Bernard Weiner: U.S. Elections Still in SNAFU Mode
New Hampshire: U.S. Elections Still in SNAFU Mode
There are reasonable explanations for why Clinton was declared the winner in New Hampshire in the face of all the late polls saying Obama would take it big: undecideds swinging to Hillary on the final day, women heading to the voting precincts in larger-than-expected numbers, some Independents deciding to vote for McCain rather than the ostensible big-winner Obama, Clinton's more personal appeal in her "tearing-up" incident, hidden racism, Clinton supporters messing with Obama's get-out-the-vote system, a late Clinton e-mail campaign to female voters questioning Obama's record on a woman's right to choose an abortion, etc. etc.
But, on the basis of what happened last week in New Hampshire and from other accounts around the country, we would be remiss as citizens if we didn't admit that eight years after the disaster that was the 2000 election process, we still don't have a reliable, secure voting system:
* Republicans in various key states are still getting away with knocking hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic voters off the rolls. And they're counting on the Supreme Court, as it probably will do, to OK their strict voter-I.D. bills that might well suppress voter turnout of poor and minority citizens. ( www.thenation.com/doc/20080128/epps )
* And, given the lack of adequate public oversight, it's still possible for the corporations that tabulate the ballots to alter the numbers in secret to fit any result they wish, with nobody able to prove the manipulation.
Did vote-tampering happen in New Hampshire? Maybe not. Could it have? Yes. The "irregularities" in the announced election results cry out for further investigation and perhaps even a full recount.
I'll get to the New Hampshire anomalies in a moment. What's important is that the U.S. is heading toward another presidential election in November with registration, voting and vote-tabulation protocols not all that different from those used during the disputed elections of 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006.
A LUDICROUS VOTING SYSTEM
When I'm abroad and describe America's current voting system to citizens of other countries -- including the fact that one party's supporters manufacture the voting machines and tabulate the ballots, with little knowledgable state supervision -- they think I'm joking. It's so "third-world," they say, so inefficient, corruptible, unpoliced and disorganized. Actually, many third-world elections are far more transparent, using paper ballots counted by hand.
Some election officials around the U.S. have attempted to correct some of these problems, but, by and large, not much has been done and potential massive fraud is still built into the system. For the most part, Republicans don't seem particularly exercised by these distortions of the voting process; after all, in many instances they have benefitted from the slipshod security associated with our elections.
The Republicans are not interested in "election fraud," but they certainly are riding for all it's worth the hyped fear of "voter fraud" (illegal voting and registering). It doesn't matter that there are few, if any, examples of widespread "voter fraud." However, the "voter-fraud" boogeyman is probably what led Alberto Gonzales to fire nearly a dozen or so U.S. Attorneys around the country. One of them, David Iglesias in New Mexico, was let go, on orders emanating from the White House, when he would not waste his office's time and money going after a few supposed Democratic "vote-frauders" just before an election. He said the evidence just wasn't there, and he refused to proceed with the obvious partisan harrassment. Bye bye, David.
DEMOCRATS TAKE A PASS
What is more maddening is that the Democratic Party, whose candidates most often have been the losers because of GOP-related "voting irregularities," has never really engaged on this issue and demanded a whole new, transparent way of holding elections so that citizens can have full confidence that their votes are being accurately recorded and honestly counted.
There is statistical and anecdotal evidence aplenty that some recent U.S. elections have been rigged, but about the only time the issue makes it to the nightly news is when those elections happens somewhere else in the world, when hundreds of thousands of angry citizens take to the streets in Ukraine and Kenya or elsewhere demanding a recount of a clearly manipulated balloting process. Then American politicians, editorialists and cable pundits urge on the opposition in the name of honest democratic elections. But those who raise similar concerns inside the U.S. about our corruptible voting processes are often smeared with the labels "conspiracy theorist" or a "sore loser."
NOW, THE NEW HAMPSHIRE "ANOMALIES"
So, within that context, let's take a look at New Hampshire and see if the circumstantial evidence, statistical and anecdotal, suggests the need for a recount or, at the very least, major reforms in that state's, and other states', electoral processes.
1. Constant percentages in election returns: Normally, as the returns come in on election night, there are fluctuations over time. One guy's up, say, 46% to 33% in the early tabulating, and then it shifts maybe to 44% to 36% as later returns come in, and then still later, when the big-city large numbers pour in, it may change again, say to 42% to 38% or something else. When there are no measurable shifts over the entire evening, the inference one can draw is that something is fishy because vote returns almost never behave that way.
In the Obama/Clinton race, the percentages never really changed. Except in the very beginning, it was virtually always 39% to 37% to the very end. This is not conclusive of vote-tampering, but suggestive that perhaps vote-tabulating machines may have been programmed to yield that result. Some votes may not have been counted at all; in the small town of Sutton, for example, at least three members of one family say they voted for Ron Paul but no votes for Paul appeared ( http://buchanan.org/blog/?p=916 ) in the final tally in that town; reportedly, there were 28 others voting for Paul in that town, but he still got zero votes. Missing votes may have happened also to other candidates in other towns, but nobody noticed. (There are no random vote-audits in New Hampshire.)
2. The huge discrepancy between polling & "official" results: Of course, the announced results in the Democratic race probably would not have seemed worthy of any additional scrutiny except that Obama was ahead by as much as 14 percentage points in virtually every poll right up to voting day. Journalists on the ground felt an Obama groundswell, with huge, turnaway crowds at his rallies all across the state, and smaller rallies for Clinton. And it appeared that Clinton herself, reading her campaign's own polling data, was emotionally "down," preparing for a disappointing second-place finish.
Now, one can note that several major pollsters stopped their surveys the day before the election, and thus weren't able to question all the "undecideds," especially women, who went to the polls the next day -- pollster John Zogby says there may have been 18% undecided at that point -- and in large numbers apparently voted for Clinton. But the disparity between the late pre-election polls and the announced results would require an almost unprecedented two-digit shift in one day, which is almost unheard-of in polling history.
3. The exit-poll discrepancies. One can't easily dismiss the exit-polls, which are the gold coins of the polling realm. As a pollster, you're not extrapolating from what the likely voters told you before they went to their precincts. Exit polls get answers from random voters of both parties as they leave their precincts on Election Day. These exit polls provide famously reliable data and almost always match the announced voting results in an honest election, and, as has proven to be the case in country after country abroad where outside observers are brought in to monitor the election, are far more reliable than what the rulers announce as the official numbers.
In New Hampshire, the exit polls were showing a solid win-in-the-making for Obama: ( http://blogs.salon.com/0002255/2008/01/10.html ). But, by the time it was all over, Clinton was declared the winner.
In elections in the past, newspaper groups or respected polling organizations would conduct the exit-polls. In New Hampshire, the Edison-Mitofsky organization got the bid. This is the same group that in 2004 tried to explain away Kerry's big exit-polling victory ( http://uscountvotes.org/ucvAnalysis/US/Exit_Polls_2004_Edison-Mitofsky.pdf ) by saying that Bush voters didn't want to participate in the post-election polling; they then "adjusted" their own exit-poll numbers to reflect the final announced totals. Some professional pollsters!
Daniel Patrick Welch ( www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/01/dont-count-on-it ) has a solid perspective:
- "The OCSE, the Carter Center and other world groups consider exit polling data to be the only real check on whether a country is running free and fair elections. ... Absent some mass hypnosis or incredibly complex psy-op campaign, skewing the results on a broad scale is nearly impossible.
- The dirty little secret is that U.S. elections suck, pure and simple. Many Americans were outraged when international monitors offered to observe the 2004 elections, and when [former President] Carter bluntly stated that his organization couldn't participate because voting in the U.S. didn't rise to its minimum standards: centralized counting authority with uniform standards, etc."
4. Hand-counted vs. machine-counted votes: Another bit of circumstantial evidence from New Hampshire: In precincts where the ballots were counted by hand, Obama more or less matched the percentages anticipated in the pre-election and exit-polls. In those precincts where electronic voting machines (collecting data on memory cards) were used, Clinton emerged the winner, and those percentage-point leads remained constant throughout the evening (see point#1). Again, not conclusive of anything -- there might be electoral differences between small/rural precincts and the larger ones in bigger towns and cities -- but they do suggest that another look might be in order.
5. A suspicious vote-counting company: In days past, county election boards or superintendents ran the voting operation; these days, many states outsource the work to private companies. In New Hamsphire, the bid winner was LHS Associates, run by John Silvestro, a seller of voting machines manufactured by the infamous Diebold Corporation. (Diebold's leader, you may remember, promised Bush he would "deliver" a victory in Ohio in 2004, and it would seem that he did.)
And what about LHS in New England? "LHS President John Silvestro admitted his staff violated Connecticut election-security protocols ( http://talknationradio.com/?p=101 ) during the 2006 election. Memory cards were swapped by LHS staff members," despite rulings from the State, which LHS had seen, indicating their technicians were not to touch the voting and vote-tabulating machines.)
Even with the known risks of using the controversial, easily-hackable Diebold voting machines (both the touchscreen ones and the optical-scanners) and vote-tabulating machines, it appears there was not enough, if any, New Hampshire state supervision of how LHS handled its assignments. That company, using its secret software, tabulated the ballots of 81% of the state's voters. (Bad news: LHS is under contract to count the ballots in November for much of New England, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.)
According to Bev Harris of Black Box Voting, "LHS is not subject to public records requirements ... Their control over memory-card contents is absolute; when cards malfunction or get lost, LHS brings the replacements."
Allen Roland in Salon ( http://blogs.salon.com/0002255/2008/01/10.htm ) writes that "those Diebold op-scan machines are the exact same ones that were hacked [as a demonstration for the press] in the HBO documentary 'Hacking Democracy.' The New Hampshire pre-election pollsters' numbers were accurate, for the most part, on the Republican side, as well as on the Democratic side -- except in the Clinton/Obama race where machine-counted votes gave Clinton a whopping 6% vote advantage over hand-counted paper ballots."
IF TAMPERED WITH, WHO DONE IT?
Assuming that a full, hand-recount would demonstrate that somehow the announced vote totals for Obama and Clinton were manipulated, who might have done that and why? Of course, one can't know for sure, but, if there was tampering, it's safe to say that a prime suspect would be LHS, which was solely in charge of the vote-counting and whose president already had admitted to illegally moving memory cards around and touching secure machines, which violated Connecticut's 2006 election laws.
According to Dori Smith of Talk Nation Radio, things weren't much different in the neighboring state: "It's troubling that in New Hampshire last week, reports indicate that LHS employees had regular access to memory cards and voting machines, and even replaced them during the course of the day..." ( www.bradblog.com/?p=5553 ) The election clerks who broke the security seals to permit LHS entry had no knowledge of computer coding and such.
(For what it's worth, LHS executive Ken Hajjar, director of sales & marketing in New England -- who has said about his firm's slipshod way of dealing with state rules: "I don't pay attention to every little law" -- pled guilty to criminal charges ( www.bradblog.com/?p=5537 ) of narcotics-trafficking in the 1990s. The head of the Diebold ballot-printing plant reportedly was also an ex-con.)
AND WHAT WOULD THE MOTIVE BE?
Assuming for the moment that Osama/Clinton vote-tallies might have been fiddled with, the question would be: Why? Again, we can't ascribe possible motives with any certainty. What we can say is that Karl Rove and other GOP heavies long have anticipated the 2008 Republican candidate being able to run against Hillary Clinton, who they believe is the most vulnerable Democrat since her negatives are so high. Given the weak candidates seeking the GOP nomination, and the low repute that Republicans in general have these days, having Hillary as the Democratic standard-bearer could only be good news for the GOP.
But none of us likes to indulge merely in speculation about scandals. We want to see evidence. It's possible that Clinton won it fair and square; as I said up top, there are plenty of reasons why this might be so. But unless the New Hampshire election authorities conduct a full, by-hand recount of all scanned ballots, or at least an in-depth investigation into how and why the results turned out the way they did, her election victory will always be tainted by doubt and suspicion.
Dennis Kucinich and a minor Republican candidate have put down a deposit to pay for such a probe, which could begin in a few days, but Obama and the Democratic Party in New Hampshire and nationally have not jumped on board.
They should. America's election system is broken, and tinkering with it just seems to make it worse. We need to make electoral integrity a front-page issue or American democracy may be screwed (again) in November. At least, let's acknowledge that we've been warned.
Copyright 2007, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently co-edits the progressive website The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers_AT_comcast.net