Under Currents: Not Yet Time to Declare a Kerry Victory

Friday November 12, 2004

Time for my Democratic friends, I think, to pause and take a breath. You’re beginning to freak me out, guys. 

My e-mail inbox—yours, too, I imagine—is filled with messages of alternating, intertwined subject lines: either “Kerry Won” or “Evidence Mounts That National Vote Was Hacked.” Unfortunately, it appears that this virus has spread too far and too fast to be contained, and we can probably only stand at the edges and make comments while it runs its course. 

Some brief comments, and suggestions. 

The “Kerry Won” declaration seems derived from the old disappointed sports fan chant of “my team won, except that your guys cheated” or, in the alternative, “except that the refs got the call wrong.” As a tool to buck up the depressed psyche it’s a useful exercise, but worthless in the real world. The only measure of “winning,” after all, is to see your team with the World Series rings or the Superbowl trophy. Or sitting in the White House. Mr. Bush is still in the White House. Mr. Kerry is not. The real question is: If my Democratic friends really believe that Mr. Bush came in first by illegal means, what are they going to do about it? 

That brings us to the area of allegations of fraud in last Tuesday’s election, a point on which my Democratic friends must exercise some care, caution, and patience. 

We are being swamped with examples of what you might call “troubling oddities” in the vote-instances where Democrat majority counties using paper ballots recorded majority votes for Mr. Kerry, while adjoining Democrat majority counties, using touchscreen voting machines-recorded majority votes for Mr. Bush, sometimes even huge majorities. My Democratic friends—many of them frantic at the thought of a second Bush term—are pushing these instances as “evidence of voter fraud” which can be used to reverse the outcome before the certification of the vote. Few things in life are certain, but this is one of them: Even if Chief Justice William Rehnquist is ill and unable to vote, the present United States Supreme Court is not going to overturn the presumed results of the Nov. 2 national election based upon some “troubling oddities” in the vote. Popular revolt, military coup, or divine intervention aside, that means Mr. Bush will be taking the oath of office again, come next January. 

Part of the problem for disgruntled Democrats is what might be called the “Florida Syndrome,” stemming from the 2000 presidential elections. Florida 2000 was particularly messy, a razor-thin vote margin combined with ballot problems and voting machine recount problems, along with widespread evidence—in this case, the word is accurate—of illegal suppression of the black vote. When Mr. Bush entered office only after the United States Supreme Court ordered a halt in the recounting of the votes, the cries of fraud and stolen election had a more accurate ring. 

As election day neared this year, we were inundated with news reports and predictions that not only would Ohio be “another Florida,” but that Florida might be “another Florida.” And so, I think, when evidence of possible improprieties surfaced after the Nov. 2 election in both states, my Democratic friends responded with the same cries, even though those possible improprieties were both notably different, and as yet unproven. An odd response, too, given how little it gained the Democrats in 2000. 

But there is more danger to these premature cries of “fraud!” than just a spitting into the wind. The danger is that by making such fraud charges on preliminary, anecdotal, and statistical “evidence,” Democrats risk being dismissed as loonies and sore losers in the event that any real evidence of fraud actually comes in. 

So patience in this area—accompanied by hard, and careful work—is the best counsel. 

My assumption—based, again, upon the information I see passing across the Internet—is that computer and statistics experts and amateurs, along with investigative reporters, are even now combing through the Nov. 2 results and that somewhere in the spring, perhaps, we are going to start seeing published evidence of their investigations. We will know, then, whether these “troubling oddities” rise to the level of felonious patterns, which can then trigger more formal action. 

Such evidence—not mere partisan allegation—is going to be necessary to go after one of the real problems: the country’s growing embrace of unverifiable computerized voting machines. 

Democrats missed their chance by not establishing a united front against these computer voting machines in the years between the 2000 and 2004 elections. It would have been far easier to keep states and counties from certifying these machines in the first place, but now that thousands of them have been purchased, and millions of voters have come to accept them, it’s going to be harder to get them out. The economic argument by cash-strapped local governments, alone, is going to be the largest hurdle. 

Proponents of the computer voting machines made the issue “ease of use” and comparison to the recount problems of the Florida-style hanging chad manual punch card machines, which was clever on their part. Some Democratic officials—California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley notably being one of them—tried to stall the use of the computerized voting machines on the issue of whether or not they stood up to state and federal tests. (Shortly after taking on Diebold, Shelley was badly battered by his own election finance scandal uncovered by the San Francisco Chronicle—odd timing, wasn’t it, but why would anyone believe that the one had anything to do with the other?) 

But the problem with computerized voting machines is not whether the average voter will have trouble using them, or possible glitches in providing results 15 minutes or less after the closing of the polls, or security issues, but whether the voting tallies announced by the machines can be independently verified. If my Democratic friends truly believe that those computerized voting machines were used to steal the presidential election in 2004, they should be working—now—on a strategy to make sure that such machines are not in use in the presidential election in 2008. That means pushing for an outright ban on any form of voting in U.S. elections that cannot be independently verified. Period. 

Should Democrats be raising questions about the 2004 presidential election? Absolutely. There are enough “oddities” to raise significant doubts. But doubts are not proof. They are not even evidence. And while evidence is being gathered, my Democratic friends ought to be cautious about what they say.