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William Rivers Pitt: Desperate Measures

Desperate Measures

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 20 October 2004


"Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters."

- Abraham Lincoln

In the last Presidential election, it was Florida that made the mess. This time, it could very well be Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Nevada, and that's just for starters.

The problems with electronic voting machines put in place after the passage of the Help America Vote Act have been well-documented. In Ohio, where thousands of Diebold electronic voting machines have been deployed, a consultant discovered that anyone with a security card and access to the voting terminals could take control of the machines by inputting a frighteningly simple password. Security consultants in Maryland found they could hack into the election system, delete vote counts and make wholesale changes to election results. Horror stories like this abound.

As if this wasn't frightening enough, there are the other stories.

Last week in Nevada, Eric Russell, a former employee of a firm called Voters Outreach of America, which also goes by the names America Votes and Project America Votes, accused the firm of deliberately destroying voter registration forms filled out by people who registered themselves as Democrats. "I personally witnessed my supervisor at VOA, together with her personal assistant, destroy completed registration forms that VOA employees had collected," said Russell. "All of the destroyed registration forms were for registrants who indicated their party preference as 'Democrat.'" Thousands of people who believe they are registered to vote in Nevada will go to the polls on November 2nd and get a nasty shock.

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Voters Outreach of America is, basically, a Republican-funded outfit. It is run by a man named Nathan Sproul, former head of the Arizona Republican Party. Sproul and his company, Sproul & Associates, received nearly $500,000 from the Republican National Committee to collect voter registrations. Sproul engineered in Arizona the push to get Ralph Nader on the ballot, and has been accused of collecting some 14,000 invalid signatures in that process.

Sproul and his outfit have also been accused of similar registration tampering in Oregon and West Virginia. Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and Attorney General Hardy Myers have begun an investigation into allegations of registration form tampering that are eerily similar to what has been happening in Nevada. The firm at the center of the Oregon scandal, again, is Sproul & Associates. Mike Johnson, a 20-year-old canvasser working for Sproul's firm in downtown Portland, said he was instructed to only accept Republican registration forms. "I have never in my five years as secretary of state ever seen an allegation like the one that came up tonight - ever," said Oregon Secretary of State Bradbury. "I mean, frankly, it just totally offends me that someone would take someone else's registration and throw it out."

In Ohio, the name 'John Kerry' has been left off absentee ballots sent out to voters. A man named Chad Stanton (yes, for the love of crumbcake, his name is 'Chad') was paid in crack cocaine to submit phony registration forms, and was arrested for his troubles. There are reports that Ohio college students are being paid $100 to vote Republican on absentee ballots.

The Republican Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, attempted to block newly registered voters from getting on the rolls by claiming their registration forms were invalid because they were not on postcard-weight paper. Blackwell has also made efforts to block newly registered voters from receiving provisional ballots, which allow new voters to cast a ballot if they have moved. Such an action not only affects newly registered voters, but also the working poor, who are constantly required to move from residence to residence as their financial status rises and falls.

What is most infuriating about these Ohio stories is the fact that they are taking place amid an unprecedented surge in voter participation. Hundreds of thousands of people have registered to vote in that state; four years ago, newly registered voters could only be measured in the tens of thousands. Ohioans are racing to participate in the democratic process, and are being foiled not just by criminals and fools, but by their own elected representatives.

Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Nevada amount to a combined total of 37 Electoral College votes. Each is considered a swing state in the coming election. In a race as tight as the professional pundits tell us this one is, those 37 EC swing-state votes are huge.

It is probably safe to say that the American people do not want a re-enactment of the carnival of folly that was Florida in 2000. It is bad enough that millions will vote on outdated equipment, and perhaps worse that millions more will vote on new and highly suspect equipment, raising the specter of yet another contested vote count. That some people are also deliberately tearing up the system in swing states is beyond the pale.

One the most egregious attempts at affecting the outcome of the election has been unfolding away from the voting booth. A broadcasting company called The Sinclair Broadcast Group ordered its 62 affiliate stations all across the country to air a highly dubious anti-Kerry 'documentary' which claims he betrayed Vietnam prisoners of war. The Los Angeles Times has reported that at least two of the former POWs featured in the film have links to the Bush administration and have also appeared in anti-Kerry attack ads.

Sinclair refused for weeks to offer equal time for a documentary, such as the recently released film titled 'Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,' that offered an opposing view. 'Going Upriver' could easily have been included in the Sinclair broadcast, if fairness was on the menu; it has been made available for download in its entirety on the internet.

The Democratic Party filed complaints with both the FCC and the FEC, charging that Sinclair was essentially offering a gratis political contribution to the Bush campaign. Despite these charges, despite the fact that the scandal surrounding this broadcast has caused Sinclair's stock to crater in recent days, and despite the fact that some 80 companies who advertise on Sinclair affiliates said they would pull their business away, the film was slated to run this week.

The Washington Bureau Chief for Sinclair's Maryland-based news division, Jon Lieberman, blasted the film and his company in a Baltimore Sun article on Monday. "It's biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election," said Leiberman. "For me, it's not about right or left - it's about what's right or wrong in news coverage this close to an election...the selection of the material - dumping it on the news department, and giving them four days, and running it this close to the election - it's indefensible, in my opinion." One day later, Lieberman was fired by Sinclair.

Apparently, however, the public and financial pressures upon Sinclair became too much to bear. On Tuesday the 19th, the company released a blatantly self-serving press release claiming they never intended to show the biased anti-Kerry film in its entirety, and will instead show an hour-long news program on the use of documentary film to affect elections, of which the aforementioned Kerry slam piece will only comprise a small part.

The irony surrounding the Sinclair cave-in is palpable. For the last two weeks, they absorbed massive abuse for their unprecedented intention to manipulate the airwaves, and for their obvious and ham-fisted attempt to influence the election. In finally succumbing to the onslaught, they are going to run a supposedly straightforward news program that documents the exact form of election tampering they were planning to take part in. Though the Kerry slam will not be shown, this demonstrably biased broadcast company cannot be trusted to keep its word. It is entirely probable that their intended 'news' program will be as much a propaganda screed as the now-defunct documentary. All in all, this has been a shameful episode, a new low in an already debased media environment.

The simple and central ideal of our democracy - count every vote, and make every vote count - is being betrayed by the actions of those who would deny Americans the ability to vote, and by this powerful media company that tried to foist a biased and factually questionable program upon its viewers. These are desperate measures being taken by obvious political partisans who do not want to leave the choice of the vote to the voters, because they do not trust the outcome.

Jon Lieberman, who lost his job for fighting this, said it best. "At the end of the day," he said, "all you really have is your credibility." This must be above issues of Left and Right. If the United States of America cannot have a free, fair, open and untrammeled election, if our nation cannot perform its most solemn duty without criminal interference and blatant propaganda soiling the process, perhaps we do not deserve the democracy so many have fought and died for.

We deserve better.


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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