Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory

Here we are, weeks after the 2016 election and Green candidate Jill Stein and her campaign committee are looming larger in the news than they ever did during the presidential race itself.   Her efforts to raise money for a formal recount in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have gained regular national attention and involves much more money than the campaign itself had raised.  Proponents insist that this drive to win a recount in three pivotal states that turned the election against Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with cozying up to the Democrats and is about nothing less than the integrity of the electoral process itself.

However, much of the Green Party itself has thus far remained aloof, and prominent party figures have declared themselves against the effort.  (See Daniel Marans, “Jill Stein’s Recount Campaign Is Winning Her New Fame — And Losing Her The Green Party,” Huffington Post, December 1, 2016.)  Brandy Baker has drawn stark conclusions about it in “The Stein Campaign and the Fight for Green Party Independence,” Counterpunch, November 28, 2016.  Stein’s vice presidential running mate, Ajamu Baraka called the recount “a potentially dangerous move” that gave the public the impression that the Greens were “carrying the water for the Democrats.” (Eli Watkins, “Jill Stein’s running mate: ‘I’m not in favor of the recount’” CNN, November 30, 2016.)  Discerning conservatives have been delighted to see the candidate go one way and the party the other.  (Warner Todd Huston, “Green Party releases statement distancing itself from Jill Stein,” Bizpac Review, December 1, 2016.)  Nevertheless, the Democrats generally seem to follow the lead of President-elect Donald J. Trump in describing the recount project as the work of the Green Party.

Some backstory on this might be helpful.

The Origins

According to published accounts, the recount project began with John Bonifaz, a Boston attorney who has founded and/or officered a series of organizations around voting rights.   Although he reportedly voted Green once, he is a registered Democrat and has run for statewide office as a Democrat. (See his bio on Wiki  or on his Free Speech for People site.)  Almost as soon as the 2016 election was over, he raised the concerns of what he calls “the electoral integrity community” about the integrity of the elections based on what some cited as statistically anomalous “indicators” in the three states that Clinton had hoped to win but lost to Trump.  Bonifaz dutifully took those concerns to his party.  (See Gabriel Shermen, “Experts Urge Clinton Campaign to Challenge Election Results in 3 Swing States,” Daily Intelligencer, reposted New York Magazine.)

The Clinton campaign, however, decided that they would have none of it.  Perhaps they recalled that cringe-worthy Republican spoof of the Gore-Lieberman bumper stickers that read “Sore Loserman.”

Perhaps some Democrats remembered how this sort of thing so unnerved them that they failed to mount an effective legal case to recount Florida, which they had actually won–which would have made Al Gore president.  Whatever the specifics, though, Clinton and her team just weren’t interested.

At this point, Bonifaz  turned to the Stein campaign and the Green Party.  (Jon Swaine and Mona Chalabi, “US election recount: how it began – and what effect it could have,’ The Guardian, November 28, 2016.) He had voted for Nader in 2000, for which his fellow Democrats had him in sackcloth and ashes for years.  More accurately, though, Bonifaz is one of a number of figures inclined to favor cooperation between the Greens and the Democrats.

The Interface

This has always been the nature of efforts to build a political party independent from the twin parties that promote the interests of those with wealth and power.  In the past, the more strength Greenbackers, Populists, Socialists, or Progressives demonstrated, the more one or another of the well-heeled parties paid them attention.  This was not, as usually asserted, because these insurgents brought new ideas to the national debate, though they certainly did.  The big parties simply wanted to get their votes . . . preferably as uncontaminated by those new ideas as possible.

The more people inclined to vote independently, the more determined the Republicans–but especially the Democrats–sought to win those votes . . . or prevent the casting or counting of those they could not win.  At the same time, the problem is complicated by the simple fact that individuals involved in such insurgencies begin to see the possibilities of getting greater change more quickly if they cooperate with the Democrats.  And they increasingly tended to think of themselves as power-brokers.

This is simply in the nature of the beast.  For years, when adherents of various self-described socialist currents would complain about this among the Greens, I pointed out that it was actually a function of their success.  It’s a simple question of gravity.  If a simon pure party of hyper-radicals started wracking up big vote totals, the Democrats would get interested.  And the more interested the Democrats would become, and the more likely it would be that individuals in the Revolutionary Anti-Gluten Bolshevik Party would start trying to make arrangements with them.

If you want to build a serious independent electoral movement in this particular two-party system, it’s going to happen if you start winning votes.  In fact, such people have always had an important role in a mass insurgency, and their exclusion is no solution at all.  Simply put, if you try to make a go of it without them, the circumstances will simply generate more of them . . . unless your vote totals fall through the floor and the Democrats lose all interest.  While this has never been peculiar to the Greens, what has been is the unwillingness to do as had their predecessors and to take measures to contain the effects of this problem.

As a result, the leadership has always presented a mad tangle of schemes and schemers, often united only in their opposition to anything that would create a democratically run, membership driven political party.

Stein’s campaign manager, David Cobb remains associated with the biggest schemes in the party’s history, “the safe state strategy” he implemented when he himself had the Green presidential nomination back in 2004.

The “safe state” scheme represented a Green response to the faux outrage of Democratic officialdom to losing the 2000 election (which they actually won).  Almost as soon as the Democrats fumbled and lost their victory to the Republicans, they blamed their self-invented defeat on Ralph Nader and the Greens–something that also saw service in frightening disgruntled Democratic voters from turning to alternative parties in the succeeding elections.   (See Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, “Don’t Fall for It: The Nader Myth and Your 2016 Vote,” Truthdig, August 2, 2016.)  In fact, the Democratic phone banks in Ohio used this in 2016 when calling Green voters.

In fact, the results in 2000 cheered and emboldened legions of Green voters.  They understood that Nader had gotten the largest number of votes nationally for any independent progressive campaign since that of Henry Wallace in 1948.  Undismayed by the hostility of the Democratic machines, they hoped to build on Nader’s numbers in 2004.  Those closest to the party’s functioning also introduced a proposed reorganization to make it into a democratic membership body with proportional representation, encouraging its involvement in ongoing social movements.

Nevertheless, others saw the party’s function as less that of a political party or a movement than that of an NGO.  They saw victory coming through court cases, and lobbying to influence Democratic officeholders.  They felt the sting of Democratic disapproval much more deeply than those of us uninterested in fantasies of a convergence of the Democratic party with Green values.  And the peculiarly undemocratic structure of the GPUS left their views grossly overepresented.

Except for a few states, the Greens are not a membership party and there are no national standard of what membership entails.  It describes itself as an alliance of autonomous state parties, an organizational structure that represents a kind of synthesis of the ideology of John C. Calhoun with impulses of a particularly flakey and apolitical New Age libertarianism.  Some states have organizations of tens of thousands of members and others consisting of handfuls of people whom get to represent their entire state.   Although often no more than paper parties, the latter can do anything pretty much anything it wants, including a decision to not run in elections at all and even to support Democrats that seem acceptable for one reason or another.  As far as that goes, the same applies to local groups.  This has permitted the party in my city and state to endorse Democrats with depressing regularity while regularly running no more than a handful of Greens statewide.

The people who dominate this kind of structured anarchy closed ranks against nominating Nader or anyone like him in 2004.  One of them, Ben Manski–who later served as the campaign manager for Stein’s first run for the White House in 2012 assured CNN that the Greens wouldn’t run Nader again.  Indeed, he said, the party may very well decide “not to run a national candidate in 2004” because it might injure the Democrats.  (See John Mercurio, “Nader’s Raiders-turned-Haters?” The Morning Grind, February 23, 2004.) This perspective found deep support among the paper parties that existed and functioned without real membership bodies.

With Nader out of the picture and strong support from the paper parties in many states, the Green leadership arranged the nomination of Cobb for president, leaving the more militant voters to follow Nader into a completely independent campaign.  (See Carol Miller, “How David Cobb Became the Green Nominee Even Though He Only Got 12 Percent of the Votes,” Counterpunch, August 7, 2004.)   These increased as Cobb began to follow the “safe state strategy,’ which promised to avoid campaigning in states where the Greens might get enough votes to tip the election against the Democrats.  This decision to foster the interests of the Greens by minimizing the number of votes the party would get represented a strategy centered entirely on minimizing the number of Democratic officials who might get upset.

This rolled on to secure its control over the party.  As one account of the 2005 convention described it, they repudicated an effort “to ensure proportional representation inside the party, national delegates accountable to the expressed will of the membership, and political independence from the two corporate parties.”  (Ashley Smith, Cat Woods, James Marc Leas, and Steve Greenfield, “Which Way Forward for the Green Party?” Counterpunch, September 22, 2005.) In short, those “democratic values” the party claimed to uphold were to have no place in a successful effort to coax the Democrats ever leftward.

Their association with the Democrats became increasingly pronounced.  In the aftermath of Cobb’s campaign for president as a Green, he became associated with the newly formed Progressive Democrats of America, the purpose of which was quite explicitly to reform the Democratic Party.  (Progressive Democrats of America National Conference Bringing Activist Leaders to Cleveland.)   He saw no contradiction between his position as a Green and efforts to make the Democrats a kinder, gentler party.

And he was far from alone in this.

Given this, we can hardly be surprised at the response when Bonifaz–a Democrat interested in using the Greens to nudge his party to the left–came to the Stein campaign with his proposal to initiate a recount.  Without making any claim to any inside information, her current campaign manager, Cobb would have seen this as right up his alley.  Maybe they’d have consulted Manski, her previous campaign manager.

We need to understand these would-be power brokers rather than villainize them.  A broad, mass insurgency is going to generate its trimmers, and this crop is probably no worse than what would sprout up among us anyway.  On one level, their presence demonstrates that we are showing enough electoral strength to unsettle the powers-that-be.

However, we will never build a mass independent party by blindly following people who want no such thing at all.

By 2008, this was really really beginning to sink in.  in that year, Nader waged his second entirely independent political campaign, while Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History used the developments among the Greens as a recent case in point about how that old party of slavery and segregation destroyed independent party movements. Shortly before his death, the California Green leader and Nader’s vice presidential candidate Peter Camejo–a brilliant speaker whose strategic skills were never fully appreciated–told me that he thought the Greens had probably contributed everything they would to independent politics and that we should start thinking about moving on.

The next few years, however, saw the emergence of Dr. Jill Stein as a candidate.  She was a brilliant and aggressive national campaigner.  Thousands of us found hope that growth, new people, different experiences might enable the Green  Party to transcend its difficulties.

The Motives for the Recount

In the recent presidential election, Stein got 1.4 million votes, falling short by 4-5 million of the 5% we needed to get Federal matching funds.  She ran a fantastic campaign and I have no doubt that she did the best she could with what we had.  Still, nobody thinks that the recount is going to find enough miscast ballots to get her up to 5% of the national total.

It is only slightly more conceivable that the recount would tip the election to Clinton.  For this to happen, it would have to shift all three of the states in question from Trump to Clinton.  While such a result would be unprecedented, of course, so much about this election has been.  Let’s call it, at best, a very long shot.

But the reasons given for taking the burden of a recount on ourselves simply make no sense.

Is there any reason to think that the 2016 is particularly more fraught with error and fraud than other elections in recent times?  Certainly, some statisticians and computer experts find something suspicious in the unusually high number of absentee votes cast.  Maybe, but every election has seen a greater push by all parties, including the Greens, to get people to cast their ballots as early as possible.  Still, let’s assume there are a lot of However, the only way to identify absentee ballots as fraudulent would be for the state authorities go back and individually ask those casting absentee ballots whether they had actually done so.  As I understand it, a quickly done recount of a state’s votes won’t do this.  It will simply count any fraudulent ballots over again.

In a campaign without any genuine debate over real ideas, the Republicans and Democrats made their bid for office by maximizing what fears they could generate among voters about the other party.  As part of this, the Democrats raised the old Russian canard.  (To those of us who remember the Cold War vividly, this seemed to be part and parcel of the Reaganization of the Democratic party.)  The Democrats who have been harder about prosecuting whistleblowers (and immigrants) than their predecessors linked those subversive-minded techies in Wikileaks to those perennial American bad guys, the Ruskies.  I’ve actually heard supporters of the recount echo this, asking “how do we know that they didn’t hack into our computers and fiddle with our numbers?”  How indeed.

In fact, there are scads of people in numerous government agencies with money bins of resources more than the recount fund-raising goals looking for exactly this sort of thing 24/7.  Does anybody think that they’d find such a thing and keep a lid on it to be nice to the Russians?  And they are competing to find exactly this sort of thing.  So, does anybody think that one of these agencies might find evidence for this and cover it up knowing that a competitor would be following the same chain of evidence?  But does anyone seriously think that the recount will uncover what no part of that massive national security apparatus has not?

Frankly, if anyone seriously thinks that 2016 represents some major departure from the standard of electoral integrity (or lack thereof) characteristic of contemporary voting, they’ve simply not been paying attention.

Finally, how is one recount going to ensure free and fair elections in America?  Nothing ever has.  There are no guarantees, no perpetual fixes . . .  Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

But the most outrageous claim is that we need to take on this recount effort for the good of the system.  As Cobb puts it, the project is “about securing confidence in our election system.”  (Harold Michael Harvey, “Why Is Jill Stein Challenging Election Results?” The Hill, November 27, 2016.)  This concerns directly echo those the Clinton campaign have been expressing repeatedly in response to Trump’s whining that the election was “rigged.”  Confidence in the system is essential to maintaining the duopoly and deflecting serious independent movements for change.

American elections are never really about staffing a representative government.  The process starts by making money the real arbiter of a candidate’s seriousness.  The media, which profits directly by increasing viewership has been the most important factor in trivializes real issues, inventing phony ones, extending the length of campaigns, etc.  Campaign costs have skyrocketed and this has been the primary mechanism for electing people who happily preside over the greatest polarization of wealth in any country, anywhere, at any time.  This is not to say that all the other major institutions in the society haven’t gone along with this very happily . . . right down to ritual mystification of the process through the schools.

Then, too, American politics has always involved a cutthroat competition in which rivals systemically use institutionalized racism to exclude voters you think are not likely to vote for your candidate.  Generations of Democrats kept the polls safe from large sections of the African-American population, which now faced disenfranchisement by new Republican “reforms.”  Too, beneath pious whining about lines of aliens parading through the polling places voting without identification lurks the desire to exclude Hispanics.

In the end, vote fraud is superfluous to ensuring an unrepresentative outcome, but that ethos of cutthroat competition leaves plenty of room for it.  The problem Robert Fitrakis and other grass roots activists have demonstrated this repeatedly in their investigations of state and local elections.  Here in Ohio, he and his team investigated the 2004 returns to demonstrate that also involve the tolerance that ran right up into the circles of national power.  (See Bob Fitrakis, “New Court Filing Reveals How the 2004 Ohio Presidential Election Was Hacked,” Truthout, July 25, 2011.)

But that’s a far cry from the comic book universe in which elections are “rigged” by some centralized national management. . . . . And it is only in that universe that someone can seriously believe that one recount aimed at fixing that one problem is going to eguarantee the honesty of future elections that will put Greens into office.

That fact is that all the efforts of the Democratic Party, combined with those of the Republican Party–and of all the courtrooms and legislative bodies in the country–have failed to restore confidence in the system, and I don’t think that that any party that can’t get 5% of the vote has the power to do so.

More basically, though, we shouldn’t.

That election system here is grounded in the two-party system established by slaveholders to maintain slavery.  It’s a winner-takes-all structure in which almost each and every officeholder in the U.S. has to be in one or the other of those parties.  The only two countries on the planet that have something similar are Jamaica, an island of three million and Malta with under half a million.  And we are told that this is the best of all possible political system for a complex superpower with 325,000,000 radically diverse peoples spread across an entire continent.  Worse, one of the two parties available on each of those islands—the People’s National Party in Jamaica and the Partit Laburista on Malta—are social democratic formations with an actual membership base of citizens, while neither of the U.S. parties are.   Here, any kind of citizen participation is recent, limited and tightly managed from on high.

So when we try to participate in that with an excellent candidate running a laudatory national campaign, that “election system” excludes our candidate from the debates and keeps her as far off the radar as possible.  This is the system in which we want to secure confidence?

The polls indicate that confidence in the system is declining, particularly among the young.  There are lots of reasons for this, dramatically shown in the way the Democratic National Committee nudged the primaries quietly against Bernie Sanders.   The decline in that confidence as both well-merited and promising.

Rather than to reverse the disaffection, we should organize it and build it into something capable of changing a world that very badly needs changing.

May I suggest an independent political party grounded in democratic values as a practical guide to action.

Mark A. Lause is a member of the Green Party of Ohio and the editorial board of North Star, where this article originally appeared.