Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Election 2004: Democracy in Lockdown

Despite the historic dimensions of the 2008 presidential race, the possibility of mischief can’t be ignored, especially after the recount battle of 2000 and voting “irregularities” of 2004. After the 2004 election, the voting rights group Election Verification Project claimed that the record use of electronic voting machines had led to hundreds of anomalies that demonstrated the need for higher standards. Meanwhile, the Internet buzzed with charges that the mainstream media was attempting to suppress the story. UPI was no longer taking my columns, but, as I noted in the headline of a Vermont Guardian article, “Election Questions Build Toward a Recount.”

The Electronic Verification Project had reviewed nearly 900 reports of electronic voting problems on Election Day, ranging from lost votes in North Carolina to miscounted votes in Ohio and breakdowns in New Orleans that caused long lines and shut down polling places. A research team at the University of California at Berkeley said that irregularities associated with electronic voting machines may have awarded up to 260,000 or more excess votes to George W. Bush in Florida. That study showed an unexplained discrepancy between votes for Bush in counties where electronic voting machines were used versus counties using traditional voting methods.

The Berkeley team, led by Prof. Michael Hout, said discrepancies this large rarely arise by chance. Noting that the probability is less than 0.1 percent, they urged an immediate investigation. “The three counties where the voting anomalies were most prevalent were also the most heavily Democratic,” said Hout, “not the [conservative] Dixiecrat counties you’ve all heard about before, but the more heavily Democratic counties that used e-vote technology, including Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties, in order of magnitude.”

The disparity favoring Bush couldn’t be explained by other factors, Hout claimed. “The study shows that counties that used electronic voting resulted in disproportionate increases of votes for the president.”

Commenting on the difference between exit polls and official vote counts, John Zogby, president of the polling company that bears his name, said, “Something is definitely wrong.” It would have required “wrong sampling in wrong areas throughout the country,” or the purposeful manipulation of data to obtain exit poll results so significantly different from the official totals. Neither was a possibility, he argued.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Steven Freeman also compiled an analysis, “The Unexplained Exit Poll Discrepancy,” noting that in three of the key battleground states — Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — the odds of Democratic challenger John Kerry receiving the percentage of votes recorded, given the exit poll findings, were less than three in 1,000, per state. The odds of any two of these states simultaneously reaching their stated vote tallies were “on the order of one in a million,” he added, and the odds of all three states arriving at the vote counts they did “are 250 million to one.”

On November 18, the League of Women Voters called for an investigation. Common Cause meanwhile teamed up with the National Voting Rights Institute, Demos, People for the American Way Foundation, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project to support an Ohio recount request by the Green and Libertarian presidential candidates. They also urged election officials in every state to preserve, protect, and maintain all ballots from the election, whether cast on machine, by absentee, or by provisional ballot.

Despite John Kerry’s concession speech, Ohio’s Democratic Party launched a federal court fight over nearly 155,000 provisional ballots, contending that a proper accounting of those votes might decide who really won. A statewide recount looked possible after the results were certified in early December.

Explosive allegations were also circulating about a media cover-up. Fueling that theory was an e-mail about a CBS producer who allegedly complained that a news industry “lockdown” had prevented journalists from investigating voting problems. Bev Harris, executive director of Black Box Voting, Inc., said she received calls from network employees saying they had been told to lay off the subject of vote fraud.

A month later, just before the year-end holidays, electors in five states – Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, California, and North Carolina – broke with tradition and called for a congressional investigation of voting violations as they cast their votes. The next day, the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution "supporting the request that the Government Accountability Office immediately undertake an investigation of voting irregularities in the 2004 elections." Drafted by Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission, the resolution also lists 17 measures to improve elections.

In Massachusetts, elector Cathleen Ashton demanded that "every vote be counted and every vote count." Maine's electors called for national voting reforms. Their statement pointed to Maine initiatives such as same-day registration, allowing felons to vote, and clean election reforms. "Our four electoral votes are held meaningless if our sister states cannot hold elections that are fair, accurate, and verifiable," said elector Lu Bauer after the ceremony at the Maine State House.

Massachusetts electors passed a motion urging members of Congress to object to the vote. It also requested an investigation of "all voting complaints that might have any validity" and remedies for "any voting rights violations or electoral fraud verified by its own agents or through the courts." Elector Tom Barbera said his life was threatened during get-out-the-vote efforts. Another elector spoke of being targeted for intimidation. Noting that many whose voting rights were violated were African American, Barbera, who presented the Massachusetts' motion, said, "we believe that as electors, we have a unique opportunity and obligation to ensure that justice does not again become so delayed as to be denied."

In North Carolina, Democratic electors and activists talked about local problems while Republicans voted inside. Elector Mary Roe mentioned problems she witnessed as an election observer in her own county. State officials admitted that 4,500 votes disappeared in a computerized voting machine crash. Vermont electors expressed concerns about a reported 57,000 complaints received by a congressional Judiciary Committee and called on Congress and Vermont's congressional delegation to investigate.

In California, one elector cast his ballot provisional upon "all votes being counted – provisional, absentee, under – and over-votes, computerized without paper ballots, even getting valid votes from those turned away illegally, intimidated, discouraged by incredibly long waits, etc." The goal was to get his message read on the floor of Congress prior to certification in early January when the ballots were opened.

"Never has such a vote been cast by an elector," said Grace Ross, an organizer of the national effort to support the rebel electors, and a member of Truth in Elections. "And without a parliamentarian to rule it in or out at the Electoral College level, we await whether Congress will acknowledge this type of provisional vote and address the issues this elector sought to raise, or whether they, too, will ignore provisional votes."

On January 6, 2005, although most people didn’t notice, we found out. For the first time in more than a century, electoral vote certification by the Congress was interrupted by a challenge to a state’s votes. U.S. Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Senator Barbara Boxes announced their objection “to the counting of the electoral votes of the State of Ohio on the ground that they were not, under all of the known circumstances, regularly given.”

The debate lasted two hours. Those backing the objection, mostly Democrats, pointed to problems with voting machines, vote suppression, and violation of State and Federal law by high-ranking election officials. Opponents charged that the move was “frivolous” and based on a “conspiracy theory,” and those behind it were “sore losers” attempting to overturn the results. In the end, the challenge was rejected by a 267-31 vote in the House. Not one other Senator supported Boxer’s objection.

Presidential Death Match 2004 was over and there was no turning back. A President who had been installed the first time by the Supreme Court was certified the second by a Congress that preferred not to rock the boat. What to call that story line? The Making of King George: Misdeeds, Madness, and the Assault on Democracy.

But now a new story begins, and along with it comes the chance to write a better ending.

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