Rigging elections is as American as apple pie. To wit: Nonwhite people have been systematically denied the right to vote for most of the country's history. Most notably, when black people won the right to vote following the Civil War, in practice that liberty was denied under Jim and Jane Crow and other white supremacist laws, both in the South and other parts of the country, for a full century. Voter registration laws themselves have a long and ugly history of being used to deny nonwhites, white ethnics and other "undesirables" the right to vote.
It's also worth noting that the United States has a long and infamous history of sabotaging democratically elected governments in other countries.
Rigging elections so that they do not reflect the public's democratic will was and remains a partisan tool. It can of course be tied to almost any ideology, but remains especially potent in the hands of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Such political skulduggery gave the Republican Party the White House on at least one previous occasion — in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush "defeated" Al Gore based on a deadlocked election in Florida, where all the votes were not counted. In 2016 Donald Trump and the Republican Party benefited from both voter intimidation, voter purges, gerrymandering and other tricks in key "battleground" states. During that same election campaign, Vladimir Putin and his agents also engaged in a widespread effort to install Donald Trump in office by manipulating the American people and their votes. In 2018, Republicans used a range of tactics, including racially motivated voter suppression and outright voter fraud, to sway Georgia's gubernatorial election away from Stacey Abrams to Brian Kemp, the white Republican who began the campaign as Georgia's secretary of state — the person responsible for managing fair elections.
At present, Donald Trump is openly soliciting illegal foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election in order to keep him in office — perhaps permanently.
Greg Palast is an investigative journalist whose work has been featured by the BBC, the Guardian, the Nation and Rolling Stone. He contributed several articles to Salon on the 2018 race in Georgia. He is also the author of the bestselling books "Billionaires & Ballot Bandits" and "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy." Palast is one of the country's foremost experts on voter fraud and the many other ways that elections are rigged — most often by Republicans — so as to prevent the American people from having their votes (and political preferences) fully counted.
In this conversation, Palast explains how Donald Trump, the Republican Party and their agents will try to steal the 2020 presidential election from the American people at the ballot box. Palast also warns that the Democratic Party's leadership will try to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders by sabotaging the vote in the upcoming California primary. He also details the connections between Roger Stone, the 2000 Florida presidential election "recount" fiasco and the rise of Donald Trump.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my conversation with Greg Palast on my podcast The Truth Report or through the player embedded below.
How do you make sense of Trump's presidency? How did this all happen?
The nasty secret of American democracy is that we don't count all the votes and we do not let all people vote. In the past two years, according to the federal government, 17 million Americans have been stripped of their right to vote. Some of it is quite legitimate. If someone's dead, they should not be voting. If someone has left Georgia or Michigan, they should not be voting in Georgia or Michigan. But about half of that number, 9 million or so people, were removed from the voter rolls on a false premise. These potential voters are overwhelmingly young people and voters of color. Young people are the new target. There is a massive purge of voters in America and few people are talking about it.
What I've been doing is filing suits to get the lists and names and addresses and the reasons for everyone who has been purged from the voter rolls. One of the most important stories I have ever done was for Salon in 2018. From the lawsuit my organization filed, we discovered a massive number of people blocked from voting — again, overwhelmingly young people and voters of color. That means Democratic Party voters could have had a massive impact on the outcome in states such as Ohio and Georgia. Moreover, Georgia really should be a swing state because it is minority majority. White people are in the minority in Georgia, as of this year.
Michigan is another example. In the 2016 presidential election, 75,355 ballots were never counted. In Michigan, Trump won by 10,700. What is the state's response? "We don't know whose votes those were. These are disqualified ballots." Why were they disqualified? Eighty-seven voting machines broke down in Detroit. Even though there were paper ballots, they had to be scanned by machines. The 87 machines could not read the ballots. Is Detroit Trump country? Of the 75,355 ballots that no one counted, most came out of Detroit. Who won Michigan?
This is what's going on here. In California in 2016, 8.6 million people cast votes in the June 2016 primary. Add up the presidential total, and it comes to 7.3 million votes. This means 1.3 million people did not have their ballots counted for president of the United States in that primary.
In particular, this is the group known as NPP voters — "no party preference voters" — who have a right to vote in the Democratic primary, but the procedure is really complicated. So a big hunk of those voters, close to half of those voters in practice, were disqualified because they got the wrong ballot or they didn't know the procedure. Because you have to use a special ballot if you're a NPP voter — you can't get a regular Democratic Party ballot. If you are given the regular party ballot it gets disqualified.
This procedure is so complicated that almost no one, even at the polling stations, knows what the rules are. So basically, a million people, mostly NPP voters, lose their vote. Now who did they vote for? NPP voters voted more than two to one for Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders won the California primary last time, and the Democratic Party leadership is going to try and take it away from him this time in 2020. [In the reported California results in 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders, 53 to 46 percent.]
How does one go about rigging an election?
Not the way people most people believe. It isn't done by some guy pressing a lever and changing the vote from blue to red. Rigging an election is usually done by blocking people from casting ballots or not counting the ballots they cast. For example, and these are hard numbers from the federal government, more than 2 million provisional ballots were cast in the United States. Most white people, unless they live in California, have never heard of a provisional ballot, but those types of ballots are handed out like candy in black and Hispanic precincts. These provisional ballots are just what they sound like, "provisional." A person's name is not on the voter rolls. So rather than have a person scream and holler and pound the desk and say, "Why is my name missing? I've voted here for 50 years!" they are told, "Don't worry. Here's a provisional ballot. Fill this out and we'll count that later." But those votes are not counted later. Over a million provisional ballots were never counted in each of the last two presidential elections.
Absentee ballots are another problem. In the United States there are about 30 million people who mail in their ballots. This year that number will be closer to 60 million. Many of those ballots will never be counted. And then machines break down. Where do the machines break? Where everything breaks down. In the barrio, in the ghetto. Underresourced schools, bad hospitals — that all equals broken voting machines.
A person's vote in those poor areas is not being changed. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission discovered that the chance your vote will "spoil' is 900% higher if you're black than if you're white. The votes don't get counted. People are not allowed to vote. It's not random at all. This is a violently racial system.
Demographics are against the Republican Party. Their ideas are unpopular. Their solution is to maintain a type of American apartheid. The only way for Trump and his Republicans to stay in power is to keep nonwhites and other people who oppose them from voting. What are some specific examples of the Republican Party rigging elections to achieve their goals?
The following is very important. Georgia in 2018 was the test drive for the theft of 2020 by Donald Trump and the Republican Party. All across America — in 20 states and perhaps more — there is a new system of purging the voter rolls which will change the 2020 elections. There has been a massive increase in voter purges through an initiative called "use it or lose it." So for example, in Georgia, if you miss a couple of elections and they mailed you a postcard and you didn't return it, you lost your vote. That is a Jim Crow tactic which is illegal under the National Voter Registration Act. They used to stop black people from voting using such tactics.
What is happening in Georgia? How come Republicans are removing people who have not voted? The answer is they're saying that not returning the postcard is evidence that a given voter moved. "They missed two elections. They didn't return a card. Obviously, they've moved." Is that true? For my Salon piece in 2018 I went to the No. 1 experts on demography and where people actually live. Who are the experts on that subject? Amazon, eBay and American Express. I asked those experts to look at the data and then to tell me who moved In Georgia.
The experts went through the Georgia purge list and found out that exactly 340,134 voters had not ever moved from their original registration address. Over a third of a million voters were removed for leaving Georgia, or leaving their county, and had never actually moved away at all. Stacey Abrams put up a ton of money to go even deeper and found another 100,000 people who were wrongly purged. You're talking close to half a million people who were wrongly purged for moving. Based on my research, that is why Stacey Abrams said that she had won the governorship of Georgia — she just wouldn't be inaugurated.
Now the Republicans are trying to do the same thing in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. All over the country. The Republicans and Trump are going to steal 2020 by saying that millions of people have moved, don't qualify for voting. They won't know until they show up to vote. Then those voters will be given a provisional ballot that won't get counted. These people will think they voted when they have not — and they will lose their vote. If they send in an absentee ballot and they're marked as having moved, their ballot will be thrown away.
This is a type of new Jim Crow. The Republicans are using gerrymandering and voter intimidation. Republicans are literally stuffing ballot boxes in favor of their candidates. There are false mailers being sent out. In terms of coordination, what does that look like?
Kris Kobach of Kansas — he was secretary of state in Kansas. Trump tried to appoint him to run his "Election Integrity Commission," which was going to supposedly expose millions of fraudulent voters and then remove them from the voter rolls. Kobach is the mastermind of a great many of these dirty tricks. Are there others involved? I caught Karl Rove, when he was working for George W. Bush's re-election campaign. Rove used a system called "caging" where his operatives would send letters to people's registration addresses. If the mail came back undelivered, Rove's people would say, "That's a ghost voter! That person doesn't live at their registration address." They'd then lose their right to vote.
Rove and his cronies were sending these letters to soldiers of color stationed overseas. That is a federal crime. Karl Rove was blunt. He reportedly said, "If we can drop black turnout in states like North Carolina by a quarter of a percentage point, we win."
Donald Trump and other Republicans — especially Fox News and the right-wing propaganda machine at large– are obsessed with these stories about nonwhites, especially black Americans, showing up to vote illegally to rig elections against white conservatives. What do we know about that strategic rhetoric?
It is strategic. Absolutely. I call it the "hysteria factory." To kick people off the voter rolls using a system like Crosscheck won't work unless you can claim that people are voting twice en masse. Trump and the Republicans have to create a hysteria that black people are voting twice if they want to be able to purge the votes. It's not as though Kris Kobach or Donald Trump invented that strategy of racial rumor-mongering. Watch the movie "Birth of a Nation" from a hundred years ago and you will see black people shown breaking the law in terms of voting.
This is an old racist trope. And Trump has turned it into a hammer. Kobach turned it into the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program, which is supposed to find people that are voting in different states. In reality, if a person votes in two different states in the same election, they can go to prison for five years. Crosscheck is ostensibly chasing something that almost never happens. Kobach, Trump and other Republicans use a racial stereotype that people of color cheat when they vote. People of color vote as some type of horde, and therefore we have to have all these laws to prevent black people, and now Hispanics, Asian-Americans and others, from doing the same thing.
Talk about Donald Trump's recent pardons and the case of Roger Stone. How is that relationship a tale of election fraud and vote rigging?
I'm very concerned about this right-wing campaign of intimidation. It's violent. It's very important to understand that Roger Stone is going to prison for threatening a witness with death. And believe me, that's a real threat.
In 2000, George W. Bush officially won the presidency by 537 votes in Florida. Just 537 votes. When they had the recount, most people really did not understand the details of what was happening.
First of all, 178,000 ballots were considered disqualified and unreadable. These were concentrated in Democratic and black areas such as Jacksonville, Gadsden County, Miami-Dade and Broward. Stone was the instigator of what the news media described as the "white-collar riot." The 2020 election involved so-called "hanging chads." People laughed about hanging chads, but it's not something funny. This was all very important. A person punches a hole in a card for their candidate, but what they do not know is that on the back of that card, a little piece of paper is hanging there, literally by a corner.
What happens next is that a person puts their ballot through the voting machine, and it kicks it out. It says, "Oh, there's something wrong with this ballot. The punched-out piece of paper is still attached." Miami was recounting those ballots that were disqualified. People misunderstand what happened. This was not a "recount." What really happened was counting ballots that were never actually counted in the first place. Those were overwhelmingly Gore ballots. Bush would have lost. The count was stopped. One way to stop the vote count in Miami was by having Roger Stone literally lead a riot where they were trying to break windows and smashing doors. It was white guys in suits, led by Roger Stone. One can only imagine how the Miami police would have reacted if black people were doing the same things.
Violence elected a president. The Republican operatives loved it. They said, "This guy will do anything we need." And Roger Stone still does. It's not cute. These are not "little dirty tricks." It is deeply evil voter manipulation. It's violent and it's racist. And now Trump tried to get Roger Stone's sentence reduced. Trump was successful. That sends a signal: "Do my work. I'll protect you." It has now been established that there's a very good chance Trump will pardon his people. Stone will get minimal time. These guys have money, they're violent, and they've got their personal stormtroopers.
Here is the scenario. Let's say the 2020 presidential election is very close in several key states. How do Trump and his Republican operatives try to guarantee victory over the Democratic candidate?
If Trump loses, he's going to scream and holler and then the question will be if there is a vote count in Republican-controlled states. Moreover, if the first count looks like Trump is losing, are these secretaries of state or other election officials — and I have no doubt that they will — going to start massively disqualifying ballots? And then say, "Well, on reconsideration, Trump won the 2020 election."
I believe that most of the above will happen before there is an official announcement of any final vote count.
For example, in Ohio back in 2012, there was that moment when Karl Rove was freaking out on Fox News. They called Ohio for Obama in 2012 and Karl Rove had a meltdown on television. He was saying, "No, that's not the right number. I'm talking to the secretary of state's office." I knew the real story behind his fit.
Seventy percent of black people in Ohio vote early. For the first time in Ohio history, no one who voted early was allowed to use a voting machine or a regular ballot. You had to fill out an absentee ballot form and an absentee ballot. I asked the county supervisor in Dayton, Ohio, "Why are we doing this?" He said, "It's simple. You can challenge a paper absentee ballot. Once a person votes on a regular machine or they voted on a regular ballot, you can't challenge it. The vote is a vote."
Karl Rove and John Husted, who was the Republican secretary of state, came up with a scheme to make black people vote on absentee ballots. They have to fill out the ballots. They can't make an error. Rove's concept was that the Republicans were going to throw out 200,000 ballots, mostly cast by black voters — but the scheme got busted and it wasn't successful. That is why Karl Rove was saying, "Don't call Ohio!" He knew that they were going to try to disqualify enough ballots to flip the state to Mitt Romney and flip the election. That's why Karl Rove was acting the way he did on Fox News.
These are very sophisticated strategies being used to not count votes. And when one talks about not counting ballots, no state comes close to California. None. Four years ago, over a million ballots were left uncounted in the primary. Not counting ballots and blocking voters and delayed vote counts is what I see happening in 2020. The Republicans are going to disqualify enough ballots until Trump can be declared the winner. That's the danger.
What are your concerns about the California Democratic primary and Bernie Sanders?
As I said earlier, 1.3 million ballots were not counted four years ago. Most of those were non-party preference ballots, cast by independents who are allowed to vote in the Democratic Party. According to a YouGov poll, those voters favored Bernie Sanders more than two to one. There is an effort to stop independent voters from voting in the Democratic primary. There are more than 4 million registered independents in California. These numbers are not small.
They mostly vote Democratic even though they register independent. But the Democratic Party's officials are going to do everything they can, as they did four years ago, to block that independent vote. That vote is Sanders' vote. Those against Sanders in the Democratic leadership are also going to do what they can to reduce the Hispanic vote. It's strange to me that we always talk about Biden and the black vote. What's not talked about is that Sanders really owns the Hispanic vote, and in California that's decisive. They're doing everything they can to block Hispanic voters, young voters and independent voters who support Bernie Sanders. To be clear: I'm not for Sanders. I don't have a dog in the fight. But the powers that be are moving heaven and earth in California to screw Bernie Sanders.
Your claim is that the Democratic Party's leadership is basically saying "Hell no!" to Bernie Sanders....
Alex Padilla is California secretary of state, but unlike most Hispanics, he has endorsed Joe Biden. He's got to deliver for Biden. He cannot let Sanders win California. At this point, I would say that it is going to be impossible for them to stop Sanders from winning California. His lead is so big there. However, California is not a winner-take-all state. What can happen is that those in the Democratic Party who are against Sanders can stop him from winning a lot of delegates. They can hurt his totals wherever they can. In my opinion, that is the establishment trick that will be used against Bernie Sanders.
What would you do to ensure that America's elections are free, fair and open?
I would adopt the Swiss system — no registration. What's registration for, except to remove people from the rolls that one party doesn't like? In that system you walk in, you say you're a citizen, then you vote. We don't have people illegally voting in the United States. When we talk about fixing elections, the fact is that registration was created to stop black people and American citizen immigrants from voting. That is the real history of registration in the United States. We must also stop the voter purges. No one should ever lose their right to vote. That's something that happens when you go to prison. There is absolutely no reason to be erasing people off the voter rolls, unless they ask to be erased. And the other exception is the death list, which is issued by the Social Security Administration. That's it.