Was the 2004 Election Stolen?

BY Joel Bleifuss

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Did the Bush-Cheney campaign engage in electronic vote fraud to ensure that George W. Bush would be president for another four years? That is a question every small-d democrat should be asking.

Much has been written on the Internet alleging that the election was stolen. Some writers are members of the tin-foil hat brigade, but others provide sober analysis of the election results that raise disturbing questions.

Unfortunately, thanks to the herd instinct in our current media culture, anyone who publicly raises this question is immediately labeled a conspiracy theorist.

In the December 6 Nation, Alexander Cockburn dismissed such speculation, writing, “As usual, the conspiracy nuts think plans of inconceivable complexity worked at 100 percent efficiency.” Dan Thanh Dang of the Baltimore Sun put it this way: “John F. Kerry barely had time to concede the presidential race before the conspiracy theory began circulating.” The headline: “Election paranoia surfaces; Conspiracy theorists call results rigged.”

On November 14, a New York Times editorial delivered the final verdict on what is now the conventional wisdom:

There is no evidence of vote theft or errors on a large scale. … There is also no way to be sure that the nightmare scenario of electronic voting critics did not occur: votes surreptitiously shifted from one candidate to another inside the machines, by secret software. It’s important to make it clear that there is no evidence such a thing happened, but there will be concern and conspiracy theories until all software used in elections is made public.

Suspend disbelief, buck conventional wisdom and suppose that “such a thing happened”—that the Bush-Cheney campaign “won” the election through systematic electronic voting fraud.

Would the Bush-Cheney campaign have any qualms about stealing an election? Of course not. They did it in 2000.

They had the motive, and they had the will. But is there any evidence that voting fraud was committed?

Circumstantial evidence

Among the most compelling circumstantial evidence are the independent exit polls that predicted that John Kerry was destined to be the next president. Why were the exit polls, historically so accurate, so wrong?

“Exit polls are almost never wrong,” wrote Republican pollster Dick Morris in the November 4 issue of The Hill. “So reliable are the surveys that actually tap voters as they leave the polling places that they are used as guides to the relative honesty of elections in Third World countries. … To screw up one exit poll is unheard of. To miss six of them is incredible. It boggles the imagination how pollsters could be that incompetent and invites speculation that more than honest error was at play here.” So perplexed was Morris by the data, he suspected a liberal media conspiracy to fix the exit polls so that the networks would declare Kerry a winner and thereby discourage potential Bush voters in the West from going to the polls.

Steven F. Freeman, a statistical analysis professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found some disturbing anomalies when he examined the discrepancies between the predicted vote (exit polls) and the tallied results in 11 battleground states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The figures he used for the predicted vote came from the exit polls posted by CNN on its Web site. Due to an apparent computer glitch, CNN posted “uncalibrated” data—exit poll data not yet “corrected” to conform to the announced vote tallies—on its Web site until 1:30 a.m. (EST) election night.

In all of these states except Wisconsin, writes Freeman, the predicted margin of votes for each candidate differed from the tallied margin of votes for each candidate, with all the differences going in favor of Bush.

For example, Ohio exit polls predicted that Kerry would win 52.1 percent of the vote to Bush’s 47.9 percent. But the tallied vote had Bush winning 51 percent of the vote to Kerry’s 48.5 percent. The difference, then, between Ohio exit poll projections and the actual tallied vote for Kerry comes to 3.6 percent. Based on the size of the sample the exit polling firms were working with, the likelihood of this happening is less than 1 in 1000. Doing a similar analysis with exit polls in Florida, Freeman found a less than three in 1000 chance that the tallied results would differ as much as they did from the exit poll projections. And while Kerry did carry Pennsylvania, the chance that he would receive only 50.8 percent of the vote after exit polls indicated he would get 54.1 percent (a 3.3 percent difference) is less than two in 1000. Finally, according to Freeman, the odds against all three of these statistical anomalies occurring together are 250 million to one.

“As much as we can say in social science that something is impossible,” he writes, “it is impossible that the discrepancies between predicted and actual vote counts in the three critical battleground states of the 2004 election could have been due to chance or random error.”

What could account for this?

Freeman examines various explanations that have been made in the media for the discrepancy between the exit polls and the tallied vote, and finds all of them lacking.

“Neither the pollsters nor their media clients have provided solid explanations to the public,” Freeman writes. “Systematic fraud or mistabulation is a premature conclusion, but the election’s unexplained exit poll discrepancies make it an unavoidable hypothesis, one that is the responsibility of the media, academia, polling agencies and the public to investigate.”

Mystery votes

Examining the election results from a different angle, a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley analyzed the vote in Florida and found that, mysteriously, “electronic voting raised President Bush’s advantage from the tiny edge he held in 2000 to a clearer margin of victory in 2004.” The researchers calculate that electronic voting machines may have given Bush up to 260,000 more votes than he should have received. (Bush won Florida by 360,000 votes.) In the 15 Florida counties using electronic touch-screen voting systems, the number of votes tallied for Bush significantly exceeded the number of votes he should have received based on voter demographic and voter turnout data. This was especially true in the large, heavily Democratic counties of Broward, Palm Beach and Dade. In Florida counties that used other voting systems, Bush received the same number of votes that the data predicted.

Michael Hout, the chair of Berkeley’s Sociology and Demography graduate program, told Kim Zetter of Wired.com, “No matter how many factors and variables we took into consideration, the significant correlation in the votes for President Bush and electronic voting cannot be explained.”

The Berkeley researchers did a similar study in Ohio, but found no such correlation.

Both Hout and Freeman caution that their research has not yet undergone peer review. Freeman writes, “I have tried to be as rigorous as possible in my data collection, review and analysis. … To hold it to an academic standard of rigor, however, requires extensive peer review.”

Nightmare scenario

Was it technically possible to steal the election through electronic voting fraud? As the New York Times editorial noted, there is “is no way to be sure that the nightmare scenario of electronic voting critics did not occur.”

How secure were the electronic machines that were used to tabulate and count the vote? Diebold, the country’s largest voting machine company, made news in 2003 when leaked interoffice memos revealed that company executives knew that their machines were poorly protected against hackers. And in July 2003, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute reported that an examination of one Diebold voting system revealed “significant security flaws,” noting that “voters can trivially cast multiple ballots with no build-in traceability, administrative functions can be performed by regular voters, and the threats posed by insiders such as poll workers, software developers, and janitors is even greater.”

In Ohio, more than 35 counties used Diebold machines and nationwide, according to the company’s Web site “over 75,000 Diebold electronic voting stations are being used.”

So, somebody could have hacked the vote.

On November 5, Democratic Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Robert Wexler (Fla.), noting widespread questions raised about the accuracy of the results of the 2004 election, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the “efficacy of voting machines and new technologies used in the 2004 election.”

“The essence of democracy,” they wrote, “is the confidence of the electorate in the accuracy of voting methods and the fairness of voting procedures. In 2000, that confidence suffered terribly, and we fear that such a blow to our democracy may have occurred in 2004.”

Responding on November 23, the GAO agreed to examine “the security and accuracy of voting technologies, distribution and allocation of voting machines and counting of provisional ballots.”

That would be a good place to start.


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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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