1. Was this election stolen?
The Internet is alive with furious messages from my frustrated friends, fanning the flames of Florida 2000. Along with many others, Thom Hartmann, a columnist and radio host writing on the respected site CommonDreams.org, has zeroed in on the discrepancy between the exit polls and the final results. How, he demands to know, could the leaks that so strongly favored John Kerry early in the evening have been so far wrong?
Hartmann’s evidence is that certain small Florida counties with large Democratic registration advantages gave Bush overwhelming victories. Thus, he suggests, perhaps the vote totals were reversed when the votes were tallied, giving Bush votes that were, in fact, Kerry’s. Until I e-mailed him, Hartmann seemed unaware that in the rural South white Democrats have been voting for Republicans for President for well over thirty years. He’d also neglected to check the 2000 election results for two counties he mentions by name: Baker and Dixie. Both gave Bush large majorities over Al Gore four years ago.
A comparison of the Florida vote with that of other Southern states gives little comfort to the case for fraud. As an exercise, I calculated an “expected vote” for George Bush in Florida by taking his 2000 total and multiplying it by the growth in Florida’s voting-age population. Bush exceeded this target by a large margin, 24 percent. But by the same standard he did equally well in Georgia and even better in Oklahoma and Tennessee–where there was no contest and no reason to miscount Bush’s votes. In terms of improvement over 2000, Florida was Bush’s fourth-best state. But his gains there weren’t out of line with his gains over 2000 throughout the South.
Florida remained as close as it did because Kerry also improved on his “expected vote”–by twelve percentage points. Gains by both candidates were possible because overall turnout in Florida increased ten percentage points, from 47 to 56 percent of the voting-age population. That, too, was a big gain by national standards. But it was not as much as in seven other states–South Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin and New Mexico–all of which were battleground states except South Dakota, where there was an important Senate fight.
How could the exit polls have failed to pick up Bush’s surge? Here’s a straightforward possibility: The exit-polling technique is to ask voters in selected precincts to record their votes on a ballot as they emerge from the polls. Not all voters are polled; rather, the pollster seeks a fixed fraction (say, every third voter) over a fixed time interval (say, 7 AM to noon for the morning poll).
If (as is usually the case) the polling places are operating below their capacity, then this technique will pick up two important aspects of the final total. First, it will accurately capture the relative vote for Bush and Kerry in each targeted precinct. Second, if turnout is higher than the past standard for that precinct, the poll will also show a higher count for that precinct, which gives the pollster a fighting chance to identify a turnout surge in one part of the state or another.