Presidential debate

Reporter Greg Palast and Salon's Farhad Manjoo debate the election results in Ohio.

Published November 16, 2004 7:48PM (EST)

Greg Palast:

Sean Hannity called me a putz. Oh, my! And soft-porn-site scribe Frank Salvato put me in with the "black helicopter" conspiracy league. Golly!

I can live with that. But when Salon disses my report of vote suppression in Ohio ("Was the Election Stolen?" by Farhad Manjoo), I have to respond. Manjoo went after my article, "Kerry Won," the latest in my series of investigations of our manipulated election system first published in America by ... Salon: "Florida's Flawed 'Voter-Cleansing' Program."

Now, the facts. Most voters in Ohio cast their ballots for John Kerry, which should, in accordance with Mrs. Gordon's civics lessons from sixth grade, have given Kerry the Electoral College majority and the White House. Trouble is, those votes won't be counted.

So where are these uncounted, but winning, votes? When I went to sleep the night of Nov. 2, Kerry was down in Ohio by 136,000 votes. But over a quarter million ballots had yet to be counted. Those abandoned ballots, overwhelmingly Democratic, sit in two piles, one called "spoiled" and the other "provisional."

The ugly, secret shame of American democracy is that 2 million votes are "spoiled" in presidential elections -- tossed away untallied as "unreadable." And the nasty part is that roughly half are cast by African-Americans. To learn of this astonishing Jim Crow thumb on the U.S. electoral scales, you have to hunt through the appendixes of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission report on the Florida 2000 race. The government's demographers concluded that of the 179,855 votes "spoiled" in Florida that year, 54 percent were cast by blacks. All other credible studies tell us that Florida is horribly typical of the nation.

Last Tuesday, in Ohio, Republicans played the spoilage game for all it was worth. Over 93,000 ballots were chucked on the spoilage pile, almost all of them generated by those infernal chad-making punch-card machines.

Whose votes were lost in the chad blizzard? According to a recent ACLU analysis of Ohio's system, votes stolen away by punch-card machine error are "overwhelmingly" found in African-American -- read "Democratic" -- precincts.

After the swindle of 2000, who would have the nerve to keep these machines in operation? Answer: the co-chair of Ohio's Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, J. Kenneth Blackwell, who also happens to have the convenient post of Ohio secretary of state. Blackwell, who makes Katherine Harris look like Thomas Jefferson, concedes the racially bent effects of punch-card voting; but in spite of this -- or because of this -- he refused to replace or fix these machines for the 2004 election.

The result: 93,000 votes spoiled, uncounted. Salon's Manjoo, ignorant of the ACLU's precinct-by-precinct studies, simply dismisses out of hand the assertion that most of those were Kerry votes. But given that Ohio's spoiled ballots are concentrated in black and poor communities, it is hardly a wild leap to discern which candidate got punched out by the punch cards.

Now, on to the second pile of no-count ballots, the provisionals. And guess who got these second-class, back-of-the-bus ballots? Once again, Ohio's African-American voters.

The Republican Party declared the hunting season open for dark-skinned voters in October, announcing a plan to challenge "fraudulent" voters on a mass basis, the first such programmatic attack on the franchise since the days of the Night Riders.

And the tactic was very much the same as that used by the allies of the White Citizens Councils and Bull Conners in the early '60s: targeted and unequal application of picayune registration and voting requirements. The Ohio courts were not amused, slapping down the Republican Party's challenge lists before Election Day.

However, the party kept secret lists and a secret program in its back pocket to ambush black voters on Election Day, a scheme outed by BBC television the week before the election.

Majoo has an answer for that, too. On Oct. 27, Manjoo wrote an entire column defending the po' widdle Republicans from BBC's mean and unfounded attack, subtitled, "Investigative reporter Greg Palast discovers a 'secret' voting list, but the document doesn't necessarily prove Republican wrongdoing." Ace reporter Manjoo's entire investigation of the matter comes down to three quotations from a Republican Party flack, Mindy Tucker Fletcher, who -- surprise! -- denied the BBC's findings. I was never contacted nor was a single one of our experts.

Here's what we discovered at the BBC: several lists of voters, every one of them in an African-American precinct. Fletcher's official explanation (her third variant, by the way) was that these were returned undeliverable fundraising solicitations. Odd, that: Many of the addresses were those of homeless men's shelters, not where I'd expect a lot of Bush-Cheney donors. And why were the Republicans sending solicitations only to black voters? Is that their normal funding group?

More suspicious is that these lists of "undeliverable addresses" were sent, not to some clerk at a direct-mail house, but to the chief of research for the Republican National Committee in Washington as well as the executive director of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida. I guess they handle the clerical overflow work.

Or maybe, as every expert told us, these were hit lists meant to stop, impede, intimidate and slow down voters in African-American precincts. The Republicans have more than embarrassment to motivate them to mislead us about the true purpose of these lists: Profiling citizens of one race to block their voting, even if each challenge itself has merit, is a criminal violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Whatever their ultimate use of these lists, whatever the Republican game plan, we have the result: In Ohio, an astonishing 155,000 voters were shunted to provisional ballots, where their votes would be vulnerable to the partisan predation of GOP Secretary of State Blackwell. And once again, the provisionals were concentrated in the minority -- that is, Democratic -- areas.

Blackwell wasted no time in jiggering the rules to make sure as few provisional ballots as possible would be counted. He began by announcing that, for the first time in Ohio history, provisional ballots would not be counted if cast by a legal voter in the "wrong" precinct, even though the president remains the same for voters of all precincts. Furthermore, to increase the number of provisional ballots subject to challenge, Blackwell and other Republican office holders in Ohio went on a voter-roll-purging frenzy prior to the election. A favorite, first practiced in Florida in 2000, is to tag them ineligible "felon" voters. If a voter is wrongly purged, the registration is restored, yet the ballot will still be binned.

Add it up and the demographics of the spoiled and provisional ballots -- if they were all counted -- would overtake George Bush's teeny lead.

Lacking evidence to refute the hard stats and demographics that the uncounted votes are mostly Kerry's, Manjoo ducks behind this tautological rock: He can "prove that Kerry couldn't have won in Ohio: He conceded."

Kerry did not concede because he did not have the votes. He conceded because he could not get them counted. Kerry would have to demand a hand count of the spoiled punch cards. But the hard fact is that, just as Katherine Harris stopped the hand count of the punch cards in Florida, Blackwell would undoubtedly do the same in Ohio. And face it: In a legal showdown, Blackwell could count on the help of that pus-hole of partisanship, the U.S. Supreme Court. Been there, done that. Add in the ballot-by-ballot litigation required to force a count of all the provisional ballots under rules à la Blackwell, and Kerry, realistically, didn't stand a chance.

Unfortunately, neither did democracy.

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Greg Palast, the author of "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: New Election Edition," investigated the 2004 race for BBC television's "Newsnight" and Harper's magazine, for which he is a contributing editor.

Farhad Manjoo:

I appreciate Greg Palast's response to my article criticizing his argument that Kerry won the presidency on Nov. 2. Unfortunately, though, I don't see anything new in his letter to bolster his claims; Palast's theory, as I see it, remains at best just that, a theory that Kerry would be declared the winner if someone would just take the time to count the "spoiled" ballots spit out by punch-card machines in Ohio.

Palast rests his claims on the fact that Republicans have long tried to suppress the votes of minorities -- a point on which I agree, and have documented. Because the GOP has attempted, in the past, to either keep black voters away from the polls or reduce the chances that their votes will be counted, Palast argues that we should assume that the same thing occurred this year in Ohio. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans went to the polls intending to vote for Kerry, Palast says. But their votes won't be counted, and it's only for this reason that Kerry didn't win the White House.

Alas, Palast's is a theory unencumbered by much rigorous analysis. As I wrote on Tuesday, and as others -- including David Corn, of the Nation, and Daniel Tokaji, a professor of law at the Moritz College of Law -- have pointed out, there is precious little evidence to show that there are enough uncounted ballots in Kerry's favor to have given him the White House.

As Palast explains, there were about 250,000 uncounted ballots in Ohio as of Election Night. About 155,000 of these were "provisional" votes cast as a kind of last resort by voters whose names weren't found on the registration rolls at their polling places, and about 93,000 were "spoiled" ballots that weren't counted by poorly designed punch-card machines. Kerry is about 136,000 votes behind Bush in Ohio. For the senator to win the race, then, he'd need to win more than 77 percent of these 250,000 uncounted votes. Palast is certain that Kerry can meet this threshold. Kerry's only problem, Palast says, is that the "votes won't be counted."

But Palast is wrong on this score. Ohio's provisional ballots, which make up the majority of those 250,000 votes, will be counted. In fact, officials across the state have already begun counting them. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on Saturday, the counting is particularly complex; officials must first determine whether each vote is a legal vote (Was the voter in the correct precinct? Did he cast a ballot elsewhere?), and only then do they tally the vote. Nobody is sure just how many of those ballots will be determined to be legal votes (officials have until Dec. 1 to complete the task), but in 2000 in Ohio, only 87 percent met this threshold.

Going by that rate for this year's votes, you'd get about 135,000 legal provisional votes in Ohio. How many of these will go to Kerry? As I said, we'll know soon enough; those votes will eventually be counted, and it'd be wise for us to wait for the final tally.

But Palast doesn't seem to want to wait. Instead, he's sure the provisional votes will break for Kerry, a belief he bases on a presupposition that they are concentrated in "minority -- that is, Democratic -- areas." So let's assume, generously, that Kerry wins 70 percent of the provisional votes -- that would give him 95,000 more votes, with Bush winning 40,000. That's a net Kerry gain of 54,000 votes, reducing his deficit from 136,000 to about 82,000.

Clearly, then, winning even 70 percent of the provisional votes wouldn't win the White House for Kerry. So how could Kerry make up 82,000 votes? That's where the spoiled punch-card ballots come in. Palast believes that Kerry would win if Ohio launched a hand recount of the 93,000 spoiled votes tossed out by punch-card machines. Everyone knows, Palast argues, that the vast majority of those votes were meant for Kerry, since punch-card ballots are most often thrown out in low-income and minority areas. Citing an ACLU study that revealed "a strong relationship between the racial composition of a precinct and the percentage of discarded ballots in that precinct," Palast says that "it is hardly a wild leap to discern which candidate got punched out by the punch cards."

Palast is right; it's not a wild leap to say that Kerry probably lost more votes than Bush did as a result of faulty punch cards. The Columbus Dispatch recently analyzed the discarded punch-card ballots from the 2000 race, and while it found that "precincts with the highest rate of uncounted votes are heavily Democratic," it also determined that even in those precincts George W. Bush won one-third of the votes cast. So it is a wild leap to say, as Palast emphatically does, that Kerry lost enough votes to have given him the White House.

Now, let's say that Kerry does even better than Al Gore did in those precincts. Instead of winning two-thirds of the votes there, assume he won 80 percent -- that would give him about 74,000 of the 93,000 discarded ballots, with Bush getting 18,600. Assuming Kerry also gets 70 percent of the provisional votes as outlined above, he still loses to Bush in Ohio by about 26,000 votes. For Kerry to win -- still assuming he gets 70 percent of the provisional votes -- he'd need to get something like 94 percent of the spoiled votes. Is that possible? Well, anything's possible. But it is exceedingly unlikely, and Kerry's concession is an indication of how unlikely it is.

I do not disagree with Palast's more general thesis that the American electoral system is deeply flawed. Even if there aren't enough uncounted votes in Ohio to overturn the election, it's disgraceful that 93,000 votes in the state will go uncounted. Just as troubling is that many voters in Ohio -- mainly concentrated in low-income, Democratic areas -- were forced to wait in long lines just to cast their votes. These problems must be addressed, and Salon will continue to press for reforms.

But a broken system doesn't mean the fix is in. At this point, there is simply no evidence to support Palast's claim that Kerry won Ohio.

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Farhad Manjoo is a staff writer for Salon Technology & Business.

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