Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Electronic voting angst

November 9, 2004

Electronic voting angst (Keith Olbermann)

NEW YORK — Bev Harris, the Blackbox lady, was apparently quoted in a number of venues during the day Monday as having written “I was tipped off by a person very high up in TV that the news has been locked down tight, and there will be no TV coverage of the real problems with voting on Nov. 2… My source said they’ve also been forbidden to talk about it even on their own time.”

I didn’t get the memo.

We were able to put together a reasonably solid 15 minutes or so on the voting irregularities in Florida and Ohio on Monday’s Countdown. There was some You-Are-There insight from the Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who had personally encountered the ‘lockdown’ during the vote count in Warren County, Ohio, a week ago, and a good deal of fairly contained comment from Representative John Conyers of Michigan, who now leads a small but growing group of Democratic congressmen who’ve written the General Accountability Office demanding an investigation of what we should gently call the Electronic Voting Angst. Conyers insisted he wasn’t trying to re-cast the election, but seemed mystified that in the 21st Century we could have advanced to a technological state in which voting— fine, flawed, or felonious— should leave no paper trail.

But the show should not have been confused with Edward R. Murrow flattening Joe McCarthy. I mean that both in terms of editorial content and controversy. I swear, and I have never been known to cover-up for any management anywhere, that I got nothing but support from MSNBC both for the Web-work and the television time. We were asked if perhaps we shouldn’t begin the program with the Fallujah offensive and do the voting story later, but nobody flinched when we argued that the Countdown format pretty much allows us to start wherever we please.

It may be different elsewhere, but there was no struggle to get this story on the air, and evidently I should be washing the feet of my bosses this morning in thanks. Because your reaction was a little different than mine. By actual rough count, between the 8 p.m. ET start of the program and 10:30 p.m. ET last night, we received 1,570 e-mails (none of them duplicates or forms, as near as I can tell). 1,508 were positive, 62 negative.

Well the volume is startling to begin with. I know some of the overtly liberal sites encouraged readers to write, but that’s still a hunk of mail, and a decisive margin (hell, 150 to 62 is considered a decisive margin). Writing this, I know I’m inviting negative comment, but so be it. I read a large number of the missives, skimmed all others, appreciate all— and all since— deeply.

Even the negative ones, because in between the repeated “you lost” nonsense and one baffling reference to my toupee (seriously, if I wore a rug, wouldn’t I get one that was all the same color?), there was a solid point raised about some of the incongruous voting noted on the website of Florida’s Secretary of State.

There, 52 counties tallied their votes using paper ballots that were then optically scanned by machines produced by Diebold, Sequoia, or Election Systems and Software. 29 of those Florida counties had large Democratic majorities among registered voters (as high a ratio as Liberty County— Bristol, Florida and environs— where it’s 88 percent Democrats, 8 percent Republicans) but produced landslides for President Bush. On Countdown, we cited the five biggest surprises (Liberty ended Bush: 1,927; Kerry: 1,070), but did not mention the other 24.

Those protesting e-mailers pointed out that four of the five counties we mentioned also went for Bush in 2000, and were in Florida’s panhandle or near the Georgia border. Many of them have long “Dixiecrat” histories and the swing to Bush, while remarkably large, isn’t of itself suggestive of voting fraud.

That the other 24 counties were scattered across the state, and that they had nothing in common except the optical scanning method, I didn’t mention. My bad. I used the most eye-popping numbers, and should have used a better regional mix instead.

Interestingly, none of the complaining emailers took issue with the remarkable results out of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. In 29 precincts there, the County’s website shows, we had the most unexpected results in years: more votes than voters.

I’ll repeat that: more votes than voters. 93,000 more votes than voters.


Talk about successful get-out-the-vote campaigns! What a triumph for democracy in Fairview Park, twelve miles west of downtown Cleveland. Only 13,342 registered voters there, but they cast 18,472 votes.

Vote early! Vote often!

And in the continuing saga of the secret vote count in Warren County, Ohio (outside Cincinnati), no protestor offered an explanation or even a reference, excepting one sympathetic writer who noted that there was a “beautiful Mosque” in or near Warren County, and that a warning from Homeland Security might have been predicated on that fact.

To her credit, Pat South, President of the Warren County Commissioners who chose to keep the media from watching the actual vote count, was willing to come on the program— but only by phone. Instead, we asked her to compose a statement about the bizarre events at her County Administration building a week ago, which I can quote at greater length here than I did on the air.

“About three weeks prior to elections,” Ms. South stated, “our emergency services department had been receiving quite a few pieces of correspondence from the office of Homeland Security on the upcoming elections. These memos were sent out statewide, not just to Warren County and they included a lot of planning tools and resources to use for election day security.

“In a face to face meeting between the FBI and our director of Emergency Services, we were informed that on a scale from 1 to 10, the tri-state area of Southwest Ohio was ranked at a high 8 to a low 9 in terms of security risk. Warren County in particular, was rated at 10 (with 10 being the highest risk). Pursuant to the Ohio revised code, we followed the law to the letter that basically says that no one is allowed within a hundred feet of a polling place except for voters and that after the polls close the only people allowed in the board of elections area where votes are being counted are the board of election members, judges, clerks, poll challengers, police, and that no one other than those people can be there while tabulation is taking place.”

Ms. South said she admitted the media to the building’s lobby, and that they were provided with updates on the ballot-counting every half hour. Of course, the ballot-counting was being conducted on the third floor, and the idea that it would have probably looked better if Warren had done what Ohio’s other 87 counties did— at least let reporters look through windows as the tabulations proceeded— apparently didn’t occur to anybody.

Back to those emails, especially the 1,508 positive ones. Apart from the supportive words (my favorites: “Although I did not vote for Kerry, as a former government teacher, I am encouraged by your ‘covering’ the voting issue which is the basis of our government. Thank you.”), the main topics were questions about why ours was apparently the first television or mainstream print coverage of any of the issues in Florida or Ohio. I have a couple of theories.

Firstly, John Kerry conceded. As I pointed out here Sunday, no candidate’s statement is legally binding— what matters is the state election commissions’ reports, and the Electoral College vote next month. But in terms of reportorial momentum, the concession took the wind out of a lot of journalists’ aggressiveness towards the entire issue. Many were prepared for Election Night premature jocularity, and a post-vote stampede to the courts— especially after John Edwards’ late night proclamation from Boston. When Kerry brought that to a halt, a lot of the media saw something of which they had not dared dream: a long weekend off.

Don’t discount this. This has been our longest presidential campaign ever, to say nothing of the one in which the truth was most artfully hidden or manufactured. To consider this mess over was enough to get 54 percent of the respondents to an Associated Press poll released yesterday to say that the “conclusiveness” of last week’s vote had given them renewed confidence in our electoral system (of course, 39 percent said it had given them less confidence). Up for the battle for truth or not, a lot of fulltime political reporters were ready for a rest. Not me— I get to do “Oddball” and “Newsmakers” every night and they always serve to refresh my spirit, and my conviction that man is the silliest of the creator’s creations.

There’s a third element to the reluctance to address all this, I think. It comes from the mainstream’s love-hate relationship with this very thing you’re reading now: The Blog. This medium is so new that print, radio, and television don’t know what to do with it, especially given that a system of internet checks and balances has yet to develop. A good reporter may encounter a tip, or two, or five, in a day’s time. He has to check them all out before publishing or reporting.

What happens when you get 1,000 tips, all at once?

I’m sounding like an apologist for the silence of television and I don’t mean to. Just remember that when radio news arose in the '30s, the response of newspapers and the wire services was to boycott it, then try to limit it to specific hours. There’s a measure of competitiveness, a measure of confusion, and the undeniable fact that in searching for clear, non-partisan truth in this most partisan of times, the I’m-Surprised-This-Name-Never-Caught-On “Information Super Highway” becomes a road with direction signs listing 1,000 destinations each.

Having said all that— for crying out loud, all the data we used tonight on Countdown was on official government websites in Cleveland and Florida. We confirmed all of it— moved it right out of the Reynolds Wrap Hat zone in about ten minutes.

Which offers one way bloggers can help guide the mainstream at times like this: source your stuff like crazy, and the stuffier the source the better.

Enough from the soapbox. We have heard the message on the Voting Angst and will continue to cover it with all prudent speed.

Thanks for your support.

Keep them coming... Email me at KOlbermann@msnbc.com