Every Vote Counts,
As Long It's Counted
March 21, 2001
"As long as I count the votes, what
are you going to do about it?"
-William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, on the New York
City ballot of November 1871
The post-election drama in Florida illuminated the smallest details of American politics in action. After months of photo ops and sound bites, suddenly we saw a living, breathing process which depended on the actions of millions of ordinary people. It was refreshing, but there was something missing in the coverage: Florida has a shocking record of electoral crime. Satirist Dave Barry joked: "Florida's No. 3 industry, behind tourism and skin cancer, is voter fraud." (USA Today 11/10/00)
The 1999 Pulitzer for investigative reporting went to the Miami Herald for "Dirty Votes: the Race for Miami Mayor"-a series on the 1997 elections. The stories sparked an investigation which ended with 26 arrests, conviction of the City Commissioner, and voiding of the election. According to the Associated Press, that race was "at least the sixth Florida election...marred by fraud over the last decade". (AP 11/17/00.
Outright fraud is only part of Florida's deeply troubled electoral process. Following the 1997 debacle, Florida attempted to enact more rigorous rules for absentee voting, but was stymied by its appalling record of discrimination against African American voters, which has forced it to subject all election law changes to Federal review. (Miami Herald 09/07/98)
THE FIX WAS IN(CONCLUSIVE)
Stealth is crucial to election-rigging. Because elections occur over large geographic areas, individual criminal acts can be widely dispersed and committed by many individuals operating at a safe distance from the candidates. The judge who voided Miami's 1997 mayoral election explained that candidate Xavier Suarez "...benefited from a massive vote-fraud conspiracy, though [the judge] saw no evidence that Suarez knew about it." (Miami Herald 03/27/98) Detecting election-rigging begins with a search for patterns of irregularity which tend to favor a candidate. These in turn may suggest areas for deeper investigation. Some newsworthy patterns from the Sunshine State:
An hour after the networks called Florida for Gore, Bush campaign operatives were on national television denouncing the projection, calling it "premature." The networks retracted their projection, and by 2:00 a.m., reversed it, calling Bush the winner. At 4:00 a.m., the second projection was retracted. Like them or not, exit polls have become quite reliable, and serve the valuable function of providing a second, independent set of results. The electorate deserves an explanation, not an apology. Voters told exit pollsters how they believed they voted. They cannot have known how, or even whether, their vote was counted.
At least two locked ballot boxes, filled with untabulated ballots, were removed from the counting process: one was discovered in a school cafeteria and one in a hotel lobby. (NAACP Press Release 11/08/00; C-SPAN, AP 11/11/00) Hundreds of Gore votes in Volusia County allegedly "...disappeared from the computer count, though they reappeared later." (Time 11/13/00)
Some voters testified that their ballots were pre-punched. (AP 11/11/00) In Palm Beach County 19,000 ballots were disqualified because they were double-punched. If a voter did not realize their ballot was pre-punched, any selection other than the pre-punched hole automatically disqualified the ballot. Ballots were discovered with tape holding a chad in a punched hole. (Miami Herald 11/19/00). Palm Beach County had 10,000 votes disqualified because no hole was punched.
Florida ballot disqualification was up 16% over the last presidential election cycle. In 1996, 2.52% of ballots cast were disqualified. This year, the rate was 2.93%. Twenty-one counties disqualified votes at double or more the statewide rate. Total disqualified ballots was around 160,000. (Sun-Sentinel 11/15/00) Precinct-level analysis would indicate if the disqualification spike, representing about 40,000 more than would have been lost at the 1996 rate, tended to benefit one candidate over another.
If an election is clean, the rate of error should be evenly distributed across the political spectrum. Initial machine recounts cut Bush's lead by 46%, from 1784 to 960. (Reuters 11/11/00; Sun-Sentinel 11/12/00) Hand recounts, a source of anxiety and anger for the Bush camp, have consistently yielded more votes for Gore. In Miami-Dade, the canvassing board declined to make a sample hand recount. When they relented, a 1% sample yielded 1 additional vote for Bush and 6 additional votes for Gore. If the sample was representative, completing a hand recount in Miami-Dade would likely have added 600 votes to the Gore column.
Republicans have called for counting of absentee votes without postmarks, illegal under Florida's election laws. A postmark proves that the ballot was cast on or before election day, and acts as one more check on absentee ballot fraud. In Seminole county, election supervisor Sandra Goard "allowed Republican workers to camp out in her offices for as long as 10 days" to make handwritten corrections to faulty Republican absentee ballot applications. (New York Times 11/14/00) Two successive absentee ballots were stolen from the son of Federal District Judge Roger Vinson. The first ballot was cast with a forged signature. The double theft strongly suggests an organized effort. (Miami Herald 11/17/00)
Miami's 1997 election was voided because of 4,500 fraudulent absentee ballots. (Miami Herald 08/07/98) According to the Voting Integrity Project, a nonpartisan watchdog group based in Arlington, Virginia, "Absentee ballot fraud is the method of choice for stealing elections." (AP 11/17/00)
The 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 make infringement of a person's right to vote a federal crime. Many voters, primarily African Americans, reported a pattern of polling place intimidation and denial of the right to vote, including police roadblocks, unduly burdensome identification requirements, polling place workers who were hostile or from the wrong language group, illegal and threatening poll watchers, polling places "running out" of ballots, polls closing despite voters waiting on line well before closing time. (Time 11/13/00; Miami Herald 11/17/00)
Theft of a US presidential election does not seem particularly plausible. However, when there is a possibility of foul play, it is reasonable to examine questions of motive, means and opportunity.
Both candidates courted Miami's Cuban exiles, a small community with regional, national and even international political importance wildly out of proportion to their numbers. Most people know them, if at all, as the stars of Elian, The Miniseries. The political muscle of Miami's Cubans flows from extensive service in the cold war. They sent 5,000 foot soldiers to the Bay of Pigs, half of whom came home. Since then, a significant minority of community members have participated in contract work for the CIA, undertaking countless highly dangerous off-the-books jobs, including at least one well-documented case of election-rigging (Dominican Republic, 1962). As a group, they view the possibility of a thaw in US-Cuba relations with stark dread.
Miami Cubans flirted with Bill Clinton, but Elian ended that. Gore advocated legislation to keep Elian stateside, and Lieberman put a wreath on Jorge Mas Canosa's grave. Those were serious efforts, but did not counterbalance the Bush family's longstanding intimate relationship with the top tier of the Miami Cuban leadership. George Jr. offered Miami Cubans everything they could hope for when he vowed to continue the embargo to the bitter end.
George Jr.'s election-night statement to the effect that his brother "had just assured him that Florida was his" may go down in history as the mother of all Freudian slips. (New York Times 11/09/00) Voters, not brothers, deliver electoral votes. Unless, of course, they hold positions of power which they are not averse to misusing. Jeb was right to recuse himself from the counting process, but what was he doing, and telling others to do, before the counting started? Jeb has a colorful political resume. Solidly Republican Colorado gave George Jr. a tepid 51%, apparently because many hold Jeb responsible for Silverado Savings and Loan, the worst financial disaster in that state's recent history.
Bush cousin John Ellis ran the election desk at Fox News, and communicated directly with Jeb and George Jr. all night long. It was Ellis who advised Fox News to call Florida for Bush, triggering Gore's congratulation to George Jr. and a spate of botched headlines. Asked about the appearance of impropriety, Fox Vice President John Moody replied "I don't think there's anything improper about it as long as he doesn't behave improperly..." (Washington Post 11/14/00)
In view of such a strange set of circumstances, we should not have been hearing jokes about electoral crime in Florida.
Stealing a presidential election is no laughing matter. It is a bloodless coup d'etat.
The writer holds an MA in American Studies and works as a paralegal in New York City. He has 15 years of grassroots political experience and 10 years in the legal field.
Postscript: Short History of a Pamphlet
This piece was submitted to 20 daily papers on Wednesday, November 29. It was also submitted to The Nation, and The New York Observer, In These Times and Z Magazine. It was faxed to the office of Rep. Charles Rangel of New York and columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.
Dallas Morning News op-ed editor Bob Moos sent a polite email rejection (I regret...but we appreciate...).
Peggy Suttle, Editorial Assistant to Nation Editor Katrina van den Heuvel said, on two successive Fridays: "we're on deadline" and "everybody's writing about Florida".
EJ Dionne, via his secretary, said it was too long, but good luck.
Charles Rangel wrote back to say, "Clearly, voters in minority communities were disproportionately victimized in the decision rendered by the Supreme Court and it is clear that we have lost credibility as a nation in setting the standard for fairness in the electoral process."
Stories filed since November reinforce what is written above, particularly analyses showing that key African American precincts in Florida suffered ballot invalidation rates of 10% (never mind the African Americans who were simply prevented from casting a ballot). Nationally, ballot invalidation averages 2%.
Comments? Please email me at rich_ray@hotmail