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Crying Reform, Not Wolf:
The Real Conspiracy to Rig Our Elections

by David Moon and Rob Richie
November 18, 2004

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Make no mistake about it, this year’s elections were rigged against fair elections -- we saw it unfolding before our very eyes. Before any ballots were cast or counted, thousands upon thousands of voters were disenfranchised throughout our nation. But the true culprits were not shadowy political operatives stuffing ballot boxes or rigging voting machines. Instead our archaic electoral rules and structures themselves disenfranchised eligible voters, albeit too often with the aid of unscrupulous partisans. These partisan operatives, though, are merely faceless constants in our flawed electoral machinery. The true culprit in the 2004 elections was our electoral system itself.

But that reality has less dramatic appeal than charges of a stolen election. You’ve probably seen the emails headlined “Kerry won” or “Florida Vote Totals Don’t Add Up.” They’re almost as constant and as sensational as the “Get Rich Quick” or “Miracle Weight Loss” ads that flood our in-boxes. The allegations grow at a furious pace -- some based on valid concerns, many not.

A frequently forwarded article by radio host Thomas Hartmann provides one example. Hartmann focuses on Florida counties where the 2004 presidential results were the opposite of the breakdown of registered Democrats and Republicans. In Holmes County, for example, Democrats make up 73% of registered voters, yet Bush received 77% of the county’s vote. Hartmann and researcher Kathy Dopp suggested that party registration figures tended to match Bush and Kerry’s performance in counties using touchscreen machines, but not those using optical scan machines.

Their mistake was to assume party registration always determines voter behavior. Particularly in the rural, deep South, such logic is faulty. Rather than comparing Bush and Kerry’s performance with party registration figures, we instead looked at real voting patterns. It turns out that counties like Holmes County had large numbers of Democrats voting for Bush in 2000 too, because, like many Dixiecrats, they now vote heavily Republican in presidential races. Because Touchscreen machines were not yet in use in 2000, a comparison of 2004 and 2000 voting patterns cannot be undermined by accusation of machine fraud in both election cycles. But as we show, all of the counties cited by Hartmann as anomalous in fact show correlations demonstrating that they voted consistently in 2004 and 2000. Further, replacing party registration as a predictor of voting behavior with a comparison of how these counties voted in 2000 shows that machine types made no difference.

Greg Palast authored another frequently cited report of election-theft. Palast concludes that “Kerry won” because provisional ballots, undervotes and hanging chads disproportionately occurred among African American voters. We applaud Palast for spotlighting how faulty voting equipment and skewed voting procedures disproportionately hurt communities of color, and he’s right to remind us that Gore appeared on tens of thousands more “overvotes” than Bush in Florida in 2000 due largely to voting errors in minority communities.

But 2004 was a different year, a year in which George Bush turned a half-million national popular vote deficit in 2000 into a three and a half million vote win, with his biggest percentage gains largely coming in “blue” states where there was little chance or incentive to steal the election. Kerry didn’t lose Ohio due to the disparate impact of invalid ballots. In the Florida recounts in 2000, Gore had great difficulty closing a gap of just a few thousand votes. Kerry faced a deficit of more than 130,000 in Ohio, and even with the 220,000 or so valid provisional ballots and outstanding invalid ballots, the rosiest of scenarios would still not produce a valid Kerry victory. There is little to no chance that Kerry will receive the margin of four valid votes to every Bush vote that he would need in the upcoming recount that we are pleased to report will happen due to the efforts of Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb.

The fact of the recount should help show that the whole national debate about our elections would have been different if the Ohio margin had been closer. Then we would have had the urgently needed media scrutiny of the indefensible position Ohio and Florida took in tossing out any provisional votes for president cast by eligible voters in the wrong polling place. We would have heard much more about how many votes were lost due to much of Ohio still using the punchcard voting machines that were rightly discredited in Florida. We would have had a vigorous debate about why heavily African American precincts often had far more votes per voting machine than white precincts -- suggesting inequality that led to much longer lines in some urban polling places.

“Crying wolf” is turning the attention of left-of-center voters away from the structural problems with our so-called democracy, but at the same time, we believe that Congress must accept its share of the blame. After the debacle of the 2000 presidential elections, not nearly enough changes were made to restore voters’ faith in our electoral system. It’s no wonder that the conspiracy theorists are having a field day with our most recent elections. Elections administrators are too often partisan officials themselves, and private ballot-counting corporations shroud their actions in the darkest veils of secrecy and face uncertain regulation and certification procedures. Those criticizing the paranoid email frenzy should remember that perception is reality: you reap what you sow.

Let’s not make the same mistake in the next four years. For sensible reforms to occur, we must bring a sensible and accurate analysis of our current problems to the table. We must learn from other nations that have taken sensible steps like implementing universal voter registration to ensure clean and complete rolls, voting on a non-workday to ease voter access, paying for more pollworkers and setting rigorously enforced uniform standards for voting processes.

And we must not stop there. We need a right to vote in our Constitution, direct election of the president so that our votes count the same wherever they are cast, effective campaign finance reform, instant runoff voting for executive offices to end the spoiler problem and full representation systems for legislative offices to elect more women and represent our racial and political diversity. Working for that ambitious agenda takes national vision and local action. It means casting aside the wishful thinking of conspiracy theorists and confronting the real conspiracy to rig our elections. That conspiracy, friends, is the electoral rules of our democracy itself.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote-The Center for Voting and Democracy ( David Moon is FairVote's program director. For information, write to