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The Brooks Brothers Riot: A Voting Guide


John DeCock

When did Americans lose faith in their elections? For many of us, it was the "Brooks Brothers Riot" in 2000, when hundreds of paid Republican operatives descended upon South Florida to aggressively protest the state's recounts in the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

They were tagged with the Brooks Brothers name after The Wall Street Journal described them as "50-year-old white lawyers with cell phones and Hermès ties." Some of them were junior staffers, and they were doing more than nattering into their cell phones.

According to The New York Times, "several people were trampled, punched or kicked when protesters tried to rush the doors outside the office of the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections. Sheriff's deputies restored order." DNC aide Luis Rosero was kicked and punched.

Within two hours , the canvassing board unanimously voted to shut down the count, partly because of the perception that the process wasn't open or fair, but also because the court-mandated deadline had become impossible to meet, thanks to the interference.

In other words, the bullies won.

We should have paid more attention.


Because greater participation in the election is almost certainly going to result in a crushing defeat for Donald Trump, he has launched a jihad against the form of voting than many Americans will use in the time of Covid: mail-in ballots.

I spent time working for one of the country's main voting rights organizations and I learned the truth about how voting works. It seemed like the right time to share that knowledge.

Basically, it goes like this:

  • The gold standard is a hand-marked, paper ballot, submitted in person at a polling place.
  • Voting by mail is the next best thing to voting in person. 
  • Electronic voting machines, even with a computer-generated paper trail, are an invitation to hackers.
  • Email and Internet voting are the worst.  
  • Understand that if you riot in Democratic cities, you are giving Trump an excuse to call out his private army. The chaos that follows may not yield the result you’re looking for.


First, let's talk old school: voting in your neighborhood polling place.

Concerns about in-person voting are legitimate. Because the number of polling places has been reduced and voters are required to wait in line longer, workers at polling places are exposed to a higher risk of infection. In some places, social distancing and masks will not be mandated or enforced. It’s just an inescapable fact that some polling places will be super spreader locations.


So. Voting by mail. What’s that about? Mail-in voting in the United States began out of necessity during the Civil War to accommodate soldiers away from home who had an clear stake in the outcome of the 1864 presidential election.

Starting in 1980, voters and state legislatures in a number of states began allowing voting by mail. Voter turnout had been dropping, along with party organization and loyalty. Mail-in voting was one way to make it easier for busy people to vote.


Mail-in voting is not without problems. Mail can be lost or mismanaged. Verifying every ballot signature against a registration card signature is time-consuming and can introduce subjectivity. But the data clearly shows that problems with mail-in voting are minor.

A Washington Post study of voting by mail over 20 years and 250 million ballots found only 143 documented cases of voter fraud. That’s 0.0025 percent, a number so low as to be essentially meaningless. If necessary, there can be an accurate recount. What about Florida? The infamous hanging chads were paper ballots. That paper ballot technology, invented in the 1950s and used through the end of the 20th century, was deeply flawed. It has now been superseded and paper ballots work fine. If there's any question about an election, they ensure an accurate recount.

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(Just to complicate matters further, there is absentee voting. This is not the same as mail-in voting, but also has a long history. It's been used for people traveling, too ill to reach a polling place, or for military women and men stationed overseas.Absentee voting is different from mail-in voting which has fewer restrictions.)


Fixing elections is not unheard of in our great country. There were always rumors: Did Chicago's Mayor Daley and the mob fix the election for John F. Kennedy by dumping 100,000 ballots in Lake Michigan? Academics who studied the question say no, but Martin Scorsese channeled the mythology in The Irishman.

After the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000, when the phrase hanging chad became a meme, thanks to a poorly designed ballot and what were called--seriously--Votamatic hole punchers that didn't work right and slowed a recount, there was a high-tech fix: electronic voting machines. Like so many disruptive innovations, there were unintended consequences.

For one thing, it turned out that installing malware on electronic voting machines to change election results was surprisingly easy.

In 2018, University of Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman conducted a mock election using malware and discovered just how easy that was. Halderman was also the researcher who reported that Russia probed the electronic election infrastructure of all 50 states and gained access to several voter registration systems.

Later investigations indicated that this was a test run, but it was alarming nonetheless.

Malware isn't the only vulnerable point. Many electronic voting machines have a built-in Internet connection so results can be transmitted by modem over the internet. Also, when the machines are being prepared for an election, they often get their updates over the Internet. There are way too many opportunities to get hacked.

These problems were serious enough to convince many states to go back to paper ballots. By 2019, only 15 percent of Americans lived in places with electronic voting machines. But some states, including Georgia and South Carolina, use computers to generate paper ballots.

When Halderman conducted more research, “cheating” by pre-marking ballots, practically none of the voters noticed.

The solution was simple: redesigning paper ballots. But the computerized systems that are still around could, in a worst-case scenario, swing elections. Including the election.


On top of that, some states have responded to the New New Thing of Internet voting. Alaska allows online voting for anyone who wants it. Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Utah and the District of Columbia allow Internet voting for members of the military stationed abroad, some travelers, and Americans living abroad. This probably isn’t enough to do much damage.

For young voters, Internet voting sounds seductively easy. “I can bank online; why can’t I vote on line?” Why? For many reasons. Every step of the way, starting with the device you vote on through the tabulation of your vote, the process is vulnerable to hacking. Think about it: banking is all about connecting you and your identity to your transactions. Voting is all about making your transaction anonymous. It might be easy, but, in fact, it’s really, really bad.


What’s often overlooked in voting lore is the availability of early voting, an option in 39 states in the 2018 midterms. That’s a trifecta: safety, accuracy (presumably), and a calm election day for the folks who choose it.

In many parts of the United States, voters have been able to return ballots in drop boxes. But, as the Washington Monthly reports, Republican governors have been removing these, and in some cases, election commissions are getting rid of them, fearing lawsuits that will eat up their budgets.

In the Senate, Mitch McConnell has refused to take up a House bill that would direct $25 billion in federal aid to help states and municipalities switch to vote by mail, but philanthropies have been stepping up. The Center for Tech and Civic Life recently gave Philadelphia a $10 million grant to open more polling places across the city and distribute 15 additional drop boxes. But nonprofits can't make up for the failure of the government to ensure voting rights. This time, voters themselves have to make an extra effort.


If you were wondering why there’s so much talk about Trump’s recent appointee, Republican stalwart Louis DeJoy, essentially sabotaging the post office, it’s because, in the Time of Covid, the smart money says that vote by mail could decide the election. A conspiracy theorist might be forgiven for thinking that Trump’s lackadaisical (if not positively murderous) inaction on the pandemic is also helping to create the atmosphere of fear that will funnel ballots to the postal service. (Of course, it could just be denial and incompetence.) And then Trump and his man DeJoy will be in charge of those ballots.

Clearly, Trump has been setting the stage for an election challenge. To strengthen his case, he has essentially set out to destroy the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service. He probably didn’t figure on the collateral damage he was causing when he set out to try to disrupt voting by mail and accidentally pissed off everyone who counts on the mail for medicine and money.

As just about every American knows by now, Trump is almost as obsessed with voter fraud as he is with proving that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s. In 2016, 33 million votes, almost one-quarter of the total, were cast by mail. Trump appointed a commission to investigate voter fraud, claiming that millions of people had voted illegally. The commission quietly disbanded without evidence to support his claim.

This time, it could get dicier. Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have built what amounts to a private police force under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Explosive street demonstrations could give Trump and his enablers cover for calling in tactical forces culled from the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Border Patrol, and private security contractors hired by the Federal Police normally tasked with guarding federal buildings. Hiring of private contractors for these positions has increased in recent months.

What’s striking is how closely these actions parallel those of dictators in countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Argentina, or just about any country whose elections have been monitored by the Carter Center. The playbook is familiar. It’s just the locale that’s different.

There’s a reason Barack and Michelle Obama leaned so hard on persuading young voters to turn out. Young voters will be less at risk from Covid, and they lean Democratic. And they turned out in force for Obama. The problem is that they don’t show up.

“A lot of my friends are saying it’s more important to be out in the streets demonstrating,” said Hailey Warner, a senior at San Francisco State University. “I tell them that it only takes a few minutes to vote.”

Democrats hope this year will be different. Turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds went from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018, the largest percentage point increase for any age group--a 79 percent jump. But the numbers of young voters are still low compared to older voters.

There's a move on to mobilize younger voters, even if they can't vote on their phones. Organizations in 10 states where the youth vote means the most are campaigning with graphics like these, by New York artists Jeanne Heifetz and Kim Sillen, as part of a project called The Largest Generation.

"We don't want to substitute voting for protesting," Heifetz said. "We want to connect them."

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So what should you do? If you are going to vote by mail, make sure you are registered, find out what your state requires to get a mail-in ballot and take those steps today. Stay abreast of candidates and issues so that when your ballot arrives, you can fill it out, sign it legibly, and put it in the mail right away. If the subterfuge affecting the USPS is making you too nervous, take your ballot to an early voting location and drop it off. 

John DeCock has been executive director of The Sierra Club Foundation and Verified Voting. He works as a consultant conducting researching and advising foundations on philanthropic initiatives. And he once sang karaoke with Annie Lennox.

Voice Your Choice :: The Radiants

Vote For Miles ::: Miles Davis

General Election :: Lord Beginner

Stealin’ :: Arlo Guthrie

Paranoia Blues ::: Paul Simon

Mr President, Have Pity On The Working Man ::: Randy Newman

He’s Mistrah Know It All :: Stevie Wonder

Vote That Fucker Out :: Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby

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