Voting machine fraud, pollster bias and the Bradley effect

Tuesday's results provide compelling empirical evidence negating several popular voting theories.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published November 5, 2008 12:26PM (EST)

Just as was true in 2006, various factions from across the political spectrum insisted this election that the ultimate vote totals for the Democrats would be substantially lower than what polls predicted. Many on the Right claimed that this would occur because pollsters and the media organizations which sponsor them are biased in favor of liberals and therefore manufacture anti-GOP polls. Some on the Left (including some here recently) claimed this would happen due to GOP control and manipulation over electronic voting systems, which enable GOP operatives to switch large numbers of Democratic votes to Republican votes. And many pundits and others predicted this would occur due to the "Bradley effect," whereby voters intent on voting for McCain would lie to pollsters and say they were voting for Obama (or, relatedly, that McCain voters would be more reluctant to speak to pollsters at all).

The actual results from last night -- at least on the presidential level -- provide compelling empirical evidence negating all three of those theories. In the top 10 swing states, compare the predicted result from the final RealClearPolitics average to the actual results in those states:


Swing state

RCP Final avg.

Actual result

Actual result v. poll
Ohio Obama:  2.5% Obama:  4.1% Obama:  +1.6%
Florida Obama:  1.8% Obama:  2.5% Obama:  +0.7%
Pennsylvania Obama:  7.3% Obama:  10.3% Obama:  +3.0%
Virginia Obama:  4.4% Obama:  4.5% Obama:  +0.1%
Indiana McCain:  1.4% Obama:  0.8% Obama:  +2.2%
North Carolina McCain:  0.4% Obama:  0.3% Obama:  +0.7%
Missouri McCain:  0.7% McCain:  0.2% Obama:  +0.5%
Colorado Obama:  5.5% Obama:  6.7% Obama:  +1.2%
Nevada Obama:  6.5% Obama:  12.5% Obama:  +6.0%
New Mexico Obama:  7.3% Obama:  14.9% Obama:  +7.6%


With two exceptions (Nevada and New Mexico), the polls were extremely accurate in predicting the ultimate results.  And in all 10 swing states, Obama outperformed what the final polls predicted, meaning that there ended up being a better result in counted votes for Obama than the polls anticipated.

Roughly the same thing occurred in the 2006 midterm election.  As I documented after that election -- in response to the repeated claim by Hugh Hewitt and other reality-denying, right-wing polemicists that pollsters and their organizations were strongly biased in favor of liberals and against Republicans and their polls would therefore significantly favor Democrats -- polling in the most vigorously contested 2006 Senate seats was quite accurate.  And to the extent there were any substantial inaccuracies, those inaccuracies were favorable to Republicans -- meaning that, just like last night, the Democrats' actual vote totals exceeded what pollsters predicted.

There is no question that our voting system is in need of major reform.  Voter suppression efforts are widespread; paperless voting machines often malfunction and are too vulnerable to tampering; and the agonizingly long voting lines in many areas this year was a disgrace.  Those who have worked on voting integrity issues have performed and continue to perfom a vital service.  And none of this evidence directly bears on what happened in 2004 and/or 2000.

But for those wanting to persist in propounding these same theories -- particularly that Republicans can systematically control or even widely manipulate vote totals through voting machines (and/or that polls are biased in favor of liberals) -- this evidence can't be dismissed away.  If the various voting machine theories were valid (and/or if the "polls are biased against Republicans" theories were), then one would expect to find that, in key races, the actual results would be substantially worse for the Democratic candidates than final polls predicted.  In the last two elections, that is plainly not true; if anything, the opposite is.

Glenn Greenwald

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