Big Sort

Which Side Is Trying To Steal the Election? The Other One.

My wife coined the term prespiracy to describe a conspiracy that had not yet occurred. It’s a future conspiracy imagined into reality.

Well, the prespiracies have started. Republicans are convinced ACORN has hijacked the election by registering legions of Democratic voters (all named Mickey Mouse).

Not wanting to be out-prespiracied, People for the American Way bought a full page in the New York Times with a 125-point, single-word headline: “Fraud.” The liberal-leaning group warned that Republicans were attempting to “suppress the vote” with efforts “which are well under way.”

Predictions of another Rove-inspired election coup resonate among Democrats. My Democratic neighborhood’s Internet newsgroup was buzzing last week with stories about jimmied-with Diebold voting machines, easily hacked vote-counting programs, and tales about how the last two presidential contests had been swiped.

(How liberal is my ‘hood? Well, interspersed with last week’s election banter was a long-running conversation about how a neighbor should “live-trap” rats that had invaded her house so that they could be relocated. Rats, like cats, we learned, have an ability to find their way back home, so the rodent-friendly neighbor’s initial question concerned the distance one needed to transport the vermin before it was safe to give them their rightful freedom.)

Both sides are front-loading conspiracies a week before the vote, apparently in order to make sure next week’s election will lack legitimacy for at least half the country. (Maybe 40 percent, given John McCain’s current standing.) Nobody wants to end Election Day with the simple admission “We lost.”

I’m from Kentucky, so I know about buying votes. It happens. The mayor of Pineville, Ky., was indicted this fall for trading money and drugs for votes. (Pills have replaced a traditional half pint.) The mayor’s son has already pleeded guilty. Votes were going for $10 to $20 a pop. A few years ago, across the mountain in Virginia, votes were going for sacks of pork rinds .

But before everyone goes totally over the edge about theft of the presidency, now might be a good time to revisit ‘04, an election many Ds still believe was pirated. The evidence of this theft comes from the exits polls, which were quite different from the final results. The exits showed Kerry winning by three percentage points. He didn’t, of course—he lost by 2.5 percent in official returns—and the discrepancy between what became seen as the scientific certainty of exit polls and the messiness of a full vote count set off a thousand stories about stolen ballots.

The botched exit poll was a mystery, and so Edison/Mitofsky, the outfit that conducted the Election Day survey, set off to discover where things went astray. What they found was a country that has more to fear from division, distrust, and partisanship than election fraud.

The primary reason the exit polls in 2004 were screwy was that Republicans didn’t want to talk to exit poll workers. Bush supporters especially refused to talk to younger exit poll workers with graduate degrees, according to the final report from Edison/Mitofsky. (No, the poll-takers didn’t wear their degrees on their chests, like Boy Scout merit badges. In our culture, apparently, you can pick out the well-educated on sight.) More Kerry voters talked to poll-takers, and so the results skewed Democratic. The official report didn’t speculate on why Republicans skirted the exit pollers, except to say that “in this election voters were less likely to complete questionnaires from younger interviewers.”

Republicans may have also been put off by the network-news insignia carried on the poll-takers’ clipboards. That’s not too far fetched. The Pew Research Center found that Republicans had grown more distrustful of all media over the last decade. Republicans were less willing than Democrats to talk to exit poll workers from “television networks,” according to one Fox News poll.

(This story doesn’t end so easily. Here is a response to the Edison/Mitofsky report. Meanwhile, Mark Hertsgaard in Mother Jones was not convinced the election was stolen.) 

The likely answer to the 2004 election hubbub is that the breakdown in the exit poll wasn’t mechanical or criminal. It was cultural. The exit poll was fouled up because some people refused to talk to those they believed had a different political persuasion. And they thought they could tell their political opponents just by looking.

The failures of voting machines are a continuing headache. We all wonder why cash machines spit out greenbacks almost flawlessly but electronic ballot boxes seem to work no better than Crackerjack toys. But constructing a ballot machine that accurately counts votes is a problem with a fix.

It’s tougher to mend a culture in which political opponents accept as a given that the other side will steal votes, a culture that is so divided that people refuse to talk to fellow citizens just because they look like they might be voting for the opposing party and where no election result is ever final.