As recounts continue in Florida for the gubernatorial and Senate races, and Georgia continues tallying votes in its gubernatorial election, The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, an expert on voter fraud, joins us to discuss what’s really going on—and causes for concern about shenanigans. Listen below or read the transcript a little bit further down.

We also cover these stories:

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  • The attorney general of Maryland is now asking a federal court to block acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker from serving as acting attorney general, and to name Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in his place.
  • Calling for a “green new deal,” Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio Cortez joined a protest over climate issues in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office

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This is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation on the podcast.

Katrina Trinko:  Right now, Florida is doing a recount in both the Senate and the gubernatorial elections. Joining us today is Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation and an expert in voter fraud. Hans, do you think it’s right to be concerned about how these recounts are being done?

Hans von Spakovsky: Yes, because of not only the problems that have surfaced in Broward and Palm Beach County, but also because of prior problems with these election officials.

I hate to say this, but Brenda Snipes, who heads Broward County, is known as one of the worst election officials in the state. She has been found, on numerous prior occasions, to have broken the law and made grievous errors.

To just give you a couple of quick examples, she destroyed ballots after an election. It was after a Democratic primary. She destroyed ballots in violation of both state and federal law, totally unapologetic about it. At one point some years ago, she circulated an absentee ballot that was missing major races on the ballot.

We’ve seen huge problems in this race with her not complying with state law. Right after election eve when the elections close, a state law requires reporting of results, reporting of the number of votes counted, how many outstanding provisional and absentee ballots there are.

She not only did not do that but, for the entire week after the election, was finding new batches of ballots that she couldn’t explain where they came from or where they had been and why they hadn’t been previously reported, which raises all kinds of potential issues.

It’s just one thing after another like that that tells us that she just can’t be trusted to do the job right of tallying votes and counting up who won that county.

Daniel Davis: And with all those past examples of abuse that you mentioned, I think a lot of folks are wondering, how does she still have a job? Of course, she is elected by the people of Broward.

von Spakovsky: That’s a very good question. What people need to understand is that Broward County is such a basket case. It has been so badly run that she actually came in to replace the prior head of Broward elections who had been removed from office also because of incompetence and had been removed, I believe, by the governor.

The governor in the state of Florida does have the power to remove election officials who are incompetent, can’t do their jobs, or engage in illegal behavior. I’m sure that, right now, Gov. Scott is wishing that he had done this a couple of years ago when these problems first surfaced.

Davis: Yeah.

Trinko: On that, my understanding is, from some of the reports, that there’s as many as 25,000 ballots in Broward County that didn’t seem to mark someone in the Senate race. They’re doing a machine recount now throughout Florida, but it could come down to a manual recount. Are those methods problematic? Are you concerned that irregularities are going to occur?

von Spakovsky: Here’s the problem. The reason you have a manual recount is because what Florida uses is what are called opti-scan ballots. Those are paper ballots used—

Trinko: With chads?

von Spakovsky: No, no. No chads. That’s all gone in Florida, fortunately. No, opti-scan are paper ballots where you fill in a bubble next to the person’s name. It’s kind of like an SAT test, for what most people understand. Those are then fed through a computer scanner, which counts up the votes.

If the computer scanner can’t read the ballot, then the ballot is rejected. It has to be looked at by hand. The problem comes in trying to determine, was there actually a vote cast or can you not tell who the vote was for?

Then I’ll give you an example. You’re supposed to fill in the bubble next to the name. Well, sometimes people, instead of doing that, will circle the name of the candidate, so the machine can’t read that, but when officials examine it, you can tell, obviously, the person meant for that vote to go to that candidate.

Sometimes people will cross off names. They’ll circle something then try to cross it out. It can get very confusing. Or maybe there’s a stray check mark, but it’s not on either name, but it’s closer to one name or the other. Well, how do you figure out what was the intention of the vote?

What you have to do when you do a hand count, you have to make sure that there are observers there from both parties, both political candidates, to make sure that local officials are not making decisions that favor one side versus the other. Because I could tell you that the lawyers who are down there have been hired by the incumbent Democratic senator headed by Marc Elias, who’s a very well-known Democratic lawyer, they will be doing everything they can to, one, push any stray marks to be considered as votes for their candidate.

They will also be pushing, in Democratic counties like Broward, to make sure that all absentee ballots are counted, even those that come in and they’re not in compliance with state law.

For example, absentee ballots have to be signed, have to be a signature of the voter. I’m sure they’re going to be pushing saying, “Oh, you don’t really need that. You should count it anyway,” because they’re assuming that vote will be for them. You’ve got to have people on the other side there to make sure those kind of attempts to evade state law are not happening.

Davis: Some good old-fashioned checks and balances.

von Spakovsky: Yes.

Davis: I think what was so stunning for a lot of folks last week that, day after day, they kept finding more votes in Broward County.

von Spakovsky: Right.

Davis: I saw, actually, Marco Rubio tweeted a video of a local person who found a ballot box that was left at a retirement home that was full of ballots and that had just been abandoned there.

It makes you wonder if it’s more than just incompetence, but actually something more insidious. We hear a lot about a lot of conservatives are very skeptical about this. Do the Democrats tend to have a worse record on this, or is it kind of a bipartisan tendency?

von Spakovsky: What we have found in our investigations of voter fraud … As you all know, The Heritage Foundation now has a database we’ve been collecting for a couple years of voter fraud cases from around the country. You will find, in that database, both Republicans and Democrats who have been found guilty of voter fraud.

I do have to say, unfortunately, however, that there seem to be a lot more cases of Democrats found cheating than Republicans and, oftentimes, it’s not Democrats stealing from Republicans. We have many cases where the Democrat’s stealing from other Democrats, particularly in primaries, too, and, I said, both parties do commit fraud, or at least individual members of those parties, but at least most recent cases, it tends to be Democrats.

Trinko: You had mentioned earlier that you bet Rick Scott wishes he had gotten rid of Brenda Snipes for her failings earlier.

von Spakovsky: Right, right.

Trinko: Bill Nelson, his Democrat opponent, of course, in the Senate race has called on Scott, who is currently governor of Florida, to recuse himself from any involvement in the recounts. Do you think that’s appropriate?

von Spakovsky: There’s no need for him to recuse himself because the governor doesn’t have any power over the election process in the state. Yeah, he can remove an incompetent election official, but the governor has no involvement in the counting of ballots, in the certification of the vote counts, so there’s nothing, really, for him to recuse himself from.

His lawyers have filed several lawsuits, and they’ve been successful in doing things like ordering local election officials, including Brenda Snipes and also the head of Palm Beach, to allow observers in to see what they’re doing.

The election officials, in defiance of state law, have been trying to keep observers out, and that is not the way you handle things, particularly not a recount where you want complete and total transparency so that everyone can see exactly how the recount’s being conducted.

Davis: In the very least, it causes people to doubt the integrity of the process.

von Spakovsky: That’s exactly right. Right.

Davis: Even if they’re doing it right, there’s no transparency. We’ve got the Florida example. Also, in Georgia, another race being closely watched between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. It looks like he came out with a wider margin of victory than Rick Scott did, but can you give us an update on what the controversy is in Georgia?

von Spakovsky: Well, I understand that there’s already been decisions from several federal judges. There’s a judge in Atlanta named Judge Amy Totenberg who, by the way, just happens to be the sister of [National Public Radio’s] Nina Totenberg. She’s issued an order preventing state officials from certifying their vote counts before Friday, I guess, while she examines claims being made in the case.

There’s another federal judge who, to me, has issued a nutty decision overriding state law and saying that even absentee ballots that come in that are missing information, something as basic as the birth date of the voter, have to be counted. That’s interfering with the state process of determining the eligibility of voters.

Absentee ballots, officials can’t watch them being completed. One of the ways they try to make sure that it’s really the person who’s the registered voter who sent it in, that somebody didn’t forge their ballot is to, one, require a signature and to require them to recite the basic information that matches their registration form like when they were born.

For a federal judge to come in and say you can’t do that, that judge is interfering, actually, with the integrity of the election process and making it easier for fraudulent ballots to get through.

Trinko: That judge cited the Civil Rights Act, right?

von Spakovsky: Yeah, and I don’t know what in the world that would have to do with the Civil Rights Act.

Trinko: OK. Well, speaking of judges, you mentioned that Marc Elias, a top Democrat lawyer, is working on Florida. Of course, I remember 2000, although I was quite a big younger. Do you think there’s any chance this ends up at the Supreme Court?

von Spakovsky: I doubt it. I think that was a unique circumstance. What’s really so terrible about what’s happening right now is that it’s really giving Florida a black eye because after the—

Trinko: I think you could argue Florida had black eye before this.

von Spakovsky: Well, they did, but I actually know election officials down there and, after the 2000 election, they were so embarrassed by what happened that they made huge improvements in the state.

They rewrote and tightened their laws on recounts, on how you determine a vote. They got rid of all the bad punch-card voting equipment that caused the chads. They got new voting equipment. Now, once again, they’re looking bad basically because of two county election officials in two of the worst counties in the state.

Davis: It looks like, this time, it was human error and … this is maybe not the system itself.

von Spakovsky: That’s what it appears to be. When you can’t keep track of tens of thousands of ballots which are coming in for a whole week after the election, that’s human error. That’s not a machine problem.

Davis: A lot of folks are going to be watching the outcome of this. Do you expect to see any surprises, overturned results, or what do you expect to see from the judges?

von Spakovsky: Given that Gov. Scott won on Election Day by literally tens of thousands of votes, if after they do a recount, particularly in Broward County and Palm Beach, if suddenly it overturns the results of the election, I think there’s going to be litigation for the next year fighting over how that was done.

You all may recall that, in 2008 when Al Franken was the loser on Election Day and he challenged Norm Coleman, who had won on Election Day, he was the Republican, that litigation went on for eight months.

Davis: Who was senator during that time?

von Spakovsky: Well, I’m not sure that senator … The election was in dispute, so I think that seat was just kind of—

Davis: Just open?

von Spakovsky: … open. Do you know who the lawyer was for Al Franken who managed to turn that election around and get the losing candidate to finally win? Marc Elias, the same lawyer now down in Florida leading the Democratic effort to overturn the election results.

Trinko: Wow. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more about his name.

von Spakovsky: I think we will.

Trinko: All right. Thank you so much for joining us, Hans.

von Spakovsky: Sure. Thanks for having me.