Almost as deep a secret is that people are doing something about it. In New Mexico, citizen activists, disgusted by systematic vote disappearance, demanded change - and got it.
In Ohio, during the 2004 Presidential election, 153,237 ballots were simply thrown away - more than the Bush "victory" margin. In New Mexico the uncounted vote was five times the Bush alleged victory margin of 5,988. In Iowa, Bush's triumph of 13,498 was overwhelmed by 36,811 votes rejected. The official number is bad enough - 1,855,827 ballots cast not counted, according to the federal government's Elections Assistance Commission. But the feds are missing data from several cities and entire states too embarrassed to report the votes they failed to count.
Correcting for that under-reporting, the number of ballots cast but never counted goes to 3,600,380. Why doesn't your government tell you this?
Hey, they do. It's right there in black and white in a U.S. Census Bureau announcement released seven months after the election - in a footnote. The Census tabulation of voters voting in the 2004 presidential race "differs," it reads, from ballots tallied by the Clerk of the House of Representatives by 3.4 million votes.
This is the hidden presidential count, which, with the exception of the Census's whispered footnote, has not been reported. In the voting biz, most of these lost votes are called "spoilage." Spoilage, not the voters, picked our President for us. Unfortunately, that's not all. In addition to the three million ballots uncounted due to technical "glitches," millions more were lost because the voters were prevented from casting their ballots in the first place. This group of un-votes includes voters illegally denied registration or wrongly purged from the registries.
Joe Stalin, the story goes, said, "It's not the people who vote that count; it's the people who count the votes." That may have been true in the old Soviet Union, but in the USA, the game is much, much subtler: He who makes sure votes don't get counted decides our winners.
In the lead-up to the 2004 race, millions of Americans were, not unreasonably, panicked about computer voting machines. Images abounded of an evil hacker-genius in Dick Cheney's bunker rewriting code and zapping the totals. But that's not how it went down.
The computer scare was the McGuffin, the fake detail used by magicians to keep your eye off their hands. The principal means of the election heist - voiding ballots - went unexposed, unreported and most importantly, uncorrected and ready to roll out on a grander scale next time
Like a forensic crime scene investigation unit, we can perform a post mortem starting with the exhumation of more than three million uncounted votes:
- Provisional Ballots Rejected. An entirely new species of ballot debuted nationwide in 2004: the "provisional ballot." These were crucial to the Bush victory. Not because Republicans won this "provisional" vote. They won by rejecting provisional ballots that were cast overwhelmingly in Democratic precincts. The sum of "the uncounted" is astonishing: 675,676 ballots lost in the counties reporting to the federal government. Add in the missing jurisdictions and the un-vote climbs to over a million: 1,090,729 provisional ballots tossed out.
- Spoiled Ballots. You vote, you assume it's counted. Think again. Your "x" was too light for a machine to read. You didn't punch the card hard enough and so you "hung your chad." Therefore, your vote didn't count and, crucially, you'll never know it. The federal Election Assistance Commission toted up nearly a million ballots cast but not counted. Add in states too shy to report to Washington, the total "spoilage" jumps to a rotten 1,389,231.
- Absentee Ballots Uncounted. The number of absentee ballots has quintupled in many states, with the number rejected on picayune technical grounds rising to over half a million (526,420) in 2004. In swing states, absentee ballot shredding was pandemic.
- Voters Barred from Voting. In this category we find a combination of incompetence and trickery that stops voters from pulling the lever in the first place. There's the purge of "felon" voters that continues to eliminate thousands whose only crime is VWB - Voting While Black. It includes subtle games like eliminating polling stations in selected districts, creating impossible lines. No one can pretend to calculate a hard number for all votes lost this way any more than you can find every bullet fragment in a mutilated body. But it's a safe bet that the numbers reach into the hundreds of thousands of voters locked out of the voting booth.
The test kitchen
But do these un-votes really turn the election? Voters from both parties used provisional or absentee ballots, and the machines can't tell if a hanging chad is Democratic or Republican, right? Not so. To see how it works, we went to New Mexico.