We've all heard the story. Nov. 2, 2004, was shaping up as a day of celebration for Democrats. The exit polls were predicting a victory for Senator John Kerry. Many Americans, including most political observers, sat down to watch the evening television coverage convinced that Kerry would be the next president.
But the counts that were being reported on TV bore little resemblance to the exit poll projections. In key state after state, tallies differed significantly from the projections. In every case, that shift favored President George W. Bush. Nationwide, exit polls projected a 51 to 48 percent Kerry victory, the mirror image of Bush's 51 to 48 percent win. But the exit poll discrepancy is not the only cause for concern.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio co-chairman of the 2004 Bush/Cheney Campaign, borrowed a chapter from Secretary of State Katharine Harris's Florida 2000 playbook. Like Harris, he used the power of his office to affect turnout and thwart voters in heavily Democratic areas. Vote suppression and electoral irregularities in Ohio have been documented, first in January 2005 by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, and in June 2005 by the Democratic National Committee, which found, in the words of DNC Chairman Howard Dean: ``More than a quarter of all Ohio voters reported problems with their voting experience."
Election Day 2004 also saw the advent of a congressional mandate under the Help America Vote Act to replace punch-card systems with new, unproven technologies. In that election, 64 percent of Americans voted on direct recorded electronic voting machines or optical-scan systems, both of which are vulnerable to hacking or programming fraud. According to a September 2005 General Accountability Office investigation, such systems contained flaws that ``could allow unauthorized personnel to disrupt operations or modify data and programs that are critical to . . . the integrity of the voting process."
A reasonable person could thus argue that a well-conducted exit poll that confirmed the official count would be about the only reason we would have to believe the results of such an election. Without an audit or a recount to verify the official count, those of us who suspect that the presidential election was stolen do so based on the information now available.
In the days after the election, the media largely ignored this exit poll discrepancy. When it was mentioned, it was only to report that the exit polls -- based on a confidential, 25-question written survey of 114,559 voters in 1,480 precincts -- were flawed. The discrepancy, however, was real and beyond the statistical margin of error. On that, there is widespread agreement. What is still being debated is only the reasons for the discrepancy.
In January 2005, on the eve of Bush's inauguration, the two men who conducted the 2004 exit poll, Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski, released their promised explanation. Their report began: ``The inaccuracies in the exit-poll estimates were not due to the sample selection of the polling locations at which the exit polls were conducted." In other words, the precincts they sampled were representative of the nation, so the discrepancy was not the result of choosing unrepresentative precincts.
The data they released allows researchers to correlate voter characteristics (race, age, sex, etc.) with voting preferences -- but it was not the data that identified specific exit poll results with specific precincts. That data remains the property of the media consortium (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, and the AP) that commissioned the polls. No one has provided a coherent account of how polling error could explain the discrepancy. We have only the pollsters' blithe assertion that Kerry voters must have disproportionately participated in the polls. Yet the available state-level data contradicts the pollsters' explanation, also termed the ``reluctant Bush respondent" theory. The data does show that key variables -- racial makeup of a state, partisan control of governorships, whether a state is a swing state, and reports of Election Day complaints -- all correlate with the magnitude of the poll discrepancy.
The report also indicated that for rural and small-town precincts -- the only ones where comparable data does exist -- the difference between the exit poll results and the official count is three times greater in precincts where voters used machines than in precincts using paper ballots alone. If we had access to the withheld precinct-level data, we would be able to investigate whether the size of the exit poll discrepancy correlates with the voting technology used.
For these reasons and more, it is imperative that our newspapers of record as well as our governmental oversight bodies now investigate the question people continue to ask: Was the 2004 election stolen?
Joel Bleifuss and Steven F. Freeman are authors of the book ``Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?"
© 2006 Globe Newspaper Company