Was the election stolen?

The system is clearly broken. But there is no evidence that Bush won because of voter fraud.

Published November 10, 2004 7:30PM (EST)

Did John Kerry actually win the presidency? If you've spent any time online this week, you've no doubt heard this argument: The election was stolen. Corrupt officials, rigged voting machines, a sleepy media and a Democratic Party that's been less than fully aggressive in its efforts to counter Republican dirty tricks came together to subvert the true will of the people.

According to proponents of this theory, proof of electoral fraud abounds. The journalist Greg Palast argues that in Ohio, there were probably enough "spoiled" punch-card ballots -- ballots tossed out by counting machines -- to make up Bush's margin over Kerry. Keith Olbermann points out that in some voting precincts in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, there were more votes cast than registered voters -- for instance, in the Fairview Park area, 13,342 registered voters cast 18,472 ballots. Isn't that odd? Then there's the analysis by a former high school math teacher named Kathy Dopp, which seems to show that in counties using optical-scan voting systems in Florida, people registered as Democrats voted for Bush at an usually high rate. Did they really mean to do that, or did the voting machines corrupt their votes?

There are dozens of other points of concern. In Broward County, Florida, the counting software has been counting votes backwards. In Franklin County, Ohio, Bush was somehow given 4,000 more votes than he'd actually won. Citing vague security concerns, officials in Warren County, Ohio, locked down the vote-counting building on election night, preventing the media from observing the count. And what about those exit polls? Could it be that they were correct in their prediction of a Kerry win? To judge from the tone of the e-mail pouring into our in boxes here at Salon, not to mention the panicky posts on lefty sites like Democratic Underground, it's clear that many online find these arguments quite convincing. For many, it's difficult to believe that the election the nation held last week was completely on the level.

In fact, it probably wasn't; Election Day 2004, like all national elections, saw its share of glitches, ineptitude, fraud and intimidation. The Election Incident Reporting System, a national database of election irregularities compiled by volunteers working with various voting-rights groups, lists 30,000 such incidents for 2004. They range from the tragic (a voter who "didn't know how to read") to the alarming ("Two African-American voters were arrested at the polling place before they had the opportunity to vote").

There's little question that the American election process is a mess, and needs to be cleaned up. But even if this particular election wasn't perfect, it was still most likely good enough for us to have faith in the results. Salon has examined some of the most popular Kerry-actually-won theories currently making the rounds online, and none of them hold up under rigorous scrutiny. For instance, there's an easy explanation for the odd results in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Olbermann insists there were 93,000 more votes than voters. According to Kimberly Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the county, the reporting software the county uses to display the unofficial summary of election results on its Web site is simply buggy. For some reason, the software combines absentee ballots from several voting precincts into one precinct, and therefore makes it appear as if there were more votes cast in a particular area than there were registered voters there. But this bug does not affect the final election results, because the more detailed "canvass" of all the votes cast in the county shows the correct count, Bartlett told Salon. For example, this canvass indicates that in Fairview Park, where Olbermann says there were 18,472 ballots cast by 13,342 registered voters, there were actually only 8,421 votes cast in the presidential race -- fewer than the number of registered voters.

Other theories pointing to a Kerry win are similarly brittle. It is extremely unlikely that there are enough spoiled punch-card ballots in Ohio to hand Kerry a victory there, as Palast asserts. Meanwhile, there are reasonable-sounding sociological and demographic explanations for the high number of registered-Democrat Bush voters in some counties in Florida. There is, in other words, simply no compelling proof that there were enough irregularities in enough areas affecting enough voters to cast doubt on Bush's commanding popular vote count lead, or even his thinner margins in key swing states such as Ohio or Florida.

"Given my current state of knowledge, it seems unlikely there will be enough bogus votes found to reverse the election," says David Dill, the Stanford computer scientist who's been leading the charge against paperless electronic voting machines for the past two years. At the same time, though, Dill adds that he's making "a highly qualified statement," and that he does not want to "declare the election over and done with." Odd things did occur last Tuesday, and even if the results aren't overturned, "it's extremely important that we seize this opportunity to review everything we can about this election," Dill says. "Having people comb through these results will give us more confidence in the legitimacy of this election. We shouldn't gain that confidence by resorting to the head-in-the-sand method we usually employ in the United States."

The 2000 presidential election prompted officials across the nation -- including those in Ohio -- to abandon antiquated punch-card voting systems in favor of newer voting technology. But late in 2003, after activists uncovered alarming security holes in the paperless touch-screen electronic voting systems being purchased by many jurisdictions, officials in Ohio slowed their touch-screen plans. As a result, most voters in the state cast their ballots on punch-card systems this year, which, as Greg Palast points out, was a cause for concern among officials there even before Tuesday. J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's Republican secretary of state, once declared that "the possibility of a close election with punch cards as the state's primary voting device invites a Florida-like calamity."

The main reason Blackwell and other elections experts worry about punch-card systems is that they lead to a high number of "residual ballots" -- ballots that are cast but, for various reasons, are not counted. Ballots can be tossed out because voters choose too many candidates in a certain race (they cast an "overvote"), or because counting machines simply misread a ballot as an overvote. Votes can also be misread because the systems are confused by hanging or dimpled chads -- selections that haven't been punched through all the way. In 2000, according to a report by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, voting systems in Ohio experienced a spoilage rate of 1.96 percent, meaning that for every 1,000 ballots cast then, about 20 were thrown out.

Since there were about 5.5 million votes cast in Ohio this year, Palast estimates that at a 1.96 percent error rate, there might be as many 110,000 uncounted ballots in the state. On Nov. 4, however, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that there are only about 93,000 spoiled ballots in Ohio. There were also about 155,000 provisional ballots cast in the state -- votes cast as a last resort by people whose names could not be found on registration rolls when they went to the polls. Bush is currently leading Kerry by about 136,000 votes in Ohio. For Kerry to win, then, Ohio would have to have a way to count all 248,000 outstanding discarded and provisional votes -- which isn't going to happen -- and then 77 percent of those ballots would have to go to Kerry.

Such an outcome is all but impossible. For one thing, an overwhelming number of provisional ballots will simply not count. According to Ohio's election rules -- which were deemed legal by federal courts prior to the election -- only provisional ballots that have been cast in a voter's home precinct will be added to the count. Nobody expects many provisional votes to pass that test.

But let's say that Kerry stands to gain 50,000 votes from the provisional count, and that Bush doesn't get any provisional votes -- a fantastical scenario, but bear with us. If that occurred, Kerry would need to get virtually every single vote from the discarded ballots in order to approach Bush's margin. Considering that Bush won 4 out of 10 votes even in Ohio's most heavily Democratic counties, such margins just aren't possible.

There is an easier way to prove that Kerry couldn't have won in Ohio: He conceded. Say what you like about John Kerry, he's no shrinking violet. If there was any chance that he could have beaten Bush simply by calling for a hand count of tossed-out punch-card ballots in Ohio, don't you think he would have done it? "I think Kerry would have stuck it out if the vote difference had been tighter," says Stephen Ansolabehere, a political scientist at MIT and a member of the CalTech/MIT Project, an electoral-reform task force formed in response to the 2000 fiasco. The margins, though, were simply too great. As Kerry explained in his concession speech, "It is now clear that even when all the provisional ballots are counted, which they will be, there won't be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio. And therefore, we can not win this election."

A couple days after Election Day, Kathy Dopp, a businesswoman and, more recently, a full-time activist working against the widespread introduction of paperless touch-screen voting systems in the U.S., began compiling a statistical analysis of the votes cast in Florida. She was initially looking for odd patterns in counties that use electronic touch-screen systems in the state, but when Dopp plotted the data, she found the weirdest results in counties that used optical scan systems -- on which voters fill out a paper ballot that is counted by machine, not unlike the process you'd see on a standardized test in school.

Specifically, Dopp noticed that in many optical scan counties, there were many more votes for George W. Bush than you'd expect from the number of Republicans registered in those counties. Although Dopp offered no speculation as to why Bush seemed to have won so many votes in apparently Democratic counties, her report has been cited as proof that something may have been amiss with the optical scan systems. Reporting on her work in a widely circulated article in CommonDreams.org, the journalist Thom Hartmann concluded that Dopp's analysis shows that Florida's "results seem to contain substantial anomalies."

Dopp's analysis does give one pause. For instance, about 70 percent of the 12,000 registered voters in Baker County are Democrats, but of the 10,000 votes cast there, more than 7,000 were for Bush. There are 11,000 registered voters in Holmes County, and 72 percent of them are Democrats -- but 77 percent of the voters in Holmes chose Bush. Considering that most voters across the country voted according to their party -- 90 percent of Democrats chose Kerry, and 90 percent of Republicans chose Bush -- why did so many Democrats in Florida's optical-scan counties go with Bush? And why was such a startling pattern not seen in counties that use touch-screen voting machines?

For anyone who knows Florida politics, the explanation is easy -- "Dixiecrats." Ansolabehere points out that in Florida, optical-scan machines are mainly in "rural areas or places with low population density, and those counties happen to be more Republican," even if voters there are registered as Democrats. These voters may keep their Democratic registrations alive so that they can participate in local Democratic primaries, but when it comes to national races they would never vote for the Democrat. Walter Mebane, a political scientist at Cornell who's long studied Florida politics, echoed this thought. In a rebuttal to Dopp's work that has also been flying around over e-mail, Mebane -- working with Jonathan Wand, another Cornell political scientist, and Jasjeet Sekhon, at Harvard -- explains that many of the counties Dopp considers curious have been voting for Republicans for years. "The pattern in which counties that have high Democratic registration had high percentage increases in the vote for Bush reflects the fact that all those counties have trended strongly Republican over the past twelve years," he wrote. "The counties are mostly in the Florida Panhandle. Given the voting history and registration trends, these counties seem to have many old-style southern Democrats who have not bothered to change their registration."

Mebane is not one to hastily dismiss the notion that voting irregularities affect elections. In 2001, he authored one of the main studies explaining how Palm Beach County's "butterfly ballot" led to Gore's defeat, and just this fall he wrote a paper (PDF) titled "The Wrong Man Is President! Overvotes in the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida," in which he argued that Gore actually beat Bush in 2000. But in an interview, Mebane dismissed Dopp's analysis. "If this is evidence that they stole this election," he said of Republicans, "they've been stealing elections for a long time."

To many Democrats, the most important bit of evidence pointing to a Kerry win is the exit polling data on Election Day. Although news agencies did not report the Election Day polls during the day, and no networks used the polls to call the race in close swing states, the polls, which were conducted by a consortium of news agencies called the National Election Pool, were leaked all over the Web. Those leaks seemed to show Kerry winning. And how could the polls have been so spectacularly wrong? Democrats wonder.

It's a good question, and at the moment, there's no answer, says Joe Lenski, who led the exit polling at Edison/Mitofsky Research, the firm that conduced the survey for the media. But Lenski says it's absurd to conclude from the surveys that the actual count is off. An exit poll is a survey, and surveys can fail. "The exit polls never said Kerry was going to win," he says. "The exit polls might have showed that Kerry was up in the national popular vote -- but it's still a survey with a margin of error, and every paying client knew from us that a 1- or 2-point lead is nothing that anybody would go to the bank with." It's worth noting that early exit polls in 2000 were also wrong, calling the race for Gore or Bush in various states where the other eventually won.

This is not to say that nothing went wrong on Election Day. The Election Incident Reporting System shows that thousands of voters experienced registration problems such as the mysterious disappearance of their names from the voting rolls. In addition, David Dill points out that all over the country, voting machines broke down -- the most frequent mechanical problem seen on Election Day. Another frequent complaint: Very often, voters would attempt to select one candidate on a voting machine and for some mysterious, as yet undetermined reason, the candidate's opponent will have been selected. These errors, and many more, certainly contributed to one of the most pernicious problems seen on Election Day, the unconscionably long lines at the polls.

Late last week, a handful of Democratic congressmen called on the General Accounting Office to initiate a thorough study of all that went wrong on Election Day. In their letter to the GAO, the congressmen avoid suggesting that the election was stolen. Instead, they say, investigating all the irregularities is the only way to give the public -- especially the dispirited half of the nation that voted for the losing side -- confidence in the results. "We want to make sure that the people who came out in record numbers and took time out to vote -- we want to make sure the process was fair for them," said Lale Mamaux, a spokeswoman for Rep. Robert Wexler, one of the lawmakers calling for the study. "We're not saying this election was stolen. But people have serious concerns that need to be addressed."

Or, as Cam Kerry, the senator's brother, told supporters in a statement this week, "Even if the facts don't provide a basis to change the outcome," studying what went wrong in 2004 "will inform the continuing effort to protect the integrity of our elections."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2004 Elections