I didn’t have to read Bob Fitrakis’s wonderfully titled piece, “Joshua Holland, The Nation’s Truth Nazi, Needs to Calm Down.” I’ve become familiar with the genre since writing that there’s no reason to suspect that election fraud has been a factor in the Democratic primary results. Similar pieces have been published by Counterpunch, The Huffington Post (by Tim Robbins!) and a slew of other fringier outlets. They all stick to the same formula: After questioning my intellectual capacity, they claim or imply that I dismiss the real problems with our piss-poor election systems, and follow that with a heaping serving of nonsense about how exit polls supposedly reveal widespread fraud committed by the Clinton campaign.
I suppose it’s better to be a Truth Nazi than the regular kind. And since we’ll likely see a new round of this stuff following today’s primaries, let me respond to all of these pieces by acknowledging that we have an election infrastructure that would embarrass most banana republics. But when it comes to exit polling, essentially everything these articles claim is dead wrong.
The laziest iteration of these claims is that the exit polls have diverged significantly from the final vote tallies in many of the states Clinton won, and the same pattern isn’t evident in Republican contests. That’s simply untrue. The exit polls have been off in a couple of states, but for the most part they’ve fallen within the margin of error in both Republican and Democratic contests.
But the conspiracy-mongers aren’t really talking about exit polls. Their claims are based on obsessively parsing preliminary exit poll data that some media outlets publish when the polls close—the same data that political reporters always tell people to take with a big grain of salt because they’re notoriously inaccurate. (Most of their claims are based on the work of Richard Charnin, who runs a blog devoted to “JFK conspiracy and systemic election fraud analysis.” Charnin’s also a mathematician, as Tim Robbins notes, but, as we’ll see, his calculations aren’t the problem.)
The writers hyping this stuff claim that those preliminary data are “unadjusted,” and therefore offer a true barometer of voters’ responses as they leave their polling places. They say that the preliminary data are then adjusted to conform to the official results. In the hour or so between when the polls close and the final exit polls are released, they say, votes have consistently shifted away from Sanders, and this indicates that pollsters are covering up election fraud. (That last bit is often left implied, lest people consider how wide-ranging this plot must be.) And, central to the whole story, they say that looking at the way these data shift is a vital means of identifying potential fraud.
Every single part of that is 100 percent wrong.
Edison Media Research has conducted all of the exit polls for the major US media organizations since 2003. Joe Lenski, Edison’s executive vice president, talked to me about how exit polls are conducted. Two phone interviews revealed just how specious these claims really are.