Friday, January 11, 2008

Hey, where you goin' with that ballot box?

Writing in CounterPunch for January 11, Dave Lindorff offers some questions about the balloting in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, raising the possibility of vote fraud in the electronic voting machines used. I'll say at the top that I don't find the argument in this case compelling but because of my abiding concern over electronic voting, it's worth looking at.

The initial question got raised, of course, by the disparity between pre-election polls and actual results. Those polls had Obama ahead by around 13 points; according to one story I saw, even the Clinton campaign's own internal tracking polls had her down by 11. (Which, by the by, is where I think the "teary" moment came from: I think she was overtired, frustrated, expecting to lose big in New Hampshire, and so saw her campaign as disintegrating. That is, I don't think it was planned or calculated.) Reportedly, exit polling also had Obama on top. But when the votes were counted, Clinton won by 2.6 points.

Various explanations were offered
[b]ut[, Lindorff wrote,] there were anomalies in the numbers that have some people suggesting something else: vote fraud.

What has had eyebrows raised is a significant discrepancy between the vote counts done by voting machine, and the ones done by hand.
In the primary, 81 percent of the votes were cast by use of optical scanners made by Diebold Corp. These are not touchscreen devices (about which I have greater concern); rather, a voter fills out a paper ballot by filling in ovals and puts it in the machine, which scans the ballot to record the vote. The other 19 percent of votes were done on hand-counted paper ballots; such ballots were cast almost exclusively in smaller, more rural towns.
The machine tally was Clinton 39.6 per cent, Obama 36.3 per cent - fairly close to the final outcome. But the hand-counted ballot count broke significantly differently: Clinton 34.9 per cent, Obama 38.6 per cent.
The difference could just be chalked up to the differences between more rural and more urban (in the New Hampshire sense of the term) areas, arguing that Obama did better in the former and Clinton in the latter. Lindorff, however, isn't buying it.
[T]hat explanation flies in the face of logic, historic voting patterns, and most of the post­election prognosticating.
Some of his arguments don't impress me, as when he raised the issue of so-called "behind the curtain" racism where people say they intend to vote for Obama because they think that sounds good while actually voting against him. "Surely," he writes, "it would be more likely that this would happen in the isolated towns of northern New Hampshire where black people are rarely to be seen," so Obama should have done worse there. But I have no clue why that premise is supposed to be true. If we have learned anything at all about race over the past few decades it's that urban dwellers can be every bit as, if not more, racist that rural dwellers. On the other hand, if we are to assume that racism is more common in the rural areas, wouldn't that mean that "behind the curtain" racism is more likely in urban areas where overt racism would be less acceptable?

But other arguments carry at least some weight.

- Clinton did better among people with lower incomes - a demographic more prominent in rural areas, where she polled worse.
- Obama did better among younger voters, usually more concentrated in urban areas, where he polled worse.
- In Iowa, Obama did better in more urban areas than in more rural ones, the opposite of his result in New Hampshire.

Again, however, there could be innocent explanations for all these. The first two involve not only doing well in a particular demographic but just how well, how that demographic is distributed across the state, and the actual numbers of such people who voted - especially bearing in mind that there were more than four times as many machine voters as hand-count voters. And the third could be written off as the difference between a caucus and a primary state and the different organizing tactics for each.

There are two additional points to consider here. One is that FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) pointed out, also on Friday, that this was not the first New Hampshire primary with a seemingly anomalous result.
Right before the [2000 GOP] primary, the New York Times reported (1/30/00) that "a series of polls showed the two Republican front-runners in a dead heat." Given that McCain won by 19 points, journalists and pollsters puzzling over Clinton's showing are ignoring very recent history.
Plus, this year's pre-election polls still had a fair number of undecideds and a rather hefty percentage (in the 20s, if memory serves) who said they could still change their mind. The tendency of pollsters is to assume that all of that will pretty much even out - for example, the undecideds will break down pretty much the way the decideds had. But if they didn't, if the undecideds mostly broke for Clinton and more changed their minds to her than from her, that easily could have made the difference. (That would not be the first time for that, either: Until the final weekend of the 1980 presidential race, polls said Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were neck-and-neck, polling within the margin of error. But the undecideds were in double digits, a remarkably large figure that late in the campaign. Post-election analysis revealed that about 80% of those undecideds went for Reagan, just what it took to create his margin of victory.)

So all of this could be innocent and in fairness, Lindorff does quote Doug Jones, a professor of computer sciences at the University of Iowa who harbors doubts about the security of the Diebold machines used, but still said that "My suspicion is that nothing untoward happened" in this case.

Yet the nagging suspicion remains. Each question may have a legitimate answer, but it's not enough to answer each objection separately, we have to answer all of them simultaneously. Fortunately, there may be a resolution of the matter. Dennis Kucinich has put up the required fee to start a statewide hand recount, something Obama would likely be loath to do for fear of being labeled "a sore loser."
In a letter dated Thursday, [AP reports,] Kucinich said he does not expect significant changes in his vote total, but wants assurance that "100 percent of the voters had 100 percent of their votes counted."
So we can hope to see for (at least pretty) certain if it was the machines or the pollsters who got it wrong.

However - let it be noted that regardless of the outcome in this case, I still have objections to electronic voting, particularly touchscreen voting, and most particularly to this outrage:
The counting of the machine totals, in New Hampshire as in all states using the Diebold machines, is handled by a private contract firm, in this case Massachusetts-based LHS Associates, which controls and programs the machines' memory cards.
The idea that the running and counting of our elections is increasingly being done by private, profit-oriented corporations using proprietary technology that public officials are often not even allowed to examine, much less oversee, is about as offensive, just offensive, an affront to free and open elections as I can imagine. Optical scanners I can accept because there is an actual paper ballot that can be examined if a question arises. Optical scanners in the control of corporate America, I can't. And won't.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');