Abolish Election Day | The Nation


Abolish Election Day

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1. Was this election stolen?

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James K. Galbraith
James K. Galbraith is author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should...

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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.

But suppose voting is much higher than expected. And suppose further that (for reasons to be discussed below), precincts are operating at their capacity--or, even worse, that their capacity has been reduced, relative to previous elections, because of a complicated ballot or shortage of machines. In that case, the exit pollster will not see the full increase in turnout during any fixed period of time. Instead, there will be a queue of voters, many of whom will actually vote only later, after the time window for the exit poll has closed. That element in the increased turnout will be missed. Since turnout did surge more in Florida's red than blue counties, this is a sufficient explanation for the failure of the exit polls there, unless something further and heinous comes to light. Don't count on it.

Let's turn to Ohio. Here Greg Palast--a journalist whose work cannot be disregarded--argues flatly that Kerry won the election in Ohio, and also in New Mexico, though the latter does not matter. Palast's logic does not rest on exotica--no hacking, no trap doors in the software are required--but rather on spoiled ballots. Palast points to the old Florida stand-by--hanging chads. Ohio this year used punch-card technology in sixty-nine counties. The state lost 94,000 ballots to spoilage in 2000, according to a Harvard study. This year it lost 92,672. These ballots could be counted by hand. Alongside the chads, there are the provisional ballots issued to voters whose registration was questioned. Provisional ballots number around 155,000, according to recent reports, though earlier estimates were higher.

Bush won the counted vote in Ohio by 136,000 votes. If Kerry won 247,000 uncounted votes by 78 percent, then he won Ohio, the Electoral College and the presidency. If only 155,000 provisional ballots are considered, of which 90 percent were valid, as was the case in 2000, then Kerry would need 99 percent of them--an impossibility. Practically speaking, Ohio will not recount automatically (including the "spoiled" ballots) unless the margin closes towell under 20,000--an event requiring Kerry to get 92 percent of the valid provisionals. And while a substantial Kerry majority among the provisional voters is likely, it's almost surely not as high as that. Since many red counties used punch cards, there is no clear reason to suppose Kerry enjoys an equally large lead as far as spoiled ballots are concerned.

In Ohio, where the increase in voter turnout favored both candidates almost equally, the exit polls were not so wrong. It was a very close race. At least one identified case of vote miscounting (in Gahanna, Ohio, favoring Bush by almost 4,000 votes) has been acknowledged. Other serious allegations have been made. All in all, therefore, the demand that all Ohio's votes be counted before the electors are certified is a reasonable one. However, it remains true that the odds against overcoming Bush's present lead in votes cast are fairly decisive.

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