tampabay.com

Internet post-election rumors missing one little thing: evidence

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published November 11, 2004


Claims are lighting up the Internet that last week's presidential election was rigged and stolen. Some of this also has crept into the cable TV networks and conspiracy peddlers on radio.

Ordinarily I would ignore this as background noise. But the clamor is so incessant, and enough reasonable people are asking about it, to make it worth discussing. I fully understand this will not satisfy the true believers and will only anger some "you-lost-get-over-it" Bush supporters.

At any rate, here are some of the top claims, and the factual basis that lies beneath them. (A tease: A couple of them are actually true!)

CLAIM: Voting patterns in some Florida counties were suspicious because Bush got many more votes than the number of registered Republicans.

Several impressive-looking charts and graphs are flying around. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann singled out five Florida counties for what he called a "sudden" outbreak of "irregularities:" Baker, Dixie, Holmes, Lafayette and Liberty.

In those counties, Republicans make up only 7 to 24 percent of registered voters. But Bush won there with between 64 and 78 percent of the vote.

How can this be? Easy. They are northern "Dixiecrat" counties where being a registered Democrat but voting Republican is an old habit. The same counties voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2000, and his father in 1988 - when registered Republicans made up as little as 2 percent of the electorate!

By the way, to make this claim, the conspiracy folks have had to contend that voting was more suspicious in counties without electronic machines.

CLAIM: Touch screen machines in Broward County started "counting backwards."

No, they didn't. The voting machines in the precincts worked fine.

Broward's central vote-counter was not programmed to expect more than 32,000 votes in any single precinct.

With the limit exceeded, the running totals in four races (all constitutional amendments) did, indeed, start declining.

Observers quickly noticed it. It got fixed. The accuracy of the individual voting machines was never in question. Nobody's vote was a "negative" that subtracted from the vote totals.

CLAIM: Palm Beach County reported getting more votes for president than the total turnout.

No, it didn't. The initial voter-turnout figure on the state's Web site didn't include absentees, that's all.

CLAIM: Several hundred ballots in Seminole County were "mysteriously" wet and could not be read.

Sort of. About half of 1,500 blank ballots in one precinct, at a church, got wet and nobody knows how. They got more ballots. Nobody was denied.

CLAIM: There was a suspicious difference between the exit polls and the final results.

My goodness! All of a sudden the art of polling, which my Democratic friends were insisting was unreliable right up until the election, is now is to be taken as gospel. Exit polls are "never wrong."

The exaggerations continue to grow. Kerry's lead in the exit polls keeps getting bigger. The polls' margin of error keeps getting smaller.

The Florida exit polls from Election Day are lined up on my desk. The biggest lead Kerry had was 51-49. The last update showed 50-50. The actual result was 52-47. Within the margin of error. Sorry.

CLAIM: In some precincts, voting machines started Election Day with "extra" votes already added.

This one actually was started by Republican poll watchers in Democratic precincts in Philadelphia. They even summoned the District Attorney's Office for a raid. They were entirely mistaken.

Here's the kicker: Over the past week, the Republican angle has been stripped away, and I have heard several Democrats complaining about machines starting out with extra votes.

CLAIM: A machine in Franklin County, Ohio, recorded an extra 3,893 votes for Bush.

This is perfectly true, and one of at least two serious machine mistakes around the country. When the results cartridge of an older-generation machine was plugged in to the counter, it reported almost 4,000 extra votes for Bush, when only 638 people had voted in the precinct.

At the risk of being labeled part of the plot, I want to point out that they caught this obvious mistake. You can't "stuff' the ballot box. There is a signed, independent record of how many people voted.

CLAIM: Kerry really won Ohio.

There are still 155,000 or so uncounted provisional and absentee ballots. If by some miracle Kerry got almost all of them, he would win. A miracle.

Furthermore, there also were 93,000 "spoiled" ballots in Ohio that, had they gone to Kerry by a miraculously large margin . . . uh, well, still wouldn't have been enough. By the way, there were fewer undervotes and overvotes than in 2000.

CLAIM: Electronic voting machines in Carteret County, N.C., mysteriously "lost" more than 4,500 votes - most of the votes cast in the county election!

This one is true, too, and disturbing. According to the Carteret County News-Times, the county's machines counted only the first 3,005 votes and didn't count the rest.

The Carteret screwup didn't change the presidential outcome, but a couple of state races were close enough to be affected. Besides, the standard of "no harm, no foul" is not good enough. But I would point out that even this mistake was obvious and immediately detected.

CLAIM: There's a lot more.

No doubt I am furthering the conspiracy by leaving something out. Yes, another Ohio county claimed homeland security and locked down its vote-counting room. Somewhat less reported is that a Democratic Party observer was inside and said he saw no irregularities.

Don't forget, Broward County sent out some absentee ballots too late.

There were many anecdotal reports of touch screen machines balking at recording the correct vote. Most came from Kerry supporters, but some Bush voters complained too. In my own case, I had to push the screen several times to record a vote in a judicial race. How many voters cast an incorrect vote without realizing it (which seems unlikely, given the reminders and review screens) is anybody's guess.

In conclusion, am I saying that any of this "proves" the machines weren't rigged? Nope. For all I know, evil geniuses at Diebold, Sequoia and ES&S really did conspire to shift votes to Bush. I don't believe it, but I can't disprove it either. You can't prove a negative. Hard evidence, please - which means more than just quoting somebody's Web site.

Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this column.