How to steal an election

Greg Palast on the (mostly) right-wing billionaires and ballot bandits out to buy our democracy

Topics: Koch Brothers, Super PACs, voting, voter suppression,

If this year’s election is anything like 2008′s, by the time the polls close on Tuesday night more than 120 million Americans will have cast a ballot this cycle. But not all of those votes will count. Between two and three million  will never even be counted, mostly because they’ve been “spoiled.” Another two and a half million would-be voters will have had their registrations rejected; another half million registered voters will have been purged — wrongly — from the rolls; and close to that number will have been turned away from the polls when they tried to vote, in most cases because they lacked an acceptable form of ID. Add it all up, and between five and six million American citizens will have been denied the right to vote.

The disenfranchised millions won’t be a random sample of Americans; they’ll overwhelmingly be poor and minority voters. And as investigative reporter Greg Palast explains in his latest book, “Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps,” they will have been taken out of the game thanks to a coordinated campaign devised by the likes of Karl Rove and funded by America’s super rich — people like the Koch brothers, hedge fund titan Paul Singer, and Texan corporate raider Harold Simmons, among others — to keep voters, overwhelmingly Democratic voters, from the polls.

Drawing on Palast’s reporting for Rolling Stone and the BBC, “Billionaires & Ballot Bandits” lays out the nine main tricks these guys use to keep down the vote, including “purging” (removing citizens from voter rolls by, say, identifying them, wrongly, as undocumented, legally insane, or felons), to “spoiling” (not counting cast ballots because the intent of the voter could not be determined; the chances that your ballot will be spoiled are many times higher if you are black or Native American), improperly rejecting mail-in ballots, and what Palast calls “prestidigitizing” (“vanishing” votes via electronic voting machines; again, much more common in minority precincts).

Palast has been called, by Al Sharpton, “an inside-out Oreo: white on the outside, black on the inside,” and “twisted and maniacal” by the notorious Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose vote-purging activities in 2000 Palast did much to expose. He recently chatted with Salon at his office in New York’s East Village.



Voter suppression has been in the news a lot, but in the book you say it’s not even the biggest threat to the vote.

The number one way to steal an election is the purging of voter rolls through various tricks. This isn’t about a system which has glitches and needs repair. It’s that someone doesn’t want these ballots counted. It’s far worse now than in 2000. It’s racial, and it’s devastating in its effects.

Meaning it mainly affects people of color.

Right. The big problem is whose votes don’t get counted.  It’s not random; when you’re knocking off mostly black and Hispanic and lots and lots of the Native American voters it’s not random.

We don’t hear much about Native Americans as a target of voter suppression.

Talk about a group that doesn’t get any coverage! The Native American vote, which is discounted completely, will probably determine Senate races and maybe the presidential race in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and South Dakota.

Everyone remembers the disaster in Florida in 2000, when thousands, particularly African-American voters, were purged. How could this be getting worse?

Themis and DataTrust. Themis is the database created by the Koch Brothers. DataTrust is Karl Rove’s database. They have been used as a way to zero in on voters they don’t like and come up with ways that are legal and sometimes illegal for challenging and knocking off those voters. That’s what the Kochs and [other right-wing billionaires]are spending their money on.

How come we don’t hear more about voter purges?

[Even elected officials] don’t always know about it. I uncovered that the Secretary of State of Colorado Donetta Davidson had knocked off 50,000 voters as “felons” just before the 2004 election. It was against the law because it was within 90 days of a federal election. And ex-felons are allowed to vote in Colorado. She said it was an emergency — the emergency was that Bush was going to lose Colorado. She knocked off one in five voters in Colorado. There’s a Democratic governor. I spoke to his voting protection chief. He didn’t know about the purges..

Aside from purges, you talk about the issue of spoiled ballots, where cast ballots are thrown out because the intent of the voter could not be determined, typically because the ballots are “unreadable.”

Millions of votes are thrown in the garbage in America — 2.7 million in the last election and this election is going to be double that, easy. And the chance your vote will be spoiled — that is, cast and not counted — is 900 percent higher if you’re African American than if you’re white.

Where does felon disenfranchisement fit into the picture?

There are only three states that have an absolute bar on former felons voting. Everywhere else, if you’ve served your sentence, you don’t lose your citizenship. But the rumor is that you can’t vote, and if you dare register, you’re going to go to prison again. So we have 16 million ex-cons in the United States who are legally able to vote, and don’t. That’s a bigger vote than the Hispanic vote.

And they tend to lean Democrat, right?

According to the University of Minnesota, 88 percent of people who go to prison come out Democrats, no matter what their color. But you think Democrats are going to stand up and say, “If you’re an ex-felon we want you to register and vote for us?” What I don’t understand is why they don’t at least fund other groups who will do this. But they don’t.

In the book, you claim that Democrats are excluding voters too — even other Democrats. Why?

Barack Obama won his first election by disenfranchising thousands of black people in his run for State Senator. He challenged the signature of his opponent’s supporters, so that he knocked off the incumbent state senator. It was one of the worst cases of disenfranchising black voters I’ve ever encountered.

One of the worst states for this is New Mexico, where massive numbers of Hispanic Democrats have been thrown off the voter rolls or had their votes thrown in the garbage and spoiled — by Hispanic Democrats. Governor Bill Richardson and Rebecca Vigil-Giron who is under indictment — they’re part of the old Hispanic elite of New Mexico and the last thing that they want is some group of low riders to threaten their control of the Democratic Party and the money from the Uranium interests and the gas extraction interests, and the cattle ranching interests. It’s not about Democrat and Republican. It’s about 99 percent versus 1 percent

So Democrats do it, too. But whether it’s Democrats, who do it a little, or Republicans who do it a tremendous amount, it’s always the same victims — poor voters, voters of color.

You profile some of the billionaires who are behind the majority of this electoral manipulation — Paul “The Vulture” Singer, Harold “Ice Man” Simmons, and the Koch Brothers — and even get into their motivations. How do you know so much about them?

I’ve followed some of them for years as an investigator, and I went to school with some of them because I was a student of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. I got my MBA in finance with them and I turned down a job from Goldman Sachs when some of those guys went to the dark side. So I have some sense of them.

These billionaires have tremendous power already, so why do they bother interfering in elections? What are they after?
Of the 37 billionaires that are backing the Republicans through Restore Our Future [Super PAC], very few are partisan Republicans. David Koch was going to run for Governor of Kansas as a Democrat! Their interest as billionaires is getting another billion. They think of themselves as Nietzschean supermen, Übermenschen. They do serve, in their view, a higher purpose. They actually think of themselves as existing above the morality and psychology of the average man and that in the long run the world would be a better, freer, more productive place and people would be better off if they were in charge.  And the only way that they can make this happen is by having it all. All of the money, all of the votes, all of the levers of power, everything.

Is there anything voters can do to increase the chance that their vote will count?
Check if you’re still registered — since some 22 million citizens in the past two years have been thrown off the voter rolls or listed [erroneously] as inactive, insane, a felon, an illegal alien, or have a misspelled name.

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