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Steve B. Cobble: Stolen Election Deja Vu

Stolen Election Deja Vu: This Time We're Watching

The Fraud in Florida
By Steve B. Cobble,

We all remember what happened in Florida in 2000. The candidate that had the most support lost both the state, and the electoral college. There were police barricades in minority precincts. There were modern, high-tech computer linkups in the wealthier White precincts, but not in African American precincts. There were optical scan machines with "second-chance" voting in largely White precincts, but not in African American precincts, where they were stuck with old, one-chance-only punch card machinery. There were butterfly ballots in Palm Beach, that led to more than 3,000 Jewish votes for Pat Buchanan.

27,000 ballots were tossed out in Duval County, more than half of them from the African-American precincts in Jacksonville - but because no one was paying close enough attention, no official challenges were filed within the 72-hour time period, and thousands of potential votes were lost. Ballot boxes were reported leaving the clerk's offices. Thousands of Gore votes were "mistakenly" subtracted in Volusia County late that night, and only reinstated when an alert local Democrat noticed the large drop in Gore's votes. GOP operatives with strong ties to Tom DeLay and the National Republican leadership shut down the Miami vote count with a "bourgeois riot" that intimidated the local vote-counters. Republican county clerks in various counties allowed party operatives to "fix" absentee ballot applications; "fix" overvotes in heavily GOP counties; and "fix" military ballots that lacked signatures. Most incredibly, the early-morning "victory" projection that declared Bush the "winner" was made by his first cousin! This incorrect call (the Associated Press did not declare a winner, pointing out that it was "too close to call") set the ongoing media frame that Bush was ahead, and Gore was a sore loser who was trying to change the results,

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Thanks to the fine investigative work of Greg Palast and John Harris, we found out that Secretary of State Katherine Harris, now a Congresswoman, but at the time the state co-chair of the Bush campaign, had carried out a private purging program, using Republican-leaning consultants, to falsely purge supposed "felons" from the voting lists. Thousands of false felons were purged from the voting rolls, far more than enough to have changed the outcome, butterfly ballots or not.

Later we discovered that one-quarter of the counties never did a recount at all, despite being ordered to. We found out that thousands of overvotes were not counted, contrary to existing law, even though "the intent of the voter" was perfectly clear - the most egregious cases being ballots where the voter was so emphatic about their support for Al Gore that he/she had both punched the hole and written in Gore's name - and thousands of these ballots were thrown out, despite the rules - enough to have changed the winner.

During the recount battle, it became clear that neither side in the dispute had the people's right to vote at heart. The courtroom drama was lacking the people's voice, someone fighting for the right to vote as a principle, not just as a tactic.

Believe it or not, there's actually more corrupt stuff that happened in Florida in 2000. Much more. But that is not the purpose of this short memo, since it's too late to prevent George W. Bush from entering the White House in the first place.

Our goal is to outline some of the lessons learned, so that we can do our best to make sure that George W. does not re-enter the White House - or at least not by voter fraud, like last time. Our first job is to work overtime between now and the close of voting on November 2nd, to guarantee such a large turnout that regime change will be assured. And our second job is to be ready, to be watching, to make it as difficult as possible for votes to be stolen, or left uncounted, or manipulated. Some ideas and comments along that line, obviously not definitive, follow.

Methods of Vote Manipulation

The Florida fiasco illuminated a variety of possible routes for voter fraud and vote manipulation. With the rise of high-tech voting, new avenues for cheating have become possible. We want to identify ways that voter fraud can be committed; suggest means of preventing or identifying such frauds; make sure that we are indeed doing our best to "watch all the exits", as it were; and open our movement up to outside help to find answers to the questions that still seem problematic.

We set out some of those possibilities below, with some initial thoughts on ways to combat them. We invite other ideas, since much of this is brand new territory. We are very clear that there are many people who have looked into these problems far more extensively than we have, particularly the difficult questions of "black box" voting. So if you see a hole, please help us fill it.

*Striking eligible voters off the rolls.

In Florida, it is now clear that Katherine Harris and her predecessor engaged in a systematic purging of the voter rolls, heavily focused on African Americans, under the cover of an 1868 law banning ex-felons from voting. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are thus barred from the franchise under this racist, archaic law, a group that is disproportionately African American (big surprise).

But that was not enough for Ms. Harris, so she privatized voter purging, and expanded the search functions, thus including thousands and thousands of non-felons in her "false felon" net. More than half of those targeted were African Americans, in a state that is 14% Black (big surprise, again). This illegitimate purge alone changed the election outcome. It is a travesty that Ms. Harris was not only never penalized for her misdeeds, she was promoted by being elected to Congress in 2002.

This time our side is prepared for this particular fraud. When the current GOP Secretary of State attempted a smaller version of Ms. Harris' false felon purge, teams of "election protection" lawyers were right there, challenging the program, pointing out its unfair bias against African Americans, and eventually forcing her to withdraw her effort.

As a result, the right wing may be forced to revert to older methods of blocking minority voters from the polls - intimidation, abuse of ID cards, arbitrary challenges, finding reasons to not count votes.


At a time when we rightfully fear "black box voting" (see below), it is easy to overlook the historic, time-honored methods of canceling minority and youth votes. Intimidation is one tried-and-true method, once practiced by the Chief Injustice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, who first proved his GOP bona fides by trying to intimidate Hispanic voters out of the voting lines in Arizona elections in the early 1960s.

In Florida, intimidation in some precincts took the form of police cars near the polling places in African American neighborhoods. In Philadelphia last year, unmarked vans with "security-impersonating" drivers cruised minority neighborhoods on election day, with official-looking decals on the sides of their vans.

In response, People for the American Way and the NAACP Voter Ed Fund and MALDEF and the leading civil rights groups have prepared teams of lawyers and activists to be on duty in minority neighborhoods in swing states all across the country, to respond instantly to problems of voter intimidation. We will have to be alert. The good news is, though, that the Florida fraud has motivated the civil rights community in a big way, and election protection mobilization is high.

*Abuse of ID cards.

One of the ways conservatives try to intimidate and block minority voters is through demanding ID cards at the polls. Some jurisdictions do require such ID, but even there, over-zealous poll workers often demand more ID than the law requires. And in many states, ID cards are not required, yet local poll workers still demand them.

Again, election protection teams of lawyers on call, and poll watchers at the voting places, are the best preventative medicine. These intimidation tactics work much better when the minority voter is alone, facing a hostile local voting board; if he or she has support from knowledgeable, outspoken poll watchers and activists and lawyers, these voters will be much more likely to get to cast their votes.

*Time-honored, low-tech cheating.

There are numerous other low-tech ways to cheat, as the history of our elections demonstrates. Ballot-box stuffing has been a long-time favorite, especially in local precincts totally controlled by one party. And just this week, the rising scandal surrounding Sproul and Associates, a private company largely funded by the Republican Party, which has been accused by its own employees of simply tearing up and throwing away Democratic voter registrations, reminds us of one of the simplest ways to prevent a voter from voting - don't ever file their voter registrations. (This is also one of the most evil schemes, since the new would-be voter now believes he/she has registered, only to discover the fraud when arriving at the polls on election day! Go to for the full story.)

In Florida, a distortion was introduced into the vote count by the fact that optical scan equipment with "second-chance" technology was used in wealthier, White counties, which meant that their rate of spoiled ballots was low; but with older, punch card machines in poorer, African American areas, there was no second-chance voting, and the rate of spoiled ballots was much higher. One solution, given that the voting machinery across the country is not equalized, is to have voting assistance available at the polls, to assist voters in getting their ballots marked properly in the first place.

There was a strong suspicion among partisan Democrats after 2000 that one of the oldest, low-tech methods of cheating was used to alter the election outcome - by punching extra holes in punch card ballots, thus invalidating Gore votes. The "overvote" rates in African American neighborhoods were statistically far out of line with other White or even Hispanic neighborhoods, even controlled by income and education. Why is this suspicious? Because African Americans vote so heavily Democratic, and because Southern precincts are still so segregated, everyone understands that poking extra holes in ballots from heavily African American neighborhoods is almost exactly the same as invalidating Gore votes in 2000 (or Kerry votes in 2004).

How is this to be guarded against? Poll watchers have to keep a close eye on the actual votes, both before and after the polling. (Pre-punched cards, if not caught, have the same invalidating effect as those double-punched at 11 p.m. on election night.) No one should be left alone with real votes or precinct vote boxes.

*Not allowing provisional ballots.

The HAVA (Help America Vote Act), which was supposed to reform voting in the U.S., did allow for the casting of "provisional" ballots - in other words, if a voter accidentally goes to the wrong precinct (often times, precinct sites are moved from the last election, and many sites, such as schools, feature multiple precincts voting there), he or she is still allowed to cast a provisional ballot. Or, if the voter claims to have just registered to vote, but does not appear on the local rolls - which often happens due to clerical error, and runs a huge risk this election, because of the massive voter registration drives that progressive groups have been running all over the country - that voter is still allowed to cast a provisional ballot. A similar situation exists with voters who tried to vote absentee, but their votes were not sent back in or recorded.

Their provisional ballot is cast, and then set aside until the local voting board can verify that they are indeed a voter, have not already voted in some other way, or did indeed register but were not placed on the rolls. At that point, the vote is counted, and justice is done.

Provisional ballots are a way to allow voters to vote, even in the presence of minor bureaucratic screw-ups (not to mention deliberate manipulations of the voting rolls). However, several Republican Secretaries of State have already indicated that they want to restrict provisional voting to the correct precinct only (which, of course, is a deliberate distortion of one of the reasons for allowing provisional ballots to be cast). This fight is still going on, in the courts in places like Florida and in the media in places like Ohio, and we should add our voices into the fray.

On election day itself, our poll-watchers and election protection teams will need to know the rules on provisional balloting; because it is new in many places, it is safe to assume that many local boards will not be completely trained - even those that are well-meaning (and many may not be). We must be fully prepared.

Don't forget one related point: our election protection observers will not be alone. There will also be ideologically conservative poll watchers at the polling places in most minority voting precincts, with one basic goal in mind - to knock out as many African American and Latino voters as possible. They do this for one fundamental political reason - because 9 out of 10 African Americans will vote for Democrats, and because 2 out of 3 Latinos (except among Cuban-Americans in Miami) will also vote for Democrats.

Remember those right-wingers from the Florida recount battle? They were well-prepared, ruthless, ambitious, and cynical. They believe that suppressing the minority vote is one of their keys to victory. They are not interested in sentiment or fair play.

*Manipulating absentee ballots.

In 2000, the Bush team may well have won the election by successfully abusing absentee ballot issues on both sides of the question. In many places, GOP legal teams were able to block absentee votes in Democratic-leaning areas by challenging small mistakes in filing. At the same time, the GOP reaped enormous PR value from its fight on behalf of overseas military ballots, which ultimately were counted even when missing a signature or a voting date.

This year, the overseas vote operation on both sides is well-prepared. The Democrats are unlikely to be caught off-guard again, but to some extent, there is little they can do about some of the new tricks the GOP has come up with. In Missouri, for instance, the partisan Secretary of State, whose father is a top Congressional official, has decided to allow military votes to be faxed in (which obviously violates the entire concept of a secret ballot). Several other states have followed his lead.

The military is also going to great lengths to encourage soldiers to vote, and most pundits assume that this will boost the President's re-election efforts. Given the turn of events in Iraq, this is not as clear-cut as it once was, but it still remains true that many of these soldiers will be required to vote in front of their officers, especially if they are faxing or emailing in their votes from central locations. (Not to mention that our ability to oversee the fairness of such voting is particularly limited).

It should also be noted that there has already been a controversy about the military attempting to make it easy for overseas soldiers to vote, while not cooperating with other Americans overseas. It is very hard to view this particular voting universe as fair to all sides.

*Blocking recounts.

The Bush team won the 2000 election by systematically blocking recounts and the counting of every vote. Though the media vote counts that were finally released did show that Al Gore would have won Florida under every scenario in which all the overvotes and undervotes were counted, this was never big news because these results were not released until after 9/11, by which time we were all supposed to join in the national myth that we had only one president by now, and that 9/11 had transformed him into a giant astride the globe. A stolen election was "so last year".

However, it is important to remember that most county clerks are under-funded, their staffs are under-trained and over-stressed, and that our cumbersome voting systems are not fully functional. The point being that even where everyone has the best intent, lots of mistakes will be made - figures will be mis-added, votes will be placed in the wrong candidate's column, ballots will be shuffled into the incorrect boxes, etc. Given the intensity of this election, it is axiomatic that mistakes will be made, even when officials are trying to be fair; and given many of the early rulings by partisan state officials, we have no reason to believe that everyone will try to be fair.

In a close race, a systematic recount should be part of the process - not because one candidate is a sore loser, but because it is impossible to conduct a massive, complicated election under such a tight timeline, and get everything just right.

We believe that the bias should be in favor of votes being counted. The Florida recount, wilting under the demands of the Bush campaign, had exactly the opposite viewpoint - that the "vote" had to prove it was "worthy" of being counted.

*Abusing the court system.

This was fairly obvious in 2000, where Republican courts and judges never disappointed - they always managed to somehow rationalize a finding that fit perfectly with the desires of the Bush campaign - however warped the reasoning, however contradictory the facts of the case, and however much their findings violated their own legal precedents.

There is not much that we can do about the make-up of the courts until after election day. However, as much as possible, we should strive for "people's lawyers" to inject themselves into these cases. The people's lawyers would be less interested in which side is advantaged, and more interested in principle - does every voter get to vote, does every vote cast get counted, is the right to vote fully protected for everyone.

Had such lawyers been involved in 2000, they might have helped the Gore team to expand their possibilities, and won them the election in spite of their tactical differences. They might also have been able to make a case the Gore team apparently decided not to try - that several of the injustices should have recused themselves from this case, on the standard basis of family involvement - Scalia and Thomas being clear and obvious examples.

*Street heat.

One thing that was missing from our side, but not from the conservative side, in 2000 was "street heat". The GOP had their "bourgeois riots", and their crowds were consistently bigger and more vocal, which helped frame in the media's mind the sense that their side had been wronged because Bush had won but Gore would not give up. The truth is, though, that many labor union activists and African Americans, not to mention the Jewish voters and senior citizens in Palm Beach, were very angry at the way the vote count was being manipulated, and Jesse Jackson and John Sweeney had already held rallies demanding that "every vote counts; count every vote"É

However, in a huge tactical error, the Gore campaign asked Jackson and Sweeney to pull back their rallies and lie low. Reluctantly, they agreed. This was a mistake, and we don't believe the African American community or the unions will be willing to follow the campaign's lead again. This time, if there is fraud, activists and organizers will do what they know best - organize people to come together to make their voices heard.

Along these lines, we are suggesting that people set up, announce, and post locations for initial rallies on November 3rd, the day after the election. We suggest a 9 a.m. gathering if it appears that Bush has won or if the results are unclear, so that we can immediately demand that every vote be counted fairly. We also suggest a 5 p.m. gathering if Kerry wins, in order to celebrate Bush's involuntary retirement while also setting out a strong statement on the war in Iraq. Our web site will post these local rallies, similar to the techniques UFPJ used to keep everyone informed of the vast number of antiwar rallies on 2/15/03.

Set your rallies now. We encourage people to work for regime change at home all day on November 2nd, election day, and then prepare to return to the streets on November 3rd (and perhaps beyond), at predetermined, symbolic, convenient locally-chosen sites.

*Black box voting.

Then there's the whole brand new question of "black box voting". And while the elite media tends to laugh it off as paranoia on our part, this may be one of those places where that old 1960s' line really fits: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not following you."

There are many people who believe that Georgia's statewide elections in 2002 were pre-determined, that the voters did not pick the winners, but the voting machinery did, with a secret, partisan, pre-determined code.

By now, this is unprovable (unless someone confesses on their death bed). Or perhaps the suspicion is not true, but the existence of high-tech, "black box" voting machines without a paper trail serves to encourage the paranoia about cheating.

The problem is, hackers have already demonstrated that voting machines can be hacked, and results changed. Partisan Secretaries of State have already signed away the birthright of every American to the right to vote, by allowing private corporations to develop secret vote-counting technology - which is protected from open public scrutiny - and worse, several of the company CEOs and Directors involved have made quite clear they have conservative partisan leanings. The head of Diebold, boasting of his intent to help Bush carry Ohio, is hardly reassuring; unfortunately, he is not the only partisan involved in this secret, high-tech vote-counting business.

We need help here. Black box voting by its very nature leaves little physical evidence, especially when public officials have been so corrupt or stupid as to approve high-tech systems without a mandatory paper trail. If a voter card has been changed, as may have been the case in Volusia County in 2000, the only check we have is whether the votes cast add up right - but if the fraudulent vote count is designed to switch every 20th vote from candidate A to candidate B, the votes cast will still add up right - it's just that the votes reported will be biased compared to the votes the people wanted to cast.

We need good techie help here, to help us identify the scope of the problem, and suggest ways to prevent it, or identify it if it happens. In the classic movie "Rancho Deluxe", starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston, investigator Slim Pickens solves a cattle-rustling case by following his own insight that the big thefts are always inside jobs.

Black box voting, should it occur, would be the classic inside job. Should it be attempted, the instigators' goal would be to never even have a whiff that anything untoward has occurred. Our current local voter boards, our county clerks, our media, even our election protection teams - none of them are adequate to sniff out such insider corruption. That is what is so scary.

*Manipulating terror reports, to cancel or postpone elections.

Top officials connected to the Homeland Security Department have already publicly discussed the possibility of terrorist attacks around election day, which might lead to the postponement or cancellation of voting at certain polling places. We should take this Administration at its wordÑthere is a strong possibility that this issue was being brought up as a "trial balloon", to see if it raised a public outcry. It did not - therefore, there is at least the chance that the Bush Administration feels relatively unconstrained in manipulating the terror color codes leading into election day, or even on election day, in ways that could affect the voting outcomes.

Consider, for example, a scenario raised earlier this year at "Counterpunch" - the heightening of the terror alerts late in the day, on the decidedly Democratic "left coast", which just happens to be in the Pacific time zones. Late in the day, the South would have mostly voted; but the West Coast vote could still be depressed, especially in California (which provided more than the national margin of victory for Al Gore in 2000).

Or what if there really are attacks on election day, or just before it? The decisions as to which polls would be closed, how the votes would be counted, would voting hours be extended in certain areas and not in others, would election day be re-scheduled for some localities - all these key decisions would be made officially by Tom Ridge, a partisan Republican, a close friend of George W. Bush, a former GOP Governor of Pennsylvania who came very close to being picked for Vice-President instead of Dick Cheney - and a man who already misled the national media on behalf of the Bush campaign on election night in 2000, when he was sent out to proclaim that he knew his state better than anyone, and that he was sure that Bush was going to carry Pennsylvania, despite the TV networks' calling the state for Gore early on. The truth is, Tom Ridge did know his state - which is why he really knew that Bush was not going to carry it; he just said the opposite because the campaign needed him to confuse the issue while they argued about Florida.

My point is obvious - this is not a man who puts the truth above partisan politics; and the pressure from the Bush campaign to manipulate any official response to terror threats (real or imagined) or actual attacks will be intense.

We must be ready to demand proof, when the terror alerts go up to red just prior to election day. We must insist that the national media challenge any decisions to defer or cancel elections, especially in blue states, or especially if it looks like Bush is losing. We must prod the Democratic Party to stand up this time, not just watch events occur in silence, as was largely the case in 2000. We must encourage the few remaining respected "blue-ribbon" truth-tellers in our society to stand up and be counted - people like Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Carter, Oprah Winfrey. Our email and rapid response networks need to be ready to challenge any abuse of the election system for partisan gain.

There are alternatives to shutting down that we know can work, even in times of stress. Mail-in voting means that people can vote whether or not they can get to the polls. In South Africa a decade ago, when so many people turned out to vote in the first elections after apartheid that they flooded the polling places, the vote was extended from two days to three days. And if the election is threatened in one locality, we can wait for that vote to be cast before deciding a winner - after all, in 2000, we waited for weeks while the outcome in Florida was debated and distorted. We waited weeks to find out who won in the Washington State Senate race, due to all the mail-in ballots. And we may have to wait another month this year to find out who will control the Senate, since the Louisiana Senate race may well require a runoff.

In short, there is no reason to warp the outcome by hurrying, by canceling the election in only certain places (by applying here at home the recently-articulated Don Rumsfeld theory that holding an Iraqi election in most places would be good enough). We can take the time to be fair, and get it right - if the powers-that-be, including the national media, want to get it right (rather than just get it quickly).

We should make one last crucial point here - just because the fraud took place in Florida last time is no reason to assume that's where it will take place again in 2004. It could, of course. George W's friends and relatives certainly control all the machinery. Given that the President's brother is still the Governor in Florida, and given that the Secretary of State there seems just as partisan and ambitious as Katherine Harris (she has already tried to run her own fraudulent little "false felon purge" targeted at African Americans but not Cuban Americans, is trying to block thousands of good new voter registrations merely because people forgot to check a tiny little box at the top of the form, and is trying to interfere with provisional ballots), we would be stupid not to be alert in the Sunshine State

But in some ways, if we make an assumption that some operatives are looking for a chance to cheat, and we try to play high-level chess against them, it actually makes some sense that they would feint at Florida, perhaps orchestrating some insignificant but high-profile election-day controversy, in order to distract the media from the real places where cheating is planned. So we would also be stupid not to be on guard in Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Mexico, and other very competitive swing states - especially those where conservatives control the entire machinery.

By the same token, just because in 2000 the cheating and intimidation was aimed mostly at African Americans does not guarantee that the targets this time might not be Latinos in Nevada or New Mexico (or even in Florida, outside of Miami).

This time, we have to be watching everywhere.


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