So let me say first that, alas, I’m expecting no checks from the Bush-Cheney team. I’ve been writing about the flaws in our electoral system for at least two years now, and I’m not naive about the possibility of fraud; elections have been stolen in the past, and it isn’t crazy to suspect that some people may have thought about stealing this one. It’s also important for activists to keep searching for clues. When I spoke to him on Monday, David Dill, the Stanford computer scientist who’s spearheaded much of the opposition to paperless electronic voting machines during the past two years, told me that it’s the activists — the computer scientists, voting-rights groups and amateur investigators who’ve uncovered some of the most egregious flaws in our voting system during the past couple years — who should be congratulated for the general success of this election. Since 2000, these people have passionately challenged the machinations of partisan election officials and shady voting companies; thanks to their efforts, today, few citizens blindly trust the system, and that’s good for democracy.
But if passion is important, so is reason and logic. And unfortunately many of the folks responding to my piece seemed more passionate than reasonable, refusing to believe the most sensible explanations for suspicious occurrences.
Take the case of the apparently odd voting patterns in the Florida counties that use optical-scan voting machines. As I wrote in my piece, there’s nothing strange about the fact that the op-scan counties have many people who are registered as Democrats who seemed to have voted for Republicans — it’s not odd because this has been happening for years. But don’t take my word for it: Walter Mebane, a political scientist at Cornell, proves this here; Josh Levin, of Slate, shows the same thing here; Kim Zetter at Wired News does it here; and Yevgeny Vilensky, a writer at the (conservative) Yale Free Press, offers probably the most thorough examination of the subject here.
Vilensky examined 28 of these rural counties that proponents of the Kerry-actually-won theory say are Democratic. Twenty-six of them went for Bush this year and two went for Kerry; but Vilensky shows in this chart (PDF) that in 2000, the same pattern occurred — two counties (Gadsden and Jefferson) chose Al Gore, while the other 26 chose Bush. In 1996, the result was more mixed, but Bob Dole — even though he lost Florida to Bill Clinton — still did pretty well in these apparently Democratic counties, winning 12 of them, and coming within two percent of winning another five. Considering these voting trends, the 2004 result in these counties is simply not surprising. Even if there are many citizens that are registered as Democrats in these locales, they’re not considered Democratic strongholds.
But why, many readers wondered, do these Bush-voting Democrats only seem to live in the counties where optical scan machines are used? Why does the voting pattern seem to be tied, in other words, to the voting machinery? “That’s an accident of the fact that many of the counties are small,” Walter Mebane told me. In a small county, it’s easier (i.e., cheaper) to upgrade voting technology, so many of these counties switched to optical scan systems in the 1990s, when that was considered the best voting technology. Florida’s bigger counties, meanwhile, were slower to adopt new voting technology; many did so only after the 2000 fiasco, when touch-screen systems were in vogue.
For many readers, the most compelling bit of evidence pointing to a Kerry win was his success in the exit polls. Several people pointed out this bizarre essay by Dick Morris, in which the political consultant argues that pollsters deliberately skewed the exit polls in Kerry’s favor in an effort to “chill the Bush turnout.” It’s difficult to understand why anyone would put so much stock in a far-fetched conspiracy theory banking on the idea that the exit polls were rigged.
Several readers, though, noted Morris’s assertion that exit polls are hardly ever wrong. “To screw up one exit poll is unheard of,” Morris wrote. “To miss six of them [in each of the battleground states] is incredible. It boggles the imagination how pollsters could be that incompetent and invites speculation that more than honest error was at play here.” If Dick Morris says exit polls are never wrong, readers asked, how could they all have been wrong in pointing to a Kerry win? It’s a good question, but as I wrote, right now we have no answer. The most important reason for this — and this is a key point that many readers seemed to miss — is that nobody knows what the exit polls actually showed. The exit polls that are currently on news sites like CNN have been re-weighted to match the final results — a standard practice. This means that they no longer show a Kerry victory.
What about the intra-Election Day, unweighted exit polls? Didn’t those show Kerry winning? Actually, we have no idea. The polls may have showed Kerry on top in key states, but they may have also overstated Bush’s margins in other states, Joe Lenski, who ran the exit polling for the media, told me. It’s true that because sites like Slate and MyDD posted leaks, we have some clues that the polls were showing a very slight Kerry advantage — but these leaks aren’t a very firm basis on which to question the entire election. “And you can’t trust all the leaks,” Lenski added.
There is a claim that we know what the exit polling said because various news Web sites, including CNN’s, inadvertently posted raw, unweighted exit poll information late into Election Night. For instance, see these two screenshots of CNN’s Web site, the first showing Kerry doing very well in the exits shortly after midnight, and the second showing a sudden Bush surge. Some have claimed that the first image shows the raw survey data, and the second is the re-weighted sample. But that’s probably not right.
As Mark Blumenthal, the Democratic pollster who runs the blog Mystery Pollster, notes, exit polling data is not re-weighted all at once — it’s done live, as the results come in, in different precincts at different times. “The exit pollsters weight their sample to match incoming actual results for each sampled precinct as actual returns become available,” he writes. “Thus, the exit poll results get continuously updated in what bloggers might call ‘real time.’ Some of the online postings may reflect that updating; some may not. We have no way of knowing.” All of the exit polling data that’s currently in the public domain, then, is useless, and people — like Dick Morris — who make claims about why and how the polls were wrong are simply guessing.
Because we don’t know much about the exit polling data, it’s difficult to believe the argument offered by many readers that the exit polls on Election Day were largely consistent with the final results except in states that use electronic voting machines. Many readers pointed to this chart, which seems to show that states using paperless machines swung for Bush, while those with paper ballots agreed with the exit polls and went for Kerry.
But the chart isn’t reliable. First, we don’t know where the exit polling data is from. Second, the chart is just plain wrong on the technology used in many states: Only a handful of areas in Ohio used electronic machines; most voters there voted on punch-card systems, not e-voting, as the chart states. Similarly, just half of the voters in Florida use touch-screen systems — the other half, as discussed, vote on paper-based optical scan machines. More generally, in most states voting equipment varies by county, so it’s not accurate to characterize the entire state as voting one way, as the chart does.
As I said above, none of this is to say that there weren’t any problems on Election Day — or that activists should stop looking for problems. Election Protection, the nonpartisan group that sent thousands of volunteers into polling places to protect citizens’ rights to vote, has asked all its volunteers to contact the media and congressional investigators with their accounts of what went wrong that day. Their stories are needed; I’ve spoken to a number of these volunteers, and a few reported seeing shocking incidents of ineptitude and possible fraud. An investigation is necessary, even if such an investigation does not — as it probably won’t — call into question the final results.
In addition, some inquiry into what went wrong with the exit polls is also necessary. Thankfully, Lenski told me that such a probe is currently underway; there are many theories for why the polls might have skewed toward Kerry, Lenski said, but he’s not ready to conclude anything just yet. At some point, though, he said we’ll be able to find out what happened, and what the polls actually said.
At the same time, while it’s important to keep working for cleaner, fairer, more trustworthy elections, it’s also important to recognize that elections will always be messy. Elections are run by people, and people sometimes make stupid mistakes, and they’re lazy, or they’re biased and perhaps even looking to steal an election.
It’s our job to keep these people in line. And we shouldn’t accept the kind of ineptitude we saw in this election. It’s simply unacceptable, for example, that Warren County, Ohio, locked down its vote-counting building on Election Day, or that voters across the country had to stand in line for hours in order to vote.
Unfortunately, many people who responded to my article assumed I was abiding these mistakes, that I was settling for mediocrity. “Your position disgusts me,” one reader wrote. “We’re not supposed to accept anything but the best we can do, and this is still light years from the best we can do. Please, shake off your apathy and strive for the unattainable perfection of our system in your every breath as all Americans should do.”
To this — at least to the latter part — my response is simple: I agree.