Don't get "Fooled Again"

In his new book, Mark Crispin Miller tries to prove that Republicans rigged the 2004 election, but his evidence is thinner than a butterfly ballot.

Published November 14, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

On Nov. 4, Mark Crispin Miller, the New York University media studies professor and longtime Bush critic, appeared on the lefty radio show "Democracy Now!" to promote his new book, "Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election and Why They'll Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them)." As part of an on-air debate with the investigative reporter Mark Hertsgaard, who recently criticized Miller's book in Mother Jones magazine, Miller let slip a dramatic piece of news about last year's Democratic nominee for the presidency. "On Friday, this last Friday night, I arranged to meet Senator Kerry at a fundraiser to give him a copy of my book," Miller said. "He told me he now thinks the election was stolen."

Now, this was big news. If what Miller said about Kerry was right, it would have signaled a momentous shift in thinking for the senator. For a year now, partisans on the left who say that Bush stole last year's presidential race have had a hard time making their claim stick precisely because Kerry, the man they allege was the main victim of the fraud, had so quickly conceded the election and so thoroughly ignored any suggestion that it had been rigged. But if Kerry now thought that these people were right -- if Kerry now believed Bush didn't actually win the race -- well, that would change everything. Suddenly the year-long online barrage of half-baked theories and misreported election data that some people say proves a massive, successful Republican conspiracy to install Bush in the White House would have found a very prominent, aggrieved backer, someone to finally make the case to the world that Americans had been cheated of their rightful president.

Unfortunately for the partisans, Miller's Kerry blockbuster quickly fizzled. "I know Mr. Miller is trying to sell his book and he feels passionately about his thesis, but his recent statements about his conversation with Senator Kerry are simply not true," Jenny Backus, a Kerry spokeswoman, told Raw Story shortly after the "Democracy Now!" broadcast. "The only thing true about his recollection of the conversation is that he gave Senator Kerry a copy of his book."

Of course, I don't know what transpired between the professor and the senator, but Miller's shaky scoop is all too typical of much of the reporting in his book, in which Miller claims to prove that "hundreds, even thousands" of people on the right, spread across the country, conspired to steal the 2004 presidential election (and many others besides).

I say that Miller claims to prove this because that's pretty much all he does. In his introduction, Miller promises to prove that Republicans rigged the race, and then at some point in the middle of the book he begins talking like he already has, and the reader is left to leaf through the volume in a daze, wondering if perhaps some kind of typesetting or bookbinding error caused the explosive section of Miller's tome to be left out of this one copy. But not so; my book is intact, and though I searched the contents, the index and the voluminous endnotes, I found no proof of Miller's theory. Like his claim that Kerry now believes he was robbed, Miller's many suggestions of fraud dissolve under close scrutiny. By the end, the only fraud you're sure of is the one perpetrated upon you, the reader, into bearing with this book.

In an ideal world, one wouldn't feel compelled to review -- nor to say much of anything about -- a book like "Fooled Again." In an ideal world, books like these -- vacuous, tendentious collections of pseudo-journalism that promise 10 times as much in their titles as they deliver between the covers -- would die quietly off in the media distance, ignored by everyone, inciting nobody, collecting dust and a heap of embarrassment for their overheated authors.

But if I sound somewhat exercised about "Fooled Again" it's because I know we don't live in that world in which bad books are guaranteed to fall from our collective radar -- god knows that's not how things work around here. Instead, in this world, the world of Free Republic and Democratic Underground, half-truths and partisan theories rattle about endlessly over e-mail and blogs until they achieve a sheen of truth, however insubstantial they may be. Miller's book is already getting much play: Aside from a national book tour, he's making the rounds on shows like "Democracy Now!" (which, to its credit, also invited a skeptic of Miller's theories), and in August, Harper's magazine published a lengthy excerpt from "Fooled Again" (and, depressingly and unsurprisingly, did not question Miller's assertions).

Thus, "Fooled Again" probably isn't going to go away. This is not good news for anyone who cares about the sanctity of American elections. The fact is that the machinery of American democracy is broken; mistakes, inaccuracies, chicaneries, snafus, frauds, fiascoes and disasters debilitate almost every race everywhere every two years, with the result that increasing numbers of Americans report feeling alienated by the voting process. It's no exaggeration to say the problem has reached the level of a national emergency.

But by putting forth exaggerated and easily disputable theories of election theft, "Fooled Again" undermines the entire reform endeavor, tying the legitimate need to fix things to the less laudable, fringe-left goal of mercilessly bashing Bush. If you want to improve how Americans vote, here's one piece of advice: Don't alienate half the country by arguing, as Miller does here, that the president and his followers -- whom Miller labels "Busheviks" -- think of their political enemies as "subhuman beings," and believe they must "slaughter" their opponents in the same way that religious fanatics slaughter their holy foes. Even if you believe this to be true, and even if it is in fact true, shut up about it; this sort of unhinged rhetoric can't help, and can only hurt, our capacity to solve the problem of voting in America.

In the year since the election, Miller has done little of his own investigation into the facts surrounding the race. Though he has conducted some interviews as part of his research, much of his book is the product of his obvious facility with the Web: To make his case, Miller cites hundreds of news accounts, online reports and videos, and postings from sites like Democratic Underground (he includes a couple of my own pre-election Salon reports warning of Republican malfeasance). Not all of the documents he cites have much to do with the election itself, mind you. In addition to attempting to show that Republicans stole the election, Miller also tries to psychologically profile conservatives, to deconstruct the mind-set that he says prompts people on the right to play politics unfairly. To that end, Miller threads his account with several long, insufferable and ultimately meaningless story lines that have nothing to do with the election itself -- for instance, a wending account of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

When he does focus on the election, Miller is catholic in his suspicions; he offers a bevy of reports alleging wrongdoing across the nation, from California to the New York island, and he seems to accept each one pretty much uncritically. Like the rest of us, though, Miller has one special state he's most concerned about: Ohio, the decisive electoral state, and one where he says problems were legion.

You can see from Miller's endnotes that many of his Ohio allegations come from a single source, a report called "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio," which was published in January by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee under the direction of Michigan Rep. John Conyers. (A PDF version of the report is available here.) The Conyers report is in turn also largely inspired by a single source -- the Free Press, a muckraking lefty Web site based in Columbus, whose editor Bob Fitrakis reported on a series of alleged electoral mishaps in the aftermath of last year's race.

Because both Miller and Conyers were meticulous in their sourcing, it's not hard to drill down into many of their allegations to unearth problems with their claims. For instance, look at this eyebrow-raising statement Miller makes about Miami County, Ohio: "[I]n Miami County, nearly 19,000 votes appeared in Bush's column after all precincts had reported" -- the sort of declaration sure to cause any good liberal to feel that we've been duped.

But when you look at Conyers' report, from which Miller draws this Miami County claim, his allegation loses some of its clout. First, it becomes clear that Miller has misread a key detail. It turns out that although Conyers did assert that 19,000 votes were added in Miami County after all precincts had reported their totals, he did not say that they were all added to Bush's total. As the report points out, Bush's vote count jumped from 20,807 to 33,039 after the polls closed  that's 12,000 more votes in his column, not 19,000. The rest went to Kerry (and to other candidates).

But 12,000 more votes for Bush is still a lot of added votes! you might point out. The thing is, that claim, too, soon falls apart. When you look at the source of Conyers' assertion, an article by Fitrakis in the Free Press, it becomes clear that those 12,000 votes weren't added after the polls closed, but instead were in the system before, and had just not been reported when Fitrakis first looked at the county's reporting Web site. "The report you saw the following morning at 9 a.m. was probably either the 60 or 80 percent report," Roger Kearney, of Rhombus Technologies, the company in charge of reporting vote totals for the county, told Fitrakis. Mark Hertsgaard further clarifies the situation in his piece in Mother Jones. "The problem is that Miami County considers a precinct to be 'reporting' as soon as a single vote is reported," Hertsgaard writes. "Thus, when Kearney was posting results on election night, both his next-to-last and his last post of the night said that 100 percent of precincts were reporting," even though all of the votes weren't in yet. So Fitrakis, and then Conyers, and then Miller, misread the situation -- and spun an entire theory of electoral fraud from it.

Hertsgaard's article offers a nice compendium of fraud claims that the author buys into too easily. For instance, Miller says that an FBI lockdown in Warren County caused officials there to kick out the press and "tally up the votes in secret." Actually, two Republicans and two Democratic officials witnessed the vote count, and the press was barred because it's always been barred, Warren County officials told Hertsgaard. Then there are the allegations involving Triad, a voting equipment company that Fitrakis, Conyers and ultimately Miller say attempted to reprogram the voting machines it supplied to several counties during a statewide recount held after the November election. Triad's manipulation, Miller says, invalidated the recount, and therefore invalidated Ohio's election.

But when Hertsgaard talked to Conyers' star witness in the case, a Democratic election official in Hocking County who claimed to have witnessed a Triad employee try to rig a voting machine, he found her story "more nuanced" than Miller and Conyers let on. The woman, Sharon Eaton, said she was suspicious of the circumstances, but that "I still don't know if there was fraud." And Triad's CEO insisted to Hertsgaard that Triad reran vote-counting exercises for county officials to prove that everything was on the up-and-up.

In several instances, Miller goes far beyond even what the Conyers report was willing to allege. Where Conyers merely spotted problems and reported them, Miller looks at every problem and sees it as further proof of a grand conspiracy.

For example, Conyers' report -- citing several articles in local and national newspapers -- suggests that the most pernicious problem in Ohio on Election Day had to do with the unequal distribution of voting machines between wealthy, suburban areas and poorer, urban areas. These allegations are easy to substantiate. In the weeks prior to the election, voter registration lists surged in traditionally Democratic areas across the state, but officials in those areas did not increase the number of voting machines accordingly. Officials in Franklin County, home of Columbus, admitted to the Washington Post last December that their studies showed they would have needed more than 5,000 machines to handle the load there -- but they made do with the 2,866 machines they had on hand, they said, because it didn't make sense to buy more machines for a single election.

There's no question that such skimping caused disenfranchisement -- the voting lines swelled, and on that rainy November day, many people decided to go home rather than wait to vote. As part of a report released by the Democratic National Committee in June, Walter Mebane, a political scientist at Cornell, estimated that the long lines reduced statewide voter turnout by "roughly 2 to 3 percent."

But if it's clear that there weren't enough machines for many people to vote on, it's not obvious that, as Miller asserts, "such imbalance was deliberate, and not your typical Election Day snafu." How does Miller know this? Conyers' report doesn't suggest that the unequal distribution of voting machines was a deliberate plan cooked up by Republicans. Neither did the DNC say so in its investigation of Ohio's election. And, in fact, in Ohio, voting-machine allocation decisions are made by people at the county level, and in several key counties Democrats played an important part in those decisions. Matt Damschroeder, Franklin County's director of elections, is a Republican; but the entire elections board is equally split between Republicans and Democrats, and the chairman of the board is an African-American named William Anthony who also headed the county's Democratic Party. Any effort to deliberately skew the vote toward Bush would have had to involve Anthony -- and he fiercely rejects 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 in November. "I've fought my whole life for people's right to vote."

When confronted on "Democracy Now!" with holes in his theory, Miller said that he was pained by his critics' "pedantic over-analysis of specific claims." He added: "This is not a criminal case, OK? We don't have to prove guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is our election system, right? This is a system based on consent of the governed. If many, many millions of Americans are convinced that they got screwed on Election Day and couldn't vote, or if 3.4 million more Americans claim that they voted than the actual total of voters -- this is what the Census Bureau told us last May -- this is grounds alone for serious investigation ... We have to have serious investigation."

Miller is right. The electoral system is not a criminal case, and you don't have to prove that Bush stole the election beyond a shadow of a doubt in order to eradicate all doubts you may have about the race. And he's right, too, that we should have had a serious investigation into the flaws in the last election, and that those flaws -- and the flaws we see every year -- should prompt politicians to fix the entire electoral system before the next big race.

But "Fooled Again" is not that serious investigation. It's nowhere close. Miller writes that "it is the purpose of this book to serve American democracy by pointing out the truth about the last election, for that truth alone, and not the maunderings of the punditocracy, will set us free." But this is where Miller fails his audience. In his reliance on a lower measure of proof, something less than "beyond a shadow of a doubt," Miller strays far, too far, from the truth. And if we're not willing to look at the election honestly, we won't be set free anytime soon.

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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