Restoring Trust in the Vote

Mea culpa.

On November 6th, I submitted an article to Common Dreams that - based on interviews I'd done with a Florida Democratic candidate for Congress and information and people he'd pointed me to analyzing Florida's vote - suggested that small Florida counties may have been digitally "flipped" to benefit George W. Bush. The editors of Common Dreams published my article.

A few hours later, my email box contained notes from Anthony Lappe of GNN.TV and Kathy Dopp. Anthony pointed out that small Florida counties have been voting Republican since Reagan (and before - this is a remnant of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" of appealing to anti-integrationist whites). I called Anthony, and then contacted Kathy Dopp, who agreed with Lappe that while my citations were right, the conclusions I'd drawn from them were wrong. It wasn't that counties had flipped, Dopp said, but that there was a difference in counties that could only be accounted for by the type of machine on which the vote was counted.

I contacted Common Dreams and asked them to take down the story, and re-wrote it to conform with Dopp's information, including a (perhaps too brief) reference to the fact that the original posting had contained errors.

In the meantime, a small industry has grown up of people claiming to have set me straight, or rebutting the original, incorrect, story, including some who even then go on to write articles challenging the assertions of my first story version without acknowledging the corrections and issues of the second version. This is all, of course, my own fault, for having submitted in the first place (even though it was corrected within hours) an article that was insufficiently fact-checked, and the early version of which is still cited on some websites.

Was the vote hacked? Nobody knows for sure. Dopp stands by her analysis, and has several credible PhDs backing her up. Others of similar veracity say she has found an anomaly, but not one of significance. Congressional candidate Fisher continues to insist that he has proof, and has now turned it over to the FBI, but has been unable to provide me with what I would consider credible evidence. Similar analysis in other states are uncovering troubling questions, leading to investigations and provoking Ralph Nader to ask for a recount of New Hampshire.

The larger question is one of trust in the reliability of our elections system. Unlike most of the world's other advanced democracies, we have privatized much of our vote. Private, for-profit corporations, claiming trade secrecy, process our vote via their software in ways they say we cannot see. For many, their honesty is less an issue than the transparency of a privatized voting system.

On November 24, 2000, as the lawsuit initiated by George W. Bush to stop a recount in Florida was grinding its way to the Supreme Court, Rush Limbaugh noted one of the more famous quotes attributed to Josef Stalin. "Those who cast the votes decide nothing," intoned Limbaugh. "Those who count the votes decide everything."

Shortly thereafter, Limbaugh's Republicans, led by Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert in the House and Bill Frist in the Senate, were fighting hard to keep their corporate friends counting the vote, by blocking legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Rush Holt (H.R. 2239) and in the Senate by Senators Bob Graham and Hillary Clinton (S. 2313).

The Restore Elector Confidence in Our Representative Democracy (RECORD) Act would require voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper ballot and to be randomly audited. During the past two years, neither bill has made it out of committee in the Republican-controlled House or Senate, so in 2004 it was private, for-profit corporations who, for the most part, counted the votes, be they touch-screen, optical scanners, or even punch cards.

On November 11th, 2004, Doug Halonen reported in TV Week that former Enron lobbyist and current RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie had, at a National Press Club event that day, called for an end to exit polls. Gillespie, it turns out, is concerned about the emotional well being of Republicans who may feel as "discouraged" as he felt when he saw the initial exit polls.

"In 2000 the exit data was wrong on Election Day," Gillespie said, an observation ironically in agreement with Dopp's Florida analysis. "In 2002," he added, "the exit returns were wrong on Election Day." (An observation that Max Cleland could agree with.) "And in 2004," Gillespie moaned, "the exit data were wrong on Election Day - all three times, by the way, in a way that skewed against Republicans and had a dispiriting effect on Republican voters across the country."

Alex Pelosi's new film "Diary of a Political Tourist" catches a tipsy Congressman Peter King making a comment at a White House function before the election had been finished that, "It's already over. The Election's over. We Won."

When Pelosi asks, "How do you know that?" King replies, "It's all over but the counting. And we'll take care of the counting."

To some, while not evidence of conspiracy, this is, at best, unseemly. Republican-affiliated corporations secretly handling our vote; significant disparities between exit polls and machine-based vote counts (that vary widely from state-to-state); the Republican Party fighting legislation that would make the vote transparent; Republicans saying they'll "take care of the counting"; and now RNC chairman Gillespie calls for an end to exit polls.

To the extent that some people thought, based on the first in-error version of my story, that a smoking gun of voting fraud had definitely been found and have now become skeptical and thus may abandon efforts at real investigation or reform, is a tragedy, for which I take full responsibility.

To the extent that this issue has been raised, and is being pursued by many, this episode may well turn out to be a good thing. Some very interesting rocks are being overturned, and there is new energy behind Rush Holt's bill to force greater transparency for electronic voting.

Every responsible American wants to move beyond this election and its results. It's vital that progressives - in particular - immediately work to develop a well-crafted message, and rapidly engage today's fight for the hearts and souls of America's voters. And, yet, at the same time we must resolve the issues raised by this election - both old-fashioned voter suppression/fraud, and the possibility of electronic tampering - and do so quickly.

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