If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past six months, it’s that the University of Wisconsin-Madison cannot ignore or escape the political storm that has been buffeting Wisconsin. Regardless of one’s political leanings, one cannot fail to recognize that the outcomes of the November 2010 elections and the recall elections last Tuesday (with two more next Tuesday) all have groundshaking consequences for this campus and, of course, for the entire state.
Many will be surprised and disappointed by last Tuesday’s results; many others will be encouraged by them. But too few will ask the question, “Can we even trust the reported outcomes?”
“Sifting and winnowing” is partly about challenging comfortable assumptions in the search for truth and insight. With that goal in mind, I urge you to read this October 2010 interview with Jonathan Simon, a leading expert on election integrity.
I cannot ethically quote the entire interview here, so here is a short excerpt that, I hope, will be sufficient to compel you to read the entire interview:
OEN: You did some investigation into the critical Coakley-Brown Senate race in Massachusetts. What did you find and how did you find it?
JS: The Coakley-Brown election in January—which we analyzed in the paper Believe It Or Not –was critical not only because Scott Brown’s unexpected victory gave the GOP the seat necessary to sustain filibusters and effectively block legislation and appointments, but because it was seen in all quarters as the dramatic harbinger of a GOP sweep in November. It was also the political baptism of the Tea Party movement, a clear indication of virulent anti-incumbent fervor, and it set the stage for a string of shocking far-right primary election wins, such as Christine O’Donnell’s in Delaware and Joe Miller’s in Alaska.
There was every incentive in the world to rig Coakley-Brown and every opportunity in the world to get away with it. There were no audits, no spot checks, no exit polls, and no recounts. No actual ballots were ever excavated from their bins at the bottom of the optical scanners which were programmed to read (or misread) and tabulate (or mistabulate) them; so much for optical scanners and a supposed “paper trail.” In fact all that we had to assure us that the votecounts were accurate and Brown’s victory legitimate was pure 100% unadulterated blind faith that the numbers showing up when the memory cards were downloaded at the end of the night were a true recording of the votes cast. Because if, in fact, the vendor corporations, or any insiders with access to the programming and distribution processes, had chosen to serve a private political agenda rather than the public trust, there would be nothing in the official processes of voting, vote counting, and election certification to indicate that such a breach had occurred.
So we had a huge and shocking result with no actual evidence to support it. It could have been legitimate and it could equally well have been a cheap trick conjured in the darkness of cyberspace. So we looked at the only evidence available—the votes of the 71 jurisdictions that counted their ballots in public by hand. We found that Coakley won in these jurisdictions by a margin of 3%, while Brown won by 5% where the opscans did the counting in secret. The chance of this 8% total disparity occurring if the handcounts had been distributed randomly around the state was infinitesimal, one in hundreds of billions. But we knew that the handcounts were not randomly distributed and that handcount and opscan jurisdictions represented discrete constituencies. Perhaps the handcount communities where Coakley won were more Democratic or had a more Democratic voting history, or perhaps they were clustered in a part of the state where Coakley was more popular.
We looked at each of these “benign” explanations in turn and found that none of them was true. The handcount jurisdictions were more Republican; they had voted in exact congruence with the opscan jurisdictions in the previous two (noncompetitive, and therefore not targets for rigging) US Senate races; and they had given Coakley a lower percentage than the opscan communities in her only previous statewide race. Granted Coakley, thinking she was a shoo-in, ran a very lackluster campaign; granted there was a surge of enthusiasm and a big influx of money from the right, making a tight (and riggable) race out of a blowout. But those factors do not explain why some 65,000 handcount voters, seen to be to the right of a random sample and not geographically disposed towards Coakley, came in so differently from the opscan voters. That remains entirely unexplained, unless one is willing to consider electronic vote manipulation, which we know the experts from Princeton to Johns Hopkins to NYU’s Brennan Center to the US Government Accountability Office all have concluded is child’s play.
If you find the questions raised by this excerpt troubling, I urge you to read the entire article from the beginning here.
After that, you would do well to view the Emmy-nominated 2006 documentary Hacking Democracy.
Finally, if you’re willing to spend a couple bucks to download and view Dan Rather Reports: Das Vote via iTunes (scrolled down to find the episode Das Vote), you can do so here. If not, then here is a transcript (PDF).
It’s all too easy to dismiss the concerns raised by the above commentators and documentaries as paranoid conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, I have found that it is far harder to actually debunk them. To my knowledge at least, no one has come even close.
Whether you believe our elections are actually rigged or not, democracy and civil discourse cannot thrive where there is suspicion and distrust. That’s why we urgently need new safeguards, starting with routine independent audits of vote totals reported by optical scanners — something that, shockingly, is not even permitted under current rules in WIsconsin.