Thursday, March 10, 2005

Something was rotten in the state of Ohio.

Christopher Hitchens has an article in this month's Vanity Fair (which can be found here) about voting irregularities last November in Ohio that's worth reading. A sampling of the odd events:

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 under- votes than Republican ones.

In Precinct lB 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.

And, by Hitchens' account, the irregularities overwhelmingly benefited Bush.

I had heard complaints about this stuff before, but always discounted them as the likely work of crackpots and wingnuts. Hitchens may be a crackpot -- a discussion for another day -- but he was a Bush supporter with no love for Kerry, so his account cannot be dismissed as sour grapes or partisan.

Of course, Ohio law provides for a recount, "which was completed in late December and which came out much the same as the original one, with 176 fewer votes for George Bush. But this was a meaningless exercise in reassurance, since there is simply no means of checking, for example, how many “vote hops” the computerized machines might have performed unnoticed." That Ohio's Secretary of State was the co-chair of the state Bush/Cheney campaign, and that Diebold's chair is a prominent Bush supporter "who proclaimed in 2003 that he was 'committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year'" -- these things certainly do not inspire confidence in the recount.

All of this is corrosive for democracy, and for the legitimacy of the government. There are many reasons for election glitches: Elections are complicated affairs, with lots of moving parts, and they take place episodically under the supervision of elected officials. Some error is inevitable, but what Hitchens describes is another thing altogether. There should be a serious, credible investigation of what happened, and -- no matter what an investigation reveals -- that reforms are needed to protect public confidence in voting.

Who can argue with this? On principle, it's hard. Although few seem to want to say it outright, Republicans don't seem to want to look very hard under these rocks because they've been winning recently. But that's exactly why they should care the most. Without antiseptic measures, these problems will fester and grow worse. And if Republicans are presiding over the government hit by the inevitable crisis of confidence, they will have the most to lose.

You have truly found your calling.
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