Most filmmakers would tell you that the conception of a movie is a long, arduous process. Those behind the lens also typically have years of training and exposure to what goes into a feature-length film. Writer, director, editor, and cameraman of the 2016 political documentary I Voted? Jason Grant Smith had none of that prior knowledge.
A man with a mission to discover the answer to a question that no one else seemed to be considering, Jason set out to investigate how Americans vote – down to the very machines they cast their ballots with. What he found is nothing short of extraordinary. Ahead of this year’s heavily anticipated midterm elections, we sat down with the director to discuss the ever-relevant message of I Voted?
It all started for you back in 2010, when you decided to investigate a voting irregularity in South Carolina. Talk to me about your journey as a filmmaker – what’s the story behind I Voted?
I recall this very vividly. I was watching David Axelrod on Meet the Press, and he was being asked how this irregularity happened, and he said, “we have no idea.” It was really a turning point for me because I thought – how is it possible that a senior White House official cannot explain an election outcome? It didn’t make any sense to me. And as I started poking around and digging around this story a bit, I discovered these touch screen [voting] systems, which I was unfamiliar with, because I had never voted on one. I thought, well this interesting, who else uses these systems which seem to be unverifiable, highly flawed and vulnerable? Then I discovered a lot of places are using them, and then it just it led to a series of questions of why? … I was so surprised that more people aren’t asking these questions.
Katie Couric as an executive producer is a strong name to have backing a documentary. How did she get attached to the project?
The film premiered in 2016 and Katie had seen a rough cut about two years earlier. She said, “I want to be involved in this.” I, of course, said “great!” Katie had some great ideas that I was able to incorporate in, and she helped smooth the path and get some visibility for it.
This was your first documentary, your first film. What was that process like?
I didn’t know what it is I didn’t know. The whole process was a bit of a game of Whack-A-Mole. You know that carnival game where the moles come up and you have to hit them with a hammer and knock them back down again? That’s what this process felt like in many ways because I was learning about what I needed to know when I needed to know it…now I know what’s involved in taking a film from start to finish.
But when I was initially starting, I was having to learn skill sets very quickly that take a career to master. That was really, really challenging. If I had known all of that, to begin with, I don’t know that I would have had the hubris to start this whole process. So I think there was an element of ignorance is bliss and a certain degree of confidence in my ability to problem-solve that somehow I pulled all of this together.
I can only say at times it really felt like a downhill ski run, and that it was a controlled fall going at 90 miles an hour. Really so many times, any place along the way, things could have gone off the rails, but somehow, I was able to push the mess in the right direction and keep it on track. The unfortunate part is, and it’s still a bit of a mystery to me, is why people aren’t more engaged in the topic.
“…demand elections with greater integrity, our election outcomes will have doubt. Doubt is not good for democracy…”
Before we get into the content of the feature, let’s explore the technical side. The production is very well-done, and I particularly enjoy how you mix politics with light humor, articulated with lots of lively graphics. How did you go about developing this?
I didn’t always know what the movie was, but I knew what it wasn’t. If I was editing something, or collaborating with a musician or artist, my graphic designer, I knew that we were headed in the right direction when I saw it…it was always more of a feeling for me; what are people feeling when they watch this? More to the point, what do I want them to feel?
It was important for me to come up with something both informative and entertaining – this topic is about as exciting as watching paint dry. So, it was always important to have something that’s going to keep people engaged, and turning the page like, what happens next? I want to learn more about this…
The material I shot was a lot of talking heads. So I decided pretty early on to incorporate ephemeral films. These are visuals that include old commercials and industrial footage. Also, my art director Bonnie Siegler played off styles and colors used by political campaigns in the 50s & 60s.
There’s something about the retro aesthetic that felt right for the film. Maybe it’s the sense of innocence and optimism the post-war period evokes. The flaws of today’s elections are pretty scary stuff, and the retro look plays against that. This tension hopefully keeps the audience both engaged and curious about what’s going to happen next on screen.
Speaking of flaws, in this piece you expose severe problems within the American electoral system; all centered on how we vote, and the machines we use to cast and verify our ballots. The key message I Voted? sends is this call to action – which you’re still championing today – a return to paper ballots and meaningful post-election audits.
What’s the response been to the film since its 2016 Tribeca Film Festival premiere?
The people who have seen it have liked it. I’ve had a challenge in getting people to see it, and I don’t know why. I think part of it is that people lead busy lives…it’s just getting people to spend a few minutes to focus on this film and this topic. I think it’s that people are busy, and it’s not a sexy topic.
It’s sexier now, but really what’s become interesting about the concept of election integrity is this Russian hacking of election narrative that’s hijacked the whole story. You could remove Russian meddling from this concept entirely, and it’s still a big deal. We’ve become so focused on the Russians attacking our elections while we’re neglecting the fact that these things stink to begin with.
Let’s talk a little more about that. There’s a part of I Voted? where University of Michigan Professor Halderman and a team of students hack into an e-voting machine. How susceptible are these? What kind of political implications could this mean for the United States if it’s quite easy to hack into an electoral voting system?
HUGE. It’s a huge concern that for some reason we have our heads in the sand over. I think part of it is, it’s sort of like when you go to Disneyland – not to bad mouth Disney – but you don’t see behind the scenes. You don’t see Mickey Mouse on his break with his head off, drinking a cup of coffee and having a cigarette. But you don’t want to see that. So you’re not exposed to it…I think that we don’t want to look at how flawed our systems are because it’s incredibly scary to think how flawed these systems are.
One thing I found really interesting in all this is that anytime you ever hear anything about something going screwy with an election, or even when you have senior-level officials or people in the White House and James Comey saying, “well the election vote totals weren’t tampered with.” How do they know that? How could you possibly prove a negative, especially with something unverifiable?
That to me, that aspect of how we filter this information, how we allow our elected officials and our leaders to be somewhat disingenuous with that, is really appalling to me. And I think we need to hold these folks and our own elections accountable. We don’t do that. Because people have busy lives, they’re picking their kids up at soccer practice. They’re going to work. They’re going to work out. They’re fixing their marriages. They’re not spending time thinking about democracy.
“…set out to investigate how Americans vote–down to the very machines we cast our ballots with. What he found is nothing short of extraordinary…”
You mentioned in an interview with CNN a year ago that there are local, state and federal efforts underway to fix the problems with e-voting and ballots. You also mention that there’s no priority with this fix. Has there been any significant change in the past year?
Well, yeah, there was actually – it wasn’t a big story, but part of the omnibus [spending bill] that was passed [this year], the federal budget allocated about $380 million federal dollars to the states to improve their voting systems. But unfortunately, $380 million is not a lot of money to take on this job of doing that…The states are responsible for financing their own elections, and in many cases, the counties are responsible for financing the elections. These are localities that are strapped for cash. They are trying to figure out – well, are we going to spend it on our police force, or upgrading our election systems? Those are difficult choices to make.
For some reason, we just haven’t prioritized this. The process of procurement and purchasing and deploying these systems I don’t think is done with the level of scrutiny it needs to be done with. I think there is systemic failure across the board with plenty of blame to go around, and the biggest blame I think is really looking in the mirror and looking at ourselves. What always seems so bizarre to me – and I do mention this in the film – is that we started the concept of the United States over the vote!
That was no taxation without representation; it was a mantra of the Revolution. This vote that we fought our Revolution for, protecting that vote, that idea is withering on the vine, and I don’t know why. There’s a complacency, and democracy, freedoms, and liberties require eternal diligence. But we’re more interested in what Kanye tweeted.
What did you think about the recent news of the Ukrainian cyber-attack on the Tennessee primary?
It’s a #2 with cheese. I don’t mean to sound flip, but today American elections are routinely under siege. And we are all too frequently reassured by officials that no vote totals were impacted in these attacks. How can anyone prove something didn’t happen? It’s a disingenuous narrative.
What would it take? You present your proposed solutions in the documentary: to bring back paper ballots and meaningful post-election audits. What would it take for the entire United States electoral system to shift back to this?
Political will. And that starts with the general public. I find it odd that millions of people will march against a president with whom they disagree but there’s no march against the awful voting systems used to elect that same president. Why?
“…there’s a complacency, and democracy, freedoms and liberties require eternal diligence. But we’re more interested in what Kanye tweeted.”
Is this change foreseeable? As in, near future?
Absolutely, and I think we’re probably headed in that direction. I think that the insecurities and the vulnerabilities are so widely documented, and so exposed by hopefully the film, and folks like Professor Halderman who’s testified before congressional committees on these issues. When you have people with that level of gravitas, I think folks in positions of power pay attention to it, but actually acting on it requires the will of the people. It requires people to make an outcry, and to not accept this…
What I’ve always found interesting in this process is that level of transparency and accountability. I think it’s one of the main things that documentary films do. Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant and shining that sunlight, pointing that camera in the direction of an issue, can push us in the direction of coming up with a solution.
That’s an amazing aspect of documentary filmmaking. At the same time, people have to take in these messages and do something…There’s a level of trust that we place in these systems and in the people that are making these systems, that is really misplaced and a danger to our democracy.
With midterm elections approaching, do you have a message for the American people preparing to vote?
Unless “We the People” demand elections with greater integrity, our election outcomes will have doubt. Doubt is not good for democracy.
Last question! What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
I’m very interested in the world of documentaries because of the power of what they are capable of in terms of creating change in the world. The huge challenge in documentary filmmaking at the same time is funding, as money is the lubricant that drives anything…within any filmmaking, really.
I have an idea for a documentary that I’m very interested in doing, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get it off the ground. I’ve got a couple of narratives, “movie movies,” that I’d like to do, too. Somehow those seem like they might be easier to make, although I’m probably deluding myself to think that.
But I really enjoyed this process; being able to synthesize all of those things, wearing these different hats as a filmmaker, and also wearing these different hats as an engaged citizen learning about elections… being able to synthesize those disparate elements in a way that a general audience could hopefully be engaged, entertained, and informed by. I was glad I was able to do that.
I Voted? (2016) Directed, Produced and Shot by Jason Grant Smith.