Farhad Manjoo's article criticizing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Rolling Stone piece "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" generated hundreds of letters, most of them critical, and hot debate in the blogosphere (with most but not all lefty voices raised to criticize Salon). You can read the letters to Salon here, and we've sampled some of the leading blog responses below. Kennedy himself has replied here, and you can read Manjoo's response as well. But with people denouncing Manjoo, and Salon, as pawns of Karl Rove, it's worth taking a minute to place this debate in its proper political context.
Salon has aggressively covered Republican efforts to suppress Democratic voter participation going back to December 2000, when we revealed how Florida's program to purge supposed felons and other people allegedly ineligible to vote prevented thousands of eligible voters, most of them African-American, from casting ballots -- just one example of the many GOP maneuvers that suppressed votes for Vice President Al Gore. (Writer Greg Palast brought us the story, and a team of Salon reporters contacted county election officials in Florida to report it out with him.) Just a few days later, we followed up with a feature on the Republican-connected firm that carried out the purge, ChoicePoint, along with a history of GOP efforts at voter suppression. (The storyline is old and simple and continues through today: Republicans tend to back efforts to aggressively "purge" voter rolls of those who've moved or who vote infrequently, while Democrats tend to oppose them, since they usually scrub low-income voters who move more, vote less, fail to work the system adequately and -- surprise -- happen to favor Democrats.) We've followed the story doggedly ever since.
In 2002, Manjoo expanded Salon's coverage of our flawed election system with a special focus on the problems with electronic voting, with a series we titled "Voting into the Void." He was among the first reporters to sound the alarm. He made it his beat. If you go to this directory page, you can trace the many stories he's written documenting potential problems with electronic voting, as well as more pedestrian ways American voters are potentially disenfranchised. He did an early interview with Bev Harris, who was among the first to document the security flaws with Diebold systems. He went to Georgia in the wake of claims that the GOP stole the governor's race and a Senate seat in 2002, believing there was a real possibility that could be true. He found plenty to worry about in that state's, and others', embrace of electronic voting systems, but he did not find evidence that Republicans stole either election.
He has approached his stories on the massive problems with voting in this country in the same way, with an open mind. He investigated the many different allegations used to charge that President Bush "stole" the state of Ohio in 2004 and found all of them wanting. But in every piece, including his Kennedy article, he's also made it plain that probably legal but unethical methods were used in Ohio and elsewhere to suppress voter turnout and discourage people from voting, and that those tactics are America's shame. It's clear, however, that a divide has opened on the left between those who want to label the 2004 election intentionally "stolen" by the GOP, and those who think unproven charges of theft -- and they remain unproven, even after Kennedy's ambitious piece -- undermine efforts to work on the very real, documented problems in our voting system. They include the lack of safeguards for electronic voting, the too-frequent disparities in resources between rich and poor (and white and nonwhite) precincts, and the ethically challenged behavior of too many voting officials, from the infamous Katherine Harris of Florida to Kenneth Blackwell of Ohio, to people whose names we don't know but who make decisions regularly that suppress voter participation.
Salon will continue to try to get to the bottom of charges of election theft in Ohio, but we don't think the available facts prove the election was stolen. We also think unproven claims of theft weaken Democrats' credibility and keep them from the work needed to build an electoral majority, as well as to reform the broken voting system that is at least one obstacle to that majority. While the blog posts below display a range of opinion about whether Kennedy or Manjoo makes the most effective case, they also show an increasing weariness of battles about the "theft" claim, when both sides agree there were serious problems in Ohio. As Chris Bowers of MyDD puts it, "Simply rehashing these old arguments is not going to get us very far in creating the sort of electoral reform we need ... From what I can tell, there are only two things that will allow us to move forward with unity and hope. First, we need a lot more on the ground activism to try and retake control of our electoral infrastructure. Second, we need a national agenda for election reform that people on all sides of this issue can get behind."
We couldn't agree more.
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There's wrong, and then there's less wrong
"The nub of the problem lies in understanding the role of the Kennedy article. Manjoo thinks that Kennedy must prove to a courtroom standard that Kerry would have won Ohio ... But this is a ridiculous standard. Kennedy is not in a position [to] depose witnesses nor sanction perjurers nor find people guilty and deprive them of property or liberty. He can only use his voice to try to urge a formal investigation, so that justice is done ... Kennedy may be wrong, but he's less wrong than Manjoo says."
Once just, always just?
"There is little question that there were horrendous problems just getting into the booths on Election Day. There was a huge upswell in voter registration among Democrats in the months leading up to the election, and machine allocations were not updated to reflect this. RFK Jr. asserts that Republicans deliberately engineered it. Manjoo's response - it was all innocent incompetence. ... Which seems to be saying that the un-biasing couldn't have been deliberate, because once upon a time it wasn't un-biased. Which seems to me a bit like saying that the Republicans couldn't have fixed the election, because once upon a time they didn't fix elections."
Mistaking a tree for the forest
"I've read the [Rolling Stone] article, and the accompanying 74 footnotes, and I remain a skeptic. Some of Kennedy's sources are a little shaky, and his over-reliance on voter exit polls brings his conclusions into question. Kennedy makes an excellent and persuasive case that Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R) played fast and loose with the rules, and arbitrarily pushed voting standards that contributed to statewide irregularities, but one dubious state official does not a stolen election make."
"It appears that Manjoo, in his zest to be the great 'de-bunker' of grassroots activists and progressive writers, simply creates his facts as needed. No surprise that he thinks Bush won. After all, he seems to adopt the same intelligence-gathering methods Bush used in Iraq which are favored by Fox News. His approach reminds me of that famous quote from Ronald Reagan 'Facts are stupid things'."
Activism and election reform
"Simply rehashing these old arguments is not going to get us very far in creating the sort of electoral reform we need. Trying to label "fraudsters" as insane conspiracy nuts is not going to get us very far. Trying to validate a persecution-based identity by claiming that even many "A-list" progressive bloggers are behind some sort of conspiracy of silence isn't going to get us anywhere. From what I can tell, there are only two things that will allow us to move forward with unity and hope. First, we need a lot more on the ground activism to try and retake control of our electoral infrastructure. Second, we need a national agenda for election reform that people on all sides of this issue can get behind. Maybe one comes before the other--I don't really know. I do know that we need both, and that right now we don't seem to have much of either."
A tip of the tinfoil hat
"This also feeds the perception that it is Democratic partisans who have been most active in making unfounded charges of this sort, a perception which, if it is true at all, is just barely. The same wingnuts who are now (rightly) ridiculing Kennedys piece were eagerly citing the authoritative election reports of a non-partisan GOP front group so laughably obvious they cant even get the name of the Democratic Party right. Amazingly, with this one article, Kennedy has not only fed unreasonable cynicism about democracy and undermined real electoral reform, he even made Capn 'Special' Ed be non-horribly wrong about something. Its a dumbass trifecta. My tinfoil hat is off to you, sir."
"The biggest problem with relying on exit polls to 'prove' widespread election fraud is that it there's no plausible explanation of how such fraud could actually occur. The discrepancies existed not just in one but in many counties, each of which is administered by its own bipartisan board of elections, as Kennedy notes. These counties used a variety of different types of voting equipment, including punch card, optical scan, and direct record electronic systems manufactured and sold by different vendors. To believe that the exit polls prove election fraud, you have to believe that a group of people somehow managed to orchestrate the manipulation of results in not just one but in many counties, all of which run their own elections. Moreover, because the exit poll discrepancy existed in 30 states, according to Kennedy, you have to believe that there was widespread ballot stuffing and/or ballot snuffing across state lines, in hundreds of counties using various different types of equipment, many of which have chief election officials who are either nonpartisan, bipartisan, or Democrats. No plausible explanation has been offered as to how one could pull off such an extensive conspiracy -- and it is a conspiracy theory -- without detection."
No time for silence
"Assuming Manjoo is, himself, quoting fairly, it doesn't exonerate the ugly behavior of Blackwell, or call into question the crucial necessity of election reforms in the US. But it would mean that RFKjr has been less than honest in presenting all the facts and in the drawing of conclusions.
If that is the case, that RFKjr was wrong or seriously misleading, then naturally I will withdraw my assertion in the previous post that Ohio '04 was stolen. Manjoo's objections to Kennedy seem substantive and require a response from those who are knowlegeable about this issue at a granular level. Kennedy himself should respond, of course."
"Manjoo continually seems to ignore Kennedys premise that it was not any single incident he details that could have thrown the election, but the cumulative effect of many irregularities. Debunking one or the other -- even effectively and indisputably -- doesnt nullify the premise wholly."
"You will notice, however, Salon lightly skipping over big chunks of Blackwell's actions, whistling and waving over yonder. No mention of the paper-weight registration trick or the multiple judges who found that Blackwell was interfering, repeatedly, with the election. It is a sad day when Salon's rejoinder in defense of the republic is 'Sure, Blackwell was plainly a partisan bastard who betrayed the public trust, broke the law, and stole votes. But did he actually steal enough votes to swing the election? If not, no foul.'"
No smoking gun
"[Manjoo appears] to be expecting a smoking gun with Karl Rove's fingerprints on it to have been found in a ballotbox marked 'fraudulent votes.' What Manjoo fails to understand is that fraud - by it's very nature - is deceptive. You're not supposed to be able to prove it was fraud if it was perpetrated correctly. That's the whole point! But the fact -- which Manjoo acknoweldges -- that the Republicans perpetrated some fraud and managed to disenfranchise some voters would seem to indicate a pattern of illegal activity. When you have a pattern you can start to deduce motives (pretty obvious in this case) and likely perpetrators (again, obvious). Whether or not the election was stolen is irrelevent: There needs to be an investigation!"
Let those without sin cast the first stone
"Were there irregularies, including outright fraud in shredding ballots and improperly using election offices to recruit registrees for one party vice the other? You bet. Thats a bad thing but something that has gone on from time immemorial. And both sides engage in these practices. One can not simply cite GOP irregularities -- mostly in states the GOP won by wide margins, incidentally -- and conjure up votes that might have gone the other way; one must look at irregularites by the other side, too."