Monday, November 22, 2004

Olberman Update: Election 2004

November 21, 2004

Relax about Ohio, Relax about the guy tailing me.
Keith Olbermann

NEW YORK - Anybody else notice that when you politely refer to the Secretary of State of Ohio, you have to call him “Mr. Blackwell,” just like that guy who compiles the goofy worst-dressed list?

Mr. Kenneth Blackwell is the subject of three actions regarding the Ohio vote that you haven’t seen on television yet. Each (the Cobb/Badnarik Recount bid, the Alliance for Democracy legal challenge, and the Ohio Democratic Party suit over provisional ballots) has an undertone suggesting time is of the essence, and that he is wasting it. The accusation may or may not be true, but it also may or may not be relevant.

The Glibs’ recount effort was underscored last week by their letters to Blackwell insisting he hurry up and finish certifying the count well before the announced deadline of December 6, because otherwise, there won’t be enough time for the recount before the voting of the Electoral College on December 13. The Alliance attorney Clifford Arnebeck told The Columbus Dispatch that his quite separate legal challenge to the election must be addressed immediately because “time is critical.” The local Democrats haven’t been commenting on their low-flying suit - more about that later. They’re just smiling quietly to themselves.

Cobb, Badnarik, Arnebeck, and everybody else actually has more time than they think. I addressed this topic with the wonderfully knowledgeable George Washington University Constitutional Law professor, Jonathan Turley, back on Countdown on November 9th. He noted the election process is a little slower - and has one more major loophole - than is generally known. It begins on December 7th, the date “when you essentially certify your electors… it gives a presumption to the legitimacy to your votes. And then, on the 13th, the electors actually vote.”

But, Turley noted, “those votes are not opened by Congress until January 6. Now, if there are controversies, such as some disclosure that a state actually went for Kerry (instead of Bush), there is the ability of members of Congress to challenge.” In other words, even after the December 13th Electoral College Vote, in the extremely unlikely scenario that a court overturns the Ohio count, or that the recount discovers 4,000 Gahanna-style machines that each recorded 4,000 votes too many for one candidate, there is still a mechanism to correct the error, honest or otherwise.

“It requires a written objection from one House member and one senator,” Turley continues. Once that objection is raised, the joint meeting of the two houses is discontinued. “Then both Houses separate again and they vote by majority vote as to whether to accept the slate of electoral votes from that state.”

In these super-heated partisan times, it may seem like just another prospective process decided by majority rule instead of fact. But envision the far-fetched scenario of some dramatic, conclusive new result from Ohio turning up around, say, January 4th. What congressman or senator in his right mind would vote to seat the candidate who lost the popular vote in Ohio? We wouldn’t be talking about party loyalty any more - we’d be talking about pure political self-interest here, and whenever in our history that critical mass has been achieved, it’s been every politician for himself (ask Barry Goldwater when Richard Nixon trolled for his support in July and August, 1974, or Republican Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas when his was to be the decisive vote that would have impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868).

The point of this dip into the world of political science fiction is that the Ohio timeframe is a little less condensed than it seems. The drop-dead date is not December 13, but January 6.

It is noteworthy that the announcement of a legal challenge made it into weekend editions of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Columbus Dispatch, the Associated Press wires, and other publications. The Columbus paper even mentioned something curious. “Earlier this week, the Ohio Democratic party announced it would join a lawsuit arguing that the state lacks clear rules for evaluating provisional ballots, a move the party said will keep its options open if problems with the ballots surface.”

This makes a little more sense out of a confusing item that appeared in an obscure weekly paper in Westchester County, New York, last Wednesday, in which a reporter named Adam Stone wrote “A top-ranking official with Democratic Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign told North County News last week that although unlikely, there is a recount effort being waged that could unseat Republican President George Bush.” Stone quotes Kerry spokesman David Wade as saying: “We have 17,000 lawyers working on this, and the grassroots accountability couldn’t be any higher - no (irregularity) will go unchecked. Period.” Gives a little context to Senator Kerry’s opaque mass e-mail and on-line video statement from Friday afternoon.

The Ohio newspaper coverage suggests that even the mainstream media is beginning to sit up and take notice that, whatever its merits, the investigation into the voting irregularities of November 2nd has moved from the Reynolds Wrap Hat stage into legal and governmental action. Tripe does continue to appear, like Carol Pogash’s column in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Its headline provided me with a laugh: “Liberals, the election is over, live with it.” I’ve gotten 37,000 emails in the last two weeks (now running at better than 25:1 in favor), and the two most repeated comments by those critical of the coverage have been references to the ratings of Fox News Channel, and the phrase “the election is over, (expletive deleted), live with it. I hesitate to generalize, but this does suggest a certain unwillingness of critics to engage in political discourses that don’t have no swear words in ‘em.

Meantime, The Oakland Tribune not only devoted seventeen paragraphs Friday to the UC Berkeley study on the voting curiosities in Florida, but actually expended considerable energy towards what we used to call ‘advancing the story’: “The UC Berkeley report has not been peer reviewed, but a reputable MIT political scientist succeeded in replicating the analysis Thursday at the request of the Oakland Tribune and The Associated Press. He said an investigation is warranted.”

In fact, he - MIT Arts and Social Sciences Dean Charles Stewart - said more than that. “There is an interesting pattern here that I hope someone looks into.” Stewart is part of the same Cal Tech/MIT Voting Project that had earlier issued a preliminary report suggesting that there was no evidence of significant voting irregularity in Florida. Dean Stewart added he didn’t necessarily buy the Berkeley conclusion - that the only variable that could explain the “excessive” votes in Florida was poisoned touch-screen voting - and still thought there were other options, such as, in the words of The Tribune’s Ian Hoffman “absentee voting or some quirk of election administration.”

Neither MIT nor Cal Tech has yet responded to the comments of several poll-savvy commentators, and others, that its paper was using erroneous statistics. Its premise, you’ll recall, was that on a state-by-state basis, the notorious 2004 Exit Polls were within the margin of error and could be mathematically interpreted as having forecast the announced presidential outcome. It has been observed that the MIT/Cal Tech study used not the “raw” exit polls - as did Professor Steven Freeman of Penn did in his study - but rather the “weighted” polls, in which actual precinct and county official counts are mixed in to “correct” the organic “Hey, Buddy, who’d you vote for” numbers. The “weighted” polls have been analogized to a football handicapper predicting that the New Orleans Saints would beat the Denver Broncos 24-14, then, after the Broncos scored twenty points in the first quarter, announcing his prediction was now that the Saints would beat the Broncos 42-41, or even, that the Broncos would beat the Saints 40-7.

None of the coverage of the Berkeley study clarified a vitally important point about its conclusions regarding the touch-screen wobble in the fifteen Florida counties, and that has led to some unjustified optimism on the activist and Democratic sides. Its math produced two distinct numbers for “ghost votes” for President Bush: 130,000 and 260,000. This has led to the assumption in many quarters that Cal Tech has suggested as many as 260,000 Florida votes could swing from Bush to Kerry (enough to overturn the state). In fact - and the academics got a little too academic in summarizing their report and thus, this kind of got lost - the two numbers already consider the prospect of a swing:

a) There may have been 130,000 votes simply added to the Bush total. If proved and excised, they would reduce the President’s Florida margin from approximately 350,000 votes to approximately 220,000;

b) There may have been 130,000 votes switched from Kerry to Bush. If proved and corrected, they would reduce (by double the 130,000 figure - namely 260,000) the President’s Florida margin from approximately 350,000 votes to approximately 90,000.

On the ground in Florida, uncounted ballots continue to turn up in Pinellas County. Last Monday, an unmarked banker’s box with 268 absentee ballots was discovered “sitting in plain sight on an office floor, with papers and other boxes stacked on top of it,” according to The St. Petersburg Times. On Friday, the same paper reported that County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark found twelve more - ten provisionals in a blue pouch at a loading dock, and two absentees in a box headed for a storage facility. “I’m sick about this,” the paper quoted Clark, whose office also whiffed on 1400 absentee ballots on Election Day 2000, and counted another 600 twice. Asked by a reporter if the election is over, she replied “I certainly hope so.”

Well, I know how Ms. Clark feels. To close, a little anecdote from Big Town: I approached Seventh Avenue from the east and the guy in the black trenchcoat was walking north.

He got that little surprised look of recognition in his eyes and said “Keith! How are you?” We shook hands and he added, with apparent nervousness, “I’ll just be tailing you for the next block.” I laughed and said I was used to it.

Now, I’ve been getting recognized in public since 1982, and I had a stalker for eight years who once talked her way into ESPN and wound up being escorted to my desk - so I think I can tell the difference between a fan and a threat (this was a fan; a threat doesn’t come up and announce he’s going to tail you). I relate this just because of the timing. In the last week, I have read that I’ve been fired, suspended, muzzled, threatened (that, I think, was my NBC colleague Kevin Sites, who reported the Marine prisoner shooting in Iraq - our mailbox had a couple of those), and in the middle of it, I get a ‘What’s the frequency Kenneth moment’ from a fan who was just trying to be funny.

The laugh was genuine. As was my decision to cross the street.

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(Olbermann returns from not very much of a vacation to host Countdown, Monday November 22, 8:00 P.M. ET Presumably)