PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
I feel like you could say this most years since America started, but 2020 is not a great year for people who want to believe that our democracy is still operating at 100% functionality.
Whether it’s Kentucky closing down 95% of their polling places right before the primaries or Wisconsin refusing to let people mail in ballots during a pandemic, or I don’t know, a Russian interference in the last election... It just feels like elections themselves have become…way more broken.
And this week we have a story about an American election where -- everything went wrong -- outside interference, outright bribery, a runaway populist who nobody seemed to be able to control. This was an election where the real question was whether when it was over people would still even believe in the idea of free elections at all.
That election I’m talking about of course is the 2019 student body election at Berkeley High School.
Clapping sounds - “no ban, no wall, education for all”
Berkeley High -- as you’d probably guess is this intensely leftie public school in downtown Berkeley, California.
Clapping sounds continue - “no ban, no wall, education for all”
They have more walkouts than my high school had snow days.
TV CLIP: Hundreds of students walked out of class at Berkeley High School today…
These kids are super charged up, they’re ready to change the world
STUDENT #1: They think we’re worrying about Twitter and Instagram, but right now we are doing what they don’t have the balls to do.
STUDENT #2: Let us march on the capitol and demand action here in California now! Most of all, register to Vote!
And while most of them are not actually old enough to vote, they take all that political fervor, and they apply it to their own democratic system, their election for student body president.
And while the 2019 election was very undercovered by the national press corps. It really does and -- I’m serious -- it feels like if you look at it, you can see all the bugs and all the features of American democracy.
Our political reporter Damiano Marchetti has the story.
DAMIANO MARCHETTI: The Berkeley High School election starts with an event that, if you’ve ever seen a movie about high school elections, will be completely familiar to you.
STAR SPANGLED BANNER starts playing
The Election Convention.
CLIP (JOHN VILLAVECENIO): Thank you candidates for showing up to the 10th annual election convention. This is a tradition unlike no other here at Berkeley High School where we…
DAMIANO: Can you describe the election convention?
RACHEL: So it's in our like little, dark, janky, little theater. Um like where the seats squeak when you sit in them. And basically everyone like goes up one by one and does like a one minute speech and then they answer a few like questions from audience.
That was Rachel Alper, one of the candidates. She told me that that year, 2019, an unprecedented number of students were running for Berkeley High School office, something like 70 candidates.
MR V: Um so today you’ll hear, be hearing from representatives for class positions as well as for school wide positions. ASB (fade down)...
This is the teacher who oversees student government, his name is Mr V., and he calls to the stage the student who’s in charge of the election.
CLIP (JOHN VILLAVECENIO): So I’m gonna pass um, the mic over to the commissioner of elections Robert Stern.
CLIP (ROBERT EZRA): Thank you Mr. V, uhh
Robert Ezra Stern, the elections commissioner, he’s 17 years old, he’s got this long curly hair and a baseball hat.
CLIP (ROBERT EZRA): first thing is you will notice your schedules on the cover of the booklet, allot a five-minute recess, Mr V and I, like your mean principal in middle school, have cancelled recess. There will be no recess, you may take a break during other class presidents’ (fade down) for example if you are…
This young man who’s joyfully canceling recess for his classmates, nothing about him would suggest that he would actually be a key figure in all of the scandals to come.
DAMIANO: Hello, hello?
ROBERT EZRA STERN: Hello
DAMIANO: Hi, how’re you doin?
ROBERT EZRA: Good.
The first time I talked to Robert Ezra, it was almost a year ago.
DAMIANO: OK. So I guess like the first thing I'm just curious about is like what? What Berkeley High is like? Was it like a typical high school where there were like different groups and camps and stuff like that?
ROBERT EZRA: Uhh by all indications, it's it's a reasonably normal high school with a lot more um political activism slash tension going on. But, you’re talking to the number one worst person to ask about that.
DAMIANO: [laughing] Why is that
ROBERT EZRA: I am a bit of a recluse. (Damiano: uh huh) um I'm not entirely tuned into you know, the the the social scene. (Damiano: mhm mhm) I can point you to some people who are
In this school of would-be revolutionaries, Robert Ezra was something else entirely.
When he'd run to become elections commissioner-- he essentially ran as like a technocrat, just wanted to make things more efficient. Even this very convention that we’re in … before Robert Ezra’s tenure it had essentially been this like daylong party, there was pizza, there was costumes, all this stuff that in Robert Ezra’s eyes was unnecessary pageantry.
ROBERT: My platform was, let's not have that party anymore, or at least let's not make it so intense uh because I am anti public gathering that detracts from school instructional time. Um, it-it annoys me.
CLIP (ROBERT EZRA): Uh, yeah. Without further ado, let's have the candidates up here for....
So at the convention that day, Robert Ezra of course is running a very tight ship. He’s on the stage. He’s got all the presidential candidates lined up behind him, and one by one he’s calling them to the podium.
My name is Rachel Alper, and I'm running to be your ASB president because I believe that students have the power to make meaningful change at Berkeley High.
Rachel’s sort of a Tim Kaine figure -- like very well liked, low unfavorables, but not a candidate who was defining the race.
I’m a proven advocate for Berkeley High Students. For example, this year I worked with Principle Schweng to bring free menstrual products to Berkeley High bathrooms.
DAMIANO: The candidates have 45 seconds to speak, and not a second more.
I’m a committed student who has participated in a wide range of activities at
If they go over, Robert Ezra’s tactic is to just start abruptly shouting THANK YOU!
CLIP (CANDIDATE): … on campus and better gender neutral bathrooms [Robert Ezra: Thank you!] and I guarantee you, [Robert Ezra: Thank you!] Berkeley High two [Robert Ezra: Next candidate is] rally days. [Robert Ezra: M. Wasserman. M. Wasserman]
The next two candidates in this convention walk up to the podium together,
They’re in black sports coats, looking like interns on a senatorial campaign
CLIP (LEXIE and DAIJAH): Anyways, my name is Lexie Tesch and I'm Daijah Connerly, and we're running to be your ASB president and vice president.
DAMIANO: Lexie and Daijah. They stayed up until 1am practicing their synchronized introduction. Their main campaign promise is a supply center for homeless students, but they have a laundry list of other items…
CLIP (LEXIE AND DAIJAH): We would also like to work on the bathrooms at our school, like making sure the gender neutral bathrooms are unlocked and cleaned, that there are dividers in the M building boy’s bathroom, making sure that teachers can’t take away our extra credit in exchange for passes, and keeping the menstrual products fully stocked, while also ensuring our restrooms smell fresh instead of fishy
Daijah, the girl on the left … this whole thing was really new for her. She’s the only black student on stage, and she’s surrounded by people who are more or less strangers to her.
That's because Berkeley High, it’s this huge school that’s split up into all these smaller, mini schools. And from talking to the students, it seems pretty segregated. The kids we’ve heard from so far, they’re mostly white and are in the honors and AP-focused programs.
Daijah says she’s from the school that’s geared towards medicine & public health--and is a lot more diverse. Almost no one ever runs from Daijah’s program. But when she saw the election announcement, she got excited.
DAIJAH: I was like, I've um never done anything like this but I started to become more interested in politics. So I was like, I think I should run but it's not only like I'm doing it for me. I was kind of doing it because I hadn't seen a lot of African-American people in general like apply for these positions. And I was thinking, maybe if I do it then I can start something and other people will want to do it.
As a candidate, Daijah’s the progressive insurgent who’s trying to break in from the outside.
But she needed a running mate, someone with way more experienced of the BHS political machine. So she asked Lexie, who has been in student politics since she was in diapers basically.
LEXI: Sixth grade, I was uh like house of representatives in middle school then 7th grade I was an ambassador, I was on the city of Berkeley’s youth commission...8th grade I was an ambassador… 8th grade class president… freshmen class leadership...sophomore class president...I was involved in youth in government with the YMCA...and then it was my second year on the national student leadership board...I am on the board of directors for generation citizen. And...I believe that is it?
Lexie comes from the crew of like elite student government kids, BUT she has a very different background from most of them.
LEXI: you know, Berkeley High isn't only made up of the like rich kids from the hills. During middle school, I was homeless um because I got evicted from my apartment in fifth grade right at the beginning of summer with my mom. So, my friends and I worked on spreading awareness about homelessness at our school and worked with showing that there are low-income students and that you know, we are even low income students and we were trying to, you know, make sure that we're not like swept under the rug.
That was the platform. Lexi would run for president, Daijah for Vice President,
And in a world where elections are completely fair and the best candidate wins, Daijah and Lexie are shoo-ins, like, they’re principled, passionate, they’ve the best ideas. And after that first speech, it seemed like it could even happen.
CLIP (LEXIE AND DAIJAH): Daijah and I are anything but quiet so if you want two strong, determined leaders to be the voice of the student body, VOTE FOR US!
DAIJAH: And I didn't even expect people to cheer. [cheers] And people just started like “Ahhhh yeahhhh Diajah Lexie!!!!” [cheering] (DAMIANO: really?) Yeah, Yeah, like, it-it gave me a confidence boost. It was just a really good feeling knowing that other people kind of believed in me.
But if Daijah and Lexie were going to win, they would have to beat an extremely strong candidate, a kid I’m going to call Zac.
Zak was a completely different type of politician. He was a showboat, a populist. His whole campaign was going to be about entertainment and distraction.
His strategy was clear even on that first day at the convention ... Rachel, one of the other presidential candidates, was there on stage with him.
RACHEL: I remember Zak had his uh it was uh like somebody said it was water, and I assume it was [PAUSE] he was like sitting on the stage with this like vodka bottle like next to him and like just like drinking out of it, like sitting on the stage. It’s actually I was mostly annoyed because I feel like everyone in the audience was paying attention to that and like, not my speech, which like it is more interesting, I guess. So like, I don't blame them but
The glass bottle is the subject of a lot of debate at BHS. Was it a vodka bottle with water in it? Was it a bottle that just LOOKED like a vodka bottle?
In any case, it stole the show.
And when it's Zak's turn to give his speech, he doesn’t go to the podium. He doesn’t bother using a mic, which is why we don’t have the audio.
He’s in a black button up shirt, he’s got this coiffed hair, and he’s commanding the stage like this is his Ted X talk. He tells the kids that Rally Day, this huge party that Berkeley High school throws every year? In his administration, they’re gonna do that every. single. month.
Daijah cannot believe it:
DAIJAH: And my facial expressions were just like, like “What??” In that moment, I wasn’t thinking of myself as a candidate, I was-I was thinking of myself as student and I was thinking, if I were down there, would I wanna vote for that? (nervous laugh)
The thing was … Zak's class clown strategy honestly had kind of an appeal. Like, you could read it as authentic, almost like his shenanigans were saying -- we all know there is nothing more phony than a high school election. And, I’m treating you like a grown-up by being honest about that.
After three hours of speeches, the candidates are done, and Robert Ezra calls the convention to a close.
CLIP (ROBERT EZRA): Okay, uh, thank you. That’s about all we have time for, a round of applause for our…
Which is where Robert Ezra should have disappeared from the story, because election commissioners are like baseball umpires: when everything goes right, nobody notices them. Nobody asks them their origin story.
DAMIANO: Tell me about why you started getting involved in election stuff.
ROBERT EZRA: Oh I-I just like elections. Someone on this campus has gotta run an election, why can’t it be me who you know reads about them on Wikipedia in their spare time.
The origin story of Robert Ezra’s career starts when he was merely a sophomore, it was 2016, and he’d just watched the Clinton vs Trump showdown, an election he found very disturbing.
ROBERT EZRA: After the 2016 election, I just sort of I don't think grew grew disillusioned is the right word … But I just withdrew.
Um I went through my Twitter and anyone who started retweeting political stuff, I just muted them so I don't have to see their tweets. My Twitter is about sports and jokes. Um I don't need to subject myself to the day to day, you know, news cycle. … I think it's it-it deteriorates your mental health really quickly.
His candidate had lost, and lost in an election that was itself a total compromised mess.
In the aftermath, he avoided politics, but he threw himself even deeper into his obsession with elections themselves -- their minutiae, how they’re run in different countries.
And a few short years later, (as elections commissioner) he would get a chance to build the perfect one, and he would build it at Berkeley High School.
DAMIANO: What were the things you wanted to do differently or better?
ROBERT: Uhh it’s quite a lot of things actually, I wanted to switch the elections to ranked choice voting. Are you familiar with ranked choice voting?
ROBERT: Ranked choice voting is exactly what it sounds like, where instead of voting for one candidate, you vote for uh N minus one candidates if the race has N candidates, um you rank your preferences and there's an algorithm that determines who's the winner based on everyone's preferences.
Ranked choice voting is not the only modern election innovation that Robert Ezra can’t help but rhapsodize about. There were many more and BHS was going to get all of them.
Which is how in 2019, the Berkeley High election went entirely online. No more voting in the classroom on scantrons that the teachers passed out. Students would be able to vote via a google form they could access from their student emails.
ROBERT EZRA: I would much rather students be able to vote on their phones, students be able to vote in class with computers …
True accessibility. He couldn’t fix American elections, but he could fix his high school’s.
That was the plan anyway.
Now, with the convention over, and 2 weeks until voting, the high school politicians begin their campaigns in earnest.
Every election that’s ever been held, has been a sort of battle between two imaginations.
On one side, there’s the person who designs the election, who has to think of every way politicians have ever tried to break the rules, anticipate all the new cheats they’ll cook up,
And then there’s the politicians, imagining ways to game the system, looking for whatever advantage they can find. And they often win, at least a little bit. It’s almost like politics itself has a way of shaking loose whatever rules you try to put around it.
But despite his academic, loner nature, Robert Ezra had certainly tried his best at imagining all the ways his system could be compromised.
The rules he’d written were comprehensive. He sent them to me.
They look like something you’d get at the DMV. Lots of fine print on everything from campaign finance to negative campaigning to the distribution of edible materials… by which I’m pretty sure he just means candy …and a whole section on posters.
ROBERT EZRA: Posters displayed on school property shall not exceed 3 feet in height or 8 feet in length. Posters shall be placed on bulletin boards only or in classrooms or class doors with the explicit verbal approval of the teacher. Writing on a whiteboard constitutes a poster. Posters must not be intentionally placed next to that of candidates for the same office without the explicit verbal approval of the candidates mentioned. Posters must be placed during school hours.
If that sounds like a lot of rules around hanging posters, it is.
But the reason he’s done that is because in a high school election posters are like tv ads, radio ads, and facebook ads, all rolled into one. They are the place where the candidates can get their message out. And with so many candidates in the race, the poster wars got intense.
GABRIEL: It got completely out of control. It just like- people taking it way too seriously. Like thousands of like posters of like VOTE LEXIE VOTE ZAK like all over the hallways, like every single hallway.
That’s a kid I’ll call Gabriel. He runs an instagram meme account that’s basically like the school’s gossip column:
GABRIEL: I remember Lexie's team made um posters in like like in like five different languages, but like they did it through Google Translate. So they had one that was in Chinese. And I speak Chinese. (DAMIANO laughs) Um Since I've taken like Mandarin for seven years and like it is like completely incorrect. Like I’m like, like like I was just like, wow, like like I don't even think you're helping yourself at this point.
The thing was that while Gabriel may not have been impressed by insufficiently vetted Mandarin. Gabriel was completely unimportant. He was a junior. And the Junior votes were basically locked up on day one because everyone more or less voted for their friends. That group is as predictable as California or Mississippi.
If Nate Silver were explaining the parameters of the Berkley High School election, he would almost certainly observe that there is only one real group of undecideds.
The Pennsylvania of Berkeley high, the swing voters -- those are the freshmen… they’re the prize target...each candidate lives or dies based off whether they can win the hearts of these kids who are too naive to have picked their clique yet.
I heard rumors of a candidate that had stooped so low as to offer bribes to win freshman votes. I brought this up with Evie, another one of the candidates.
DAMIANO: Do you remember people giving out candy?
EVIE: That was me. Um I—
DAMIANO: [Gasps] What?
EVIE: I was the candidate who accidentally gave out candy.
DAMIANO: What do you mean accidentally, you can't accidentally give out candy.
EVIE: Okay, okay. Well yeah. I just had some Starbursts and it was like this fair, and it was kinda like a meet the candidates thing during lunch I think. And I, I think I gave out some Starbursts and I remember explicitly saying—
DAMIANO: You think you gave out some Starbursts?
EVIE: Okay, so I gave out some Starbursts and I-I remember though, explicitly saying like "This is not a campaign bribe, I'm just giving this to you” (DAMIANO: uh huh) to the people that I would give them to. (DAMIANO: oh my god) Which obviously is a campaign bribe.
EVIE: But also, I didn’t- I only think I gave it out to like five people, max?
A little sugar-based bribery, not that big of a deal.
But separately, people were also starting to ask questions about possible campaign finance violations.
GABRIEL: Can you imagine spending fifty dollars on, like, stress balls with your name on it to hand out to kids to get them to vote? I don't know how much I was like, wow, this is like super competitive. I wonder who's going to win as much as I was like, this is just stupid.
DAMIANO: And- and was that unusual though?
GABRIEL: It was unusually stupid.
Robert Ezra's Rules on this were clear: “Your campaign shall not spend more than two hundred dollars. A log of all donations and expenditures to and from all relevant parties shall be kept and made available to the Commissioner of Elections.”
But in the middle of Robert Ezra’s election was Daijah and Lexie’s campaign … this sick orgy of political party favors. They had monogrammed pencils, they had pamphlets, there was a bubble machine, silly putty.
How were they doing that?
DAIJAH: Everybody assumed that we spent so much money on our things. And I think in total, I probably spent about like twenty dollars um on our entire campaign. The posters that we made, everything that we made, we probably got from the Dollar Tree, from my job
Damiano: Where do you work?
DAIJAH: I work at the YMCA Teen Center. It's like right across the street from Berkeley High.
Meanwhile Zak, the populist candidate, is doing exactly what you would expect him to do.
He's throwing house parties and inviting the underclassmen.
RACHEL: He would post like after the party on his Instagram, like pictures of people at the party like holding up his campaign posters essentially. And there'd be like a little video montage.
Um, and I mean, it was- it was brilliant. I mean, everyone was talking about him.
I asked Daijah, the outsider candidate
DAMIANO: It seems like some of the other students were running more traditionally high school campaigns, like we're gonna, you know, have more fun and (DAIJAH: party) party.
Did you hit some point in the campaign where you're like, God, like, maybe we should just be doing that?
DAIJAH: NO. you have to hold yourself to a different standard if you're running for like ASB president and vice president
To Daijah and a lot of students at Berkeley High school, it seemed like Zak didn’t care about much other than winning. You won’t hear from Zak in this story, but I talked to people who said actually that’s not true at all.
One of them was his friend Canaan.
CANAAN PAKTER: So Zak and I talked for months about what he was going to run for. Now he he realized that he could probably just run for ASB president because at that point he was so well-known and so well liked and he had all the experience
And just generally having known him, I know that the ASB presidency is very much a popularity contest (DAMIANO: mhm) and his popularity was very much earned through being dedicated to certain causes. I mean, we were activists together outside of school for different uh climate groups and he had dedicated a lot of his time toward furthering academic opportunities for his fellow students, that he decided that his platform would be bringing about free SAT and ACT tutoring prep.
And, because he had this delusion that people didn't like him. He decided to throw monthly parties on top of that which did not go over so well. But I do think that uh of all the campaigns, Zak's was not terribly dirty at all
By the last week of campaigning, things were getting kind of ugly.
Daijah told me that she got this text message from a friend … it was a picture of her and Lexie’s poster in a urinal. It had been peed on.
DAIJAH: It took an emotional toll on us. Like there was a time when I was crying because I was like, "People hate me, I should have never run for this position, like they're peeing on my posters and I never wanted this."
DAMIANO: Did you have a theory about who was doing it?
DAIJAH: At first I was thinking about other candidates and I was trying to tell Lexie, I was like (exhales) LEXI. Trust me. The candidates are probably doing this to us for, like, revenge or something. I don't know why they would need revenge, but they're probably just like mad about something. She's like, no. None of the candidates would do something that rude. Like We shouldn't just assume and I was like LEXI, like we are running against them, and we are doing a decent job.
The elections commissioner, Robert Ezra, he actually for the most part stayed out of all of this. Which at first surprised me, like this was his election after all.
But Robert Ezra told me that it was important he stay out of all of this…he had to remain objective. The more I got to know him, the more I came to understand this kind of logic as particularly Robert Ezra. It was a logic that dictated also that he keep an EXTREME level of distance from the candidates who, I will remind you, were his classmates.
DAMIANO: What were the different personalities that were running?
ROBERT EZRA: So, at the time, there were a lot of races going on and I didn't want to get in the weeds of any single one. So I don't know. I'm probably not the best storyteller for this. And um I can point you to someone who was, but.
DAMIANO: Totally. Um Just tell me, like what- Who do you remember as being like the big candidates or the big front runners or.
ROBERT EZRA: So the... I don't really know how to answer that question. There were definitely big frontrunners, but I'm not really in tune with the school social scene or with who people would vote for. I do have the returns in front of me. I can definitely tell you who won, (DAMIANO laughs) but uhhh
DAMIANO: I guess I'm just curious like putting aside everything and getting right. I’m just like who do you remember running? Like Which candidates stuck in your brain. If any of them.
ROBERT EZRA: Um Not, not really uh I-I was really, I tried to detach myself from the race. My job was not to assess the race qualitatively.
On Monday, the two weeks of campaigning closed, and Robert Ezra declared voting open.
The students would have a whole week to cast their vote. Now finally his innovation--the online voting system, the thing he actually cared about-- would have its moment to shine.
ROBERT EZRA: The Google form was open. And you could go into your email and vote. You could have a Chromebook supplied to you in class and vote. You could vote on your phone. You can vote at home, whatever. And everything was mostly fine for like four days.
DAMIANO: Until Thursday night.
Robert Ezra’s in his bedroom, and he can see the votes coming in, and he gets a tip from that teacher who’s been helping oversee the elections, Mr V, who says something weird is going on with the ballot numbers for this candidate that Robert Ezra calls “Candidate One”.
ROBERT EZRA: Candidate One, who has for all this time been running in a solid second place to a very popular front runner, um all of a sudden is in first place now.
Uh AND THEN very quickly we saw a whole bunch of red flags, oh all-all the votes for candidate one are coming in a row, um all the votes for candidate one are coming in alphabetical order, all the votes for candidate one are also voting for their running mate and they’re not choosing any like second or third choices in a ranked-choice election… so right there, that’s, that’s us noticing fraud.
Robert Ezra's election... had been compromised.
Welcome back to the show.
Robert Ezra, the elections commissioner of Berkeley High School has just realized that somebody has hacked into his voting system.
The student he calls Candidate One has shot into the lead but the election is not over yet.
There’s one day left of voting … and Robert Ezra needs to figure out what to do.
ROBERT EZRA: We first-- basically we tried to make a list of people of interest and number one person of interest Of course is gonna be the candidate.
DAMIANO: Right. Of course.
ROBERT EZRA: Um, there is also some very complicated relationship dynamics between them and some other people. So those other people were on the lists.
DAMIANO: Oh, you're suspecting the people that they are maybe in an argument with or something like that
ROBERT EZRA: in their social circle.Yeah.
The next morning, he goes to the school’s IT expert, also known as his computer science teacher, and asks him to look at the back end of the Google voting form, can he find anything like an IP address?
ROBERT EZRA: And we don't get a smoking gun from that.
ROBERT EZRA: All we learn is that the votes are being cast from an Apple computer. It’s not a smartphone. It's not a tablet. It's not a Windows computer. Not that people have those. Um i-it is an Apple computer.
Great. That narrows it down to like every other kid at Berkeley High School.
So now, Robert Ezra has a decision to make. There’s 6 hours left in voting. The reasonable thing to do would be to just pull the plug, re-do the entire election.
Or...he could set an elaborate trap, find the hacker, and personally observe them fraudulently entering votes into their computer. In which case, the voting must be allowed to continue as normal."
ROBERT EZRA: If you tell, say a mob leader that you're in the process of investigating their speakeasy, (DAMIANO: uh huh) when you get there, speakeasy’s not gonna be there.
So we actually did stand by and let fraud happen. We we relied on that. We, it was very important for us that fraud keep happening
Here is Robert Ezra’s strategy: he can see the fraudulent votes coming in, in real time, and so he’s gonna take his list of suspects, and he’s going to watch each of them … try to catch the student in the Act of committing the election fraud.
The school gives Robert Ezra its blessing on his investigation, which he’s working on with a teacher. They even lend him a conference room which he turns into his war room.
ROBERT EZRA: We had obtained schedules for basically everyone we thought would have some minute reason to do this. And what I actually did is I just walked down the hallways.
DAMIANO: He’s looking for his suspects, visiting their classrooms. Casually strolling by the door.
ROBERT EZRA: Uh, trying to just look through the window because it was very important to me that uh people not catch on that something's going on with me. Some cases, I walked by their door like 4, 5 times.
DAMIANO: If he sees a suspect, he takes notes on their activities
ROBERT: Do they have access to devices? Um Are they working on something that looks like election rigging?
Nothing suspicious? He crosses them off the list.
ROBERT EZRA: If they're not in class. Figure out where they are. Are they on campus? If they're on campus. Uh Try to observe them.
Um And we didn't have any duck blinds, so that was a little bit harder than uh it should have been.
DAMIANO: What do you mean, duck blind? Oh, like you you (laugh)
ROBERT EZRA: yes. Yes. Sorry. My jokes sometimes creep up on people like that.
DAMIANO: Like you're saying you didn't have a place where you could just, like, see the entire campus.
ROBERT: Yeah. Without changing the effect.
At this point, it’s after lunch. Robert Ezra has 3 hours left in the school day. And he’s looking for the main person on his list, Candidate One, who turns out to be at the college and career center, which is like a study hall.
He walks in, and there’s Candidate One in the back of the room with two friends, who Robert Ezra calls Suspect Two and Suspect Three.
ROBERT EZRA: I sit down at my computer. I pretend to work on schoolwork. What I'm actually doing is looking at Candidate One and writing emails to Mr. V describing exactly what he's doing and what the people around him are doing.
This email was sent at 1:16 p.m. I come in...
Robert Ezra manages to rope in the school assistant who runs the center, her name’s Mary. So, now, they’re both observing the suspects.
And it's like Robert Ezra is finally at the scene of the crime, proof feels so close he can almost taste it. He starts to hear snatches of suspicious conversation … suspicious because it sounds like people trying to use student emails to get into a Google form. Namely … the form that Robert Ezra has created.
Candidate One talking to Suspect Three: “Wait, did you get an email?”
ROBERT EZRA: Uh, quote: “Are you sure? Because I just failed to type in.”
ROBERT EZRA: “I got in,” but like unintelligible, uh, that's in brackets.
Mary makes me a note that she heard Candidate One say, “I'm gonna die trying.”
DAMIANO: (Gasp) What?
ROBERT EZRA: 5th period bell rings...
DAMIANO: Everyone starts packing up their bags, getting ready to leave for class.
But Candidate One stays seated, they’re the only one still on their computer.
And as Robert Ezra watches... two more fraudulent votes come in.
ROBERT EZRA: Yet another fraudulent vote.
We’ve got Candidate One.
Candidate One, as you may have suspected, is Zak.
Mr. V. the teacher who’s working with Robert Ezra shows up, and picks up Zak, along with someone they suspected of helping him. And he takes them all to the principal's office.
ROBERT EZRA: We get parked in the principal's office before she’s in there and we have to sit in that room with just me, Mr. V, and Candidate One for a while…
DAMIANO: What was the conversation that was happening in that room.
ROBERT EZRA: It was a lot of silence.
When the principal finally comes in, Zak denies everything, but Robert Ezra has all his evidence in hand. It was game over.
The election scandal would end up up being a big enough deal that district-level administrators got involved, and so teachers and parents couldn’t talk to me on the record for this story. There was a lot of anxiety because, these are kids after all, and adults understandably wanted to protect their privacy.
I do know that the administration made sure there were consequences for Zak and the two friends who helped him. But the details were kept strictly confidential. Which disappointed Robert Ezra who felt like -- if nobody knew what the punishment was for election-tampering, how could you deter anybody from doing it again.
I wanted to know Zak’s side of the story, and while he wouldn’t talk to me, I did ask his friend Canaan.
DAMIANO: when he sat you down to tell you everything that happened, what was the story he told you?
CANAAN: That he invested a lot of time in campaigning among the freshmen and the year before we had voted on paper ballots in class, so everyone had gotten a chance to vote. Last year, the ballots were online. (DAMIANO: Right.) Voting was not done in class. So a lot of people didn't vote and they didn't know they got to vote, they didn’t uh think to vote. Especially the freshmen who had no experience voting whatsoever, which is where Zack had spent most of his time campaigning.
DAMIANO: Can you help me understand this freshmen thing a little bit better, so it sounds like you're saying that there was something structurally built into this that wasn't fair. But I don't completely understand.
CANAAN: I wouldn't call it suppression the way, you know, Republican administrations use these voter I.D. laws to suppress votes. (DAMIANO: Right.) The freshman class was simply not aware of how to vote. This was their first BHS election. (DAMIANO: uh huh.) And in previous years, it had been done on paper ballots, in classes. So when I first voted, my second period teacher passed out ballots in class and we spent 20 minutes filling out those ballots. But for doing it online, it was not mandated that it be done in class. So a lot of the freshmen class could not have their voices heard because they had no idea how to vote.
This was very new to them.
So when the results started to come in, as they come in over the course of a week and he had access to them and he saw that he wasn't winning. A friend of his had offered previously to hack the election for him. And when he saw that the freshmen weren't voting, which is where he'd spent most of his time, he said, OK, do it.
So essentially, Zak had felt like the only reason he was losing was because the election was, from his perspective, rigged against him. And so by cheating, he was actually making it more fair.
And, on top of that -- there was a huge obvious vulnerability that made cheating very easy. The way that the hack worked, it was almost disappointingly simple.
The students voted using their school emails. And the way that the students emails were set up, the default password berkeley and then their student ID numbers...and a lot of students just never changed their passwords.
CANAAN: A friend of his had access to the school’s uhh the student-student schedules. Because she was in charge of a lot of uh student activities. And I have my schedule right next to me actually. The school, I think foolishly, places the student IDs right on a student’s schedule.
That’s how he did it, and unfortunately, he got caught. And that was that.
DAMIANO: People did work extremely hard to win, um like Lexie and Daijah. I know how much this meant to them. What do you think about- I mean, the idea of him stealing the election from them in this way, that does feel pretty unsavory.
CANAAN: I don't know Lexie and Daijah very well, um but it's hard to say they would have won had the freshmen voted.
DAMIANO: When did you finally learn that you won?
DAIJAH: This is honestly the most like cheesy story, but later on in the week, they um sent out emails and I didn’t want to open it around anyone. Like, I’m one of those people, I would not open a college admissions decision around anyone or anything like that so, I um took the bathroom pass and I went to the bathroom
But I was like, I’m gonna open this in a closed setting so I like walked outside for a bit and I read the results... and I saw Lexie’s name at the top. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, Lexie won." And I scrolled down, and I saw my name at the top, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I won." And then, I texted Lexie, I was like, "Oh my gosh did you see the results, and before she could even respond, I was like-- I couldn’t, I couldn’t stay in place, so I was like-I was like running, and I saw the campus green, and I was just about to run to the campus green but as I got out there, I saw Lexie?! Like she was standing outside (DAMIANO: Oh my god) on the campus green. And we had never even planned to meet up, and we just ran and hugged each other and we started crying (DAMIANO: Oh my god), and it was such an emotional moment.
After the election results were announced. Robert Ezra had one last job to do: write his report, a comprehensive review of the investigation. The document he comes up with is seven pages, single-spaced, a full accounting of his methods with footnotes, figures, and graphs. It’s titled ‘Report on Fraudulent Voting in the 2019/2020 BHS ASB Elections.’"
The day he was done he delivered it to The Jacket, the school newspaper. Here’s how Evie remembers it:
EVIE: I was on The Jacket at the time and we were obviously like, this is our biggest story of the year. And so he comes in. I think it's on like a Tuesday or something. Um he comes in with this big packet. He just walks in. It's dead silent. Everyone already knows him and knows what it's about to be. He walks up to our editor in chief and just drops it on the table and says, here's the Mueller report.
Turns around and just leaves. And it was like so amazing. It was easily the best moment of my high school experience.
It was just dead silent. And then everyone just ran to go and see
ROBERT EZRA: I hope this report provides a satisfactory answer to students’ concerns about the election, and that it is now clear that despite this fraud, the election is being conducted with a high degree of fairness. It is important that Berkeley High students know that the ASB election was conducted in a fair and equitable manner, and that people considering rigging any election in the future know that they will be caught.
It has been and continues to be an honor to serve as your Commissioner of Elections.
R.E. Stern, ASB Commissioner of Elections
Once the story of the election got out, local news was all over it.
CLIP (TV NEWS): That rigged election happened in one of the most notable high schools in the bay area, some say the intense pressure to get into college may have been the reason…
CLIP (TV NEWS): John Villavicencio teamed up with Robert Ezra Stern, a student serving as commissioner of elections. The two discovered (fade down) that someone on the same computer was logging into different student accounts...
DAMIANO: Was it nice to see yourself—
ROBERT EZRA: Oh no, no, I-I resented that. I did not like being a public figure. I would have preferred that the only people who knew that I did this were colleges and prospective employers.
DAMIANO: Did you feel proud afterwards though?
ROBERT EZRA: Yeah I mean, I sorta feel proud now, but there was a lot of conflict around me grappling with what exactly my role is now at the high school. My ideal scenario is that I would just you know walk among the crowd and, no one would pay attention to me, call me out, say you know, hey good job. I don’t need to be congratulated for my work. I just do my work.
DAMIANO: That's very um stoic of you.
ROBERT EZRA: It's very Robert Mueller, yes, I know. [sigh]
2019 was the beginning of the Daijah and Lexie administration. Their homeless student supply center was successfully funded. Campaign promise kept.
Choir graduation singing - Doooo do do do do...
Last month was graduation, it was online because of covid-19,
The class of 2020 is resilient, powerful and inspiring.
The good news is that all the kids are going to colleges they're excited about. Rachel to McGill, Daijah’s going to UC-Davis, Lexie’s going to Sacramento State,.
There is no doubt in my mind that our class will make significant change in this world. [fade down] I would like to...
High school is already starting to feel small to them, this little league version of the adult world, that for four years they took completely seriously.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than the stuff you used to take seriously.
But to be honest, I don’t think they should be embarrassed. I think they should feel proud. In the grown up world, people are so tired of complaining about the rules being broken that often, they just give up on caring. (I’ve definitely been guilty of that.)
That didn’t happen at BHS. For once, there was a fight where the most popular, loudest, or most powerful person didn’t just automatically get their way. In the end, the rulebook actually won. Which, feels surprising right now.
As for the person who cared the most about the rulebook-- Robert Ezra-- he’s been at the University of Chicago for a year now.
You’ll never guess what he’s been up to.
ROBERT EZRA: I’m-I'm on the University of Chicago Elections and Rules Committee, a five person committee that basically does the same thing that I did at Berkeley High um except more efficiently.
DAMIANO: How does the board compare to the high school version of it?
ROBERT EZRA: Um they have better codified precedents (DAMIANO: mhm) And they're not flying blind. So they have pages and pages and pages of procedure, uh precedent, what to do rules. Whereas I had maybe three pages. And my intuition.
ROBERT EZRA: we just got finished at the university with running a wh- an election cycle and there are some people on the elections and rules committee who have just been there forever, (DAMIANO: mhm) and there's like this institutional memory of like "Oh yeah, four years ago, there were these candidates who like wiretapped the elections committee and like tried to catch them in the act of being biased," which they were not. Um
ROBERT EZRA: Basically I have this this log, this oral history of the past 6,7,8 years of University of Chicago elections. Something crazy happens every single time. I mean, there are thousands if not millions of high schools in the country. How often do things like this happen? Scandalous/ crazy/ ridiculous things happen when people are vying for made up power.
DAMIANO: Yeah (pause). Is any part of you looking forward to the, to other things that come up?
ROBERT EZRA: Oh absolutely
ROBERT EZRA: Same reason I wanted to be Commissioner of Elections. It's not that you long to see other people’s lives destroyed in a spectacular like burst of infamy um, it’s-it's the process of elections and running them and procedures and rules and the boring stuff.
DAMIANO: That you love.
ROBERT EZRA: Yeah.
Damiano Marchetti is a producer for our show.
Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show was produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, Emmanuel Dzotsi, and Lisa Wang. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. Our senior producer is Phia Bennin. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Additional music production by Mari Romano.
Special thanks this week to Doug Levine.
Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is the first time you don’t botch any recipe. You can listen to our show on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you soon.