By Josh Mitteldorf, Ph.D.
Are votes in American elections being counted fairly and accurately? In an open democracy worthy of the name, this should not be a question for forensic science, but in 21st century America, that’s just what it is. The United States is unique in the developed world in counting votes with proprietary software that has been ruled a trade secret, not open to inspection, even by local officials whose responsibility it is to administer elections. As we have learned, there is stiff resistance to looking at the ballots with human eyes which might offer a check on the computers. So we are left looking at statistics and anecdotes, trying to determine whether vote counts are honest and reliable. The evidence does not inspire confidence. But whatever you think of the evidence, there is no justification for a system without the possibility of public verification.
Part 1: Background
Many readers of ScienceBlog know me for the Aging Matters blog and Aging Advice web pages. I am a mathematical biologist, author of a recent book on the evolution of aging. Since the 2004 election, I have also been a statistician in the election integrity movement, a loose network of journalists, academics, lawyers, and interested citizens who share information about problems in America’s electoral system, and try to bring our findings to legislators and the press.
But neither major party in the U.S. is interested in questioning the vote counts that maintain them in office. From one perspective, this is not surprising, since they are the incumbents, who, by definition, have done well under the existing system.
From another vantage, however, it is puzzling that the Democrats have not made an issue of the present system, because there is evidence that, in the 21st century, it is overwhelmingly Republicans that have benefited from the nation’s shaky electoral machinery. There is a long and sordid history of vote theft in America, going back to the Colonial era; from Jim Crow to strong-arm union tactics to ballot box stuffing, all sides have worked the system to their own advantage, wherever they felt they could get away with it.
For example, in 1948, Lyndon Johnson overcame a 20,000-vote deficit to win the Democratic primary by 87 votes after supporters “found” a box of votes — alphabetized and using the same handwriting and the same ink — all cast for him. NYTimes Review of vol 2 of Robert Caro’s 3-volume biography of LBJ
But the dynamic fundamentally shifted after the Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated nationwide computerization. No longer has it been necessary to steal one vote at a time; with a few lines of software, the vote count can in theory be tilted in whole regions of the country, tilting the vote count to any desired degree, limited only by the public’s willingness to question the plausibility of the outcome. There are strong indications that this has occurred and that skewing of the vote count is so commonplace that the methodology of professional pollsters has been adjusted to adapt to it with their weighting algorithms. Polling companies calibrate their predictive success by using the officially reported vote counts as an unquestioned point of reference. Political polling has adopted a generally Republican tilt. [documented by Jonathan Simon]
Between the Rob Georgia fiasco in 2002 and the stolen 2004 election, there was a flurry of concern in the mainstream press. Ronnie Dugger at The Nation and Paul Krugman at the New York Times wrote detailed analyses. But afterward, the newspapers and broadcast media of the liberal establishment, which science-minded citizens regularly count on for an enlightened picture of the world, have been silent or even dismissive on this issue. Since last month’s U.S. presidential election, a window has cracked open, and a glimmer of light has shined in an area of darkness. Reporting has been partial and inconsistent and sometimes biased, but a question has been asked that has long been off-limits: Is someone tampering with the computers that count our votes?
This part of the story is reported freely
Polls on American political attitudes reveal a divergence between what the people want and what our elective representatives deliver. The people want peace (General Eisenhower heard us 60 years ago.) The people want to preserve species and are willing to pay taxes and increased product costs in order to avoid damaging fragile ecologies. The people want a transition from oil and coal to renewable energy, and the people favor robust institutions for public education and public health. In none of these areas is Congress responding to the will of the electorate. Congressional approval ratings are in the 20% range. How does a body of legislators so unrepresentative of mainstream America maintain itself in office from one election cycle to the next?
The mainstream American press routinely dismisses populist ideas, treating the majority of the public as a fringe of dreamers.
Other parts of the answer are openly discussed. The U.S. Senate and the electoral college are structured to offer enhanced representation to the sparsely populated states where, incidentally, gun rights and fundamentalist Christian values are high priorities. People with progressive values and voting patterns are tightly clustered in urban areas that vote 80-90% Democratic, whereas large stretches of rural America are 55-65% Republican. This distribution provides a natural gerrymandering that decreases progressive representation in Congress. Building on this foundation, many state legislatures have imposed precision, computerized gerrymandering that efficiently bundles Democratic voters in a small number of Congressional districts, leaving a much larger number of districts with thin but reliable Republican majorities. (This was an early Karl Rove initiative, and it has proven devastatingly effective.) In my native Pennsylvania, the electorate is 48% D vs 38% R, but our Congressional delegation has 5 D’s vs 13 R’s.
That campaign spending tilts politics toward corporate interests is widely known and openly discussed.
Vote suppression is another open secret. Private companies have been hired to purge the state voter lists aggressively, and on flimsy grounds. It is (statistically) less convenient for Democrats to vote than for Republicans. There are longer lines and voting machine shortages. Voter ID laws are justified on the grounds that they protect the election from non-citizen immigrants trying to vote. But the legislators who are promoting these laws know full well that such laws exclude many more legitimate than illegitimate voters. The ghost of imagined “voter fraud” is a well-promoted myth, while the very real possibility of insider “election fraud” is a taboo topic.