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“After carefully examining the evidence, I’ve become convinced that the president’s party mounted a massive, coordinated campaign to subvert the will of the people in 2004,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. declares in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. And so, 19 months after the election, let us head once again into this breach.
To date, dozens of experts, both independently and as part of several research panels, have spent countless hours examining 2004′s presidential election, especially the race in Ohio. Many of them have concluded that the election there strains conventional notions of what a democracy ought to look like; very little about that race was fair, clean or competent. Way back in January 2005, a panel headed by Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan reported that it had found enough irregularities in Ohio to call into question the state election results and the entire presidential vote. A report by the Democratic Party released last year found “evidence of voter confusion, voter suppression, and negligence and incompetence of election officials.” Then there are the legions of activists, academics, bloggers and others who’ve devoted their post-Nov. 2 lives to unearthing every morsel of data that might suggest the vote was rigged; their theories, factoids, and mountains of purportedly conclusive data likely take up several buildings’ worth of hard-drive space in Google’s server farms.
One has to wonder what, after all of this, Kennedy might have brought to the debate. There could have been an earnest exploration of the issues in order to finally shed some light on the problems we face in elections, and a call to urgently begin repairing our electoral machinery. Voting reforms are forever on the backburner in Congress; even the 2000 election did little to prompt improvements. If only someone with Kennedy’s stature would outline this need.
If only. Whatever his aim, RFK Jr. does not appear intent on fixing the problem. He’s more content to take us through a hit parade of the most popular, and the most dismissible, theories purporting to show that John Kerry won Ohio, theories that have been swirling about the blogosphere ever since the race was called. I scoured his Rolling Stone article for some novel story or statistic or theory that would prove, finally, that George W. Bush was not the true victor. But nothing here is new. If you’ve spent time on Democratic Underground or have read Mark Crispin Miller’s “Fooled Again,” you’re already familiar with everything Kennedy has to say.
If you do read Kennedy’s article, be prepared to machete your way through numerous errors of interpretation and his deliberate omission of key bits of data. The first salient omission comes in paragraph 5, when Kennedy writes, “In what may be the single most astounding fact from the election, one in every four Ohio citizens who registered to vote in 2004 showed up at the polls only to discover that they were not listed on the rolls, thanks to GOP efforts to stem the unprecedented flood of Democrats eager to cast ballots.” To back up that assertion, Kennedy cites “Democracy at Risk,” the report the Democrats released last June.
That report does indeed point out that many people — 26 percent — who first registered in 2004 did not find their names on the voter rolls at polling places. What Kennedy doesn’t say, though, is that the same study found no significant difference in the share of Kerry voters and Bush voters who came to the polls and didn’t find their names listed. The Democrats’ report says that 4.2 percent of Kerry voters were forced to cast a “provisional” ballot and that 4.1 percent of Bush voters were made to do the same — a stat that lowers the heat on Kennedy’s claim of “astounding” partisanship.
Such techniques are evident throughout Kennedy’s article. He presents a barrage of seemingly important, apparently damning data to show that Kerry won the race. It’s only when you dig into his claims that you see what thin ice he’s on.
Kennedy’s headlining claim is that 357,000 voters, “most of them Democratic,” were either prevented from voting or had their votes go uncounted, making Kerry (who lost by 118,000) the likely true winner. Kennedy finds these “missing votes” in the damnedest places. He counts 30,000 voter registrations that were deleted from voter rolls, in keeping with state law, as mostly Kerry voters, though it’s impossible to know if those were even real people. He says that 174,000 mostly Kerry voters didn’t vote because they were put off by long lines. But the source states it was actually 129,543 voters, and that those votes would have split evenly between Kerry and Bush. And that same source — the Democratic Party’s report once again — notes conclusively: “Despite the problems on Election Day, there is no evidence from our survey that John Kerry won the state of Ohio.” But Kennedy doesn’t tell you that.
Worse, Kennedy relies on a band of researchers whose research on election fraud has long been called into question by experts. Especially in his section on Ohio’s exit poll, Kennedy reports his sources’ theories uncritically, even though many have been debunked, or have at least been the subject of tremendous debate among experts. Reading Kennedy’s article, you’d never guess that some of his star sources’ claims have fared quite badly when put to people in the field.
Certainly you can find some good in Kennedy’s report. His section on Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s right-wing secretary of state, nicely sums up the reasons why people have been suspicious of the voting process in the state. Blackwell, Kennedy notes, “had broad powers to interpret and implement state and federal election laws — setting standards for everything from the processing of voter registration to the conduct of official recounts.” There’s no argument that he used those powers for partisan gain. As Kennedy documents, in the months prior to the election, Blackwell issued a series of arbitrary and capricious voting and registration rules that could well have disenfranchised many people in the state.
But to prove Blackwell stole the state for Bush, Kennedy’s got to do more than show instances of Blackwell’s mischief. He’s got to outline where Blackwell’s actions could possibly have added up to enough votes to put the wrong man in office. In that, he fails. In the following pages, I match Kennedy’s claims with the reality of the 2004 election.
Claim: In rural counties in Ohio, more than 150,000 votes meant for Kerry were somehow switched to Bush.
“An examination of election data suggests widespread fraud — and even good old-fashioned stuffing of ballot boxes — in twelve sparsely populated counties scattered across southern and western Ohio,” Kennedy writes. The counties he suspects are Auglaize, Brown, Butler, Clermont, Darke, Highland, Mercer, Miami, Putnam, Shelby, Van Wert and Warren. “One key indicator of fraud is to look at counties where the presidential vote departs radically from other races on the ballot,” he writes. “By this measure, John Kerry’s numbers were suspiciously low in each of the twelve counties — and George Bush’s were unusually high.”
Kennedy points to vote results for Ellen Connally, a liberal Democrat who ran for chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Kennedy contends that Kerry’s vote totals in the presidential race should have exceeded Connally’s in the Supreme Court race in these rural counties; you wouldn’t expect a relatively unknown liberal to win more votes than a well-known moderate in a rural area.
“Yet in these twelve off-the-radar counties, Connally somehow managed to outperform the best-funded Democrat in history, thumping Kerry by a grand total of 19,621 votes — a margin of ten percent,” Kennedy writes. To Kennedy, this indicates that a lot of the people who voted for Connally also intended to vote for Kerry, but their votes somehow didn’t show up. Rep. Dennis Kucinich tells Kennedy, ”Down-ticket candidates shouldn’t outperform presidential candidates like that. That just doesn’t happen. The question is: Where did the votes for Kerry go?”
Kennedy says Kerry’s votes “were fraudulently shifted to Bush.” He points out that “statewide, the president outpolled Thomas Moyer, the Republican judge who defeated Connally, by 21 percent. Yet in the twelve questionable counties, Bush’s margin over Moyer was 50 percent — a strong indication that the president’s certified vote total was inflated. If Kerry had maintained his statewide margin over Connally in the twelve suspect counties, as he almost assuredly would have done in a clean election, he would have bested her by 81,260 ballots. That’s a swing of 162,520 votes from Kerry to Bush — more than enough to alter the outcome.”
Reality: Kennedy’s pattern sounds intriguing. But as Mark Lindeman, a political scientist at Bard College, pointed out to me, the whole story dissolves when you look at results from previous elections.
Contrary to Kucinich’s assertion, down-ticket candidates do indeed sometimes win more votes than presidential candidates of their own party in some places — sometimes a lot more. In 2000, Democratic state Supreme Court candidate Alice Resnick won more votes than Al Gore in dozens of counties — in 81 counties, which makes the 12 counties where Supreme Court candidate Connally outperformed Kerry in 2004 look not very suspicious at all. (I arrived at these numbers using Excel and Ohio’s 2000 county-by-county results, available here.) If Kennedy considered Connally’s 19,000 vote margin over Kerry in 12 counties a “thumping,” I wonder what he’d think of Resnick’s margin over Gore — she won 126,000 more votes throughout the state than did the incumbent vice president (she won her race against her opponent, too). Tim Black, another Democratic Supreme Court candidate, lost his race, but he too managed to outperform Gore in 40 counties.
Lindeman points out that the numbers work out this way for a very specific reason — ballots in Ohio don’t list party affiliations for Supreme Court races. Kennedy finds it unlikely that someone in a rural Ohio county would have cast a ballot both for Bush and for a liberal justice like Connally. But if you consider that those voters might never have heard of Connally and had no idea she was a Democrat, there’s no surprise why they might have chosen her. Therefore, Kennedy’s assertion that 162,000 Kerry votes were switched to Bush falls apart.
It’s worth noting, too, that a team of political scientists hired by the Democratic Party to investigate what happened in Ohio also used statistical analysis to search for any pattern of obvious shifts from Bush to Gore in the vote count. That group saw no evidence of fraud (PDF). “The tendency to vote for Kerry in 2004 was the same as the tendency to vote for the Democratic candidate for governor in 2002,” their report noted. “That the pattern of voting for Kerry is so similar to the pattern of voting for the Democratic candidate for governor in 2002 is, in the opinion of the team’s political science experts, strong evidence against the claim that widespread fraud systematically misallocated votes from Kerry to Bush.”
They added: “Kerry’s support across precincts also increased with the support for Eric Fingerhut, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, and decreased with the support for Issue 1 (ballot initiative opposing same-sex marriage) and increased with the proportion of African American votes. Again this is the pattern that would be expected and is not consistent with claims of widespread fraud that misallocated votes from Kerry to Bush.”
Kennedy cites parts of their report several times, but he does not mention this conclusion.
Claim: Blackwell engineered a “purge” of 300,000 voters in Ohio’s major cities.
Kennedy writes that “Blackwell permitted election officials in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo to conduct a massive purge of their voter rolls, summarily expunging the names of more than 300,000 voters who had failed to cast ballots in the previous two national elections. In Cleveland, which went five-to-one for Kerry, nearly one in four voters were wiped from the rolls between 2000 and 2004.”
He concedes that there were “legitimate reasons to clean up voting lists: Many of the names undoubtedly belonged to people who had moved or died. But thousands more were duly registered voters who were deprived of their constitutional right to vote — often without any notification — simply because they had decided not to go to the polls in prior elections.” Kennedy estimates that 10 percent of these 300,000 voters represented actual voters who were disenfranchised. He concludes that Blackwell’s actions put 30,000 votes in the missing column.
Reality: Scrubbing the voting rolls of people who hadn’t voted in prior elections isn’t an arbitrary move. It’s the law. Here’s the relevant section of the Ohio code, 3503.19, which states that a person who “fails to vote in any election during the period of two federal elections” shall have his registration “canceled.” To be sure, people who intended to vote and weren’t aware of this rule could have been cut from the rolls, and you might say that’s unfair. But that’s an argument for a better election law, and not proof that the purges were part of a Republican election-theft plot.
Claim: Republican officials deliberately rigged voting procedures to create the long voting lines seen in Kerry strongholds.
Kennedy says that “more than 174,000 voters” in Ohio did not cast a ballot due to long lines at the polls. He considers the GOP directly responsible for this failure. “The long lines were not only foreseeable — they were actually created by GOP efforts,” he says. He says that Republicans in the state legislature pushed county election boards to reduce the number of their voting precincts, and that Republicans also failed to “distribute enough voting machines to inner-city precincts.”
As one example, Kennedy cites the case of Matt Damschroder, who was chair of both the Franklin County Board of Elections and the former head of the Republican Party in Columbus. Instead of buying equipment to deal with an influx of new voters, “Damschroder decided to ‘make do’ with 2,741 machines,” Kennedy writes. “And to make matters worse, he favored his own party in distributing the equipment. According to The Columbus Dispatch, precincts that had gone seventy percent or more for Al Gore in 2000 were allocated seventeen fewer machines in 2004, while strong GOP precincts received eight additional machines.”
Kennedy says that these allocations harmed Kerry voters more than Bush voters. “The result was utterly predictable,” he writes. “According to an investigation by the Columbus Free Press, white Republican suburbanites, blessed with a surplus of machines, averaged waits of only twenty-two minutes; black urban Democrats averaged three hours and fifteen minutes. ‘The allocation of voting machines in Franklin County was clearly biased against voters in precincts with high proportions of African-Americans,’ concluded Walter Mebane Jr., a government professor at Cornell University who conducted a statistical analysis of the vote in and around Columbus.”
Reality: Kennedy is right to highlight the problem of long lines; every single study of the Ohio race done so far has fingered this problem as by far the single biggest cause of disenfranchisement. And he’s right, too, that the problem affected minorities disproportionately. Many, though not all, political scientists who’ve looked at the question agree that the voters who were turned away would have broken toward Kerry. But the relevant question is how many voters didn’t get to vote due to long lines, and who is to blame?
For his numbers, Kennedy cites the Democratic Party’s comprehensive report on the question, so it’s difficult to see where he comes up with the idea that “more than 174,000 voters” were turned away from the polls due to long lines. In fact, the DNC report — here is the enormous PDF — says “two percent of voters who went to the polls on Election Day decided to leave their polling locations due to the long lines. This resulted in approximately 129,543 lost votes.” The report adds that “these potential voters would have divided evenly between George Bush and John Kerry.” But even if Kerry got two-thirds of those ballots — a huge margin, matching what he got in Ohio’s bluest counties — he’d have won about 86,000 more votes, while Bush would have won 43,000 more. This would have reduced the final 118,000-margin in Ohio to about 75,000 — that is, Bush would still have been comfortably in the lead.
As to Kennedy’s argument that Republicans deliberately engineered the long lines, he’s on pretty shaky ground. To be sure, there is ample evidence that election officials throughout the state failed to respond to the surge in voter registration seen in the 2004 race. But it is far more accurate to see their actions as part of a larger picture of incompetence in the midst of massive changes in election procedures — especially changes in voting technology — than as part of a GOP plot. Kennedy elides the fact that in Ohio, decisions about voting-machine allocation and precinct location are determined by local boards of elections, which are bipartisan; any Republican effort to allocate machines in a way meant to harm Democrats would have necessarily involved Democratic officials.
The case of Matt Damschroder, the Republican chair of elections in Franklin County whom Kennedy cites, is instructive. As Cornell’s Walter Mebane determined, Franklin County’s allocation of voting machines was clearly biased against African-Americans. But Mebane’s report (PDF) contains some important caveats. Franklin County’s allocation of voting machines can be seen as biased if you look at the number of black voters who were registered by Election Day, but decisions about how to allocate voting machines are made months before then. That’s why Mebane also notes that “if the allocation of voting machines is compared to information about the size of the active electorate that was available to Franklin County election officials at the end of April, 2004, then the allocation of machines is not biased against voters who were active at that time in precincts having high proportions of African Americans.”
The difference reflects the reality that in the last few months of election season, registration surged in Ohio. That Franklin County’s voting-machine allocation was considered unbiased in the spring and biased in the fall arises from the fact that the county failed to respond to these electoral changes.
Mebane doesn’t let Damschroder off the hook. He says county officials “ignored information during the late summer and fall that should have showed them that the November electorate would be substantially larger. Between April and November, the active voter population in the county increased by more than 15 percent. If nothing else, the surge of new registrants should have indicated that their plans made in mid-summer would prove woefully insufficient.”
But the fact that the county once had an unbiased distribution of voting machines would seem to clear them of the kind of deliberate vote-rigging that Kennedy sees. You can call them incompetent for not responding to new registration in the county. But can you really call them election thieves?
Listen to the chairman of the board of Franklin’s election office, an African-American man named William Anthony, who also headed the county’s Democratic Party. As I first pointed out in my review of “Fooled Again,” any effort to deliberately skew the vote toward Bush in Franklin would have had to involve Anthony — and he has rejected the charge that he’d do such a thing. “I am a black man. Why would I sit there and disenfranchise voters in my own community?” Anthony told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’ve fought my whole life for people’s right to vote.”
Claim: Exit polls are usually accurate.
“Over the past decades, exit polling has evolved into an exact science,” he writes. “The results are exquisitely accurate.” Kennedy points out that exits are often used to verify the integrity of an election — he refers to Ukraine, where in 2004 exit polling “exposed election fraud that denied Viktor Yushchenko the presidency.”
Essentially, Kennedy’s argument goes like this: Exit poll numbers — which are derived from interviews with voters after they’ve cast their votes — showed us what voters actually wanted. The discrepancy between the exits and the final count indicates that something funny happened in the casting or counting of ballots in Ohio. If the Ukranian exits proved fraud, why don’t those in the U.S?
Reality: “Nonsense,” says Mark Blumenthal, the professional Democratic pollster who runs Mystery Pollster, the poll-scrutinizing blog that has comprehensively covered the exit poll story since Election Day. Anyone who says that exit polls are the most reliable kind of survey “only demonstrates that the person making that statement knows very little about how surveys are done,” Blumenthal says.
Warren Mitofsky, the veteran pollster who conducted the exit poll for the networks, told me last year that he doesn’t think the exits represent the gospel truth of what happened during an election. The ACE Project, a group that advises democracies on how to conduct elections that is spearheaded by, among other groups, the United Nations, says this of exit polling: “Their reliability can be questionable. One might think that there is no reason why voters in stable democracies should conceal or lie about how they have voted, especially because nobody is under any obligation to answer in an exit poll. But in practice they often do. The majority of exit polls carried out in European countries over the past years have been failures.”
As the MIT political scientists Charles Stewart has pointed out, it’s not useful to compare the role of exit polls in Ukraine’s 2004 election with exit polls in the U.S race. The two elections, and the two nations, are too different to come to any meaningful conclusion from such a comparison. In Ukraine, one exit poll showed opposition candidate and eventual president Viktor Yushchenko winning 54 percent to 43 percent nationally. Mitofsky’s final national poll put Kerry at 51 percent and Bush with 48 percent. Compare this to the actual result, which had Bush at 51 percent and Kerry with 48 percent. The difference is not that significant.
Moreover, Stewart notes, pre-election polls in Ukraine agreed with the exits, bolstering the case that Yushchenko was the true winner. In the United States, though, the polls taken before the election tended to show either a very close race or a Bush win. (You can read Stewart’s paper in PDF format here.)
When you talk to pollsters about what to make of the 2004 American exit polls — as I have done, on and off, for the past year and a half — you don’t hear the degree of trust in the surveys that Kennedy suggests. Exit polls are sometimes wrong; indeed, examples abound. In 1992, the exits showed almost as great a pro-Clinton bias as the 2004 poll’s pro-Kerry bias — in other words, the poll showed Clinton with a lot bigger win than he ultimately had. The reason that poll didn’t cause a firestorm is because the race wasn’t as close as the one in 2004.
Claim: The exit polls showed an insurmountable Kerry lead, one that made a Bush win impossible.
“As the last polling stations closed on the West Coast, exit polls showed Kerry ahead in ten of eleven battleground states — including commanding leads in Ohio and Florida — and winning by a million and a half votes nationally.” Kennedy adds, “Based on exit polls, CNN had predicted Kerry defeating Bush in Ohio by a margin of 4.2 percentage points. Instead, election results showed Bush winning the state by 2.5 percent. Bush also tallied 6.5 percent more than the polls had predicted in Pennsylvania, and 4.9 percent more in Florida.”
Kennedy then includes a blockbuster quote from Steven Freeman, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, who puts the odds of the polls being as wrong as they were in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida at 1 in 660,000. ”As much as we can say in sound science that something is impossible,” Freeman says, ”it is impossible that the discrepancies between predicted and actual vote count in the three critical battleground states of the 2004 election could have been due to chance or random error.”
Reality: Kennedy is right that the polls in battleground states showed Kerry ahead. What he fails to say is that in many states, the exits didn’t show Kerry ahead by the margin of error, meaning, statistically, that his lead wasn’t secure. Way back in December of 2004, pollster Mark Blumenthal pointed out the key fact in this debate. Of the ten battleground states that the exit poll showed Kerry winning, he ultimately lost four — states that, you could say, cost him the election. These were Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico. But in none of those states was Kerry’s lead outside the poll’s margin of error. In other words, the poll results showed a race that was too close to call, and it is impossible to use such a poll to prove that fraud occurred. As Mitofsky told me, television news networks, looking at the exit poll data, seemed to understand that Kerry did not top the margin of error, and so did not call these states for him.
As for Freeman’s 660,000 to 1 statistic, it is irrelevant. (His comment to Kennedy — “As much as we can say in sound science that something is impossible…” — appears almost verbatim in the paper he put out in December 2004; I included it in a story on exit polling a year and a half ago.) The statistic measures the probability that the errors in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida occurred due to chance or random error, and according to Freeman, that probability is very low. But nobody argues the errors happened by chance. Everyone in the exit poll debate agrees that there was a systematic cause for the errors in the poll. Freeman, Kennedy, et al., claim that the systematic cause was fraud, while Mitofsky and many in the polling community claim the cause was a problem with the poll. So Freeman’s argument that it would take preposterous odds to produce a random sampling error is a straw-man assertion.
Claim: The exit pollsters can’t explain how their poll failed.
Kennedy says that Edison/Mitofsky, Warren Mitofsky’s polling group, “was unable to identify any flaw in its methodology — so the pollsters, in essence, invented one for the electorate.”
Reality: This claim is misleading. In January 2005, Mitofsky released a 77-page report detailing how his poll performed on Election Day. You can read the PDF here. It is not stingy about possible methodological flaws in the survey: “Our detailed analysis by polling location and by interviewer has identified several factors that may have contributed to the size of the Within Precinct Error that led to the inaccuracies in the exit poll estimates. Some of these factors are within our control while others are not.”
As I reported last year, Mitofsky has outlined a clear and convincing explanation for what went wrong with his survey. According to Mitofsky, interviewers assigned to talk to voters as they left the polls appeared to be slightly more inclined to seek out Kerry voters than Bush voters. Kerry voters were thus overrepresented in the poll by a small margin. According to Mitofsky’s report, the polling error tended to be larger in precincts where interviewers had been recently hired or reported being insufficiently trained; where precinct officials, lawyers or other vote observers interfered with pollsters’ opportunity to approach the voters as they left the precinct; where pollsters were made to stand far away from the precinct; and where the weather wasn’t great (remember the rain in Ohio?). The report went on to outline various fixes in polling practices that might mitigate such flaws in the future.
Claim: Researchers have conclusively disproved the official explanation for the exit poll’s error.
Kennedy says that Mitofsky’s theory that Kerry voters were oversampled in the poll — thus leading to a pro-Kerry poll bias — doesn’t hold water. “Now, thanks to careful examination of Mitofsky’s own data by Freeman and a team of eight researchers, we can say conclusively that the theory is dead wrong. In fact it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were more disinclined to answer pollsters’ questions on Election Day. In Bush strongholds, Freeman and the other researchers found that fifty-six percent of voters completed the exit survey — compared to only fifty-three percent in Kerry strongholds. ‘The data presented to support the claim not only fails to substantiate it,’ observes Freeman, ‘but actually contradicts it.’”
Reality: To begin with, Freeman and his team did not “find” the survey-completion rates that Kennedy cites. Mitofsky released that data in a public report. This data was not discovered “now” — Freeman and others have been touting it ever since Mitofsky put it out in January 2005. You can see the data on page 37 of Mitofsky’s report. There, Mitofsky indeed shows that in precincts where Bush got 80 percent or more of the vote, an average of 56 percent of people who were approached volunteered to take part in the poll, while in precincts where Kerry got 80 percent or more of the vote, a lower average of 53 percent of people were willing to be surveyed. But these numbers don’t reveal how Bush voters or Kerry voters behaved, they only show how all voters, taken together in average, responded in certain precincts. They are irrelevant to the question of whether fraud occurred.
As Mark Lindeman, a political scientist at Bard College, explained to me, the numbers Kennedy cites fit the theory that Kerry voters were more likely to respond to pollsters than Bush voters. For instance, in the Bush strongholds — where the average completion rate was 56 percent — it’s possible that only 53 percent of those who voted for Bush were willing to be polled, while people who voted for Kerry participated at a higher 59 percent rate. Meanwhile, in the Kerry strongholds, where Mitofsky found a 53 percent average completion rate, it’s possible that Bush voters participated 50 percent of the time, while Kerry voters were willing to be interviewed 56 percent of the time. In this scenario, the averages work out to the same ones Kennedy cited: a 56 percent average response rate in Bush strongholds, and a 53 percent average response rate in Kerry strongholds. But in both Bush strongholds and Kerry strongholds, Kerry voters would have been responding at a higher rate, skewing the poll toward Kerry.
What’s more, these numbers are not set in stone. That’s because, as Mitofsky has pointed out, it’s not possible to measure the actual completion rate by Kerry voters and by Bush voters. (When someone refuses to talk to a pollster, it’s not possible to say whether he was a Bush voter or Kerry voter.) Mitofsky says that a hypothetical completion rate of 50 percent for Bush voters and 56 percent for Kerry voters would have led to the error we saw in the poll. In other words, Kerry voters were very slightly more likely to talk to pollsters than were Bush voters.
Ultimately, nothing in Kennedy’s article, and nothing in the research he cites, refutes Mitofsky’s theory that there was a true difference in the willingness of Kerry voters to participate in the poll compared to that of Bush voters. Mitofsky noted a broad array of methodological errors that could have contributed to this difference in participation rate by Kerry and Bush voters. Such a difference would not have been a surprise; Democrats have historically been overrepresented in exit polls. There is no reason to think that the error in 2004 was anything substantively different.
Claim: Tens of thousands of people were disenfranchised due to voter registration errors.
Kennedy points to an analysis conducted by the nonpartisan Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition. He says it showed that “16,000 voters in and around the city were disenfranchised because of data-entry errors by election officials, and another 15,000 lost the right to vote due to largely inconsequential omissions on their registration cards.” He adds the study concludes that statewide, “a total of 72,000 voters were disenfranchised through avoidable registration errors — one percent of all voters in an election decided by barely two percent.”
Reality: Kennedy has misread the Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition report in a small but important way. The report examines the numbers of people whose registrations were bungled due to their own or their county officials’ error. Some of those errors — for instance, submitting a registration form without an address — disqualified people to vote. Other errors, such as someone’s making a mistake while typing in your name, might or might not have disqualified you. So not all of the 16,000 people in Cleveland whose registrations included data-entry errors were disenfranchised. In fact, many of them got to vote. (You can read the coalition’s PDF report here.)
Kennedy’s error is important when you consider the number of people disenfranchised through registration errors statewide, which he puts at 72,000. In fact, the coalition reports the number as an estimate of about 42,500 votes that were “lost,” and 30,000 votes it says were “at risk” of being lost; it is not clear how many of those that were “at risk” were actually lost.
The report simply does not say that 72,000 people were disenfranchised.
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.