Before one vote was cast in early voting this week in Florida, the new touch-screen computer voting machines of Florida started out with a several-thousand vote lead for George W. Bush. That is, the mechanics of the new digital democracy boxes "spoil" votes at a predictably high rate in African-American precincts, effectively voiding enough votes cast for John Kerry to in a tight race, keep the White House safe from the will of the voters.
Excerpted from the current (November) issue of Harper's Magazine
by Greg Palast
To understand the fiasco in progress in Florida, we need to revisit the 2000 model, starting with a lesson from Dick Carlberg, acting elections supervisor in Duval County until this week. “Some voters are strange,” Carlberg told me recently. He was attempting to explain why, in the last presidential election, five thousand Duvalians trudged to the polls and, having arrived there, voted for no one for president. Carlberg did concede that, after he ran these punch cards through the counting machines a second time, some partly punched holes shook loose, gaining Al Gore160 votes or so, Bush roughly 80.
“So, if you ran the ‘blank’ ballots through a few more times, we’d have a different president,” I noted. Carlberg, a Republican, answered with a grin.
So it was throughout the state—in certain precincts, at least. In Jacksonville, for example, in Duval precincts 7 through 10, nearly one in five ballots, or 11,200 votes in all, went uncounted, rejected as either an ‘under-vote’ (a blank ballot) or ‘over-vote’ (a ballot with extra markings). In those precincts, 72 percent of the residents are African-American; ballots that did make the count went four to one for Al Gore. All in all, a staggering 179,855 votes were “spoiled” (i.e., cast but not counted) in the 2000 election in Florida. Demographers from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission matched the ballots with census stats and estimated that 54 percent of all the under- and over-voted ballots had been cast by blacks, for whom the likelihood of having a vote discarded exceeded that of a white voter by 900 percent.
Votes don't "spoil" because they are left out of the fridge. Vote spoilage, at root, is a class problem. Just as poor and minority districts wind up with shoddy schools and shoddy hospitals, they are stuck with shoddy ballot machines. In Gadsden, the only black-majority county in Florida, one in eight votes spoiled in 2000, the worst countywide record in the state. Next door in Leon County (Tallahassee), which used the same paper ballot, the mostly white, wealthier county lost almost no votes. The difference was that in mostly-white Leon, each voting booth was equipped with its own optical scanner, with which voters could check their own ballots. In the black county, absent such “second-chance” equipment, any error would void a vote.
The best solution for vote spoilage, whether from blank ballots or from hanging chads, is Leon County's: paper ballots, together with scanners in the voting booths. In fact, this is precisely what Governor Bush's own experts recommended in 2001 for the entire state. His Select Task Force on Elections Procedures, appointed by the Governor to sooth public distrust after the 2000 race, chose paper ballots with scanners over the trendier option -- the touchscreen computer.
Although the computer rigs cost eight times as much as paper with scanners, they result in many more spoiled votes. In this year’s presidential primary in Florida, the computers had a spoilage rate of more than 1 percent, as compared to one-tenth of a percent for the double-checked paper ballots.
Apparently some Bush boosters were not keen on a fix so inexpensive and effective. In particular, Sandra Mortham— a founder of Women for Jeb Bush, the Governor's re-election operation — successfully lobbied on behalf of the Florida Association of Counties to stop the state the legislature from blocking the purchase of touchscreen voting systems. Mortham, coincidentally, was also a paid lobbyist for Election Systems & Strategies, a computer voting-machine manufacturer. Fifteen of Florida’s sixty-seven counties chose the pricey computers, twelve of them ordered from ES&S which, in turn, paid Mortham's County Association a percentage on sales.
Florida’s computerization had its first mass test in 2002, in Broward County. The ES&S machines appeared to work well in white Ft. Lauderdale precincts, but in black communities, such as Lauderhill and Pompano Beach, there was wholesale disaster. Poll workers were untrained, and many places opened late. Black voters were held up in lines for hours. No one doubts that hundreds of Black votes were lost before they were cast.
Broward county commissioners had purchased the touch-screen machines from ES&S over the objection of Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant; notably, one comissioner's campaign treasurer was an ES&S lobbyist. Governor Bush responded to the Broward fiasco by firing Oliphant, an African-American, for "misfeasance."
Even when computers work, they don't work well for African-Americans. A July 2001 Congressional study found that computers spoiled votes in minority districts at three times the rate of votes lost in white districts.
Based on the measured differential in vote loss between paper and computer systems, the fifteen counties in Florida, can expect to lose at least 29,000 votes to spoilage—some 27,000 more than if the counties had used paper ballots with scanners.
Given the demographics of spoilage, this translates into a net lead of thousands for Bush before a single ballot is cast.
For the full story, read "Another Florida" in the November issue of Harper's, out now. Mr. Palast, a contributing editor to the magazine, is author of the New York Times bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. See the film of his investigative reports for BBC Television, "Bush Family Fortunes," out now on DVD.