April 16, 2005

 

Catching Up


My wife and I currently have a pile of newspapers and magazines large enough to line every birdcage in the tri-state area. I'm trying to catch up, but I'm, to say the least, a little overwhelmed - plus there's the guilt of an unopened book staring me in the face. But I did have a chance to make a little dent. Here are two articles that got my dander up:

From the March Vanity Fair, perhaps the most schizo magazine in the world (What should I read this month: "The Real-Life Soap Opera Behind" Desperate Housewives or "Absent Hearts": The story of a small Colorado High School where a third of the students have parents in the military?; "Billionaire Boys' Toys: Riviera-hopping Aboard the World's Biggest Yachts!" or Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on "How Washington Poisoned TV News?"...I need a drink. Or a very large pill...):
Christopher Hitchens, who lost my respect (like he cares) when he fervently supported the war in Iraq, has (temporarily, at least) regained my respect with Ohio's Odd Numbers, a sober (for Hitchens) examination of what went down in Ohio before, during and after the November election. Here are some excerpts:
Reporters and eyewitnesses told of voters who had given up after humiliating or frustrating waits, and who often cited the unwillingness of their employers to accept voting as an excuse for lateness or absence. In some way or another, these bottlenecks had a tendency to occur in working-class and, shall we just say, nonwhite precincts. So did many disputes about "provisional" ballots, the sort that are handed out when a voter can prove his or her identity but not his or her registration at that polling place. These glitches might all be attributable to inefficiency or incompetence (though Gambier had higher turnouts and much shorter lines in 1992 and 1996). Inefficiency and incompetence could also explain the other oddities of the Ohio process—from machines that redirected votes from one column to the other to machines that recorded amazing tallies for unknown fringe candidates, to machines that apparently showed that voters who waited for a long time still somehow failed to register a vote at the top of the ticket for any candidate for the presidency of these United States.

However, for any of that last category of anomaly to be explained, one would need either a voter-verified paper trail of ballots that could be tested against the performance of the machines or a court order that would allow inspection of the machines themselves. The first of these does not exist, and the second has not yet been granted...

I do know a lot of people who are convinced that there was dirty work at the crossroads in the Ohio vote. Some of these people are known to me as nutbags and paranoids of the first water, people whose grassy-knoll minds can simply cancel or deny any objective reasons for a high Republican turnout...But here are some of the non-wacko reasons to revisit the Ohio election...

In Montgomery County, two precincts recorded a combined undervote of almost 6,000. This is to say that that many people waited to vote but, when their turn came, had no opinion on who should be the president, voting only for lesser offices. In these two precincts alone, that number represents an undervote of 25 percent, in a county where undervoting averages out at just 2 percent. Democratic precincts had 75 percent more undervotes than Republican ones.

In Precinct 1B of Gahanna, in Franklin County, a computerized voting machine recorded a total of 4,258 votes for Bush and 260 votes for Kerry. In that precinct, however, there are only 800 registered voters, of whom 638 showed up. Once the "glitch" had been identified, the president had to be content with 3,893 fewer votes than the computer had awarded him.

In Miami County, a Saddam Hussein–type turnout was recorded in the Concord Southwest and Concord South precincts, which boasted 98.5 percent and 94.27 percent turnouts, respectively, both of them registering overwhelming majorities for Bush. Miami County also managed to report 19,000 additional votes for Bush after 100 percent of the precincts had reported on Election Day.

In Mahoning County, Washington Post reporters found that many people had been victims of "vote hopping," which is to say that voting machines highlighted a choice of one candidate after the voter had recorded a preference for another. Some specialists in election software diagnose this as a "calibration issue."

Machines are fallible and so are humans, and shit happens, to be sure, and no doubt many Ohio voters were able to record their choices promptly and without grotesque anomalies. But what strikes my eye is this: in practically every case where lines were too long or machines too few the foul-up was in a Democratic county or precinct, and in practically every case where machines produced impossible or improbable outcomes it was the challenger who suffered and the actual or potential Democratic voters who were shortchanged, discouraged, or held up to ridicule as chronic undervoters or as sudden converts to fringe-party losers...

It was often said, in reply to charges of vote tampering, that it would have had to be "a conspiracy so immense" as to involve a dangerously large number of people. Indeed, some Ohio Democrats themselves laughed off some of the charges, saying that they too would have had to have been part of the plan. The stakes here are very high: one defector or turncoat with hard evidence could send the principals to jail forever and permanently discredit the party that had engaged in fraud.

I had the chance to spend quality time with someone who came to me well recommended, who did not believe that fraud had yet actually been demonstrated, whose background was in the manufacture of the machines, and who wanted to be anonymous. It certainly could be done, she said, and only a very, very few people would have to be "in on it." This is because of the small number of firms engaged in the manufacturing and the even smaller number of people, subject as they are to the hiring practices of these firms, who understand the technology. "Machines were put in place with no sampling to make sure they were 'in control' and no comparison studies," she explained. "The code of the machines is not public knowledge, and none of these machines has since been impounded." In these circumstances, she continued, it's possible to manipulate both the count and the proportions of votes...

...had there been a biased "setting" on the new machines it could be uncovered—if a few of them could be impounded. The Ohio courts are currently refusing all motions to put the state's voting machines, punch-card or touch-screen, in the public domain. It's not clear to me, or to anyone else, who is tending the machines in the meanwhile

...I asked, "What if all the anomalies and malfunctions, to give them a neutral name, were distributed along one axis of consistency: in other words, that they kept on disadvantaging only one candidate?" My question was hypothetical, as she had made no particular study of Ohio, but she replied at once: "Then that would be quite serious."

I am not any sort of statistician or technologist, and (like many Democrats in private) I did not think that John Kerry should have been president of any country at any time. But I have been reviewing books on history and politics all my life, making notes in the margin when I come across a wrong date, or any other factual blunder, or a missing point in the evidence. No book is ever free from this. But if all the mistakes and omissions occur in such a way as to be consistent, to support or attack only one position, then you give the author a lousy review. The Federal Election Commission, which has been a risible body for far too long, ought to make Ohio its business. The Diebold company, which also manufactures A.T.M.s, should not receive another dime until it can produce a voting system that is similarly reliable. And Americans should cease to be treated like serfs or extras when they present themselves to exercise their franchise.
In the current, "Desperate Absent Billionaire TV News Boy Toy" issue of VF, reader Elisabeth Ham from Tulsa, Oklahoma, responding to Hitchens' article, hit the nail right on the head:
The mystery is why the media are not more interested in investigating the possible voter fraud. If any of the allegations are true, it calls into question our very idea of democracy. I find it mind-boggling that the press can follow stories of election fraud in other countries with major headlines and commentary, but simply turn a blind eye to our own country.
Last week's Sunday New York Times:
The always reliable Frank Rich takes on A Culture of Death, Not Life surrounding the Pope and Terry Schiavo. Here's all you need (but you should read the whole article):
What's disturbing about this spectacle is not so much its tastelessness; America will always have a fatal attraction to sideshows. What's unsettling is the nastier agenda that lies far less than six feet under the surface. Once the culture of death at its most virulent intersects with politicians in power, it starts to inflict damage on the living.

When those leaders, led by the Bush brothers, wallow in this culture, they do a bait-and-switch and claim to be upholding John Paul's vision of a "culture of life." This has to be one of the biggest shams of all time. Yes, these politicians oppose abortion, but the number of abortions has in fact been going down steadily in America under both Republican and Democratic presidents since 1990 - some 40 percent in all. The same cannot be said of American infant fatalities, AIDS cases and war casualties - all up in the George W. Bush years. Meanwhile, potentially lifesaving phenomena like condom-conscious sex education and federally run stem-cell research are in shackles.
Nobody said catching up would make us feel any better...

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