A critical element of that strategy is to develop a genuinely impartial media. Even if it were shown that votes were not being stolen, media performance has been so defective that American elections cannot be said to be free and fair. Indeed, two former American presidents and several senior members of Congress have indicated that the elections of 2000 and 2004 were not.
When election results come in, how can one know whether they are accurate or not? Computer voting may facilitate fraud, but even paper ballots can be corrupted, as the recent voting scandal in the UK illustrates. A decision to request a recount must often be made within hours of poll closing, based on limited information, and with supporting evidence strong enough to persuade a judge. Political variables often determine whether recounts are obtained: complaints that are not timely or that represent minor or accidental wrongs are often dismissed as sour grapes.
With traditional voting, one can divide strategies of electoral fraud into several classes (electronic balloting eliminates the ballot, and therefore limits the conduct of an audit, but doesn 't substantively change the analysis):
Illegal voting. An unqualified voter may register or a qualified voter may vote more than once. These are examples of illegal voting.
Vote suppression. Officials can suppress voter turnout by applying arcane rules to registration or voting, changing polling places without notice, or assigning too few machines to a precinct. Agents of a candidate, whether official or freelance, can destroy voter registrations, threaten prospective voters, or spread disinformation about voting time or place in their efforts to reduce turnout.
Ballot tampering. Officials and election workers have a rich smorgasbord of methods with which to tamper with ballots. They can destroy or lose ballots, void votes for certain races (for example, by pre-marking a ballot), or substitute fabricated ballots for genuine ballots. Providing ballots that are so poorly printed that voters are unable to correctly select the candidate of choice can also be considered a form of ballot tampering.
Defeating the integrity of the counting machine. Election officials and technicians have the opportunity to tamper with machines used to count ballots. The proper functioning of counting machines requires that pens used on Mark-sense (optical scan) ballots have the right ink, for example. One strategy to corrupt Mark-sense readers might be to align them so that the mark for a certain candidate is not centered where the optical beam will pass. Reading of the ballot will intermittently fail, decreasing the votes for that candidate.
Vote count alteration. A limited number of county officials have access to final tabulations and can therefore manipulate the reported results. With the advent of electronic transmission of election results and computerized databases to store and process election information, the potential for tampering is almost unlimited.
Some of these strategies, of course, can overlap. For example, recent work by Richard Hayes Phillips and Joe Knapp illustrates how the assignment of too few machines to a precinct can both depress the total number of votes (voter suppression) and lead to an increased number of voter errors --which, if employed deliberately, amounts to ballot tampering. The point of differentiating between these strategies is to identify who might have the necessary access to commit fraud and how, in detail, it might have been done.
Illegal voting, which can and does lead to prosecution, does occur. Republicans have complained that Democrats encourage non-citizens or felons disbarred from voting to register and vote. Similarly, Republicans have charged that northerners with southern vacation homes vote in both states, a phenomenon called "snowbird " voting. There is no substantiation of Republican charges that illegal voting is widespread, however. Despite lurid allegations, prosecutions are rare. There is not a shred of evidence to indicate that illegal voting is condoned or promoted by Democrats. For example, a bit of thought might suggest that voters with two homes and the facility to travel between them ( "snowbirds ") are likely to vote conservative, whatever their party registration may be.
Vote suppression is a strategy widely employed by the Republican Party. It is usually deployed primarily against minority voters, which may be why it is very rarely punished. The case of Sproul & Associates is typical. This company, which was paid over a hundred thousand dollars by the Republican Party to gather voter registrations in a number of states, is alleged to have systematically blocked prospective Democrats from registering and destroyed numerous Democratic registration cards. Given the number of separate specific allegations, it is difficult to believe that there was no substance to them, yet courts and the Federal Election Commission have apparently taken no action. Similarly, no one has been punished for the well-documented directives by the Florida Department of Elections ordering county election officials to remove tens of thousands of legal (and disproportionately African American) voters from the rolls in Florida just before the 2000 election.
Tampering with ballots or with counting machines and reporting false election results are criminal acts. An allegation of fraud by these means is serious indeed, and should not be made lightly. The evidence is sufficient to justify a searching investigation of Florida 's elections, though it is not sufficient to sustain an allegation of wrongdoing by any specific individual.
For the most part, charges of fraud by tampering with ballots or counting machines and reporting false results are often regarded as implausible since, at least for a statewide or national race, it is presumed that many people would have to conspire to achieve it. The assumption that a large conspiracy would be needed to steal an election is certainly wrong, in the sense that in elections getting more votes than the opponent is a goal so clear that no overt conspiracy is required. When the goal is widely known, "leaderless resistance " is a common strategy, with a long history among those who oppose equal rights. It would not be surprising if, thanks to residual racism, the worst voting machines ended up in African American precincts. Whether that would amount to electoral fraud or just widespread individual vindictiveness can be debated, but the effect is the same: people are denied the right to choose their leaders.
Furthermore, the Iran-Contra scandal, in which weapons were illegally transferred to an enemy of the United States (Iran) and to terrorists in Central America, shows that conspiracies involving hundreds or thousands of individuals can go on for years without media notice. Iran-Contra might well still be secret had not a freak plane crash brought to light US government involvement. Of course, thanks to the fact that nowadays the publication of probing investigative reporting is just as freakish as light plane crashes, obtaining the political leverage necessary to force timely recounts is hard to come by in presidential races. Without proper auditing, almost anything could happen.
Developing the right auditing tools
There are very few reliable data with which to analyze the results of an election. Statewide, there are exit polls for major candidates, but getting the raw data by precinct is not so easy. The vote count by candidate in each precinct is usually available, though sometimes counties refuse to provide even that data, releasing only countywide totals. The number of registered voters in each precinct is usually known.
Sometimes one can obtain the number of miscast or spoiled votes, either directly or as the difference between the number of voters who showed up at the polls and the total number of votes recorded in a given race. More rarely, one can obtain a breakdown of spoiled votes as overvotes, in which more than one candidate was marked in a given race; or undervotes, in which no vote was read for any candidate. Often there are discrepancies between the sign-in book and the vote count. If there are more votes cast than known voters, the result is phantom votes. Ellen Theisen and Warren Stewart identified over a thousand phantom votes in the 2004 results from New Mexico.
The frustrating reality is that, at least in many states, one is at the mercy of county officials, who choose to release or withhold data as they will, and provide it either in a convenient format such as a spreadsheet or in a format that requires tedious reprocessing or transcription, such as PDF. So, in devising auditing tools, keeping it simple and easy is critical. Fortunately, most strategies of tampering with ballots or counting machines are potentially detectable by simple statistical methods.