Sunday, May 01, 2005

Arguing with LA Times editor about electronic voting lack of coverage

NOTE: LA Times California Editor David Lauter's comments indented
Professor Smartass's comments aren't.

On Apr 25, 2005, at 10:42 AM, Lauter, David wrote:

Think back to what happened on election day: The exit poll starts gathering data first thing in the morning. Round about midday, preliminary results from the still-incomplete exit poll begin to dribble out onto the internet and rapidly get circulated. Those preliminary results showed Kerry leading and got a lot of people excited. Unfortunately, an incomplete exit poll is like a half-baked cake -- not fit for consumption. That's why the pollsters hate it when incomplete results get circulated -- they are often very misleading. (But in the era of the internet, there's not much you can do about that.) As the evening went on, and the poll was finished, the results began to shift and ended up in the other direction -- showing a Bush victory. By then, tho, no one was paying much attention to exit poll numbers because there were real results to look at. So there's this myth that's grown up that the exit polls showed a Kerry victory. They didn't.

The fact that the numbers shifted during the day was a pain in the neck for our reporters (and their colleagues at the NYT and WashPost) who were assigned to write analytical stories. They started the afternoon thinking they might be analyzing a Democratic win, but then, around 5 p.m. (pacific time), had to shift gears as the numbers shifted. But the fact that the polls were inconvenient to reporters (or briefly misleading to people who got incomplete numbers off the internet) isn't a page-one story.
I am a little over 40, so I can remember part of the evolution of this exit poll business. The policy of withholding results was not to make sure they got the numbers right, but as a courtesy to voters who hadn't gotten to the polls yet. Projection were made with fairly small percentages of precincts reporting that turned out to be remarkably, and maddeningly, accurate hence the need for the courtesy gag.

In this case, the shift in Ohio and a couple of other states came pretty late in the day, and the percentage change didn't jibe with the number of votes added to the result a couple of people bothered to take snapshots of the exit poll data on CNN and this is the basis of the concern that forced the exit polling companies to comment.

The after the fact explanation the exit polling companies felt compelled to give was that Republicans didn't talk to pollsters and voted late. In essence, they adjusted their polls to fit the vote count and came up with the explanation after the fact. If it was a Third World country or the Ukraine, we wouldn't consider it a conspiracy theory to say that something seems fishy.

In addition to the results not fitting the exit polls, they didn't fit the pre-election polls which were closer to a dead heat, Bush's job approval rating which barely hovered at 50% (a couple of points lower than his dad when he was defeated), and the tendency of undecided voters to break for the challenger among other things.

I don't recall ever having said that Republicans wouldn't rig an election. Sure some might if they thought it was necessary and they could get away with it. So might some Democrats. (Read Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson's first election to the Senate if you want a well documented example). But conspiracies are much harder to put together (and even harder to hold together) than some writers like to believe. (It's not just a lone programmer who must be bought off for all time, it's also everyone the programmer talked to, the secretaries, the person who decided which precinct to fix and by how much, etc.) That's why historically, rigged elections have usually shown up in one-party areas where one side controlled all the levers of power and could be reasonably assured of immunity from investigation. (south Texas in the Johnson days, south Chicago under the late Mayor Daley, etc.) These days, in part because of the internet, there are many fewer such places, so the risk of exposure is much higher. That doesn't mean it can't happen. It does mean that you should exercise a certain healthy skepticism about claims of conspiracy and expect more in the way of proof than assertions about "Democratic Nebraska."

You have latched on to that Democratic Nebraska thing and ignored the more substantive elements of the story. While reporters have an obligation to get facts like that right, different people have different areas of expertise, and the voting machine story is largely the domain of nerdy number crunchers and computer programmers not political color commentators.

The more relevant part of the story is that Hagel owned the voting machine company that counted his votes. That's like the casino owner playing at his own blackjack table, or a lottery official buying a ticket--you'd be a little suspicious if they won.

The New York Times acknowledged in an editorial that these machines are less stringently regulated than video poker machines, which must have their code inspected while voting machine companies withhold theirs as trade secrets.

I don't doubt that Democrats have or would rig elections, and in heavily democratic states like California, that could be a risk, especially in primaries between a more progressive and a more "business friendly" candidate. Right now though, the Republicans control the White House, the Congress, and the courts. And their friends and allies own the voting machine companies. That should make them the story.

They also have a motive to do so: polls show that race baiting and gay bashing don't play as well with young voters, and the Latinos that they bash every other election cycle are a growing percentage of the population. The GOP has money and corporate America behind them, but a potentially shrinking voter base apart from the religious right. It's not hard to imagine them addressing that problem with tools that have been used very effectively in other parts of the world and often with American help.

I would like to think that it's important to have the most honest voting process possible so the results can't be rigged in anyone's favor. I wouldn't be happy if I was voting on one of those old lever machines either, whoever was hiding behind the curtain counting votes..

It is more than just one programmer, and if you googled any of the major players in electronic voting you would find complaints about reliability as well as criminal and civil court cases. Frankly, the story of that programmer is so on the money, it seems too good to be true, so I am a little leery of it. But the analysis of the code by computer scientists at various universities holds a little more weight, as does seeing an elected official try to vote for herself and have the vote recorded for her opponent on not one but several machines in a row on that brief video clip I sent you.

It's hard to feel like I've been debunked when you read two words of the Scoop article, and ignored the other evidence I sent. At the very least, if it turns out to not be credible, you can make fun of Howard Dean for humoring us kooks who would prefer to have recountable votes.
Finally, there are a lot more efficient ways to skew an election than the highly risky one of trying to rig the count after the fact. Consider, for example, what the GOP is doing right now in Georgia, where Gov. Perdue has pushed a bill thru the legislature to require photo IDs for voting -- a step that he can assert is a "good government" move, but which is likely to disenfranchise thousands of impoverished (mostly black, mostly Democratic) rural voters. That's the real Republican tactic, and all the attention to (mostly vaporous) claims about electronic voting largely distracts attention from it.
I look forward to extensive coverage of this ID issue in the Times.

Why would you call rigging voting machines a conspiracy theory but not this ID thing? When I first heard about it, I thought it was a legitimate concern the GOP had. The racial electoral advantage motive has to be inferred even though it's a reasonable inference.

Why do you want to see this as an either/or question? If someone has no compunction about making it difficult to vote by requiring ID, why wouldn't they resort to other methods? In Florida in 2000, there was clear evidence they did as many as possible: purging blacks from the voter rolls by pretending they were felons, harassing blacks on the way to the polls, and stopping vote counts with mobs of congressional staffers.

There seemed to be little risk to doing this either. It was blacked out of the national media though to the LA Times credit, they did do a page one story on the felon voter purge--in May, well after it could have affected the outcome of the contested election and six months after Greg Palast broke the story. Why was that story delayed by the way? If it was page one material that late, wouldn't it have been even more newsworthy when the outcome was still in play? Can you see how that might look like favoritism toward those in power or worse, cowardice?

Likewise, as I mentioned before, the problems with electronic voting machines here in California got buried in the back pages of the Times and emphasized the pissing match between Shelley and the county clerks rather than the substantive issues while the campaign against Shelley got A1 treatment.

That doesn't sound like much of a risk of exposure, and if I passed our debate about this along to the executives of any voting machine companies or Karl Rove, I doubt that they would be losing any sleep.

I will say this though, what you have written in these emails is more interesting and dramatic than the coverage in the Times.


The GOP still seems to be enamored of their trope of the Democrats as the “nanny” party that tries to protect you from foolishly smoking, driving an SUV or eating mad cow tainted beef instead of letting you figure out these dangers for yourself. Whatever merits this image has, an even more accurate one for the GOP is the schoolyard bully.

As most of us can remember from grade school, the bully takes what he wants from the weak, (your lunch or homework) and gives nothing in return, destroys what he doesn’t understand (the book you were reading or model you brought for show and tell). This translates into cutting funding for schools, healthcare, and veterans to give tax cuts to the rich and defense contracts to their friends.

The bully focuses on the weak. In school, it is the small, shy goofy-looking kids. At home, the GOP used to do this by picking on blacks, which still works to some degree, and Latinos, which works in the Southwest, but as both groups are more accepted, they have moved on to smaller minorities, seemingly less able to fight back, gays and Muslims. They never directly attack someone who could kick their ass like the broad middle class. Instead, they throw spitballs at the back of the middle class’s head, and when they angrily turn to look, the bully points to one of their scapegoats: blacks, Latinos, gays, or those crazy Muslims.

In foreign policy, their victims is countries too small or weak to protect their natural resources, like Iraq, or their people, like Haiti or Central America.

The bully’s friends are other bullies like corporations who want to profit as much as possible by paying as little as possible to workers and countries they take raw materials from and religious leaders who produce nothing but fool the stupid into making them millionaires, berate their followers for sins like divorce that they have committed themselves, and convince them that poverty is the result of sin, contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

Some who are poor and weak worship the bully, not because he helps them in any way, but because they hope to become bullies themselves one day.

When the bully bothers to explain something, it doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t have to. The words are not what’s important, it’s the pounding you’ll get if you don’t do what the bully tells you. We have to privatize Social Security because it’s about to go broke. Does it matter that privatizing Social Security will accelerate drawing down the trust fund? You are some kind of communist or terrorist for even thinking that.

The bully has one set of rules for his friends and another for his victims. If a friend steals billions with shell corporations, he should be fined and forgiven. If a victim steals a slice of pizza, he should go to prison for life. A friend can have “youthful indiscretions” like drug use and adultery until 40 or so, and these should be covered up and smoothed over to prevent any discomfort. If a victim uses drugs, he should have his house and car taken away and be sent to prison to be raped every day until he is 40 or so. A friend can get tired of national guard service and decide to stop showing up. A victim will be hunted down and sent to prison or to patrol in a Humvee in Baghdad.

The one thing a bully fears is the other kids banding together and kicking his ass. He will do anything to stop this. On the playground, he will remind you that your new ally is a gimp, a nigger, or a fag. Actually, that’s exactly what the GOP will do too. But they will also attack the groups most likely to fight effectively like unions, journalists who ask tough questions, and politicians and parties who don’t admire or befriend the bully. In other countries, the corporate bully will go as far as to ban these groups and kill their members and even elected leaders, which seems a bit extreme when someone is just asking for fair wages for picking bananas, or a fair price for their country’s oil.

There is a difference between the schoolyard and the political schoolyard. In the adult world, there is no teacher watching the schoolyard to appeal to. There is just the bullies and the rest of us. Without that adult looming in the background, what would that bully have done to you? That is exactly what is happening to us now, and to the rest of the world because we haven’t put our bully in his place.

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