Review: ‘All In: The Fight for Democracy,’ starring Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Andrew Young, Debo Adegbile, Sean J. Young and Ari Berman

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stacey Abrams in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino, Asian and Native American) discussing past and present issues in U.S. citizens’ right to vote.

Culture Clash: The consensus of people interviewed in the documentary is that voting inequalities, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, stem from party politics and bigotry issues against people of color, young people and people who are economically disadvantaged.

Culture Audience: “All In: The Fight for Democracy” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal-leaning beliefs, since conservative lawmakers are portrayed as the chief villains who want to suppress people’s votes. 

A scene from “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés) examines the history of voting rights in the United States and how those rights have been violated. It’s a subject that’s theoretically supposed to be a non-partisan issue, but the documentary doesn’t try and hide that it’s biased heavily toward liberal politics and the Democratic Party, which is portrayed as the political party that’s taking the most action to include more U.S. citizens in the voting process. When it comes to modern-day voter suppression and the push to exclude people from the voting process, the documentary puts the blame primarily on Republican politicians and other lawmakers who have conservative-leaning political beliefs.

Democratic politician Stacey Abrams is one of the producers of “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” so it’s no surprise that she’s the main star of the movie, which uses her highly contested 2018 political campaign for governor of Georgia as an example of voter suppression. Her opponent in that campaign was Republican politician Brian Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state in charge of overseeing the voting process in Georgia while he was campaigning for governor. Overseeing the voting process in his own election was an obvious conflict of interest, but Kemp refused to step down from his secretary of state position during his gubernatorial campaign because it was legal in Georgia for him to keep that position while he was campaigning for another office.

In the end, after 10 days of the election results being contested, Kemp was declared the winner with 50% of the votes, while it was announced that Abrams received 49% of the votes. The controversial election resulted in Abrams and her political group Fair Fight filing lawsuits and investigating reports of widespread voter suppression and other tactics to prevent thousands of people in Georgia from voting. The accusations are that this voter suppression has disproportionately affected districts with voters who are registered Democrats and/or people of color. The racial elements of this election could not be ignored, since Abrams would have been the first African American woman to be a state governor in the U.S. if she had won the election.

Critics of Abrams have called her a “sore loser,” but there is a valid argument in wondering what the outcome of that election would have been if thousands of voter registrations hadn’t been mysteriously purged from computer systems. There were also confirmed reports of thousands of voter registrations not being processed in time for the election, mostly in areas of Georgia where there is a high percentage of people of color and/or registered Democrats. It also looked suspicious that most of the voting sites that were permanently shut down in Georgia were in districts with a high percentage of people of color and Democrats.

Even though Abrams gets the most screen time in this documentary, the entire film isn’t “The Stacey Abrams Show,” because most of the film is about the history of U.S. citizens’ right to vote and some of the recurring problems in the U.S. voting process. Abrams’ family background is mentioned (she’s the second-oldest of six kids, raised primarily in Mississippi and Georgia), and her parents Robert and Carolyn Abrams (who are both ministers) are interviewed in the film. The documentary also includes the 1993 footage of Abrams (when she was a 19-year-old student at Spelman College) speaking at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. Coming from a family that placed a high value on education, religion, voting and public service, it’s no wonder that she wanted to go into politics.

The first half of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” takes a look at the long history of voter exclusion and suppression in the United States, before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and how certain groups of people have constantly had to fight for their right to vote. The second half of the documentary focuses primarily on U.S. voting rights during and after the 1960s civil-rights movement. As historian/author Carol Anderson comments in the documentary: “Past is prologue. Those forces that are systemically determined to keep American citizens from voting, they have been laying the seeds over time.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789, only 6% of U.S. citizens had the right to vote. These citizens were white male property owners. The documentary does an excellent job of retracing how laws gradually changed for voting to open up to more U.S. citizens, so that property ownership wasn’t a requirement to vote and U.S. citizens who weren’t white men got the right to vote. The 15th Amendment (which, in 1870, gave U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of their race, color or previous condition of servitude), the 19th Amendment (which gave U.S. women the right to vote in 1920) and the Voting Rights Act (originally signed into law in 1965) are three of the most important legislations to make these voting rights possible.

The documentary reiterates that the biggest injustices in voting often stem from racism. After the slaves were freed, the U.S. experienced the Reconstruction period when, for the first time in U.S. history, African American men began to own property and held elected offices on the federal and state levels. But, as “Give Us the Ballot” author Ari Berman says in the documentary: “The greatest moments of progress are followed by the most intense periods of retrenchment.”

In other words, when people of color are perceived as advancing too far in American society, there’s political backlash. The Reconstruction period led to the shameful Jim Crow period, particularly in Southern states, which passed racial segregation laws making it more difficult for people of color to access to same levels of education and resources as white people. Poll taxes and literacy tests became requirements to vote and were used as a way to weed out poor and uneducated people, who were disproportionately people of color. Black men in particular were singled out for arrests for minor crimes (such as loitering), and these arrest records were used as reasons to prevent them from voting in certain states.

The Florida felony disenfranchisement law of 1868 created a trend of felons being barred from voting. The U.S. is currently the only democracy that doesn’t allow convicted felons to vote. Critics of this voter exclusion law say that it’s inherently racist because people of color are more likely to be convicted of the same felonies that white people ae accused of committing. Efforts to repeal the “felons can’t vote” laws are mentioned in the documentary, which includes an interview with Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The documentary also mentions that before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it could be dangerous and sometimes deadly for African Americans and other people of color who voted. African Americans and other people of color could get fired for voting if they had a racist employer. Depending on the area, African Americans and other people of color would be the targets of violence if they voted. And even registering to vote could be an ordeal, since it was common in certain areas for intimidation tactics to be used on people of color during voter registration.

The documentary names Maceo Snipes (an African American military veteran) as an example: In 1946, Snipes was murdered because he defied segregation laws and was the only African American to vote in Georgia’s Democratic primary election. Abrams shares a story that her grandmother Wilter “Bill” Abrams told her about being terrified the first time that she voted, because Wilter was afraid that she would be attacked by white racists at the voting site. Wilter was eventually persuaded to vote by her husband, who reminded her of the people who sacrificed their lives to give people of color the right to vote in America.

“All In” also details how other racial groups have been the targets of voter exclusion in U.S. history. In its early years, California resisted laws to allow Chinese people and other Asians to vote. States near the Mexican border, particularly Arizona and Texas, have a long history of trying to exclude Latinos and Native Americans from voting. In many situations, people were kept from voting if English was not their first language. The United States does not have an official language, and there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says U.S. residents and U.S. voters are required to speak English.

According to several people in the documentary, the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections of Democratic politician Barack Obama (the first African American president of the United States) sparked a backlash that led to an increased push by conservative lawmakers to erode the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Shelby County v. Holder case that voting laws could revert back to the individual U.S. states. This Supreme Court ruling opened up a floodgate of states (usually in the South and Midwest) that revised their voting laws that critics say make it easier for these states to allow voter suppression.

Historian/author Anderson doesn’t mince words about these revised voting laws that began in the 2010s: “It’s Jim Crow 2.0.” Gerrymandering and voter suppression are described in the documentary as two sides of the same coin. The documentary reiterates the warning that voter manipulation usually targets people of color, poor people and young people. And because most people of color who are U.S. citizens tend to be Democrats, the documentary implies that corrupt Republicans are behind a lot of the voter suppression when it comes to people of color.

Voter suppression comes in three main forms: strict voter ID laws, voting roll purges and permanent closing of voting sites. Critics say that voter ID laws are designed to exclude poor and uneducated U.S. citizens who might not have government-issued IDs. Voting roll purges (eliminating voter registrations) are often done without voters’ knowledge and permission, and are usually because the eliminated voters haven’t voted for a number of years or for other random reasons. And permanent closures of voting sites have been found to occur mostly in economically disadvantaged areas where there’s a large percentage of people of color.

In many cases, even if a voter has a government-issued ID, the voter can be turned away at the voting site if the voter’s signature is not an exact match to the signature that the voter has on file with the board of elections office. In the documentary, Sean J. Young of ACLU Georgia says signatures that don’t match are big issues with Asian immigrants, who often have an Asian first name and an American first name. Barb Semans and OJ Semans of Four Directions (a voting-rights group for Native Americans) mention that North Dakota’s voting law requiring a residential address for registration excludes numerous Native Americans who have to use post-office boxes because they live on reservations without residential addresses.

Alejandra Gomez and Alexis Delgado Garcia of Lucha (a voting-rights groups for Latinos) are featured in the documentary. Garcia is seen approaching different people in Latino communities with voter registration information and encouragement to vote. The results are mixed. Some of the people aren’t U.S. citizens and therefore aren’t eligible to vote, while the U.S. citizens are either interested in registering and plan to vote, or are reluctant to register because they don’t like or trust politicians. Gomez comments, “The most important part of voter registration is that human connection and being able to understand why that person does not trust.”

Abrams says in the documentary: “When entire communities become convinced that the process is not for them, we lose their participation in our nation’s future. And that’s dangerous to everyone.” Eric Holder, who was U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration, comments: “Too many Americans take for granted the right to vote and don’t understand that unless we fight for the right to vote, unless we try to include as many people as possible, our democracy is put at risk.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice; historian/author Eric Foner; civil-rights leader Andrew Young; civil-rights attorney Debo Adegbile; Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party; Lauren Goh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Voters Right Act into law; Ohio U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge; and student activists Michael Parsons (from Dartmouth College) and Jayla Allen (of Prairie View A&M University).

This documentary is obviously stacked with people who are open with their politically liberal beliefs and who are known Democrats. There’s some attempt to present conservative points of view, but not much. One of the conservative-leaning people interviewed in the documentary is attorney Bert Rein, who represented Shelby County, Alabama, in the Shelby County v. Holder case. He doesn’t say much except that he thought that the case was legally compelling enough for him to want to represent Shelby County.

Hans Von Spakovsky of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which is a major advocate of voter ID laws, is also interviewed in the documentary. He says that the “vast majority” of people in the United States believe in voter ID laws, although he doesn’t list any sources or details as the basis for this statement. Considering that the documentary describes voter suppression and gerrymandering as being perpetrated mostly by corrupt Republicans, it’s not too surprising that a documentary with a Democratic politician (Abrams) as one of the producers is not going to give much of a voice to the opposition.

Even with this blatant bias, “All In” could have done a better job at looking at other cases of suspected voter suppression besides Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial election campaign. Because the documentary presents Abrams’ case as the only major example of suspected voter suppression, it undermines the documentary’s message that voter suppression is a widespread problem. A skeptic could easily say that the Abrams/Kemp campaign controversy was a rare fluke. It also would have been interesting to see more of what Fair Fight is doing behind the scenes to prevent voter suppression.

And there could have been more of an exploration of how votes are manipulated in ways other than voter suppression. For example, there’s no mention in the documentary about how computer hacking affects voting machines that process data via computers. (The excellent HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War Over America’s Elections” examines this cyberhacking topic in depth.) And there is growing concern over how governments from outside the U.S. could be corrupting the U.S. electoral system to influence the votes of U.S. citizens.

The documentary also should have had more interviews with people who work on the “front lines” of voting, such as polling workers and officials who work for boards of elections. There’s a definite “liberal elitism” tone to this documentary, because of the numerous Democratic politicians and liberal attorneys who are interviewed. And during the end credits of the film, several celebrities who are outspoken liberals (such as Gloria Steinem, Constance Wu, Jonathan Van Ness, Gabourey Sidibe, the Jonas Brothers and Yara Shahidi) give soundbites telling people their voting rights.

“All In” makes its liberal bias abundantly clear, but people of any political persuasion can appreciate that the documentary has a superb overview of the history of voting in the U.S. and explains how people can be more informed voters. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that there are massive inequalities in people’s voting experiences in the U.S., and many of the problems are rooted in racism and other prejudices. It’s this history lesson and encouragement of more awareness for voter rights—rather than the partisan posturing and finger-pointing—where “All In” shines the most.

Amazon Studios released “All In: The Fight for Democracy” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘The Fight’ (2020), starring Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Brigitte Amiri, Josh Block and Chase Strangio

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Fight” (2020) 

Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres 

Culture Representation: This documentary about the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians, Latinos and black people), as the movie follows five ACLU attorneys in their battles for civil rights.

Culture Clash:  The movie (which began filming shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in 2017) focuses on four main issues that ACLU is fighting against with the Trump administration: immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, voting rights and LGBTQ rights.

Culture Audience: “The Fight” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal political views and/or support what the ACLU is doing.

Lee Gelernt in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The documentary “The Fight” takes a behind-the scenes look at some of the legal battles waged by the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in January 2017. Although the legal issues aren’t new, the documentary shows that Trump’s attempts as president to make sweeping changes to civil-rights laws brought increased urgency for the ACLU to fight back against those attempts.

“The Fight” co-directors Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres had unprecedented access to ACLU headquarters as well as high-ranking members of the ACLU team. The movie focuses on five attorneys with four different specialties: Lee Gelernt (immigrants’ rights); Brigitte Amiri (reproductive rights); Dale Ho (voting rights); and Josh Block and Chase Strangio (LGBTQ rights).

Each of these four issues is given a spotlight, as the featured ACLU attorneys prepare legal cases that represent these causes. Cameras are not allowed in the courtrooms for these cases, but what happens on the inside of these courtrooms is depicted in the film through audio recordings, illustrations and animation.

Gelernt is involved in battling Trump’s order to banning immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, as well as the controversy over immigrants seeking refugee status in the U.S. and being locked up and separated from their children. He is he deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program. In the documentary (where almost all of the clients’ full names are not disclosed, for privacy reasons), Gelernt is shown helping an African immigrant woman identified only as “Mrs. L” in her case against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) because she was separated from her 7-year-old daughter, who was sent to live in Chicago without Mrs. L’s permission.

ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project deputy director Amiri fights back in cases involving abortion restrictions that the ACLU believes are unconstitutional policies against the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in all U.S. states in 1973. Amiri, with the help of ACLU reproductive rights attorney Meagan Burrows, is shown helping a 17-year-old Spanish-speaking pregnant immigrant in the case Garza v. Hargan.

The immigrant, who is identified only as “Jane Doe” in the documentary, says that her pregnancy was due to rape, and she wants an abortion, but is being prevented from getting an abortion by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which she says is treating her like a prisoner. In an interview with Spanish, she says that ORR officials won’t let her outside, they follow her into the bathroom, and they won’t let her visit a doctor. The outcome of her case is a race against time, because in the U.S. state where she lives, abortion is illegal when a pregnancy reaches at least 20 weeks, and Jane Doe’s interview in the documentary was when she was 15 weeks pregnant.

ORR director Scott Lloyd, an admitted right-wing conservative, is the ACLU’s chief nemesis in this case, since he’s the official who signed off on Jane Doe not being able to have an abortion. Lloyd is seen squirming and being evasive in a videotaped deposition when asked what his views are on abortion. But later in the documentary there is TV footage of him appearing on a conservative talk show openly discussing that he is a conservative Christian who thinks abortion should not be legal.

ACLU Voting Rights Project director Ho does a lot of work against voter suppression. But the main battle that he has in the documentary is the case Department of Commerce v. New York, which is the ACLU’s fight to prevent any questions from being added to the 2020 U.S. Census that asks if anyone in a U.S. household is a U.S. citizen. The ACLU and other civil-rights groups have a legal argument that this question about U.S. citizenship is unconstitutional for a U.S. census, because the question is designed to deter people from filling out a census form if they are not U.S. citizens or have people in their households who aren’t U.S. citizens, thereby making them underrepresented in the census.

Block (an openly gay cisgender male) and Strangio (an openly transgender male) work as a team. Block is a senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects. Strangio (who is a parent to a daughter, who’s shown in the documentary) is deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Block and Strangio are seen working on the case Stone v. Trump, in reaction to Trump wanting to ban transgender people from the U.S. military. In this case, the ACLU is representing transgender male plaintiff Brock Stone, a U.S. Navy petty officer first class who has been in the Navy since 2006.

The directing style of the documentary is cinéma vérité, with each of the narrative jumping back and forth between each case. There is ample use of a split-screen format (with three or four screens at once) to show what might be happening on multiple cases. However, all of this doesn’t get confusing because the cases and the lawyers are very distinct from each other, and everything is smoothly edited to together in a cohesive storytelling style.

And fortunately, the documentary isn’t cluttered with a lot of interviews with people who aren’t involved in the cases, because those outside people would be a distraction and could possibly compromise some of the confidentiality of any pending cases at the time. Other ACLU employees who are briefly featured in the documentary include ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and ACLU deputy director of communications Stacy Sullivan.

On the flip side, the documentary doesn’t shut out opposing views of the ACLU. There is some archival footage of ACLU opponents getting into debates with ACLU attorneys on TV talk shows (usually on cable news channels), as well as news footage of Trump and his supporters at Trump rallies and speeches. And the documentary briefly includes other examples of the ACLU representing people or groups that promote hate speech and other controversial issues that the ACLU says that people have a right to express under freedom of speech.

There’s also a segment in “The Fight” where all of the featured attorneys read aloud or show many of the hate messages that they get (on social media, by mail or by phone), because of the work that they do for the ACLU. Many of the haters identify themselves as Trump supporters, and the ACLU lawyers who aren’t straight white men are often called racist, sexist or homophobic slurs.

Gelernt says of the hateful criticism that often includes death threats or other threats to his safety: “If you don’t look at the negative stuff, you’re sort of in your own bubble.” Ho comments on being the target of ACLU haters: “I don’t want to run from this,” as he says as he takes a hate-filled postcard that he got in the mail and tacks the postcard on his office wall.

The documentary also includes an unflinching look at how there can be conflicts within the ACLU. The ACLU won a lawsuit for a Unite the Right protest (consisting of white supremacists) to be held on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and August 12, 2017. That rally led to tragedy, when a Unite the Right supporter plowed his car through counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.

Although some people blamed the ACLU for this tragedy, others did not. And the documentary shows that people in the ACLU also had different opinions on how the ACLU’s legal defense for the Unite the Right protest to take place ended up playing a role in this tragedy. The documentary does not show anyone at the ACLU getting into heated debates about this protest, but the film does offer two different points of view from high-ranking ACLU officials.

ACLU director David Cole (a white man) stands firm in his belief that the ACLU did the right thing in helping make the Unite the Right protest happen: “We defend civil liberties for all,” he says in the documentary. Meanwhile, ACLU deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson (an African American man) says that privately, he had a problem with the ACLU being involved in making the Unite to Right rally happen, and he did not support ACLU’s decision to represent the Unite the Right people in their legal case to make the protest happen. Robinson comments in what was obviously a prepared statement: “The ACLU was not responsible for Heather Heyer’s death, but we were not a random organization just watching what happened.”

The documentary does a good job of making the featured attorneys look very human. The attorneys are all shown with family members (Gelernt, Amiri and Ho are married with children) and with getting emotional during the many ups and downs in their cases. They all show empathy for their clients. And they all talk about the toll that their stressful work takes on their personal lives and emotional health. However, none of them wants to quit because they say that the work is too important to them.

They attorneys aren’t afraid to show their insecurities: Block wants Strangio to take the lead on the Stone v. Trump case, because Strangio is transgender, but Strangio declines to do so because he says that he’s still not comfortable standing up in court and making arguments. Ho is the lawyer who tends get gets tongue-tied and flustered the most. Gelernt talks about feeling that if he loses a case, he will let down not just his client but also American society. (All ACLU attorneys probably feel this way too.)

But not everything is dead-serious in the film. There are touches of humor, such Gelernt (the oldest lawyer in the documentary’s featured five) getting flustered when he doesn’t know how to plug a phone charger into a computer. Each of the attorneys give a tour of the ACLU offices in their own unique style, and during his tour Gelernt admits that he doesn’t even know how to use the copy machine.

Meanwhile, Block is shown going from pleased to frustrated when he uses a dictation program on his computer. Things starts out fine but then the computer program’s translation abilities quickly goes awry, in one of the funnier scenes in the film. Ho is shown in multiple scenes practicing his courtroom arguments in front of a mirror, sometimes with amusing results.

Of the legal cases featured in “The Fight,” most of the outcomes are already known. However, just because there have been rulings on these cases (some of which were appealed), that doesn’t dilute a lot of gripping suspense and emotionally stirring moments in the documentary, since it shows for the first time many of the behind-the-scenes, real-time reactions that the ACLU people had to major steps in the cases.

The ACLU is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, so “The Fight” is a fitting tribute to the legacy and longevity of the ACLU. But as Ho says in the documentary, the ACLU should not be counted on as the only way to defend liberties for everyone, when there are forces trying to take away or restrict those freedoms. “It’s not going to be lawyers in courts,” he comments on who will be making the most progress. “It’s going to be people [in the general public] turning the ship around.”

“The Fight” probably won’t change a lot of people’s political opinions. Trump’s views on issues such as immigration and abortion were made very clear during his presidential campaign, so people who voted for him in 2016 expected him to act on those views. However, for anyone interested in what politically liberal attorneys at the ACLU are doing behind the scenes to push back against many of the changes that Trump and politically conservative lawmakers want for the United States, “The Fight” offers an insightful peek into this process.

Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios released “The Fight” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections,’ starring Harri Hursti, Sue Halper, James Lankford, Jake Stauffer, Jeff Moss, Sandy Clark and Philip Stark

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harri Hursti and Maggie MacAlpine in “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections”

Directed by Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale

Culture Representation: This politically oriented documentary, which examines the effects of cyber hacking on U.S. elections, interviews a predominantly white group of people, including cybersecurity experts, government officials, journalists, university professors and hackers.

Culture Clash: Almost everyone interviewed in the documentary says that there is widespread denial or suppression of information about hacking and other manipulation of voting machines in the U.S. election system.

Culture Audience: This documentary will appeal mostly to people who want to know more about how voting in the U.S. works behind the scenes, even if what’s uncovered might be disturbing.

Voting booths in “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

When people vote in elections, are their votes really safe from hacking or other illegal manipulation? Absolutely not, say the experts and other officials interviewed in the chilling documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections.” The movie’s directors Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale focus on U.S. elections that have taken place since 2016. “Kill Chain” sounds the alarm that sinister forces that are inside and outside the U.S. are working to manipulate elections that are happening in 2020 and beyond.

Ardizzone and Michaels directed another HBO documentary that covered a similar topic—2006’s “Hacking Democracy,” which featured election security expert Harri Hursti (a native of Finland) showing how easy it was to hack into a voting machine. Hursti is prominently featured in “Kill Chain,” to the point where he could’ve almost been the film’s narrator. He’s definitely the star of the movie, since the filmmakers follow him going to various U.S. states to investigate the current state of voting machines used in U.S. elections and probable cases of voting fraud in recent elections.

Because voting methods in the U.S. are usually determined by counties within a state, there are vastly different voting machines that are used across the United States. Most voting machines, even if they use paper, still rely on computers for scanning. In addition, many voting places use computerized machines not just for ballots but also to verify identification and residential addresses of voters. Because the trend in newer voting machines is to become more computerized (including machines that turn votes into barcodes), several people in the “Kill Chain” documentary say these computer revamps will leave these machines more vulnerable to being hacked.

The “Kill Chain” documentary gets its name from the “divide and conquer” concept of how one entity can conquer another through a chain of events. As Hursti explains in the documentary, it’s a five step-process: (1) Reconnaissance, which is gathering information about the enemy’s landscape); (2) Identify, which is seeing who the targets are; (3) Weaponize; (4) Paralyze; and (5) Attack. When voting systems are manipulated and hacked, it means that the attacker is in the “weaponize” phase.

Throughout the movie, Russia is repeatedly mentioned as the country that’s most likely to hack a voting system—and not just in the U.S., but in other countries, particularly in Europe. However, “Kill Chain” also makes it clear that voting fraud can easily be perpetrated by Americans in U.S. elections, from the highest federal levels to the smallest local governments.

Hursti says in the beginning of the film: “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This is our common problem, owned by everyone living in the United States. And we have to solve it in order to preserve our way of life, our society, the rule of law, and our right to self-govern.”

He adds, “The key element to restore the votes is a removable medium,” such as flash drives or hard drives, which most voting machines have. Once those drives are removable on a voting machine, says Hursti: “Every step of the way, it’s vulnerable to attack.”

The movie shows that there are certain signs that indicate a voting site has probably been hacked: Numerous people at the site have problems with their ballots being processed. Another red flag is when voters arrive at the site, they are detained or turned away because the computer system at the site shows inaccuracies in the voters’ names or registration addresses. And these problems usually result in long lines of people waiting for several hours to cast a vote, going well beyond an acceptable wait time for casting a ballot. These long lines cause numerous people to either leave or not get a chance to vote before the polling site closes.

“When you prevent people from casting a ballot, you’ve hacked an election,” comments Sue Halper, an author and contributor to The New Yorker. Michael Daniel, who was a White House cybersecurity coordinator from 2012 to 2020, says that a voter registration database is the part of a computerized election system that is the most vulnerable to hacking.

The “Kill Chain” documentary uses the contentious 2018 election of Georgia’s governor as an example of an election that showed signs of being hacked and other voter fraud. For starters, Republican candidate Brian Kemp had a conflict of interest because in 2018, when he was Georgia secretary of state, he moved Georgia’s Center of Election Systems (CES) to his office, where he oversaw CES. Kemp’s Democrat opponent Stacey Abrams and her supporters repeatedly called for Kemp to recuse himself from overseeing the election, due to this conflict of interest. But the protests were to no avail, because Kemp stayed in the position that gave him the power to oversee the voting process of his own election.

Then, on election day (November 6, 2018), there were widespread reports of voting machine “malfunctions” and long lines in districts of Georgia that were heavily populated with people of color and/or registered Democrats. In addition, even before election day, there were reports of thousands of voter registrations being purged from computer systems and thousands of voter registrations not being processed in time for the election, mostly in areas of Georgia where there is a high percentage of people of color and/or registered Democrats.

The voting results were so close that it took 10 days and a recount for the official tally to be announced. Kemp ended up winning by 1.4% more votes than Abrams. The political group Fair Fight Action, which is backed by Abrams, then sued the Georgia board of elections in November 2018, and included allegations of voter suppression in the complaint. As of this writing, the lawsuit has not been resolved.

As a result of these numerous claims that the election was tainted by voter fraud and problematic AccuVote machines, Georgia stopped using AccuVote machines. However, the documentary mentions that Georgia is now using Dominion’s barcode voting machines (which make the votes impossible to count by human eyes), thereby making the vote counting more computerized and more susceptible to hacking. It cost Georgia about $106 million to switch to these new voting machines, according to the documentary.

“Kill Chain” shows Hursti on that 2018 election day in Gwinnett County, Georgia, at one of the voting sites experiencing machine “malfunctions” and extremely long lines. (Many people were waiting up to five to seven hours to vote, according to news reports.) At the voting site, Hursti speaks to Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair Gabe Okoye, who expresses complete surprise when Hursti tells him that the county is using the same type of voting machine that Hursti was able to hack into in 2006.

In a separate post-election trip to Georgia, Hursti meets with Marilyn Marks of the Georgia-based grassroots organization Coalition of Good Governance, who was working at a voting site in Clarke County on that 2018 election day. She noticed that out of the seven machines used on that day at a heavily Democratic precinct, one machine was churning out ballots that were overwhelmingly showing votes cast for Republicans. The voting site’s exact voting results were public information.

For this trip to Georgia, Hursti invited Professor Philip Stark, who works in the statistics department at the University of California at Berkeley, and Stark’s assistant Dr. Kellie Ottobani, to run the statistics to find out the odds of that voting machine’s results being accurate at that polling site on that day. They found that there was less than a one-in-a-million chance that this outlier machine gave accurate results, based on the number of registered Democrats and Republicans who could vote at that voting site on that particular election day.

So with all this real and potential hacking going on, what’s being done about it? According to the people interviewed documentary, the companies in the business of making the machines want to do nothing. (The filmmakers note in the documentary that several of these companies were asked to participate in the film, but declined.) Some of the biggest suppliers of voting machines and/or software are companies such as Dominion Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), VR Systems and AccuVote.

Jake Stauffer, director of operations at cybersecurity firm Coherent Cyber, tells a story about how his company started a testing plan for voting machines, and the plan was approved by the state of California. Coherent Cyber used the testing plan on Dominion and ES&S voting machines and found “multiple vulnerabilities” (his words) that would allow hackers to change an election or shut the system down. But when those vulnerabilities were pointed out to Dominion and ES&S, both companies shut down the investigation and said that Coherent Cyber’s services were no longer needed.

Stauffer says, “How can a vendor sell a voting system with this many vulnerabilities? I can’t find a straight answer.” Jack Braun, who was the Department of Homeland Security White House Liaison from 2009 to 2011, agrees that companies that manufacture and sell voting machines and voting software cannot be counted on to take responsibility for hacking problems, since these companies usually deny that the problems exists. Braun says that these companies are the opposite of transparent when it comes to reporting security breaches with their machines or software.

What are politicians or other government officials doing about this problem? U.S. Senators such as James Lankford (a Republican from Virginia), Amy Klobuchar (a Democrat from Minnesota) and Mark Warner (a Democrat from Indiana) are among the co-sponsors of a bill called the Secure Elections Act, which gives the Department of Homeland Security the primary responsibility within the federal government for sharing information about cybersecurity hacking and vulnerabilities with federal entities and election agencies. “Kill Chain” notes that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (a Republican) has repeatedly blocked this bill.

Lankford, Klobuchar, Warner and U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) are all interviewed in the documentary. Warner says the the U.S. should’ve seen warning signs that Russia would interfere in U.S. elections because back in 2011, Russia’s deputy defense minister Gen. Valery Gerasimov publicly made statements saying that Russia might not be able to compete with Western countries when it comes to military weapons, but Russia could compete when it comes to “cyberwars, disinformation and sowing dissension.”

Ion Sancho, who was supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, from 1988 to 2016, gives his own Russian hacking story in the documentary. In an interview with Hursti, Sancho says that sometime in 2016, he and other election supervisors were summoned by the FBI into a top-secret meeting, where on a conference call, the FBI issued a warning that a foreign power had penetrated an election vendor in Florida.

Sancho says, “It didn’t take us long to figure that they were talking about GIU, Russia’s military intelligence service, and the vendor was a Tallahassee vendor (VR Systems), which did all the programming for the majority of the counties in the state of Florida.” (The documentary also notes that VR Systems also supplies voting machines and services to the states of New York, California, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois and North Carolina.) Sancho goes on to say that Reality Winner—the former National Security Agency intelligence contractor who went to prison for leaking NSA documents that showed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—is a “heroine” for leaking the documents.

In order to illustrate how widespread the denial is over hacking of the voting system, the documentary shows a video montage of several government officials—including former FBI director James Comey and Election Assistance Commission chairman Thomas Hicks—giving Senate testimony saying some version of, “The voting system is not connected to the Internet,” as a way of denying that the system could be hacked. But then, after the video montage is played, Hursti shows several examples of exactly how voting machines are connected to the Internet and can be hacked.

In one example, Hursti and his business partner Maggie MacAlpine go to an Ohio business called eCycle Solutions that sells recycled products from a warehouse and on eBay. Hursti and MacAlpine buy some outdated voting machines called the AccuVote TSx, which is a type of voting machine that’s still being used in several U.S. counties. Hursti takes the computers and shows them to Professor J. Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan’s school of computer science and engineering, and they do an on-camera demonstration of how the computers need the Internet to process the information and can be hacked.

An even more dramatic demonstration of how voting machines are very easy to hack comes about midway through the documentary, when Hursti goes to Def Con (the annual computer-hacker convention in Las Vegas) and invites attendees into a room filled with different types of voting machines that are currently used in U.S. elections. With help from hacker Jeff Moss, also known as the Dark Tangent (who co-founded the hacker conventions Def Con and  Black Hat), Hursti tells the Def Con hackers that they have free reign to hack into the voting machines and show how it can be done. (The documentary notes that the companies whose machines were used were invited to this demonstration too, but they all declined to attend.) The Def Con “hackathon” test of the voting machines showed that all of the machines in the test were “effectively breached,” according to the documentary.

Douglas Lute, the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 2013 to 2017, comments: “We need to shift the mentality away from the Internet being secure and no one is able to tamper with the American election system to the reality that has been demonstrated in 2016.”

One of the most memorable parts of the documentary is toward the end, which features an interview with a hacker in India who uses the alias Cyber Zeist. He does the interview while wearing a disguise and in entirely dark shadows so his face can’t be seen. However, his voice doesn’t seem to be altered.

Cyber Zeist gives a disturbing account of how he was able to hack into the elections computer system for the state of Alaska, and that he could’ve made a fortune (“millions”) from what he was able to find. “I could’ve made any changes to the system,” he brags. Cyber Zeist claims he just “looked around” and didn’t steal information, but Hursti believes that Cyber Zeist dropped enough hints in the interview to admit that a tool was deployed during the hacking session, and that Cyber Zeist might activate this tool later.

The documentary shows Hursti in Alaska meeting with former Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz, who plays excerpts of an audio recording of an interview that he did with former Alaska Elections director Josie Bahnke, who had the position from 2013 to 2018. In the interview, Bahnke says that during her tenure, the Alaska Elections website was hacked by Russians and an IP address from India, but that “there was no breach” because she claims that nothing was altered or stolen. The documentary doesn’t prove that Cyber Zeist was involved in hacking Alaska Elections, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions over how credible this mystery hacker is.

Although “Kill Chain” certainly delivers on presenting several points of view on cyber hacking of elections, what’s missing from the documentary are investigations on what can really be done to combat the problem. The documentary instead wastes some time showing Hursti going back to his hometown in Finland and visiting with his mother. He and his mother look through old photo albums and scrap books together. The only reason this hometown footage seems to be in the documentary is to show the audience that Hursti was a child prodigy in computer science. Instead of this filler and unnecessary footage, the documentary should have shown something more substantial, such as a look into what any grassroots organizations or coalitions are in the U.S. are doing to have voting systems that are the least likely to be hacked, since decisions about voting machines are made on the local level.

The closest the documentary offers to possible solutions is when it shows comments from some of the interviewees (such as statistics professor Stark), who believe that the best voting system to have is a voting system that can leave a paper trail where people can count paper ballot votes by hand, in case there are any disputes. Even though making voting machines more computerized is supposed to make the process easier, the more computerized these machines become, the more likely the election system can be hacked.

After watching this documentary, many people will probably feel the same way that University of Pennsylvania security researcher Sandy Clark feels, when she says: “I feel like we’re in terrible danger of losing what it means to be a democracy. If elections can be altered in a way that’s undetectable, how does one trust the results of their election? Democracy functions on trust. Without that trust, things descend into chaos and anarchy. Those of us who know how vulnerable the systems are in the elections are terribly afraid right now.”

HBO will premiere “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” on March 26, 2020.