How do you take something complex and make it simple? How do you take something a little dull, maybe even tedious, and make it fascinating and irresistible? Those are the questions Lulu Friesdat has been asking herself for years. Her area of expertise, election technology, can seem complex, overwhelming and in the weeds. But as of January sixth, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, she can say with confidence that it’s no longer dull.
Friesdat’s eclectic background has given her the tools she needs to add spice to the ordinary while making sure that every position is evidence-based and grounded in the facts. She started her career as an actress in Chicago, performing with the renowned Steppenwolf Theater Company. She transitioned to more technical work, learning how to edit film and television. Producing music and performing as a spoken word artist and rapper came next. Then she did a deep dive into journalism, producing and editing network news and investigative specials for over a decade. Along the way she garnered a Best Documentary award for a film she directed about why people don’t vote; contributed to Emmy-award winning coverage at Good Morning America, and experienced the joy and excitement of a Sundance Film Festival win, when an editing team she was part of received the best editing award at the hip, prestigious festival.
Today Friesdat runs a nonprofit called SMART Elections. She utilizes her investigative and creative skills to examine issues with U.S. elections. “I worked in some of the country’s top newsrooms,” she says, referring to time spent on iconic news programs like the CBS Evening News, ABC’s Nightline, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. “You want information to be accurate, fair and crystal clear. The news may not always reflect that, but ultimately — that’s our job.” Now she and her team use that model to help the public understand how to help improve our elections, and why it’s critically important to do that now.
The Ultimate Riddle
She’s been ahead of the curve on this. Friesdat filmed one of the first known hacks of a U.S. voting machine in 2007, when a group of students at Princeton invited her to film their research. So the January sixth riots didn’t surprise her. She had predicted them. But her current challenge is a tightrope act she did not anticipate. How do you warn people about possible problems with our elections while assuring them that the elections are safe and worthwhile to participate in? That is the ultimate riddle she and SMART Elections are trying to solve.
The answer, it turns out, lies in an approach based on facts, facts, and more facts. The organization maintains a strict nonpartisan approach. They don’t judge. Guided by a team of national and internationally-recognized experts, they offer evidence and plans of action.
Their current mission is to create transpartisan teams to monitor polling locations and election results in a dozen hot-spot states in the 2024 election. They’re working with both large and small grassroots groups across the country to create the blueprint, attract the volunteers, provide training and support, and place the teams. They’ve done five pilot projects since 2020 to prepare. They believe this plan is the most effective way of uplifting confidence in election results and decreasing the chance of chaos and violence.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Underneath the mission to monitor and protect election results is the guiding principle of “garbage in — garbage out”. That means that in order to gather meaningful data on election results, the results themselves have to be meaningful.
SMART Elections, guided by their expert technical advisory team, currently recommend several ways for U.S. voters to cast their ballots: hand-marked paper ballots cast in a polling place (this is the preferred method for anyone able to mark a ballot by hand); for voters who prefer or need an assistive device, they recommend a stand-alone ballot-marking device that creates a ballot identical to a hand-marked ballot; and for voters who don’t have the time to get to the polls or have mobility issues, an absentee ballot is a good choice. They do not recommend Internet voting due to the extreme risk that votes could be changed. All ballots must be robustly audited in a process open to the public.
All-in-one ATM-style systems that mark and count the ballot for you are not recommended by experts, especially if they encode the vote in a barcode or QR code. Experts say there are more things that can go wrong with these complicated computerized systems. Touchscreens can go out of calibration and choose the wrong candidate, barcodes could be changed by hackers — or even accidentally get programmed with the wrong candidate — as happened in this past election in Northampton County Pennsylvania. KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid is a helpful principle for elections.
Unfortunately, many voting machine vendors push complex computerized systems because the profits are far greater for them with those systems. But they are not advantageous for voters, or for local budgets.
Can We Count By Hand?
Many groups, concerned about potential problems with voting machines, are calling for a full hand count of the ballots. Election officials tend to push back against this idea, because full hand counts are a lot of work for them. And hand counts may have their own issues with accuracy, depending on how they’re done. Friesdat says the entire issue has been unnecessarily politicized.
She also points out that the issue of whether to use voting machines or do hand counts has been controversial ever since voting machines were first introduced in the U.S. in the late 1800’s. So these questions are producing intense debate, but they are not new. Joseph P. Harris, a Political Science Professor who published the seminal research document, Election Administration in the United States in 1934, said, “In almost every community where voting machines are used there is some element of the population opposed to their use, and eager … to obstruct their use in the future.”
Based on her experience studying hand counts and counting technologies, she believes that small jurisdictions can likely handle full hand counts, with expert guidance and trained counters. Hand counts work best when there is a voting machine scanner count for comparison. That creates redundancy, a key factor in getting accurate election results. For larger jurisdictions, scanners are necessary to get accurate, timely results. Either way, a robust, transparent audit open to the public and the press, is what makes the election verifiable.
High Risk, High Rewards
As we speed toward the 2024 presidential election, adrenaline is rising in this high stakes, high rewards contest. Friedat believes that if people are aware of how they can help, thousands will choose to jump in. “What could be more profoundly meaningful than reinforcing the seams in the fabric of our republic?” she says laughing. She’s dead serious though. She and her team are working tirelessly to get the infrastructure in place, and the word out.
They know that In today’s world, the integrity and security of elections are crucial for the functioning of a healthy democracy. With their army of advisors, knack for creating user-friendly information, and commitment to fairness and inclusion, they are paving the way for transformative politics that will engage more voters, and ultimately create a more effective government.