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Interview: Professor Steven F. Freeman on Vote Manipulation In America

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With the 2006 Midterm elections just weeks away, many progressives have expressed a fear possible manipulation of the vote by conservative republicans. Hundreds of scholarly articles and semi-scientific studies have been published this year alone which take a hard look at elections presidential exit polling and the technology used to record votes.

Steven Freeman, a Visiting Scholar and Affiliated Faculty in the Center for Organizational Dynamics at University of Pennsylvania, and co-author Joel Bleifuss, editor of In These Times Magazine, recently published Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count on Seven Stories Press. The book is a fascinating analysis of election polling, and the flawed Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines deployed in several states with funds provided by the 2001 Help America Vote Act. I interviewed Professor Freeman by phone and on the internet.

Larry Sakin: In the first chapter of your book, Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? President Bush seems very worried about the election outcome. If the Republicans stole the election, why would Bush be so concerned?

Steve Freeman: Good question. We included this anecdote because it happened on Election Day, involved exit polls, President Bush, was well sourced, and consistent with other evidence (e.g., we confirmed that Election Day broadcasts in the critical battleground state of Florida were in fact cancelled). Throughout the book we tried to present all relevant data whether it directly supported our main findings or seemed to contradict them.

A reader might infer that the anecdote suggests that the Bush/Cheney campaign did not steal the election or that if they did, George Bush did not know about it. On the other hand, it also indicates that the president, who is after all a highly seasoned politician, was deeply concerned about the exit polls. Most of all, the story brings us back to Election Day 2004, when it seemed clear that, of course, the exit polls and corollary indicators (high turnout, low approval ratings) were right. All knowledgeable observers understood it. Tony Blair went to bed believing that Kerry had won. Even George Bush understood it. Our source's account suggests that Bush was furious because he had been assured that he would win. He may not have understood, forgotten, or been temporarily confused he was going to win*despite* the exit polls and corollary indicators, indeed despite how people cast their ballots.

The source was equally clear that his political operative Karl Rove calmly assured him everything would be okay. And this is consistent with other reports. Despite widespread Election Day predictions that Kerry had won, the Bush/Cheney campaign team remained highly confident. According to reports from their campaign headquarters, this confidence was based on their "on-the-ground intelligence," the details of which have never been explained.


Sakin: You write extensively about the long poll lines and lack of voting machines in heavily Democratic areas in various places across the country. What measures can voter integrity activists take to counteract these problems?

Freeman: There is clear evidence that Ken Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State, held voting machines in warehouses to create long lines in Democratic strongholds. Blackwell is now running for Governor, while continuing to serve as Secretary of State; in other words, he's overseeing the counting of votes in his own election.
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I'd like to note though, that in my analyses, I have *not* dwelt at length on long poll lines and lack of voting machines in heavily Democratic areas. In the book, we do document these instances in part to show what the Bush/Cheney campaign did to manipulate results and Democratic weakness in standing up for their constituencies. But many elections have been manipulated through obstacles to registration, differential treatment of absentee ballots by county and demographic group, artificially long lines and other voting mishaps in poor precincts, and disproportionate vote "spoilage," wherein poor precincts can "lose" ten percent or more of the votes that are cast despite these other obstacles. Unfortunately, these obstacles and inequities have been institutionalized in our system. So successful are vote suppression efforts that the US ranks # 139 out of 172 nations in the world in Federal election turnout, below such hotbeds of democracy such as Burma/Myanmar and the Central African Republic. Moreover, this ranking is based on turnout; recall that in the US about 2% of ballots cast are also lost; if it were a ranking based on percentage of votes counted, the US would rank even lower yet.


When I have asked whether the election was stolen, I am not talking about these suppressed votes. If the election were won through such tactics, it would be unjust and undemocratic and even unprecedented in scale of sophistication, but not new. If such were the case, we might simply say that the Bush/Cheney campaign "stole it fair and square" because such tricks are part of the game, and that Democrats are complicit because for decades such tricks have helped white and "moderate" Democrats win primary battles and maintain control of the party.

What we are saying is they did not steal it fair and square. Rather, that even by the rules of the game, which amount to something like a hockey game played on a 15 degree incline, Bush/Cheney still couldn't win; and that had the votes been counted as cast, Kerry would have won the presidency with something on the order of a six million vote plurality. In short, the official count is off by something on the order of nine million votes!

What can be done? Activists at the local level can advocate for more voting machines in their precincts. But that is not enough. Unless we can ensure that votes are counted as cast, efforts at ensuring the right to vote are cruelly in vain. Paper ballots not only provide a measure of integrity, they remove the expense that is the excuse for shortages. Paper ballots provide an audit trail to check the integrity of the machine count and permit a manual count as necessary. And paper ballots, whether counted manually or by optical scan machines, are far less costly than Direct Record Electronic (DRE) machines.

Direct Record Electronic (DRE) machines are almost universally opposed by computer scientists. As anyone who has read my book, Bev Harris' reporting in Black Box Voting, or recent studies from NYU, Princeton, and John Hopkins Universities will understand, voting on DRE machines is a "faith-based" exercise. Moreover, the companies to whom we entrust the count have done nothing to justify any faith whatsoever. In fact, it was just the opposite.
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Where despite all logic, evidence, and expert counsel, DRE machines are used anyway, voters should demand absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are far from ideal - traditionally, they are the most common source of election fraud. Such ballots have been cavalierly lost, rejected, and discarded in Florida and elsewhere. Absentee ballots also obviate some verification measures such as Election Day turnout, exit polls and general activity. But they are the lesser of two evils.


Sakin: You make a [case] for the accuracy of exit polling, but many well regarded pollsters have publicly disagreed with the idea that exit polling as an absolute measure for predicting election results. Why is there such a wide chasm of thought on this issue?

Freeman: There is not a wide chasm of thought on this issue among well regarded pollsters. Most respected pollsters would concur that exit polls properly conducted will closely mirror how voters do, in fact, cast their ballots.

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www.mytown.ca/sakin
Larry Sakin is a former non-profit medical organization executive and music producer. His writing can be found on Mytown.ca, Blogcritics, OpEd News, The People's Voice, Craig's List and The Progressive magazine. He also advocates for literacy and (more...)
 

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