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Judging by the polls, the Republicans’ best chance of victory looks like it will require them to screw around with the machinery of voting. They’re very good at it. Given the near certainty of record turnouts in next week’s election, will there be enough voting machines ? No. In Pennsylvania for instance, only two machines are required at each voting centre, thus ensuring long delays and the likelihood of people giving up the effort. Can electronic voting machines make mistakes and credit the wrong candidate ? Yes, as this account indicates.
Note that a three per cent level of malfunction with voting machines is deemed by state officials in this case to be acceptable.
Can electronic voting machines be easily tampered with ? Yes. This example indicates that a machine can be readily calibrated to flip an Obama vote into a vote for McCain. Sometimes, voting machine problems can be traced to simple malfunctions. Unfortunately for Barack Obama, the oldest voting machines also happen to be in the poor, black and Obama-leaning neighbourhoods. When voting machines break down can they be fixed? During the primaries this year, the minimal wait for machine faults was reportedly an hour, and longer if the machine had to be replaced.
There are many, many pathways to disenfranchisement. Voters will be disqualified if they lack an appropriate photo ID, such as a state drivers license or state issued ID cards. An estimated one in ten white voters and double that in black communities lack that level of photo ID. Votes can also be disqualified because of mismatching signatures. If you signed RJ Smith Jnr on one form and Robert J Smith Jnr on another state form – for instance – this can render the vote liable to rejection under the “perfect match” principle required, right down to the placement of hyphens, in the crucial swing state of Florida, among others.
Oh, and then there is the matter of the ballot design. In Florida in 2000, the notorious butterfly ballot meant that in Dade County alone thousands of elderly people trying to vote for Al Gore had their votes recorded for Pat Buchanan. The Florida election – and with it, the entire presidential contest that gave the US and the world the presidency of George W. Bush – was decided by 534 votes.
This year, the North Carolina ballot poses a rather different kind of problem. During the 2004 presidential election, about 90,000 people who voted in North Carolina surprisingly failed to record a vote for President. This was a rate of so called “ under-voting” that was about three times the national average. How come ? Because the ballot paper in North Carolina is so badly designed.
Reason being, the ruling Democratic Party back in 1967 successfully introduced a ballot paper that invites voters to tick a single ‘straight party” vote box for all the other senate and gubernatorial races and partisan issues in play but – counter-intuitively – this choice does not include the vote for President. Voters need to find a presidential box elsewhere in the ballot paper, and tick that box separately. Despite waves of criticism, North Carolina is using the same confusing ballot paper again this year. Welcome first time voter, to Democracy American Style.
True, the mistaken undervoting would not have affected the 2004 outcome in North Carolina, since George W Bush beat John Kerry by a comfortable margin of 435,000 in the state four years ago. This year though, is shaping as a very close race. It is more like 1992, when Bush Senior beat Bill Clinton in Norrh Carolina with a wafer thin 43.34 % of the vote, as opposed to 42.65% for Clinton. Currently, Wednesday’s AP poll has Barack Obama ahead, but only by 2%. Ballot paper mistakes alone could erase that difference.
“Undervoting” is also a perennial problem in the key state of Ohio. In 2004, the Scripps-Howard News Service reported that some 96, 580 ballots in Ohio failed to register a presidential vote , up from 93, 991 similarly lost votes in the 2000 race. As Robert F Kennedy Jnr pointed out two years ago the disfranchisement measures for the election process consistently favour the Republican Party to a degree and in a pattern that suggests a deliberate, co-ordinated plan to steal elections has been devised, and put in place.
Across the country, Republican election officials and party stalwarts employed a wide range of illegal and unethical tactics to fix the  election. A review of the available data reveals that in Ohio alone, at least 357,000 voters, the overwhelming majority of them Democratic, were prevented from casting ballots or did not have their votes counted in 2004 — more than enough to shift the results of a [state] election decided by 118,601 votes. In what may be the single most astounding fact from the election, one in every four Ohio citizens who registered to vote in 2004 showed up at the polls only to discover that they were not listed on the rolls, thanks to GOP efforts to stem the unprecedented flood of Democrats eager to cast ballots. . And that doesn’t even take into account the troubling evidence of outright fraud, which indicates that upwards of 80,000 votes for Kerry were counted instead for Bush. That alone is a swing of more than 160,000 votes — enough to have put John Kerry in the White House..
One factor that has assisted the Republicans to successfully carry out these maneouvres is that the legal checks and balances have often been in the hands of openly partisan Republican Party figures – such as Florida attorney-general Katherine Harris in Florida in 2000, who refused a recount in the state after the Bush/Gore virtual dead heat. Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell in 2004 is another example.
Blackwell was simultaneously in 2004 the Ohio Chief Electoral Officer and honorary co-chair of the “Committee to Re-Elect George Bush. ” It is not clear in which capacity Blackwell ruled that thousands of provisional ballots cast in the wrong polling place – even though surely, being somewhere else is the reason why some people cast provisional ballots ! – could not be counted in the election. Blackwell’s decision was subsequently supported by the US Court of Appeals.
The heartening news is that Democrats are now in some of the key decision-making positions. Courts are also handing down some helpful pre-emptive rulings. In Ohio for instance, as the New York Times reports, the Ohio secretary of state Jennifer Brunner ( a Democrat) has resisted Republican efforts to use data- matching discrepancies to disqualify voters :
Federal law requires states to verify voter registration applications with a government database like those used for driver’s licenses or Social Security cards. Names that do not match are flagged for further verification. But the law provides little guidance on how these flagged registrations should be handled and discrepancies corrected.
Ohio Republicans had sought the lists to challenge voters, but the Ohio Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, refused the request, saying that numerical errors or misspellings are the probable reason for most of the discrepancies. Forcing these voters to cast provisional ballots would possibly disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, she said, since these ballots are easier to disqualify.
Republicans then took their request to court, but were unsuccessful. The Justice Department has been in contact with Ohio election officials since early October and this week its lawyers determined they would not pursue litigation before the election, according to the sources familiar with the discussions.
In Pennsylvania, the courts have moved quickly to pre-empt a different sort of problem – namely, the unreliability of electronic voting machines. The courts have ruled that paper ballots must be on hand, to cope with the likelihood that electronic machines will crash. This Washington Post report indicates the scale of the problem:
Pennsylvania’s voting rolls have increased by 400,000 new registrations in advance of Nov. 4, a rise the judge [ Harvey Bartle III ] called an “extraordinary” amount that could further test a system strained by the turnout in April.
Bartle wrote that “there is a real danger that a significant number of machines will malfunction” in the state and the problems are “likely to cause unacceptably long lines on November 4.”
In Philadelphia, for example, more than 90 percent of precincts have no more than two voting machines. Elections officials there told the court that roving repair teams were available to address problems, most often involving dead batteries and broken printers, but that even these minor repairs could take approximately an hour to correct once poll workers called for help — and that delays are even longer when machines must be replaced. During the primary, according to testimony, machines had to be replaced 15 times in Philadelphia alone.
Some waiting “is inevitable and must be expected,” Bartle wrote in his decision, but “there can come a point when the burden of standing in a queue ceases to be an inconvenience or annoyance and becomes a constitutional violation.”
The ACORN Distraction
In the last few weeks, the bulk of the media coverage of this issue has been focused narrowly on the relative non-problem of voter registration fraud. Ironically, most of the heat has emanated from the McCain campaign, and it has been directed at the activities of the volunteer group ACORN, a Democrat voter registration group that largely works among minority groups.
ACORN pays volunteers to register voters. In the course of its registration work, it was ACORN itself that first brought to public attention a small number of cases where its volunteers had handed in cards with obviously phony names, or multiple cards under the same name. The Republicans then used these examples to accuse ACORN of widespread fraud. In one of the televised debates, McCain even claimed that ACORN was “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
Very few convictions for voter fraud – we’re talking a couple of dozen at most – have occurred in the US in the last couple of decades. False registration does not lead to false voting. One reason being, even if Mr. M. Mouse is registered, he has to show up at the polls with photo ID and corroboration with government databases to prove that he is fact, Mr Mouse. As the New York Times said in the same article cited above :
Most studies by non-partisan groups have found little evidence that voter fraud is a wide-scale problem or that fraudulent or duplicate voter registration applications lead to ineligible voters casting ballots.
ACORN is therefore a bogus issue. Purging of the electoral rolls and excessively stringent identity requirements skew the democratic process far more extensively. For a good overview of the issues involved in vote suppression in the 2008 election, check out this interview between Robert F. Kennedy Jnr and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC here.
In Colorado alone – another battleground state – thousands of voters have been purged from the rolls by former Republican secretary of state Donetta Davidson. BBC journalist Greg Palast has estimated the Colorado figure at 19.4 % of all voters, but the reply here by Colorado state authorities argues that Palast has incorrectly treated voters moving residences ( which triggers a paper cancellation) as signaling an absolute purge.
The full “ Block the Vote “ argument by Palast and Kennedy can be accessed in this week’s Rolling Stone article, available here.
To repeat : the methods of disenfranchisement include : obstructing voter registration drives, and/or demanding perfect matches ( Iowa, as well as Florida requires this) between the signature on the voting forms and the information held on state data bases. Beyond these traps for new voters, existing voters are purged. In Florida in 2000, Katherine Harris purged some 57,000 voters, mainly African – Americans on the grounds that their names resembled those of felons. Two years later the courts acknowledged this had been done improperly.).
Other techniques can be : the rejecting of ‘spoiled’ ballots containing tears or that are otherwise alleged to be indecipherable. Again, since the voting machines tend to be old and in worse condition in poor, largely Democrat neighbourhoods, the rate of ‘spoiled ‘ ballots there tends to be far higher. One survey referred to be Palast and Kennedy has found that black Americans are ten times more likely than whites to have their ballots rejected.
In the higher reaches of the Republican Party, the desirability of suppressing the vote has been recognized for decades Here’s Palast and Kennedy again :
Shortly before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Paul Weyrich — a principal architect of today’s Republican Party — scolded evangelicals who believed in democracy. “Many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo goo’ syndrome — good government,” said Weyrich, who co-founded Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell. “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. . . . As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
It may be the only route left to the republican die-hards in the bunker. With McCain’s poll numbers still lagging behind Obama nationally – notably in the Ohio/Pennsylvania races that McCain needs to win – the Republican Party will be desperate. Stealing a win is still a victory. Luckily, one can count on the fact that the Obama forces will not be the pushover that Al Gore was during the post-election fight for Florida in 2000.
For much, much more coverage on the USA’s electoral integrity: http://usacoup.scoop.co.nz/