Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Permanent Republican Majority, Election Fraud, & Our Democracy


For a variety of reasons, I have fallen behind in submitting my next blog post: first laid low by a pesky stomach virus; then royally entertained by a visit from granddaughter Tallulah and her parents; finally concerned about being perceived as some crazy conspiracy theorist because of my topic. But now, I put these excuses aside and launch, or maybe lurch, on.

The Post: 

One recurring echo from the last decade has been a reference to the creation of a “permanent Republican majority,” a phrase attributed to Karl Rove. Rove has denied using the word “permanent,” instead recalling his use of the word “durable.” But even if Rove’s phrasing has been misinterpreted by the many commentators writing about a “creation of a permanent Republican majority,” Rove, better than most of us, knows how the mere repetition of a statement enough times helps it attain a status similar to truth.

My interest lies not in the source of this phrase, however, but in its implication for our democracy. When there are only two viable political parties, as is the case in our country, the attempt to kill one or to make one irrelevant threatens democracy itself.

There is no way for a country as diverse as ours to thrive under a single, dominant party, and we all should take comfort in the regularity with which the party out of power gains seats during mid-term elections. We may not like it, as we see our favored party lose seats, but, almost like breathing itself, these electoral “readjustments” are dynamic indicators of a healthy political balance.

But what if some Republicans have actually accepted the “truthiness” of a permanent majority? How would they accomplish it? The most obvious answer would be through election manipulation. And because this past decade has provided us with several prominent examples of questionable elections, along with a new system of casting votes, we can wonder if some Americans are not, indeed, attempting to manipulate a majority through election fraud.

We expect and accept certain forms of electoral manipulation. Gerrymandering, or the redrawing of electorate boundaries usually to favor the group in power, happens all the time. Manipulation of demography, in which a group is moved into a district in order to affect its vote, or denied the vote because of no fixed address (as with students) is also quite common. Disenfranchisement (done in a myriad of ways), voter intimidation, vote buying, misinformation, or misleading ballot papers unfortunately also are commonplace.

All of these violate our democratic principles to some extent and, in an ideal world, would not exist. Any of them may even skew an election. But, because they all are fairly transparent--people witness them, report them, and even investigate them--we have some confidence that we can adjust and insulate future elections from their effects. In a sense, this activity of adjustment, too, is part of our democratic process.

On the other hand, more heinous mechanisms of voting manipulation, such as ballot stuffing, mis-recording of votes, or the destruction of ballots, are activities that we--or certainly I--consider completely undemocratic and rare in American politics.

Rare, at least, until this last decade. The Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were characterized by irregularities and disputes that have badly stained American democracy, and the introduction of electronic voting machines (especially those that don’t provide a paper trail) has added a layer of mystery and opacity to the entire process of how a vote is cast, processed, and tallied.

Florida, 2000: 

The Florida vote in the 2000 Presidential elections was characterized by Linn Washington, Professor of Journalism at Temple University, as “the greatest voter fraud in recent history,” and he cited the improper purging of over 50,000 voter names from the ballots. As Washington observed, “remembering that George W. Bush won Florida by a mere 534 vote margin in 2000, simple math exposes that GOP disenfranchisement fraud as demonstratively more devastating than some (alleged) fudging on registration forms.”

Because Washington had the benefit of hindsight, having written this article in October of 2008, we might write off the Bush victory over Gore to the misfortunes of the pressures of time and the need for a quick decision. However, on the day after the election, Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank, already noted enough of a vote discrepancy to have given Florida (and the election) to Al Gore. As he wrote, “Something very strange happened on election night to Deborah Tannenbaum, a Democratic Party official in Volusia County. At 10 p.m., she called the county elections department and learned that Al Gore was leading George W. Bush 83,000 votes to 62,000. But when she checked the county's Web site for an update half an hour later, she found a startling development: Gore's count had dropped by 16,000 votes, while an obscure Socialist candidate had picked up 10,000--all because of a single precinct with only 600 voters."

Almost two years later, on October 24, 2003, this specific voting fraud in Florida was exposed through Diebold memos--a second memory card had been installed in the Diebold machines, causing the disappearance of 16,022 votes on election night from precinct 216 in Volusia County, and then the original memory card was put back into the computer so that the fraud could not be detected.

2004 Presidential Election: 

In the 2004 Presidential election, Florida announced another voter purge, and the state government initially attempted to keep the list secret. As Wikipedia writes, “when a court ordered its release, it was found to contain mostly Democrats and a disproportionate number of racial minorities. Faced with media documentation that the list included thousands of errors, the state abandoned the attempt to use it.”

However, we now know that, elsewhere, in Nevada and Oregon, a company hired by the RNC solicited voter registration forms, but was accused of filing only the Republicans’ forms and shredding those completed by Democrats. In Michigan, state legislator John Pappageorge was quoted in the summer of 2004 as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."

But then there is Ohio, which brings us to the really disturbing issue not only about this election but also about electronic voting machines. Walden W. O’Dell, a longtime Republican, member of President Bush’s elite “Rangers and Pioneers” who have raised at least $100,000 for the 2004 race, and participant at election strategy meetings at Bush’s Crawford, Texas home, wrote a letter in mid-August, 2003 inviting 100 wealthy friends to a fundraiser at his home outside Columbus, Ohio, stating: ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.''

What is problematic about this is that O’Dell was the CEO and chairman of the board of Diebold, Inc. Diebold, based in Canton, Ohio, was the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the USA. This, at the least, constitutes a glaring conflict of interest in that such a rabid political partisan also was supplying the machines that would be entrusted with the counting of votes.

Diebold (now Premier Election Solutions): 

Diebold machines had been cited for various design and performance flaws over the past decade. California decertified them, Maryland’s House of Delegates voted to ban them, and Georgia discovered that patches had been sneaked into their machines. Nevertheless, because of CEO O’Dell’s partisan political largesse, his Republican beneficiaries regularly disqualified Diebold competitors when purchasing voting machines.

So it was that, after Katherine Harris left as Florida’s Secretary of State and Supervisor of the 2000 Elections, Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood took over; she ordered Diebold voting machines, even though many advised against this. The result, according to writer Leigh Lundin, was that 20,000 votes were not counted in just one congressional race in the 2008 elections.

In fact, not only were the votes not counted, but the software could delete the audit logs that would have indicated a problem. These were among many problems that Diebold knew about for years.

This is a picture of the inside of a Diebold Touch Screen electronic voting machine. We are looking at a “boot area configuration chart” painted on the system board, allowing easy access to a switch (or switches) that enable one to override a certified set of files in place of an illegal, uncertified code. The system then can be reversed in a matter of minutes to conceal these illegal actions. 

As Open Voting Foundation president, Alan Dechert, writes, “This may be the worst security flaw we have seen in touch screen voting machines....with the flip of a single switch inside, the machine can behave in a completely different manner compared to the tested and certified version.”

Now, showing my age as a 70-year old, one-time greaser, I may still be able to re-assemble a Ford flathead V-8 engine blindfolded, but this sort of electronic circuitry is a total mystery to me, which of course makes me even less trusting of these devices. Give me a hanging chad any day; it’s mechanical, and I know exactly how it occurred as well as how to improve the machine in order to avoid future hanging chads.

But with the proliferation of these new, electronic voting machines, and with many Republican lawmakers even refusing to agree that such machines also need to provide paper receipts, I must admit that my long-held faith in the democratic power of the vote in America is wavering.

Watch, for example, computer programmer Clinton Eugene Curtis admit how easy it is to rig elections using electronic voting machines, and how he programmed machines to do just this for Republican Tom Feeney in October of 2000, then speaker of the Florida House, now a US Congressman. Curtis is speaking on oath before the US House Judiciary Committee’s Public Hearings on Election Irregularities on December 13, 2004.

Or read Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman on how the Democrats have lost Ohio--and the presidency--for 2012 because “Ohio's nontransparent computerized voter registration books and [Diebold] voting machines are solely controlled by partisan, private vendors.”

Or again, read how non-transparency in New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation presidential primary will take place in 2012, may take away the public’s right to know what actually occurred at the ballot box.

And once you do this, please reflect upon what you think it means to be an American, whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or some form of Independent. Think about what our country would be like were we to have a single, dominant--and dominating--party.

And then consider how such an America would appear to the rest of the world. Our recent voting “irregularities” should give us pause as we consider their global ramifications. Their domestic ramifications are worrisome enough, as they suggest an undermining of a main pillar of our democracy. But in this year of 2011, the global ramifications of a less-democratic America are even more troublesome. With Bin Laden now dead, we have an opportunity, greater than ever before, to encourage real elections and democratic activity in many of the Muslim countries of the world. But if our own democracy is being called into question by voting fraud, voter intimidation and voting machine manipulations, how can we promote the sort of transparency, progressive politics and constitutional democracies that we would like to see take hold in the countries of the middle east?

We seem to have lost some perspective on who we are and on what America is. When major political players promote election fraud in order to “win;” when they “win” governorships and then turn vindictively on groups of their own people, even on government workers; when they use their newly-gained political office (however acquired) to undermine government itself and to privatize government assets, they have forgotten what America is about. They can no longer see the forest through the trees. As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in an article titled, “None Dare Call It Stolen,” an article on Ohio and the election of 2004 in Harper’s Magazine (August, 2005), “This democracy can survive a plot to hijack an election. What it cannot survive is our indifference to, or unawareness of, the evidence that such a plot has succeeded.”

And so it is with the hope of promoting an awareness that we are losing our democracy, that the politics of the ends justifying the means is corroding our electoral process, that I here venture--with some trepidation--into a topic that many Americans as well as the American press, consider taboo: the topic of major election fraud. It is taboo because it is “un-American.” But it is happening. And at present it is, unfortunately, hidden from view. 

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