Thursday, November 09, 2006

One Person, one vote, but how many fixes?

Books I am Reading.
Review from Tribune 3 November

One person, one vote, but how many fixes?
Ian Williams

You Can buy these books here - and help the site
Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? Exit polls, election fraud and the official count. Steven Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, Seven Stories Press

Stealing Democracy: the new politics of voter suppression, Spencer Overton, W.W. Norton.

What counts is not who votes -it's who counts them. That was old saw of Tammany Hall, whose spirit is alive and well in the US.
Last week, New York's Sullivan County responded to my attempt to register to vote with a demand for a photocopy of my driving license, or the last four digits of my social security number, before it would put me on the electoral roll. The experience gives some hint of why only some 70% of Americans eligible to vote are actually on the electoral registers. A driving license, access to a photocopier, even the motivation to get a 39 cent stamp and stick it on the envelop, all help winnow out poor and disadvantaged voters.

Spencer Overton goes on to detail how many of those who make it onto the register do not make it to the polls, while Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss show that even if they do, their opinions may well end up being ignored.

These books deal with two sets of problems with American democracy. One is the question of access to the polls-and the second dealt with by Freeman and Bleifuss is what happens if and when the votes are cast. Interestingly, neither of them bother with the third, the financial barriers that now make it almost impossible for anyone not a multi--millionaire, or at least backed by multimillionaires, to become a successful candidate.

But even without dealing with the money that is at the root of much of the feebleness of American democracy, these authors tell chilling tales. Federalism in the US means that there are over 4,600 sets of election regulations nationwide - and many of them were drawn up with Jim Crow

There are great traditions of making voting difficult for political undesirables, and many of the skills honed during the years of Tammany Hall and Jim Crow have been adapted to the modern age of computers and statistics. Spencer Overton considers them all, in a very low-key way. Like many Americans, he assumes the democratic infallibility of the Constitution. He does not mention the Senate, which gives two seats each to huge states like California, and New York, and also to tiny patches like Wyoming and Rhode Island, let alone the Electoral College with its similar bias against large industrial states.

His concern is obstacles to voting, which are indeed a big enough subject in themselves. In Florida and other states, a sentenced felon is off the rolls for ever, a relic of the days when being Black was an arrestable offence in the old Confederacy, and still effective in cutting down the Democratic vote. Across the country, local governments torn between keeping incumbents in office indefinitely, and eliminating as many of the opposition's seats as possible, draw up electoral districts epitomizing the great traditions that added gerrymander to English. Using paranoid-but almost completely unsubstantiated fears of fraudulent voters-mainly Republican local governments make it hard to register and then to vote, knowing that those they repel will be poor, uneducated - and Democratic supporters.

Poor and black districts get few voting booths and machines, and voters face intimidating challenges, ranging from voting day police spot checks on drivers in Florida to lawyers in New York. In the 2004 elections in Ohio, the state that won the election for George W. Bush, black voters had to wait hours in the rain -- only to discover that their ballots would not be counted for a variety of spurious bureaucratic excuses invented by the Republican official responsible for conducting the vote. Poll hours and locations are determined by partisan officials, who will adjust them to deter or encourage whichever groups will give the results desired. And then there the mysterious spurious phone calls and leaflets cancelling the election or moving the polling station that are part of the Republican apparatus of "voter suppression."

When the votes are counted is where Overton overlaps with Freeman and Bleifuss. Without the stridency of the conspiracy theorists, but with considerably more assiduity than many in the media, they examine the evidence of the 2004 elections. As Woody Allen said, just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't following me. There is an immense amount of paranoia, from both the left and the right, in the US, but there is also much more dangerous amount of complacency and deference from the media.

Although on election day exit polls showed a clear lead in key states for Kerry, as the official count was tabulated, it was converted into a lead for Bush. The exit polls are not common or garden opinion polls. Thousands of voters in each state are approached on their way out of the polling booths and asked who they voted for. Paid for by a consortium of media outlets, they are highly accurate, not least since they do not assess intentions, but record facts. The US has used exit polls o challenge election results in places like Ukraine and Georgia. Because of three hour time difference between East and West coast, the pollsters have a moratorium on releasing their findings, since it was claimed that calling the results based on East Coast results would stop westerners voting.

Later on election night in 2004, the exit poll figures were "adjusted" to coincide with the declared results, but accidentally the unadjusted poll numbers were posted on CNN's website and downloaded as the day went on. The authors, perhaps wisely, do not go deeply into the motivation - whether the pollsters were conscious abettors of fraud, or just trying to cover their professional rears in the face of an unprecedented discrepancy. In any case, they skewer the official excuses made later.

Freeman and Bleifuss and others subjected the discrepancies to exhaustive statistical analysis. The states where the biggest discrepancies occurred were those under Republican control, and where electronic voting machines had been used. The makers of these machines, coincidentally, were in many cases Republican donors themselves, and refused to allow scrutiny of their software. They do not usually leave any kind of paper trail, so a recount will always produce whatever count has been programmed in.

There is plenty of ground for suspicion, but as the authors say, the US media has a Catch 22, it will not investigate without proof - handed on a plate, and anyone who investigates is ipso facto a paranoid kook. Why didn't the Dems make more fuss? Well for one, they were not entirely innocent themselves - JFK's victory scarcely bore scrutiny. Sadly, America's chattering classes are shocked, shocked, at the very thought that anyone could question the integrity of a government that lied its way into Iraq, runs secret prisons, has done away with judicial process on wiretaps and tortures people kidnapped from around the world. Trust in a government is stretched to credulity when it is extended to a party which staged riots in Florida to stop the vote being counted in 2000, and then used a packed Supreme Court to discard the Republican shibboleth of states rights to declare Bush the winner, without counting the Florida votes.

Reading these books, one cannot help feeling that if Venezuela ran an election like this, the US would be calling for international teams to monitor them. Of course, even British politicians, whether it was by building council homes - or selling them, tried to influence elections with the type of social gerrymandering, that I often suspect motivated Margaret Thatcher more than ideology. The poll-tax meant that many natural (old) Labour voters made themselves scarce when the electoral registers were drawn up, and one cannot help but wonder at the effect of expensive ID cards if they are demanded before voters can cast ballots.

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