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Sarah Teale

The documentary "Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections" features a gathering of hackers easily cracking election systems.

After two election security documentaries, a firm belief in old-school paper

Golden is the author of "Unlock Congress" and a senior fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy. He is also a member of The Fulcrum's editorial advisory board. Teale is a film and television producer and director.


We recently spoke about "Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections," the most recent documentary that Sarah, Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels have made for HBO. The film, which is also streaming on Hulu, paints a harrowing picture of how America's election systems are stunningly vulnerable and under attack in real time, and our talk illuminated the problems laid out in the film as well as what every voter can do to help secure our elections.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. It may be heard in its entirety on The Golden Mean Podcast.

Golden: Let's start with an overview. What's the film about and what did you discover?

Teale: Our first film, in 2006, was "Hacking Democracy." Harri Hursti, a hacker genius from Finland, managed to show how easy it is to flip the vote. He flipped the vote in Leon County, Fla., with the permission of an election official. This was on real voting machines in a real circumstance, in a real election office.

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The documentary caused a big stir, and we somehow thought maybe people would fix this. But, no. We are still voting on the exact same machines in 20 states and nothing's been fixed. And in fact, in some ways, it's gotten a lot worse because hackers now know how to do this really easily. In 2006, it took maybe somebody more professional. Now, anyone can do it.

Golden: In the new film you show us this gathering where these hackers — as young as 11 — are gleeful they're getting into these machines so easily. And without paper ballots, there's no paper trail in an election to do a risk-limiting audit, right?

Teale: Right. And there are still five states that do not have paper ballots at all. So there is no way to do a recount if there's a problem. And in many there have in fact been problems, but they can't recount.

But if you have paper you can see what a person's intention is. With a hand-marked paper ballot, you can put them through the machines. In order to be sure the first count is accurate, you start recounting a percentage of ballots. And you keep counting until you're really sure the result is correct. Sometimes, that's going to take all of them. But usually, you can count a percentage and then you'll know.

As voters, we all should all be writing to our elected officials and demanding a paper ballot and demanding risk-limiting audits.

Golden: You guys covered the 2018 election for governor of Georgia, where the secretary of state, Brian Kemp, was overseeing the elections while he was running for governor. And these machines were having problems. In fact, there's a scene where he has to go revote. It's almost like a fictional film where someone set this scene up!

Teale: And if you create chaos like that, you prevent people from voting. People have got an hour for lunch where they come to vote, and they're not able to vote.

We went to the second largest county in Georgia, a majority black county and these machines are from 20 years ago, when you used to have to start your Apple with a memory card. They're so ancient.

And none of the little cards used to start the machines would work. If there'd been one, randomly, maybe. But none would work. And so we had a discussion with Harri and Rich DeMillo, who was head of Georgia Tech for a while, where I asked how this can happen. And Rich says, "Well, you know, you can put them in the microwave and cook it."

But this happened in three majority-black counties, which led to delays between five and six hours. And people stood in line for five hours to vote, which breaks your heart.

Golden: So let's fast forward. Talk about the outlook for this year's elections. I hate to say "hopeless," but where are we?

Teale: Well, there have now been six Senate bills with Republicans and Democrats coming together. And we covered four of them. They've been trying and trying. But on each bipartisan bill, Mitch McConnell refuses to bring them up. He just kills it every time, with instructions from the White House.

And this I still don't understand, why we are not prepared to secure our vote. When we started making this film, Harri said, "Look, I refuse to believe it's the Russians until we see it for ourselves." I know 17 different intelligence services in Washington all agreed it was the Russians. And that never happens. They never agree. But he said, "No, we should keep our minds open and not assume."

And by the end of the film — after three years of making this thing — it was obvious. Everywhere we looked, it was Russians.

Golden: Right now we're trying to deal with the coronavirus. In spite of what President Trump says, is it still possible we could have a breakthrough and allow ballots by mail for everybody who wants them?

Teale: In California they have already instituted this. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has said: "You can either come and vote in person. You can bring your mail-in ballot to a location we have directed you to, or you can mail it back. Whatever you want to do." And that seems to me to be the only way to go. To give people the options and to also have early voting.

Golden: A final question, which may sound rather obvious: Why do you care so much about this?

Teale: Because if we care about our schools, if we care about mental health, about the water we drink, about our taxes and our money — if we care about anything at all that touches our lives — it's incumbent upon us to vote. People believe the same we do, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat.

So in order to have your voice heard, which is the difference between us and authoritarian governments, we have to fix this. We have to insist on paper ballots and audits in order to do it.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
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