A Stolen Election?
[from the November 29, 2004 issue]
Before the vote-counting was done, the e-mails started arriving. Theelection's been stolen! Fraud! John Kerry won! In the following days, thesecharges flew over the Internet. The basic claim was that the early exitpolls--which showed Kerry ahead of George W. Bush--were right; the votetallies were rigged. Could this be? Or have ballot booths with electronicvoting machines become the new Grassy Knoll for conspiracy theorists?Anyone who questioned the integrity of the nation's voting system--beforethe election or after--has had good reason to do so. Electronic voting thatdoes not produce an auditable paper trail is worrisome--as is thepossibility that the machines can be hacked. The proponents of these systemsclaim there are sufficient safeguards. But in this election there werenumerous reports of e-voting gone bad. Votes cast for one candidate wereregistered for another. In Broward County, Florida, software subtractedvotes rather than added them. In Franklin County, Ohio, an older electronicmachine reported an extra 3,893 votes for Bush. Local election officialscaught that error. But when I asked Peggy Howell, one of those officials,why the mistake occurred, she replied, "We really don't know." Were theseerrors statistically insignificant glitches that inevitably happen in anylarge system? "It gives us the uneasy feeling that we're only seeing the tipof the iceberg," Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which ispart of the Election Protection Coalition, told Reuters. "What has mostconcerned scientists are problems that are not observable," David Jefferson,a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory inCalifornia, explained to the Associated Press. "The fact that we had arelatively smooth election...does not change at all the vulnerability thesesystems have to fraud or bugs." And the 2000 fiasco in Florida demonstratedthat non-electronic voting can also have serious problems, which oftendisproportionately affect low-income counties.Then there's the issue of who is running the show. Only a few companiesmanufacture electronic voting machines. They are not transparent. They donot use open-source code. Last year, Walden O'Dell, the head of Diebold, aleading manufacturer of touch-screen machines, declared in a fundraisingletter for the Ohio Republican Party that he was "committed to helping Ohiodeliver its electoral votes to the president next year." That hardlyinspired confidence. And across the country, oversight of voting isconducted by partisan officials. In Ohio, Secretary of State KennethBlackwell, a Republican and conservative activist, oversaw the voting. Onhis watch, the polling place for Kenyon College was equipped with only twovoting machines. Yet about 1,100 people--mostly students--wanted to votethere. These voters (and you can guess whom they preferred) had to wait upto nine hours. It doesn't require much cynicism to suspect that this was noaccident.But did something more foul than minor slip-ups and routine politicalchicanery occur? Those who say yes--at this point--are relying more onsupposition than evidence. They cite the exit polls to claim the vote countwas falsified to benefit Bush. The pollsters say they oversampled women,that their survey takers were not allowed to get close enough to the pollsand that Kerry supporters may have been more willing to cooperate with thepollsters than Bush backers. Impossible, huffs pollster/consultant DickMorris: "Exit polls are almost never wrong." But Morris argues that thefaulty exit polls are not a sign the vote count was off but an indicationthat the pollsters deliberately produced pro-Kerry results "to try to chillthe Bush turnout." (Talk about conspiracy theory.) The screwy exit polls doraise questions, but they are not proof of sabotage. And left-of-centeraccusers have promoted contradictory theories. Many suggest Diebold andother vendors put in the fix via the paperless touch-screen machines. Butother critics--including progressive talk-show host and author ThomHartmann--also point to a spreadsheet created by an activist named KathyDopp that shows what she considers anomalous pro-Bush results in Floridacounties that used optical-scan voting, not electronic touch-screen voting.(The optical-scan machines were manufactured by Diebold and the other firmsthat produce the touch-screen machines.) But Walter Mebane, a Cornellprofessor, and colleagues at Harvard and Stanford examined this allegationof fraud and concluded that it is "baseless." They note that the counties inquestion are mostly in the conservative Florida Panhandle and "have trendedstrongly Republican over the past twelve years."Making a different we-wuz-robbed claim, journalist Greg Palast, in anarticle bluntly titled "Kerry Won...," contends the Democrat would havedefinitely triumphed in Ohio had the final tally included the uncountedballots--by which he means 92,672 ballots that did not register a vote whenrun through a counting machine--and the 155,000 provisional ballots. Palastwrongly assumes that an overwhelming majority of these ballots contain votesfor Kerry, who lost by 136,000 votes. Not all of the provisional ballots,however, would pass legal muster. (Ohio Democrats estimated less than 90percent would be valid.) And more important, the 92,672 other ballots, ifhand-counted, probably would not have produced a major vote gain for Kerry.After the Florida 2000 mess, I examined almost a third of the 10,500uncounted votes in Miami-Dade County. Of those, only a few hundred containeda discernible vote. Tallying them produced merely a five-vote edge for AlGore. It is highly improbable that the pool of uncounted and provisionalballots in Ohio could have yielded Kerry a net gain of more than 136,000votes.Clear away the rhetoric, and what's mainly left are the odd early exit polls(which did show Kerry's lead in Ohio and Florida declining as Election Daywent on and which ended up with the current national Bush-Kerry spread),troubling instances of bad electronic voting, and curious--or possiblycurious--trends in Florida. This may be the beginning of a case; it is not acase in itself. Investigative reporter Robert Parry observes,"Theoretically, at least, it is conceivable that sophisticated CIA-stylecomputer hacking--known as 'cyber-warfare'--could have let George W. Bush'scampaign transform a three-percentage-point defeat, as measured by exitpolls, into an official victory of about the same margin. Whether such ascheme is feasible, however, is another matter, since it would requirepenetration of hundreds of local computer systems across the country,presumably from a single remote location. The known CIA successes incyber-war have come from targeting a specific bank account or from shuttingdown an adversary's computer system, not from altering data simultaneouslyin a large number of computers."The skeptics--correct or not in their claims of fraud--are right to beconcerned in general about the vote-counting system. Representatives JohnConyers, Jerrold Nadler and Robert Wexler have asked the GovernmentAccountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office) toinvestigate the "voting machines and new technologies used in the 2004election." Blackboxvoting.org--a group that has long decried electronicvoting and now claims that "fraud took place in the 2004 election"--hasfiled Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain internal computer logsand other documents from 3,000 counties and localities, in an attempt toaudit the election. The public does deserve any information that would allowit to evaluate vote-counting. Beyond that, extensive election reform isnecessary. Electronic voting ought to produce a paper trail that can beexamined. There should be national standards for voting systems and forverifying vote tallies. And vote counters should be nonpartisan publicservants, not secretive corporations or party hacks. The system ought to beso solid that no one would have cause even to wonder whether an election hasbeen stolen.


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