“More men have been elected between sundown and sunup than ever were elected between sunup and sundown.” – Will Rogers
I cast my ballot for the 2012 presidential election today and I have no idea where it went or if it even exists. If I go on Amazon.com and buy a Keurig coffee maker, I will receive an e-mail confirming my purchase, another e-mail listing the item’s shipping details and a final e-mail informing me as to when it has left Amazon’s vast warehouse of consumer goodies. If I’m feeling particularly anal-retentive and detail-oriented, I can even use a UPS shipping tracker to make sure I know exactly where my bundle of caffeinated joy is on it’s journey to my apartment. When I go to exercise my democratic right to vote for my representatives in government, I walk away with a sticker.
The precinct that I went to for early voting here in Howard County, Maryland used the Diebold Accuvote TSX voting machine. These machines, which are used throughout most of Maryland, are known as Direct Recording Electronic voting systems (DREs) and are the only method of voting available to about 1/3 of all Americans in the 2012 elections. The machine itself operates much like an ATM. Voters are provided with electronic voting smart cards, which they insert into a touch-screen based machine that looks like the ancient, oversized relative of an ipad before casting their votes and handing the card back to a poll worker. In Maryland and in 16 other states1, a large chunk of voters will cast these electronic ballots with no paper trail by which they can verify how their votes are tallied. Three of these states, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, will likely decide who becomes our nation’s next president. To quote Boss Tweed, “As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?”
Right about now would be the time where skeptics and blind devotees to our remarkably flawed electoral system accuse me and my like-minded, left-leaning fellows of being paranoid conspiracy theorists. That’s all well and good except for the fact that the history of American politics is simply a record of the evolution of electoral fraud and vote rigging. It is a practice that knows no party affiliation and is as deeply engrained in the fiber of our republic as Manifest Destiny and the triple bacon cheeseburger. Back in the good ole days of Tammany Hall, the Democratic war machine headed up by men like Boss Tweed and Big Tim Sullivan turned voter fraud into an art form, elevating graft to new heights and winning elections so lopsidedly that sometimes the other candidate would come out without so much as one vote from an entire ward. It was the populist king and Southern Democrat Huey Long who famously said that he could frighten or buy 99 out of every 100 men and it was LBJ who won his first seat in the US Senate courtesy of a Democratic runoff primary in which he overcame a 20,000 vote deficit with the help of some “newly discovered” and overwhelmingly pro-Johnson precincts to win by just 87 votes.
Watergate that marked a sea change in the ways that electoral fraud manifested itself in American politics. Gone were the days of taking stiffs to the barber for a shave and a haircut in the middle of the afternoon so they could double-dip for your candidate. Over the course of the 20th century it became harder and harder to commit electoral fraud through voters themselves, especially at the national level, and politicians had to find new avenues of rigging the game in their favor. It’s one thing to organize mobs of repeat voters in a couple of New York City wards or tamper with vote counts in southwest Texas, but it’s nothing compared to the Herculean task of swindling an entire nation of 300+ million people.
Now, if you’re not going to bribe and bully voters into pulling the lever for your man, there are really only three ways of fixing the situation to meet your needs. The first is to suppress the voters who you know will vote overwhelmingly for the other guy. This has been the tactic that has been most widely reported on in this election with various voting ID laws popping up across the country in states with Republican controlled legislatures that are designed to disproportionally effect groups that traditionally vote Democratic, like minorities and the poor. If voter suppression doesn’t work or isn’t plausible, then politicians often fall back on manipulating voters into supporting their candidate. Nixon was the crown prince of this black art, creating the art of “rat fucking” during the 1972 presidential elections. This type of fraud can take a thousand different forms, from making cold calls to potential voters spreading falsehoods about your opponent to sending operatives into opposition rallies to purposely disrupt the proceedings. When Democratic challenger George McGovern picked Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton to be his running mate in the summer of ’72, the Nixon campaign anonymously released medical records to the press detailing Eagleton’s struggles with depression and his participation in electroshock therapy to try and cure his mental illness. More than anything, this sunk McGovern’s chances of making the race competitive and assured Nixon comfortable road to a second term.
The last method of electoral manipulation is as old as democracy itself, but has been infused with new life by advances in technology. With the switch from a system using paper ballots to one that predominantly uses computers for voting, it has become staggeringly easy for one individual to change the course of an entire election with a few keystrokes. For instance, do you remember those Direct Recording Electronic voting systems I was talking about? Well, the Vulnerability Assessment Team at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois has found that these machines can be easily hacked with just $10.50 in parts and an 8th grade science education. And, since there is no paper trail on many of these machines, there is absolutely no way of checking to find any evidence of fraud.
During the 2004 election, exit polling predicted Democratic nominee John Kerry to win the state of Ohio, and by extension the election, by a margin of 52.1% to 47.9% (+4.2% Kerry)2. Miraculously, by 1:20 the next morning, the vote tallies showed Bush with a comfortable 51% to 48.5% lead in the Buckeye State. While not a statistical impossibility, it is highly improbable such a massive swing would occur between exit polling and the final vote count. An analysis of German national elections from 1994-2002 shows an average differential between exit polls and official results of 0.26% and most studies of exit polling find them to be very reliable. For Bush to make an epic comeback in Ohio alone would have been one thing, but this pattern played itself out in 10 out of 11 battleground states in 2004. In addition to the 6.7% shift in Ohio, there were differentials between exit polling and official vote counts of 4.9% and 6.5% in Florida and Pennsylvania. The statistical probability of those three states seeing pro-Bush swings of that size in the same election is about 1 in 660,000.
I could inundate you with statistics about he implausibility of the 2004 election until your eyes bled, but if you aren’t inclined to consider the possibility of widespread electoral tampering by this point, then you’ve probably already stopped reading3. But, even if you think I’m a tinfoil hat-wearing pinko who spends his free time analyzing the Zapruder film and reading blogs about Area 51, I just want you to digest this: there is a good chance that your vote is controlled by a private company that has no legal obligation to disclose what they do with it and where it ends up. Much has been made in left-leaning circles about the fact that Solamere Capital, an equity fund run by Tagg Romney, has made substantial investments in a firm called H.I.G. Capital, which happens to own a majority stake in the company Hart Intercivic, which owns the electronic voting machines in Ohio and several other states. The idea that Mitt Romney’s son might steal the election for his father through his financial interest in Hart makes for a grabbing headline, but it misses the broader point. You don’t need to run a equity fund that indirectly controls a voting machine company in order to rig an election. All you need is the ability to sneak into a school basement and plant a few dollars worth of electronics in a voting machine.
1The following states solely use DREs with no paper trail: Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana. These states contain a mixture paper ballots and DREs with no paper trail: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, Texas. These states have a combination of paper ballots and DREs both with and without paper trails: Arkansas, Mississippi, Colorado, Kansas. https://www.verifiedvoting.org/verifier/
3If you’re interested in reading more about the history of election tampering in America, pick up the latest issue of Harper’s for Victoria Collier’s cover story, “How to Rig and Election” or check out this article by The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/think-the-florida-recount-was-bad-just-wait-until-november-6/263901/