Ernest Partridge: Debunking the Debunker
Debunking the Debunker
By Ernest Partridge
The Crisis Papers
June 6, 2006
Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!
- (H. D. Thoreau, Walden)
Complication of the election integrity issue works to the advantage of the status quo; which is to say, the increasing use of paperless, unauditable Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines. More complications abound as critics of the status quo attempt to prove that past, and presumably future, elections were and will be fraudulent.
In fact, the controversy can be reduced to two simple questions:
1. Can defenders of the status quo prove that the 2004 (and also the 2000 and 2002) elections were fair and accurate?
2. Can defenders of the status quo refute the critics?
The answer to the first question is simple and straightforward: they cannot, because the DREs (and also the central compiling computers) were designed to exclude proof. The software is secret, and thus closed to inspection and validation, and there is no independent record of the votes against which the totals can be verified. (Running the same computations again is not a “recount”). Moreover, computing experts have found, and demonstrated, numerous “holes” in the machines through which voting totals can be finagled, and reports of still more flaws continue to come in.
The response of the private election industry and the Republicans to demands of proof are (1) “trust us,” (2) ad hominem attacks on the critics. (“Sore losers,” “conspiracy theorists,” “get over it!”). And finally (with the collaboration of the mainstream media) (3) no response. There are no substantive proofs of validity because, once again, the machines are designed to exclude them.
Regarding the second question, every now and then an attempt is made to refute the critics. The most recent of note was published last Friday in Salon.com, and was written by Farhad Manjoo, who has made something of a career out of debunking the critics. Whenever an important critique of the electoral status quo is published, by John Conyers’ committee, by Mark Crispin Miller, or most recently by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., we can generally count on a rebuttal by Manjoo. Last week, he did not disappoint us.
Manjoo’s latest was a pathetically weak piece of work which, due to its flaws, only serves to strengthen the case of its target, the RFK article. Or so I shall argue in the remainder of this essay.
At the outset, I should note that with all due respect to Robert Kennedy Jr., I must hope that he is wrong and the Manjoo is right. If so, then the Democrats have an excellent chance of regaining control of at least one house of Congress in the November election, and with it oversight of the Bush Administration. But if Kennedy is right about the ability of the Republicans to “fix” elections, then it may be impossible to budge the GOP from power, whatever might be the will of the voters. False optimism is the enemy of reform.
To begin, let’s address a few minor points, which can be dispatched quite briefly.
Is Kennedy just rehashing old complaints? Manjoo writes: “If you've spent time on Democratic Underground or have read Mark Crispin Miller's "Fooled Again," you're already familiar with everything [sic] Kennedy has to say.” [My emphasis, EP] Because Miller is about to publish a rebuttal of this claim, I would prefer to let him reply in his own behalf. However, having read the books by Conyers, Fitrakis and Wasserman, and Mark Crispin Miller, I am willing to stipulate that most of what Kennedy presents is “old stuff”, however this time with the added advantage of scrupulous documentation.
But so what? Those “old stories” are no less substantial for being “old.” On the contrary, after a year and a half of examination and criticism, they still stand up. For this reason, the “old” possesses an advantage over the “new.”
Were the Ohio (and other) anomalies nothing more than expected “screw-ups’ and coincidences found in all elections? If so, then these anomalies would be expected to work, approximately evenly, to the advantage and disadvantage of both sides. They did not. Almost all of the alleged “screw-ups” and “coincidences” worked to the advantage of Bush. Typical of defenders of the Ohio outcome, Manjoo also points out that individual anomalies were not sufficient to alter the outcome of the Ohio election. But he fails to address obvious rejoinder: the cumulative effect of several anomalies (by no means all of them) were quite enough.
Manjoo has nothing whatever to say about paperless Direct Electronic Recording (DRE) machines. He presumably says nothing because he can say nothing that can advance his case for the validity of the 2004 election. So there is not a word in his article about secret source codes, lack of independent paper record, impossibility of auditing, or the GOP partisanship of the manufacturers and code-writers. Even if DREs in Ohio in 2004 (and elsewhere, and in 2002 and 2000) were 100% honest and accurate, there is no reason whatever to know this and an abundance of evidence (statistical, circumstantial and anecdotal) indicating that they were "fixed." As I noted at the outset, "Trust us," and ad hominem attacks on the critics are not evidence. And the silence of the media (not to mention the Democrats) about this compelling issue is deafening.
Now to some more substantial issues:
Is Kennedy guilty of telling
half-truths and omitting embarrassing data? Is Manjoo?
Manjoo complains that Kennedy commits “numerous errors of
interpretation and ... deliberate omission of key bits of
data.” But "the whole story" cannot be told in the allowed
space. Even so, with his 206 endnotes, RFK makes a valiant
attempt. More telling are Manjoo’s omissions. With Manjoo’s
complaint of “deliberate omissions” in mind, I re-read
Kennedy’s essay. There I found at least twenty key elements
of Kennedy’s case for fraud that were totally ignored by
Manjoo. Among them:
- Half of the six million American voters abroad either did not receive their ballots, or received them too late. (Polls of these voters indicated that they were overwhelmingly pro-Kerry).
- In New Mexico, decided by 5988 votes, malfunctioning machines failed to register the presidential vote on 20,000 ballots. (Kennedy fails to mention that these were in predominantly Democratic districts).
- “A precinct in an evangelical church in Miami County recorded an impossibly high turnout of ninety-eight percent, while a polling place in inner-city Cleveland recorded an equally impossible turnout of only seven percent.
- In Warren County, media monitoring of the official vote count was prevented by a totally bogus “terrorist warning.”
- In one precinct, exit polls indicated that “Kerry should have received sixty-seven percent of the vote... Yet the certified tally gave him only thirty-eight percent.” The statistical odds? Almost one in three billion.
- “A New York Times analysis before the election found that new registrations in traditional Democratic strongholds were up 250 percent, compared to only twenty-five percent in Republican-leaning counties.”
- “In heavily democratic Youngstown ... nearly 100 voters reported entering ‘Kerry’ on the touch screen and watching ‘Bush’ light up... Similar ‘vote hopping’ from Kerry to Bush was reported by voters and election officials in other states.”
- “An electric machine at a fundamentalist church in the town of Gahanna recorded a total of 4,258 votes for Bush and 260 votes for Kerry. In that precinct, however, there were only 800 registered voters.”
And twelve more. None of them mentioned by Manjoo. And once again, in almost all cases of voting “anomalies” throughout the country, the “errors” favored Bush.
If one were to concede most of Majoo’s criticisms (the exit poll issue excepted) which, of course, I do not, even so the remaining unanswered elements of Kennedy’s essay would add up to a compelling case for fraud.
On the misallocation of voting machines: Manjoo gives away his argument. Manjoo appears unaware of the fact that through his attempt to explain away the misallocation of voting machines, he has supplied strong evidence of significant voting fraud.
To begin, here are some quotations by Manjoo which set up the trap into which he falls. (The emphases are mine. EP):
Kennedy says that "more than 174,000 voters" in Ohio did not cast a ballot due to long lines at the polls. He considers the GOP directly responsible for this failure. "The long lines were not only foreseeable -- they were actually created by GOP efforts," he says...
Kennedy's argument that Republicans deliberately engineered the long lines, [is] on pretty shaky ground. To be sure, there is ample evidence that election officials throughout the state failed to respond to the surge in voter registration seen in the 2004 race. But it is far more accurate to see their actions as part of a larger picture of incompetence in the midst of massive changes in election procedures -- especially changes in voting technology -- than as part of a GOP plot...
Franklin County's allocation of voting machines can be seen as biased if you look at the number of black voters who were registered by Election Day, but decisions about how to allocate voting machines are made months before then. That's why Mebane also notes that "if the allocation of voting machines is compared to information about the size of the active electorate that was available to Franklin County election officials at the end of April, 2004, then the allocation of machines is not biased against voters who were active at that time in precincts having high proportions of African Americans."
The difference reflects the reality that in the last few months of election season, registration surged in Ohio. That Franklin County's voting-machine allocation was considered unbiased in the spring and biased in the fall arises from the fact that the county failed to respond to these electoral changes.
Note now, as Manjoo concedes, that there were “shortages” of voting machines in democratic precincts and “longages” of machines in republican districts. And why? Because in April the election officials did not anticipate the “registration surges.” But Manjoo fails to take note of the obvious implication that the misallocation shows that the “surges” were primarily among the Democrats. Kennedy is explicit: “A New York Times analysis before the election found that new registrations in traditional Democratic strongholds were up 250 percent, compared to only twenty-five percent in Republican-leaning counties.”
So now the trap is sprung: Where, Mr. Manjoo, did the Democratic vote “surge” resulting from the Democratic registration “surge” go? Is it just possible that those votes were either “lost” or, through some hidden hocus-pocus within the Diebold “black boxes” switched from Kerry to Bush? Clearly, they are not apparent in the final vote totals.
Robert Kennedy has a ready answer. I am curious as to how Manjoo and like-minded apologists would respond.
Of course, none of this “misallocation theory” accounts for the following, as described by Kennedy (and ignored by Manjoo):
At liberal Kenyon College, where students had registered in record numbers, local election officials provided only two voting machines to handle the anticipated surge of up to 1,300 voters. Meanwhile, fundamentalist students at nearby Mount Vernon Nazarene University had one machine for 100 voters and faced no lines at all
Surely the election officials knew in April that Kenyon College was strongly liberal, and Nazerene College was conservative. Why the misallocation?
Explanation please, Mr. Manjoo?
of statistical evidence is absurd. Because a paraphrase
of Manjoo’s treatment of statistical proof may appear too
outlandish to be believable, a direct quotation is in
As for Freeman's 660,000 to 1 statistic [of the improbability of random error], it is irrelevant... The statistic measures the probability that the errors in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida occurred due to chance or random error, and according to Freeman, that probability is very low. But nobody argues the errors happened by chance. Everyone in the exit poll debate agrees that there was a systematic cause for the errors in the poll. Freeman, Kennedy, et al., claim that the systematic cause was fraud, while Mitofsky and many in the polling community claim the cause was a problem with the poll. So Freeman's argument that it would take preposterous odds to produce a random sampling error is a straw-man assertion. [My emphases, EP]
Of course “nobody argues the errors happened by chance”! Freeman’s whole point is that chance error is in effect impossible. But that doesn’t make the statistic “irrelevant” or the argument “a straw man.” On the contrary, the statistic, and the entailed “impossibility,” is central to Freeman’s argument.
Is Manjoo really so foolish as to believe this nonsense? I doubt it, for he is obviously a bright fellow. But he apparently hopes that his readers are fools. Well, not all of us are.
So we are left with this: Yes, random error is impossible, therefore, yes, there was “systematic cause” for errors. Lacking plausible explanation of error in exit poll design and execution, the compelling conclusion is fraud.
But is there a plausible explanation in design and execution of the exit polls? Manjoo says yes, and so to this consideration we now turn.
The desperate attempt to explain away the exit polls. Logicians and Philosophers of Science describe “ad hoc hypotheses” as assertions that explain (better, “explain-away”) phenomena, although these assertions are without any independent evidential warrant. Scholarly Choctaw aside, the concept can be clearly illustrated by examples.
Q: “Why haven’t any of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction been found?” Ans.: “They were all shipped out and hidden in Syria.” (That’s the ad hoc hypothesis). Q: “Any evidence of this?” Ans: “Unfortunately, no.” (“But just you wait!”).
Fundie preachers are notoriously attracted to ad hoc explanations; for example, the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell explanation of the 9/11 attacks as God’s punishment of America for tolerating homosexuality, abortion and the ACLU.
A final example: When, as a child, I asked how, if God created the world in 4004BC, there are dinosaur bones in the ground. I was told that "it is possible that Satan put them there to lead us astray." Any independent evidence of this? Of course not! (This is where “faith” comes to the rescue).
“Ad hoc-ery” is commonly revealed by such phrases as “it is possible that...” and “could have...” and “there is reason to believe...”
Consider now the theory
that the exit poll “error” predicting the Kerry victory was
the result of “the over-sampled Kerry voters.”
"According to [Warren Mitofsky, whose polling group administered the exit polls] interviewers assigned to talk to voters as they left the polls appear to be slightly more inclined to seek out Kerry voters than Bush voters. Kerry voters were thus overrepresented in the poll by a small margin.
Kennedy is unimpressed with Mitofsky's explanation:
"Now, thanks to careful examination of Mitofsky's own data by Freeman and a team of eight researchers, we can say conclusively that the theory is dead wrong. In fact it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were more disinclined to answer pollsters' questions on Election Day. In Bush strongholds, Freeman and the other researchers found that fifty-six percent of voters completed the exit survey -- compared to only fifty-three percent in Kerry strongholds. 'The data presented to support the claim not only fails to substantiate it,' observes Freeman, 'but actually contradicts it.'"
Now things begin to get dicey for the Manjoo/Mitofsky faction. (My emphases):
The numbers Kennedy cites fit the theory that Kerry voters were more likely to respond to pollsters than Bush voters. For instance, in the Bush strongholds -- where the average completion rate was 56 percent -- it's possible that only 53 percent of those who voted for Bush were willing to be polled, while people who voted for Kerry participated at a higher 59 percent rate. Meanwhile, in the Kerry strongholds, where Mitofsky found a 53 percent average completion rate, it's possible that Bush voters participated 50 percent of the time, while Kerry voters were willing to be interviewed 56 percent of the time. In this scenario, the averages work out to the same ones Kennedy cited: a 56 percent average response rate in Bush strongholds, and a 53 percent average response rate in Kerry strongholds. But in both Bush strongholds and Kerry strongholds, Kerry voters would have been responding at a higher rate, skewing the poll toward Kerry.
Yes, “it is possible
that...” Independent evidence? None!
What's more, these numbers are not set in stone. That's because, as Mitofsky has pointed out, it's not possible to measure the actual completion rate by Kerry voters and by Bush voters. (When someone refuses to talk to a pollster, it's not possible to say whether he was a Bush voter or Kerry voter.) Mitofsky says that a hypothetical completion rate of 50 percent for Bush voters and 56 percent for Kerry voters would have led to the error we saw in the poll.
Independent evidence? None!
Next, from these unsupported ad hoc hypotheticals, Manjoo draws a substantive conclusion:
“In other words, Kerry voters were very slightly more likely to talk to pollsters than were Bush voters.”
Obviously a non sequitor.
Ultimately, nothing in Kennedy's article, and nothing that the research he cites, refutes Mitofsky's theory that there was a true difference in the willingness of Kerry voters to participate in the poll compared to that of Bush voters.
But why should Kennedy be required to “refute Mitofsky’s theory,” when Mitofsky offers nothing to substantiate his “theory?” Manjoo concludes his “explanation” of the exit poll “error” with still more empty, hypothetical hand-waving:
Mitofsky noted a broad array of methodological errors that could have contributed to this difference in participation rate by Kerry and Bush voters. Such a difference would not have been a surprise; Democrats have historically been overrepresented in exit polls. There is no reason to think that the error in 2004 was anything substantively different.
“It’s possible that...” “A hypothetical completion rate...” “Would have led...” “Could have contributed....” “There is no reason to think....” These are the plaintive cries of despair of the evidence starved. They are howling indicators of shameless ad hoc-ery aforethought.
So it comes to this circular
(1) Why the exit polling error?
(2) Because of the oversampling of the Kerry voters.
(3) And why should we believe that the Kerry voters were oversampled?
(4) Because it explains the exit poll error.
How does one escape the circular argument? By supplying independent evidence of "the over-sampled Kerry voter." And as we have seen, there is none.
For the theologically inclined, here is another ad hoc explanation of the exit polling error. As the faithful assure us, The Lord God anointed George Bush to be our President. This we know from George Bush himself. In fact, Bush won Ohio handily. However, The Prince of Darkness, determined as ever to undo The Lord’s work, distorted the exit poll to cast doubt on the legitimacy of God’s Chosen President. So why did Mitofsky’s polls fail? "The Devil made him do it."
I submit that this "explanation" has about as much independent support as "the over-sampled Kerry voters" theory. I..e., none.
So if these ad hoc "explanations" of the polling error fail, and if no other explanations are brought forward and "random error" is judged impossible, what other explanation are we left with?
What else? The election was fraudulent.
Do articles like Kennedy’s, and rebuttals like Manjoo’s, illegitimately “frame” the controversy in favor of the status quo and against the critics? Have the critics been “suckered” into “playing the game” according to their opponents ground rules? Unfortunately, it appears that they have. Why must it be the task of the critics, private citizens all, to "prove" that the past three elections were fraudulent? Why have these critics conceded this burden of proof? Do not the citizens have a right to secure and accurate elections? Shouldn't the burden of proof be on the government to provide verifiable procedures? Should it not suffice that the critics demonstrate that the procedures fall short? Even if Farhad Manjoo and others succeed in showing that Robert Kennedy and other critics fail to make a convincing case for fraud (and I submit that Manjoo has done no such thing), shouldn't it be enough that the critics have raised reasonable and unanswerable doubts, and that the election officials and the defenders of the status quo can not supply the citizens convincing evidence and proof that the elections are honest and accurate? This much at least, the defenders have accomplished. Nothing else should be required. So why does the controversy continue?
Robert Kennedy Jr.’s argument that the 2004 election was stolen emerges essentially undiminished, and arguably strengthened by the weakness of Manjoo’s “rebuttal.” That’s the logic of it.
But the practical effects are another matter. Will this controversy finally break into open public debate? And will it do so in time for the public will to overcome the formidable barrier of “black box” voting machines with their hidden secret codes and unlocked “back doors” open to real time manipulation and fraud?
Emerging from the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked: “What do we have, Dr. Franklin?” He replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”
Today it is uncertain whether we still have a republic, much less whether we can keep it.
Today, as in 1787, the answer to that question is up to We the People of the United States
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has
taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in
Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website,
"The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the
progressive website, "The Crisis Papers"
(www.crisispapers.org). His book in progress, "Conscience of
a Progressive," can be seen at
www.igc.org/gadfly/progressive/^toc.htm . Send comments to: