Many of us feel a new apprehension going into this election: Not that our favored candidates might lose the election, but that the winner may not be the candidate who received the most votes. Citizens are out in front of both political parties on this issue: 72% of respondents in a recent Gallup poll lacked confidence that their votes would be counted faithfully.
For many of us, awareness that there was a thumb on the scale of our elections began with the debacle of Bush vs Gore in 2000. This scenario, involving 537 votes and a Supreme Court decision, was so bizarre and so improbable, that it was easy to dismiss as an isolated anomaly. Then Congress sped into action, enacting the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), and the problem was supposed to be solved.
But questions about our voting procedures have mushroomed in the intervening years. In 2002, Georgia granted a contract to Diebold to control and implement every aspect of election operations. The election appeared to run smoothly enough, but two popular Democratic incumbents lost their seats in eye-popping upsets (Governor Roy Barnes and Senator Max Cleland). A year later, an unsecured Diebold web site turned up a computer folder named "Rob Georgia". Details of this story have been documented by Bev Harris of Black Box Voting and Robert F. Kennedy Jr, in a Rolling Stone article this fall.
In the 2004 election, exit polls indicated a decisive victory for Kerry, even as Bush won the official count. An impressive array of dirty tricks was used to suppress the Democratic vote in Ohio, documented in exquisite detail by John Conyers's Congressional Report.
Meanwhile, the Federal Justice Department has used HAVA as a blunt instrument, suing states to adopt unverifiable voting technologies. The machines that count our votes are special-purpose computers, loaded by their manufacturers with programs that are kept secret from the governments that purchase them, and from the public. We are asked to trust these machines to count our votes, but there is no oversight or verification, no way for us to know whether the machines have been programmed honestly and competently.
Prompted by HAVA, several area counties have adopted the new technologies. Chester County will be trying out new iVotronic machines, the same type that was programmed to disregard all straight party Democratic votes in Cumberland County last year. Delaware and Bucks have recently switched to Danaher machines, like the ones used in Philadelphia. It was Danaher machines that selectively lost thousands of Native American votes in New Mexico, probably supplying Bush's margin of victory there in 2004.
In this context, it is some comfort to know that a group of local election reform activists will be conducting an independent check on the accuracy of the election system. They will be monitoring two closely-contested suburban elections with exit polls and telephone surveys.
The project is being run by Professor Steve Freeman of Penn, and mathematician Stephanie Singer from Haverford. Freeman wrote the original article that publicized the exit poll controversy after the 2004 election, and his book titled Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen came out this past June. The two have teamed up with Kenneth Warren, a pollster of national renown and twenty years experience.
The Vote Count Protection Project (http://electionintegrity.org) began with the classic paradigm of the TV exit poll, used for the past forty years to predict election outcomes. From there, they have optimized the design to be sensitive to miscounts or outright fraud. Interviewers will be sited at 25 precincts throughout Chester, Berks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Their design has the advantage that the results can be compared not to the overall election tally but to the local results from exactly the precinct where the poll was conducted.
Freeman and Singer are committed to openness and transparency. Their methodology will be described in detail on the project's public web page, and their analysis will be posted along with a complete set of raw data.
Similar projects are being planned in California, in Ohio, Florida and elsewhere around the country. Small groups of citizens are organizing volunteers to do exit polling and post-election telephone polling, creating a measure of independent oversight that will offer an indication of this election's honesty.
This project has the potential to help restore our confidence that our election systems are still working as we have taken for granted that they do - or else to point the way to the kind of reforms needed to restore our confidence.