everyone on Capitol Hill to come.


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