From a permanent campaign to a permanent election? Bloggers, e-voting foes and concerned citizens keep raising questions and hurling charges about the November 2 voting and vote-counting, especially in the fulcrum state of Ohio. And it seems there may be a recount in the Buckeye State, prompted by a request submitted by two minor presidential candidates, David Cobb of the Green Party and Michael Badnarik of the Libertarian Party. That recount will not proceed until the vote is certified by the Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, a conservative who co-chaired the Bush campaign in Ohio. Cobb and Badnarik have reasonably asked Blackwell to recuse himself.
In the swirl of Internet-fueled allegations, assorted issues have emerged and merged: odd voting patterns, suspicious election day activity, voter suppression, “spoiled” ballots and the susceptibility of e-voting machines to errors or, worse, hacking. A recount in Ohio will not address all the problems, real or imagined. It cannot tally votes not cast due to suppression efforts; it cannot include ballots not properly cast. At a recent forum in Columbus, voters complained about long lines, undertrained poll workers and too few, or broken, voting machines–mostly in urban and minority neighborhoods. Was there an organized GOP effort to tamp down the vote in Kerry strongholds? Probably. There is evidence that suppression shenanigans were mounted in Ohio and elsewhere. But the Democrats have done a poor job of chronicling, publicizing and criticizing such GOP chicanery. And while in Ohio there were 93,000 “spoiled” ballots that did not register a vote and 155,000 provisional ballots, a recount that includes those ballots is highly unlikely to erase Bush’s lead of 136,000 votes. (Based on my experience examining “spoiled” ballots in Florida, I’d estimate a Kerry pickup of less than 1,000 votes with those ballots.) Moreover, a recount might not uncover problems–intentional or accidental–with electronic voting. “The figures in cooked books often look perfectly fine; so would a cooked vote tally” that used e-voting machines with no paper trail, notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “In this election, we are forced to take it on faith that our votes were recorded in the way that we intended.” And there are numerous accounts of Kerry voters in Florida who claimed their touch-screen machines initially indicated they had voted for Bush.
E-voting–particularly with machines made by Diebold, a firm headed by a GOP fundraiser that refuses to disclose its source code–should stir skepticism. But suspicion needs reality checks. Stolen election proponents point to Warren County, Ohio, where Bush bagged a net gain of 41,000 votes and where local officials barred reporters from the counting room on election night, claiming the Feds had warned of a terrorist attack. But FBI and homeland security officials denied issuing any warning, and a Democratic Party observer, attorney Jeff Ruppert, told the Associated Press he had free access to the counting during the lockdown and saw “no problems whatsoever.” And skeptics have pointed to a Cuyahoga County vote tally that listed more votes than registered voters in several municipalities. But Kimberly Bartlett, an elections officer, told me this was because of software that placed absentee ballots from an entire group of municipalities into the line for a single municipality in that group. She noted that the director of the Cuyahoga board of elections is a registered Democrat.
Not all stolen-election stuff is easily explained. After the election, the doubters zapped around a news report noting that Avi Rubin, a well-known computer scientist who had found a basic security flaw in the code used by Diebold, had criticized the company for claiming to have fixed this problem without making its latest code available for analysis. And various statistical analyses of the vote count have produced puzzling–or, to some, troubling–patterns. Steven Freeman of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a paper claiming that discrepancies between the media consortium exit polls and the vote count in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania were a “250 million to one” shot. But “systematic fraud or mistabulation,” he wrote, “is a premature conclusion.” He urged investigation. On the other hand, pollster John Zogby says his exit polls had Bush leading in Ohio and Florida.
What to make of all this? The national voting complex–a patchwork of systems overseen by political partisans and secretive companies–needs examination, extensive reform and better oversight. A recount in Ohio is well and good. But it probably won’t change the results, and it surely won’t fix the deep flaws of a system that does provoke justifiable suspicion.