Shortly after the 2016 election, Jill Stein raised more than $7 million from shell-shocked liberals eager to pursue a swing-state recount. Nearly two years later, the U.S. Green Party’s last candidate for president is still spending that money.
Ongoing litigation, travel costs, and staff salaries are also likely to eat up whatever is left, meaning those who donated to Stein are unlikely to receive a once-promised chance to vote on how the post-recount money would be spent. Nor have donors been given much of a window into how Stein is actually spending their donations.
The last FEC filing from the Stein campaign was for the month of September 2017. And the last update from the campaign itself came in a post on April 20, in which it said it was down to $932,178 in recount funds.
“It is strange that they would just stop filing reports given they were a legitimate, professional campaign, and despite still having more than a million dollars in cash on hand,” Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, told The Daily Beast.
Jonathan S. Abady, an attorney with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, the New York-based firm that represents Stein and her campaign, told The Daily Beast that legal efforts on the recount persist to this day.
But the opacity surrounding the expenditure of money—combined with the fact that a good chunk of the spending has come after all efforts to recount the vote were terminated—has fed criticism that Stein was more interested in boosting her political operations than in recounting votes. It’s also drawn the ire of regulators. In a May 7, 2018 letter, the FEC warned Stein campaign treasurer Steven Welzer that he was violating federal law by not accounting for half a year of spending.
“The failure to timely file this report may result in civil money penalties, suspension of matching funds, an audit or legal enforcement action,” the letter states, noting there is no grace period.
From the moment Stein started raising money for a recount, there were reasons to be skeptical. The Green Party’s nominee for president was “launching an effort to ensure the integrity of our elections,” asking for $2.5 million, getting it, doubling the goal and then doubling it again. All of this was done after Stein publicly dismissed reports that Russian state actors had sought to undermine the integrity of the vote and after seeming increasingly unconcerned with who actually won in November.
Cynics smirked, believing Stein was just cashing in on the shock of Hillary Clinton’s defeat and trying to stifle the criticism that she had been a “spoiler.” She was the first in a legion of #Resistance grifters, in this telling—a charge amplified by President-elect Donald Trump.
In reality, it wasn’t even Stein’s idea to contest the results. Well-respected computer scientists, in need of legal standing and a proxy, urged her to do it after the Clinton campaign declined. That she raked in more than $7.3 million raised eyebrows, but that money was freely given by people who wanted her to pursue the costly process of double checking the ballots. In exchange, the Stein campaign promised to let the approximately 161,000 donors exercise their right to vote on how to disperse any money left over.
“Once those costs are finalized, all remaining money will go to a set of non-partisan election reform and voting rights organizations based on your input in an online, ranked choice vote,” Stein wrote in a letter to donors; though, at other times, she and her campaign said it was unlikely there would be any money left over.
"We are raising money into a dedicated account for a recount campaign. The money cannot be used for anything else. It cannot be used for my campaign. It cannot be used for the Green Party. It can only be used for the recount," she added during an interview on ABC.
Stein campaign spokesperson Dave Schwab said, after this story was published, that there still could be a plebiscite. "[W]e will poll donors on what to do with surplus funds once recount-related litigation is over and we are able to establish a surplus," Schwab told The Daily Beast. But he did not provide more detail on how money is being used, outside of the litigation.
Running a recount is actually quite expensive. Filing fees to request the recounts in Wisconsin and Michigan alone cost over $2.3 million. Attorney fees have taken some $2.6 million from the pot. Abady, one of the recount lawyers, told The Daily Beast that the Stein campaign is still seeking access “to the software used in Wisconsin’s voting systems.” On March 15, the Wisconsin Elections Committee granted that request, Abady said, a decision immediately challenged by two voting system vendors who don’t want anyone prying in to their proprietary source code.
Stein has also “brought a separate challenge concerning the scope of the software inspection permitted to her,” Abady added. “Both challenges are before the same judge in Wisconsin state court and he will likely set a briefing schedule in the next few weeks.”
In Pennsylvania, Abady said, the legal effort concerns a “broken election system” that “forces voters to use unreliable machines and denies them the ability to make sure their votes were counted.” The Stein team, he added, “filed an amended complaint in February 2017 that focuses on reforming the system for future elections”
Preparing for future elections, however, is distinctly different than relitigating the past one, raising questions as to whether it falls under the purview of a formal recount effort. Other expenditures have raised similar questions. According to Stein’s April 20 update, more than $363,900 has been spent on “Media” even though, in 2016, donors were told that media expenses “could go up to $300K.” Other costs are more in line with predictions. By 2018, the campaign had spent $820,000 on “Travel and Events, “Staff support,”and “Recount observer costs.” Another $150,000 was set aside for a “Compliance reserve” — a total slightly under estimates that CBS reported in December 13, 2016.
Much of the spending has taken place long since any hope for more recounts came to an end. Of the more than $509,000 spent on staff, more than $300,000 has been spent since February 20, 2017, according to the Stein campaign. The same is true for 87 percent of travel and events spending.
As the Center for Responsive Politics has noted, U.S. law dictates that funds raised for a recount “only go toward expenses directly related to the recount, such as paying state staff that counts the votes or any other administrative or overhead payments, as well as post-election litigation.”
Staff who appear to be working on the recount are the some of same who worked on Stein’s presidential campaign. Schwab, director of communications, made $3,840 in September 2017, according to the last available FEC filing. Campaign Manager David Cobb was also on the payroll as of September 2017, taking home a monthly salary of $7,520. Cobb announced the recount effort in a Facebook Live video and, in a subsequent video, identified himself as “Jill Stein’s campaign manager for the recount.” Cobb told The Daily Beast he is “still with the campaign,” but did not elaborate.
In September 2017, Carl Romanelli, a former Green Party candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, was also paid $2,000 that month, plus $272.50 in travel, for “Recount Organizing Services,” according to the FEC filing. During the campaign, Romanelli worked as a “State Organizer” and “Field Organizer,” per reports filed with the FEC.
As for the ongoing litigation that the Stein recount effort is supporting, not everyone is convinced it is meritorious.
“I am not going to spend an ounce of thought on a legal challenge to an election two years ago when we have critical midterm elections in a few months,” said Neil Makhija, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, when asked for comment. Makhija, who ran for public office in 2016 as a Democrat, argued that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, “is doing everything he can to update our systems to be secure and accurate.”
But David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says there is good reason to keep fighting. An expert on election security, he provided technical support and guidance during the initial recount effort.
“It absolutely was not a Stein campaign cash grab,” he told The Daily Beast. And while examining voting machines and their source code may not change the result of the last election — Stein’s attorneys would quickly note they are not trying to — it could help secure the next one, Jefferson argued. It is about transparency.
“To be perfectly clear, we never really had any evidence [of vote hacking],” he said. “The point we have always been making is that you have to look. You have to check. You don’t just accept the results of complex software, especially proprietary software. You don’t just trust it.”