From Raw Story
Media exit polls in last Tuesday’s election suggested
Democrats were going to win the White House and the Senate, yet the
reported vote counts brought a GOP landslide. While theories abound
about what happened, election integrity activists say the exit poll
descrepancy underscores the need for a far more transparent and
accountable process. AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld interviewed Jonathan
Simon, a longtime exit poll sleuth and author of Code Red: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century. Simon explains why exit polls are a critical clue in the breakdown of the voting process.
Steven Rosenfeld: Let’s start by telling people about your involvement with election integrity and tracking exit polls.
Jonathan Simon: I’ve been working in this field which we
call election forensics for about 15 years, since the 2000 election.
Certainly things kicked in with the 2004 election and the exit polls
there. I was actually the person who downloaded the exit polls that were
left up on the CNN website which then made it possible to compare the
unadjusted exit polls—and we can explain that in a bit—but comparing the
exit polls with the vote counts and show through all those disparities
that there was reason to suspect possibly manipulation of the vote
It has deep roots and basically looking at every election
since has found varying, but at the same time, fairly pervasive patterns
of what we call the “red shift” and where the exit polls are to the
west of the vote counts. We track that, we record it and we attempt to
analyze it and get some sort of handle on what has caused it as a
phenomenon. Then we look at all sorts of forensic data, accumulative
vote share, tables and hand counts where we can find them. I’ve always
been particularly conscientious about trying to take whatever baseline
we’re using and validate that baseline, so that if we have an exit poll
for instance, we try to make sure something that has been skewed by
over-sampling one party or over-sampling people of color or something to
that effect and validate it by that.
We try as carefully as we can. I’ve been doing this pretty
steadily now for the last 15 years along with some of my colleagues, and
I would be the first to acknowledge that there is a lot of smoke there
and there’s a lot of probative value to this work, but that bringing it
forth as ironclad proof is very problematic. So we’re stuck at a place
where I pivoted to is looking at the risk involved in having a
computerized, privatized, unobservable vote counting system and just
taking on faith that that system is not being manipulated when there is
such a obvious vulnerability (on which the experts strongly agree) of
the system to malfeasance and manipulation. That is where I’ve tended to
go, is to look at that risk rather than screaming fraud from the
rooftops and claiming proof.
SR: Let’s go through this piece by piece, because
it’s a lot for people to really understand. You get the raw
state-by-state exit polls that are commissioned by a big consortium of
national media organizations. What did you find this year, that happened
this week? What do you see in the raw data?
JS: Of course, we don’t get the raw data. The raw data would
be… we have three definitions here. There’s raw data, which is the
actual questionnaires and the simple numerical toning up of answers on
the questionnaire. That is never publicly released. It’s if you want to
characterize it as such, it’s what’s inside the sausage of exit polls,
and we are not privileged to see that. I’ve had one opportunity in my
life through an inside source to actually look at some of the raw data,
but that’s a very rare thing. It’s not generally accessible to the
public. Many of us have clamored for the public release of that raw
data, certainly in the aftermath of the 2004 election and have been
Then there is the weighted exit poll data and that’s what
the exit pollsters put out as soon as the polls close. This has been
demographically weighted to their best approximation of what the
electorate looked like and it is very valuable information. That’s what I
was able to download in 2004 and that’s what I was able to download in
many of the elections since, and that’s what I was able to download this
Then you have adjusted exit polls and what happens is they
take the vote counts as they come in and they use the term as the art of
“forcing,” they force the exit polls to [be] congruent with that vote
count data so that by the end of the night or by the next morning when
you have your final vote counts and final exit polls the exit polls and
the vote counts will match, but that’s only because in essence they’ve
been forced to match the vote counts.
SR: I’m looking at
the New York Times website right now, at its election 2016 exit polls
interactive. What are the totals then that I’m seeing?
JS: I’m not looking at the New York Times. I’ve pulled these
off of CNN and I’m also looking at MSNBC. Because the firm that does
this, Edison, contracts with the consortium of major networks and then
has some lesser clients such as the New York Times. When I say lessor,
they’re still very major clients, they just don’t have the prime
membership that these five networks and the AP have, but all these major
clients get the same feed of weighted exit poll data.
What you’re probably looking at now would be adjusted exit
polls and they’re very close to, if not congruent with the vote counts.
But if you had looked up Tuesday night, for instance, if a poll closed
at 7pm Eastern Time and you had gone online to a network site at 7:01pm
Eastern Time, what you would have seen at that point was a weighted poll
that had not yet been adjusted to match the vote counts. They would
tell you the number of respondents. They’d give you all the cross tabs,
by which I mean broken down by gender, age, income, party affiliation,
usually 30 to 40, sometimes 50 questions … Pretty detailed stuff that
indicated how each subgroup of the polled population had answered these
Some of those questions are demographic questions: What is
your race? What is your income level? What party do you identify with?
Who did you vote for in the last election? etc., etc. … Then there are
the current choice questions. Who did you just vote for this evening
and/or this afternoon? Those are all presented in sort of a scroll
fashion. You can pull that up on all these websites.
However, they will change over time as the vote counts come
in. That’s why we screen-capture these initial public postings, because
that contains the purest information in terms of not relying on the vote
counts and if we’re approaching this with a certain amount of suspicion
of the vote counts we’re trying to verify or validate the vote counts
we want exit polls that are independent as possible from the actual vote
count data, which then becomes blended in as the evening goes on from
the time the polls close until whenever the final vote counts are
available. That vote count data becomes blended in with the exit poll
algorithm and gradually pulls the exit polls in congruence with the vote
counts, at which point they’re used for academic analysis of
demographics, but they’re not anymore used for validating the vote
SR: Tell me again what the ‘red shift’ is and how you saw this shift again this year.
JS: The red shift is a term that I coined back in 2004 after
the Bush-Kerry election, because the familiar term the “red shift” when
we mean astronomy, that’s what brought it to my mind. But the reason
it’s called the red shift is that it was very directional in that
election where you saw vote counts coming out more in favor of Bush,
more in favor of Republican candidates. Since Republican by that time
had been designated red as in red states and blue states, that’s how it
got the moniker the red shift.
What we found from that point forward is that it’s almost a
singularity, very rare, that we find any significant blue shift
anywhere. When we look at exit polls and vote counts, what we’re almost
always seeing are vote counts that come out more in favor of the
Republican candidate than the exit polls and in the case of intraparty
nomination battles, more in favor of the candidate that is, I guess
you’d have to say, to the right of their opponent.
For instance, in the 2016 primaries, a massive shift of exit
polls state after state after state, in favor of Hillary Clinton. The
vote counts were more in favor of Clinton than the exit polls, which
were more in favor of Bernie Sanders. We saw a very consistent pattern
In this past Tuesday, again we saw a very consistent pattern
of exit polls that were more in favor of Hillary Clinton, more in favor
of Democratic senatorial candidates and then vote counts were shifted
from the exit polls to the right towards Donald Trump, towards the
Republican senate candidates. Those are the figures that I pulled down
and did a very basic analysis of. You have a column of numbers of state
by state showing the degree of that shift and we’ll eventually do that
for the national vote for the House of Representatives as well.
SR: When you see this discrepancy,
without being overly simplistic, the question becomes, why is it there
and what caused it? You’ve been through this four or five times and not
even counting the midterm elections. What do you think
is really going on when you see this general one-way shifting? Does it
mean the polling is wrong? Does it mean the voting machinery is being
tampered with? Does it mean both? How do you explain or understand this?
JS: What it means to me is that neither system is self
validating. Neither system can be trusted. If you look at accounting,
you do double entry accounting. I’m not an accountant so my terminology
may be off, but you basically audit by checking one column of numbers
against another column of numbers. If they disagree, you know something
is wrong somewhere. There is some arithmetical mistake, some failure of
entry, possibly fraud … you don’t know. You just know that if two things
that are pretty much supposed to agree had disagreed, there’s a problem
somewhere. I can rule out mathematically and scientifically, by this
time, errors due to random chance. Errors due to random chance, sampling
errors, what we call margin of error issues, would not be expressing
themselves so consistently in one direction. They’d be going in both
directions and they’d be much smaller.
If you take a mathematical sample of a whole … if you take a
blood draw in a person and you look at 1,000 or so blood cells as
represented in of all their millions of blood cells, that’s guaranteed
to be a random sample. It’s not like all the bad blood cells hide out in
a single vein or something. From that, you get a very clear and crisp
mathematical margin of error and it tells you how likely you are to be
within X number of percent about what the truth is about the entire
target that you’re looking at of the blood of the whole body. That’s how
you can make a diagnosis based on a pinprick.
In exit polling it’s not that simple. In exit polling you
have sampling that is not purely mathematically random. First of all,
it’s done in clusters because it would be an impractical matter to catch
people all over the state randomly coming out at the polls. You’d have
to have a person at each precinct, etc. We’re not even talking about
early voting and absentee voting. Let’s just leave that out of the
equation and assume everybody votes on election day. You’d still have to
go to thousands of precincts. It would be prohibitively expensive. What
they do instead, and I was a pollster for a couple of years quite long
ago, but the methods haven’t changed that much, you basically cluster
sample. You pick 20 or 30 precincts that are representative politically
and demographically of the whole state and those are the precincts in
which you do all your interviews.
That adds mathematically about a 30 percent increase to the
margin of error, to the inaccuracy if you want to call that of the poll.
It’s certainly a tolerable change or loss of accuracy that can be
factored in mathematically, but the real problems come up in exit
polling with selection bias, response bias, the possibility of people
lying to the pollster, etc. These are the things that have been seized
on by those who have debunked the exit polls and said they’re worthless.
They’re not worthless and at the same time they’re not best evidence.
Best evidence would be the voter marked paper ballots. Best evidence
would be the memory cards in the computers and what program is actually
determining how these votes are counted, what the code is on those
Exit polls are indirect. They’re statistical evidence and
they have flaws that are difficult to quantify. When you see pervasive
patterns where it is substantial well beyond the margin of error
repeatedly in the same direction, in particular when you’ve been able to
independently validate the demographics of the exit poll sample. This
is the work that I did. It’s in my book, Code Red: Computerized Election Theft in the New American Century.
SR: So this is a persuasive and recurring pattern and not just in this week’s vote?
JS: In the 2016 primary, we compared the performance of the
exit polls in the Republican primaries with the performance of the exit
poll in the Democratic primaries. There was a glaring difference. I call
these “second order comparatives.” Second order comparatives are very
important because you’re essentially validating your baseline by doing
that. If you’re conscientious about election forensics, that’s the work
that you try to do. Does it add up to ironclad proof? No, but it’s a
very consistent pattern that is absolutely probative enough that it
says, Okay, we want to now take a look at the other system and how the
votes are being counted. When you look at that other system and how the
votes are being counted, your hair stands on end because it’s so
vulnerable to not just outsider hacking, but to insider manipulation as
There are certainly a lot of anecdotal instances of this.
For instance, just in this particular election, they bought machines in
Ohio that had a feature in them that was basically capable of self
auditing. It was a security feature. The Republican secretary of state
of Ohio allowed the counties to switch off that feature. You have to ask
why. You bought it and it had that feature. They said, Well, it would
create chaos. You look at things like that and say hmm. You scratch your
head and say, what is going on here? What may be happening in that
darkness of cyberspace that the exit polls are giving us a pretty good
hint about, but the vote counting system itself completely conceals?
SR: Let’s talk about what you found this week. I’m
looking at your 2016 presidential chart. I’m looking at North Carolina
for example, where it says the exit poll margin was 2.1% ahead for
Clinton, but the final vote count showed Trump with a 3.8% lead. You
have similar 4.4% Clinton lead in Pennsylvania but then losing by 1.2%
to Trump, a 5.6% shift. You have Florida where she was ahead in exit
polls by 1.3% and ends up losing by 1.3%, a 2.6% shift.
Is there any reason you can point to as to why you are seeing that in so many different states?
JS: First of all, let me preface it that what they’ve done
since 2004 is exit poll fewer and fewer states. I think there were about
30 states exit polled this time, 20 states were left out because they
were considered to be locks, non-competitive. What that does for a
forensic standpoint is that it cuts our baseline… It’s as if they had a
certain limited amount of resources, and they decided to really plow it
into getting larger sample sizes in states that they knew were going to
be competitive and possibly controversial.
North Carolina was one of those. I believe it had the
largest sample size in the country. It was almost 4,000 voters were
sampled and the usual sample size in these state exit polls is somewhere
between 1,500 and 2,000 if they expect it to be competitive. That was
basically a double sampling that reduces the mathematical margin of
error, but it also improves in a less quantifiable way the accuracy of
the poll. That 5.9% red shift from Clinton to Trump is way outside the
margin of error for that poll and therefore very unlikely to occur by
chance. What might have made it happen? People could’ve been lying to
the exit pollster. The exit pollster could’ve been all young urban
college kids and the Trump voters might have been reluctant to comply
with their requests. There might have been refusals from Trump voters.
Now Edison usually tries to get these things right and one
of the ways they try to get it right is through some expensive training
and they try to get a fairly represented sample of polling interviewers.
The polls by the way are confidential. They’re not verbal interviews.
You’re just handed a clipboard with a poll on it. It’s not as intimate
as some people would believe. There’s less of an incentive to lie
because it’s basically confidential. You fold your polling sheet up and
you put it in the box or you hand it back to the interviewer to put it
into a grab bag. There’s no name on it. There is nothing that associates
you with it. The incentive to lie isn’t particularly high. We’ve always
dealt with the—is there a reluctant [George W.] Bush responder going on
here, is there a shy Trump voter? We don’t know. These are
possibilities, but we’ve seen the same kind of exit poll pattern in
intraparty contests, we’ve seen it year after year, we’ve seen it at the
Senate races, at the House exit poll. It transcends an individual race
like this where there was so much intensity.
If you want to sleep well at night, which I also prefer to
denial, and you want to say to yourself, Yeah, it must have been people
just lying to the exit pollsters and I’m not going to worry about it,
that’s fine. What you’re missing at that point is the fact that if you
challenge me to say, How do you know these exit polls are valid? I would
turn right around and challenge you and say, How do you know the vote
counts are valid?
The fact is, and this is cold hard fact, neither of us can
prove our case. That is the problem. We have an unobservable system that
cannot answer the challenge that it might be subject to manipulation.
It can’t demonstrate that it is not rigged. Exit polls are just a tool
that we use to look at it and say, Well folks, there might be something
to dig deeper into here. The problem is virtually never is anyone
allowed to dig deeper. We have optical scanner equipment all over this
country right now that have the voter marked ballots that drop through
the optical-scan reader device and sit in their cabinet below. Those
voter marked ballots need to be saved 22 months in theory, although
they’ve been destroyed early, in fact, in many cases, especially if when
there was an investigation going on in Ohio.
You have these voter marked ballots that would have probably
not been destroyed within two days of the election and they’re there.
They theoretically could be exhumed and examined. You could go machine
by machine, you could look at them in public and you could compare them
with machine counts, then you could reconcile those machine counts with
the central tabulator. County counts, and state counts … You could say,
Yes, this was a valid election or no, this was not a valid election. We
had a problem. Might have been fraud, might have been a glitch, we don’t
know. The fact is, nobody has access to those ballots. They are
corporate property. They are off limits to public inspection. It might
as well, in the 99.9% of cases, be a paperless touchscreen that has no
The fact is, we are denied, when I saw we, the candidates,
the public, very often election administrators, by the rules of their
states, are denied access to the actual hard evidence we call it, that
would allow a determination of whether the election has been accurately
counted or perhaps has been illegitimately counted and manipulated. As a
matter of fact, in quite a few states and usually under Republican
control, but the Democrats have not been tremendously cooperative about
this either. The trend has been for ballots to be removed from public
record status so that they are no longer susceptible to four-year
requests and similar public information requests, Freedom of Information
Act requests. They are getting less transparent, not more so.
SR: Where do we stand today? You
have your exit poll analysis that says something is not right here. We
look at the results. We don’t have access to the ballots. We really
don’t have meaningful audit or recounting possibilities. People are just
left feeling very upset and powerless and then the days pass and
attention goes elsewhere and the election machinery and the polling
machinery largely remains the same.
Am I wrong? Am I missing something?
JS: I couldn’t have stated that better. There was a Supreme
Court case famously where it had to do with pregnancy and it stood for
mootness; when cases became moot because they couldn’t be heard in time
so they had to do either abortion or pregnancy. By the time it came up
through the channels, the time had passed and the woman was no longer
pregnant and the issue was moot.
In a similar kind of way we go through these cycles.
Interest heightens right before the election. If there is high suspicion
of fraud, which sometimes as there sometimes are. If in presidential
elections, 2004 obviously being the major one and then this one, there
is a flurry of interest, a kind of window of opportunity, but the public
attention span and the media attention span in particular is very
short. We live in a sound-bite society. There’s always other stuff to
attend to. People are busy. People are working hard. By and large, you
couldn’t find a subject that is less sexy than election forensics. The
Kardashians are a lot sexier as is the football games on Sunday. So yes,
it passes briefly in front of the public eye. There’s a lot of stirring
about it and then it dies out and it’s basically left to us hardcore
election integrity advocates. This is catastrophic. This is tragic. What
we’re left with is a system that was accepted more or less without real
If that’s what democracy is worth to us, then we deserve
what we get. Democracy requires support. It requires citizen support. It
requires an investment of care and an investment of vigilance and an
investment of participation more than deciding, Yeah, I’m going to vote
or I’m not going to vote. It requires the fulfillment of a duty to be
part of the public that counts and observe the counting of the votes so
we don’t have the ludicrous situation where we hand our ballots to a
magician who takes them behind a curtain, you hear them shred the
ballots, comes out and tells you so-and-so won. This is what we’ve got
now and it’s what we’ve accepted. We spend more money in two weeks in
Iraq then would cost us for 30 years to hand-count our elections. This
is surrealistic, this is absurd, but it’s the very strong inertial
reality. Getting the energy up to change that reality, especially when
that reality has worked well by definition for everybody who is sitting
in office. They’re the people with the least incentive to look under the
hood and say, Hey, we need to change this. It’s what put them in
You will rarely meet a politician or a journalist with a
seat at or anywhere near the adult table who wants to rock this boat,
who wants to pull the cover off of this thing, who wants to restore
public sovereignty. One other point about that is that the musical Hamilton
is popular now and Hamilton was notoriously an elitist. Somebody who
really didn’t believe in full franchise as many of the founding fathers,
of course. Women didn’t vote, blacks didn’t vote, etc. You had to have
property to vote in certain states. There’s a strain of that elitism
that pervades the highly educated classes that tend to fill the
political offices and tend to fill the journalistic offices around this
country. These are people with high education, high capabilities. They
look out at the American people and rightly or wrongly, if I channel
what they see, they see a mass of Kardashian following and football
fanatic uninformed people.
That’s our public. That’s our sovereignty. That’s what they
see from their perch. It’s very understandable in a way that they’re not
all that excited about restoring the sovereignty of that group because
they don’t really trust it. In their minds, [the] last people you’d want
making decisions about whether to war with Iraq or Russia or do this or
that deal politically are a bunch of people who come on, flip on the
TV, tune on “Dancing with the Stars” and drink a couple of beers.
There’s not a whole lot of belief in public sovereignty, right or wrong.
As moronic as one might believe a good part of this public is, it’s
really the experts who keep wandering into the minefield. The public
knows more than they’re given credit for.
One of the things that’s going on in this election manifests
through Bernie Sanders, manifests through Donald Trump, is a very
widespread recognition of that reality, whether they’d call it exactly
such or not, a recognition that we are not being listened to, we are not
being heard, we are not being considered. So there is this huge
populist uprising. Was there enough to give Donald Trump the victory?
That remains to be seen and may never be seen, but it was certainly
enough to give both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump the kind of support
that was shocking to the journalistic establishment and to the political
establishment. They’re not being the elites that they are … and yet
they are not advocating for having a vote counting system that
accurately, publicly and verifiably translates the will of that public
into leadership policy and direction. That’s in large part what’s led us
into the place that we’re in today, November 10th.
SR: Thank you, this is very good.
There’s a lot here. I hope people will take the time to understand that
something is not right with both the exit polls or the vote count
machinery, and at a deep systemic level there are questions that are not
being answered. I respect the work you’ve done, as discouraging as its
You can also blame James Comey