Apr
01
2005

America's Broken Electoral System

Get over it, says mainstream press

Throughout 2004, the “swing state” of Ohio was in the media spotlight. Prior to the election, it was a site of alleged voter fraud and suppression; as Extra! reported (12/04), the news media tended to portray the charges as partisan ploys rather than significant threats to the electoral process.

Then, on November 2, Ohio became this election’s Florida: Once again a tight race hinged on the electoral votes of a state too close to call. At the end of the night, with only about 130,000 votes separating Democrat John Kerry and Republican George W. Bush, Kerry refused to concede. The reason: an estimated 150,000-250,000 provisional ballots had yet to be examined. Under state law, the process of reviewing these ballots, which are given to people who believe they are registered but whose names are not found on the rolls, could not occur for 11 days. Moreover, standards for validating these ballots varied among Ohio’s 88 counties. The situation boded another long, contentious wait to find out who had won the election.

But then, the day after Election Day, Kerry politely conceded, reportedly having calculated that the number of possible votes in his favor would not be likely to offset Bush’s lead (Washington Post, 11/4/04). Despite the uncertainties, the election was, a report by the nonpartisan political website Election Online.org put it (“Briefing: The 2004 Election,” 12/04), “beyond the margin of litigation.”

The trouble with ballots

At the same time, however, a parallel story emerged: Ohio—and many other states—had been dogged by a variety of voting difficulties, particularly affecting minority communities who traditionally vote Democratic. Besides the large numbers who found they could only vote provisionally, others found a shortage of machines that meant waits of up to 10 hours—which, given the reality of jobs and other responsibilities, meant that many people were simply unable to vote. Still others had their votes improperly recorded—or not recorded at all—by electronic terminals or punch-card machines, the “chad”-producing technology still used in three-quarters of Ohio.

As later documented, the irregularities resulted in a significant number of disenfranchised voters, and in something unseen since 1877: a debate in Congress, on January 6, 2005, over whether to certify a state’s electoral votes.

With the Senate voting 74-1 and the House 267-31 to accept the votes for Bush, the election was “settled,” but a question remained: Could an electoral system so flawed produce legitimate results? Many thought not: Through November and December, as “stolen election” charges circulated, investigations of Ohio’s irregularities were mounted by the Democratic National Committee and 10 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee. (These resulted in a damning report, Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio, available online at www.house.gov/conyers/). A recount of the Ohio vote, initiated and paid for by third-party candidates Michael Badnarik and David Cobb, was also performed after the state’s official count was certified.

But according to news reports in the major mainstream press, this part of the election ’04 saga was irrelevant, annoying or just so much Monday-morning quarterbacking.

“Problems . . . that didn’t happen”

Extra! examined straight news coverage of voting irregularities and their effect on the election in the two “papers of record,” the New York Times and Washington Post; the evening news programs of the networks ABC, CBS and NBC; and the newsmagazines Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, from the day after the election to the end of the year (11/3/04-12/31/04), four days after the independently sponsored recount ended.

In general, some of Ohio’s voting woes were duly noted while the election process was still going on, particularly the extremely long waits—though these were sometimes portrayed as positive. (ABC’s World News Tonight—11/3/04—called Kenyon College students’ willingness to endure the queues “a genuine inspiration.”) After the election, coverage of the still-raging controversies declined precipitously.

Within days, voting problems fell off the evening news’ radar. NBC alone offered a segment on the subject (11/3/04), reassuringly headlined “Voting Problems Anticipated but Not Realized.” “Perhaps the biggest story of Election Day problems were the ones that didn’t happen,” said anchor Tom Brokaw, including “dire warnings from critics that [electronic touch-screen voting machines] would cause Election Day chaos.” Contrasting with its opening tone, the piece noted that long lines and provisional ballots may have meant many lost votes, and that the NBC voter-alert line “received more than 85,000 complaints. The two most common problems: callers who said they registered to vote but never received confirmation, or applied for an absentee ballot but never got one.”

NBC (incidentally, the first network to call Ohio for Bush) was also the only network to cover the Ohio recount request (11/24/04), but portrayed it as dragging things out: “More than three weeks after Election Day,” said Brokaw, “votes, hard to believe, are still being counted in some parts of the country. . . . But at least in one state, some are questioning whether the effort is really worth the cost.”

The network news did offer additional segments examining voting difficulties in Ohio and elsewhere—but these were relegated to the morning shows, such as NBC’s Today (two stories on November 3, on provisional ballots and long lines) and CBS’s Early Show (several segments on provisional ballots on November 3, then a 52-word item November 18 on “balloting problems”).

Bush won—why worry?

During the period studied, the newsmagazines mainly confined their news reporting to recapping Bush’s win and its implications (e.g., “In Victory’s Glow,” Time, 11/15/04). Indeed, once Kerry had conceded, all the media in Extra!’s sample moved on to post-mortems dissecting Bush’s victory, particularly the role of “moral values” and Republican voter-mobilization strategies. The New York Times Magazine even had a 6,000-plus-word piece on the latter topic (“Who Lost Ohio?”, 11/21/04) that barely touched on ballot irregularities.

The few magazine news stories discussing voting problems tended to downplay them. Newsweek, in “Restoring Voter Trust” (11/3/04), mentioned some election “glitches,” but quoted an election official who reassured readers that “Bush’s lead in both the popular and electoral vote count should alleviate some concerns about fairness.” Newsweek also covered Ohio’s recount (12/30/04), but prefaced an interview on the topic with Rev. Jesse Jackson, “Ohio officials concluded their recount of the presidential vote last Tuesday—reaffirming President George W. Bush’s victory. But the state’s election woes aren’t over yet.” (Jackson pointed out that Ohio’s secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, “had to know” that increased voter registration meant more voting machines than usual would be needed.)

U.S. News did address the perils of provisional voting before the election (“The Fix That Wasn’t,” 11/8/04—newsweeklies are postdated), but didn’t return to the topic after the problems actually manifested.

The Washington Post and the New York Times were much more thorough, providing some detailed articles on voting problems and post-election controversies, plus several stories each on the recounts (Washington Post, 11/24/04, 12/1/04, 12/4/04, 12/7/04; New York Times, 11/25/04, 12/10/04, 12/29/04). The Post, for example, provided this disturbing detail (12/15/04): “In voter-rich Franklin County, which encompasses the state capital of Columbus, election officials decided to make do with 2,866 machines, even though their analysis showed that the county needed 5,000 machines.”

But articles like this also hastened to quote someone saying, or point out themselves, that even in a flawless election, the results would have been the same. The Times, for example, stated (11/12/04), “authorities acknowledge that there were real problems on Election Day, including troubles with some electronic machines and intolerably long lines in some places, [but] few have suggested that any of these could have changed the outcome.” Said the Post (12/15/04): “In Columbus, bipartisan estimates say that 5,000 to 15,000 frustrated voters turned away without casting ballots. [But] it is unlikely that such ‘lost’ voters would have changed the election result.”

Do the math

This seeming failure to appreciate the bigger picture—that such hurdles to voting are incompatible with democracy —was demonstrated in several themes across print and broadcast media.

For example, prior to and after Kerry conceded Ohio and the presidential race, provisional ballots and other uncounted votes were discussed as a math problem rather than as a concern in and of themselves: “After vowing to fight for every vote in Ohio, the Kerry campaign did the math and decided there was no way the senator could win,” reported the CBS Evening News (11/3/04). “In Making His Decision on Ohio, Kerry Did the Math” was a New York Times headline (11/4/04). “By 9:30, the conclusion was clear: Kerry simply did not have the numbers,” wrote Time (11/15/04).

Post-election public outcries about unanswered questions and irregularities, as reported by weblogs and Internet sites, were portrayed as easily debunkable “conspiracy theories.” Stories appeared with headlines like “Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried” (New York Times, 11/12/04), “Latest Conspiracy Theory —Kerry Won—Hits the Ether” (Washington Post, 11/11/04), “The Folklore of Election ’04” (Time, 11/22/04), and “Election Day Conspiracy Theories” (NBC, 11/11/04). Certainly some discrepancies were false alarms or overhyped, but the blogs so disdained by mainstream journalists also highlighted genuine problems that were underplayed or ignored by traditional outlets.

One discrepancy that did get across-the-board coverage in Extra!’s sample was that of exit polls erroneously showing Kerry ahead of Bush—an oddity cited by some Kerry supporters and bloggers as proof of foul play. ABC (11/5/04), CBS (11/3/04) and Newsweek (11/4/04) even devoted individual stories to the topic. Some of the conclusions: The data were skewed because Bush voters declined to participate in the surveys, or pollsters stood too far away from exiting voters. With an explanation agreed upon, there seemed to be no need to explore the issue further.

As noted, the Washington Post and New York Times devoted space to voting problems well into December. But their coverage was similar to their treatment of vote-fraud charges earlier in the year (Extra!, 1-2/05): Credible complaints of disenfranchisement were “balanced” with incommensurate countercharges or snide dismissals from those accused.

For example, a report compiled by activists from the liberal People for the American Way and others documenting “thousands of election volunteers [who’d] witnessed voter suppression by a poll judge who peeked into voting booths [and] electronic voting machines that assigned votes to Bush after voters pressed Kerry’s name” was attacked by a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee (Washington Post, 12/7/04), who “said Democrats should investigate claims against themselves” such as “thousands of suspicious registrations, including dead people [and] fictional characters like Dick Tracy and Mary Poppins.”

The New York Times placed a candid voting irregularity story (“Voting Problems in Ohio Set Off an Alarm,” 11/17/04) on page 37, whereas articles a week or so earlier dismissing the “conspiracy theories” that challenged Bush’s win were on the front or first few pages. “Voters in Ohio delivered a second term to President Bush by a decisive margin,” the November 17 piece said. “But the way the vote was conducted there, election law specialists say, exposed a number of weak spots in the nation’s election system.” It then quoted a Harvard professor of election law: “We dodged a bullet this time, but the problems remain . . . with the machines, problems with the patchwork of regulations covering everything from recounts to provisional ballots, and problems with self-interested party officials deciding which votes count.”

Mixed messages

As the issue of irregularities persisted in the public arena, however, the Times published a page-one, 2,000-plus-word story headlined “Voting Problems in Ohio Spur Call for Overhaul” (12/24/04). Forthrightly stating, “Ohio is providing a roadmap to a second generation of issues about the way the nation votes,” this article by James Dao, Ford Fessenden and Tom Zeller Jr. was virtually alone in mentioning “the large number of ballots—96,000 by recent counts—that registered no vote for president,” adding that “experts say punch cards contributed to the problem.”

Still, the story’s overall message was mixed. Peppered with the-result-wouldn’t-have-changed and anti-conspiracy quotes, it also closed with a quote from an Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson who discounted the whole issue: “I think the majority of Democrats feel that the election was more or less accurate. . . . Irregularities that are normally overlooked have become the focal point of attention this year. I just can’t see those people walking away satisfied.”

Perhaps you’d be unsatisfied too, if you’d read the Timeseditorials on voting problems. Its superb, occasional “Making Votes Count” series stands in striking contrast to the paper’s zero-sum news stories, as well as to the often dismissive (or absent) coverage of the other major media. Based on investigative reporting by editorial writer (and lawyer) Adam Cohen, the series has since January 2004 delved into serious “flaws in the mechanics of our democracy,” according to the paper’s website.

During the period FAIR studied, six editorials in this series appeared, including information and recommendations on “New Standards for Elections” (11/7/04), “Improving Provisional Ballots” (11/21/04) and the need for a verifiable paper trail for electronic voting machines (12/20/04, 12/27/04). (The latter topic was mentioned only in passing in the rest of our sample, despite the open invitation to vote fraud posed by such uncheckable technology—Extra!, 5-6/04.)

Unaddressed electoral system problems will continue to plague us, regardless of who won the White House last year, and the press would do well not to wait until 2008 to notice them again. Democrats and bloggers aren’t the only ones paying attention: A November 4 report by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed concern about “significant delays at the polling station” that were “likely to deter some voters from voting and may restrict the right to vote,” as well as “considerable confusion and varying approaches from one state to another regarding the use of provisional ballots.”

Also, as BBC reporter Greg Palast argued in In These Times (12/13/04), the more than 90,000 spoiled ballots in Ohio—mentioned nowhere in our sample but in the New York Times(11/7/04, 12/24/04)—nearly make up the 118,000-vote difference between Bush and Kerry. That fact alone suggests that, just as in 2000, the White House’s occupant may be there due to system failure rather than any mandate. The leading media should not have dismissed this crucial issue of democracy—regardless of how much they, like Senator Kerry, craved closure.