Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Challenges and the challenged
December 22, 2004

Challenges and the challenged
-Keith Olbermann

SECURE UNDISCLOSED LOCATION — So much for my vow of not posting again during my vacation.

However, a lot of facts from the previous post have been clarified — or muddied — and the news, to paraphrase one of my snarkiest friends in the business, “doesn’t stop when you’re off; it goes on another three to four hours a day.”

Representative John Conyers of Michigan is awaiting a staff report before deciding whether or not to formally challenge Ohio’s electoral votes a week from tomorrow. Ted Kalo, the Minority General Counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, advises us by email that Conyers “is waiting until all the facts are in,” but notes that Representative Maxine Walters of Los Angeles has already spoken publicly about her willingness to be the house signatory on the challenge. Whether or not there’s a senator willing to do the same is still an open question.

Mr. Kalo also points out details that make the recount situation in Hocking County, Ohio, seem far less closed than the County’s Assistant Prosecutor led me to believe. I guess I’m still a little naïve on such things, but it would seem to me that in telling his story of a “comedy of errors” involving the inspection of the main vote tabulator there by a representative of the voting machine manufacturer, Triad Systems, David Sams might have been mentioned that in addition to being Assistant Prosecutor, he is also (per Mr. Kalo) the legal representative of the Hocking County Board of Elections during the recount.

I thought we had a bad jobs situation in Ohio. How come so many civil servants there have to double up?

Kalo, and the Green Party’s recount coordinator for Southeastern Ohio, Orren Whiddon, both point out that the issue in Hocking is not so much what was or wasn’t done to the machine, but the efforts of the Triad man to find out which of Hocking’s precincts was to be subjected to the mandatory 3% hand recount.

One of our producers had asked Deputy Prosecutor Sams about how the subject of the unusual inquiries was dealt with at the informal “board meeting” Sams conducted Monday. Asked why the Triad employee would’ve asked about precincts at all, Mr. Sams replied, “I don’t remember, to be honest, what he answered to that. But it was really just a comedy of errors. There was no impropriety.”

Both Mr. Kalo and Mr. Whidden spoke highly of Sams, but suggest he missed the point. The Green Party rep notes that Ohio law is specific about the 3% sample that must be hand recounted in each county: it’s supposed to be selected randomly. If the effort is made — either by an election official, or somebody else (like a manufacturer’s rep) — to decide in advance which 3% of the vote is to be recounted, the concept of random selection is thoroughly contaminated and once again, a puff of smoke rises from the entire recount process.

Mr. Whidden told me by phone this afternoon that there are a lot of puffs of smoke. “86 of Ohio’s 88 counties have pre-selected their random precincts,” he claims. Their motivations — and even Triad’s — may not be as nefarious as would appear. Ohio law states that if the 3% hand recount doesn’t match the original vote, the entire County’s vote must be recounted by hand. These County Board of Elections, especially in the smaller jurisdictions, are comprised largely of volunteers, and a full, hand recount means an incredible amount of work, which as human nature would suggest, they’d prefer to avoid.

Unfortunately, it also means that if you were trying to fix a vote in Ohio, or cover it up in a recount, you had merely to identify which precincts were least likely to be chosen (rather than randomly selected), and do your dirty work in them.

Which brings us back to Triad and what its rep was doing, trying to find out which precincts in Hocking would be recounted by hand, and offering tips to help make sure the recount matched the original vote. “Highly respected company,” Whidden notes. “Triad has a rule against corporate donations to political parties; their employees may, but they don't. Not a Diebold situation. They answer questions openly. They believe in customer service.” The problem arises when the customer service, even innocently, dovetails with the same mechanism that guarantees that the precinct selection isn’t random, and full hand recounts don’t occur.

Whidden points out how it’s supposed to be done. In one county for which he acted as a supervisor, Athens, “the board of elections took the names of each of its precincts, put them on slips of paper, put the pieces in a coffee can, and kept pulling the slips out until they had precincts that totaled to 3% of the county vote. Great, great job.”

So there’s the early picture from Ohio: the best-respected of the computer companies, Triad, tries to help one of its customers out. The customer wants to go home without doing the heavy lifting that the law requires, but which to them seems utterly academic. The process is repeated across the state. Benign intentions; potentially pernicious outcomes.

Which brings us back again Washington. There, Mr. Conyers wrote yesterday to the various chairmen, network presidents, and news division leaders at ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and the Associated Press, requesting that they release to the House Judiciary Committee “the raw exit poll data from the 2004 November presidential election you purchased from Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research.” I suppose I should have some inside information on NBC’s response, but I don’t. Responses from the other networks have thus far spoken of the need to wait for final reports to be compiled from the data — which would seem to be exactly the opposite of the point Conyers is making.

On the lighter side, there is this from The New York Daily News, which reports that the wonderful website sent around 250 Christmas gifts to media outlets around New York: “O’Reilly Approved Loofahs.”

Bill Bastone, who runs the site that got more than 3.5 million hits for its posting of Andrea Mackris’s lawsuit against Bill O’Reilly, told the paper’s Lloyd Grove: “We think we’re probably the single largest client of the Massage Warehouse in Norcross, Georgia.”

You sure about that, Mr. Bastone? What about Mr. O’Reilly himself?

Lastly, I mentioned here Tuesday that I’d been advised by one of my extremist readers that Adolf Hitler was a Left-winger; that, in fact, all fascists were.

Little did I know that this revisionist history has been a popular subtext on talk radio for several years (I stopped listening to anything Rush Limbaugh said after he came to my desk in Bristol, Connecticut about a decade ago and told me his dream was to work for ESPN — how’d that work out for him, by the way?)

I got a flood of emails pointing out that on the basis of economic policy — the original means by which “right” and “left” came into use in Europe and here — the Fascists of Italy and Germany were a little to the right of Atilla the Hun. There were also useful reminders that the Germans and Italians backed Franco in the Spanish Civil War (with American leftists coming in against them as “The Lincoln Brigade”), along with a lot of simple guffaws.

One of the loudest was provided — unintentionally — by somebody who had drunk this particular kool-aid. “You do realize the Nazis were the ‘National-Socialist German Workers’ Party,’ don’t you? How many socialists in your experience have been what you would call ‘right-wingers?’”

As I noted to my correspondent, the answer is probably contained in the following set of facts:

* The Communist state in what was, until 1990, East Germany was officially called “The German Democratic Republic,” and it was never mistaken by anybody for a democracy.
* The Communist behemoth in China is officially “The People’s Republic,” and it’s never been mistaken by anybody for a Republic (although if it were, its leaders would be called, by dint of pure linguistic logic, Republicans).
* The football championship is officially called “The Super Bowl,” and when the game isn’t particularly super, they don’t go offering everybody refunds.

Comments on voting, loofahs or European history circa WWII? Email: