Steal This Vote

The US electoral system is deeply dysfunctional?and always has been.

| Tue Oct. 18, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

Florida's election meltdown in 2000 was a one-off, a bizarre deviation from the exemplary norm of American democracy. If the fiasco contained a lesson, it was that the old punch card voting machines (of chad fame) were past due for replacement by newer, more efficient electronic models. Or so the conventional wisdom had it at the time.

In reality, the corruption, incompetence, and bare-knuckle partisanship on such vivid display in Florida stood in a long, inglorious American tradition. If there were problems with the voting machines used in 2000—as there undoubtedly were—that was less a cause than a symptom of a much graver malady—the rot at the very core of the United States' electoral system. Swapping out the machines did nothing to remedy this deeper problem, and indeed introduced a whole host of new troubles.

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"People have been manipulating and stealing votes more or less since the dawn of the republic," writes Andrew Gumbel, author of the excellent Steal This Vote, a book that, among other things, recounts the eventful history of electoral shenanigans in the United States from the Constitution to the 2004 presidential election. In Gumbel's account, both parties are to blame for creating and sustaining a political environment rife with perverse incentives for fraud, manipulation, and the maintenance of a dysfunctional status quo. And until this culture is fundamentally reformed, he argues, insecure machines, purged voter rolls, missing ballots, unequal access to the polls, and widespread disenfranchisement will remain standard features of U.S. elections.

 

Gumbel, an award-winning U.S. correspondent for the London Independent, was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm about electronic voting machines. He recently spoke with Mother Jones by phone from his home in southern California.

Mother Jones: It's interesting that it takes a Brit to write the most extensive post-2000 critique of American democracy.

Andrew Gumbel: I don't think it has to do with my being British so much as that I've been exposed to how democratic systems work in other places, especially in Eastern Europe. I was in Berlin in '89, just as the Wall came down; I was in Belgrade for the demonstrations against Slobodan Milosevic in the mid-90s. I witnessed both the collapse of democracy in Albania and then its tentative resurrection in 1997. And that left me with a fairly good idea of what democratic movements, at their best, should look like. I think anybody else who'd had the same exposure would have a similar vantage point.

MJ: So you came to the United States in 1998. What did you find here that spurred you to write the book?

AG: Well, the first thing was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which didn't strike me as being grassroots democracy at its finest. And then there was the 2000 election, and the very weird, utterly baffling 36-day battle in Florida, which wasn't as brutal or as unsubtle as the election in Albania, but it was certainly a lot odder, coming as it did in the most powerful country in the world. So that really got the hooks into me on the subject. The more immediate spur was the advent of a new generation of electronic voting machines, and realizing there was almost no accountability with them. There was ample evidence that they didn't work properly and there was an extremely worrying possibility that they could be interfered with undetectably. And in time I realized that there was a book there, not only to explain what was going on but to put it in its appropriate historical context.

MJ: What is it about the United States that is unique, and different from other developed democracies?

AG: The short answer is that it has fundamentally to do with the two-party system and the way it has developed. Both the Republicans and the Democrats over the past century have shown more interest in preserving than reforming a system that does not involve all of the voters. The US has had a low turnout rate for the past 100 years, and the parties are much more interested in controlling the voters they know than in expanding the electorate or having other parties crashing in on their duopoly. On the local level they're interested in controlling political offices, including electoral offices. And there's been an understanding, rather like two thieves who make a pact, that they're not going to make too much fuss about what the others are up to because they have their own activities that they want to protect. That's been the rough status quo for about 100 years.

MJ: But clearly things have gotten much more combative in the past few years.

AG: Yes. We're now in a stage where a lot of this stuff is coming out because the balance between the two parties is beginning to shift. The Republicans have become much more ideological, and they're becoming much more aggressive about seeking office, winning office, and attaining as much power as they can on every level. And since Florida in 2000 the Democrats are realizing they ought probably to be jumping up and down and making noise about this.

MJ: So Democrat outrage has as much to do with power as with democratic principle?

RG: Absolutely. You don't have to go very far back in time to see a period where it's the Democrats who were the greater perpetrators. I reject the idea that the Republicans are the bad guys and the Democrats the good guys. It tends to be much more structural than that, more a question of how high the stakes are and who has the opportunity. And where you have a series of elections, as we've seen in the last few years, where the stakes are high and the count appears to be very close, you have absolutely ripe conditions for both party organizations to push for every conceivable advantage. In many cases the way they push for that advantage will often flirt with the boundaries of the permissible and in some cases go beyond it.

MJ: After the 2000 meltdown, there was a big push for election reform. We had a big piece of federal legislation passed, the Help America Vote Act, which, among other things, retired a lot of the machines at the center of the Florida debacle. Nevertheless, in the 2004 elections we saw many of the same problems and plenty of new ones. What went wrong?

AG: Well, a couple of things happened. One was that the focus was on the wrong thing. During the battle in Florida the lawyers on both sides found it convenient to blame the voting machines. And yes, the machines were not ideal—they didn't tally the votes properly, they had margins of error that were completely unacceptable—but the larger problem was not the machines but the politics. Many jurisdictions that had been relying on the punch card machines decided they wanted to get rid of them. And they became enamored of the most high-tech, most computer-driven solution, which was the paperless touchscreen electronic machine. There was a problem, too, with the way machines were marketed and sold, without any statewide or nationwide oversight of what they were or what technical standards they lived up to. The whole thing was done on a county-by-county level, with plenty of gladhanding and petty corruption.

MJ: And county officials were happy to be wined and dined and not ask too many questions about the machines.

AG: Right. The vendors said these machines would work fine and the election officials often took that on faith. There are also various ways in which the pitfalls of the machines turned out to be very attractive to election officials—the fact, for example, that the touchscreen machines didn't allow for an independent paper trail that could be used in a recount sounded very good to officials. They were terrified of having to repeat the scenes we saw in Florida. It's important to understand that many county officials think not in terms of the integrity of the electoral system but of how to satisfy their bosses, who in many cases are the county governments. And how they do that is by having a nice, smooth process where nobody asks any questions about how it went.

MJ: Which is precisely the problem.

AG: Right, because if something goes wrong you don't know whether it's the way the machines have been programmed that's producing errors, or whether somebody has found a way in and hacked the software and undetectably altered the results of the election, which has been demonstrated by experts in computer science to be eminently possible.

MJ: In most lines of business, you don't last long if your product is faulty. And yet, despite countless examples of shoddy programming, poor security—you name it—with these machines, market forces don't seem to have weeded out the bad companies. Why is that?

AG: Well, there isn't really an open market in voting machines. They tend to be sold very much on a local basis. There is no oversight of the technical standards, nor is there oversight of the prices that are being charged for these machines. In order to have a free market you need to have a free flow of information and everybody needs to be working off the same page. What's extraordinary about this is that county officials haven't really spoken to each other very much, so the same problems crop up all over the place. And one of the things that makes the US so extraordinary is that there is no equivalent of a central electoral commission, which is a very common feature in most countries. You have no public agency that says these are the standards to which the machines must adhere.

MJ: But isn't there a certification process that, in theory, guarantees minimum standards?

AG: The problem with the certification process is that it is done on a very informal basis. Essentially, it's carried out by private, independent testing labs, which aren't as independent as the name suggests, because they compete for the vendors' business and are paid directly by them. There is no congressional oversight of them. There is a sort of volunteer body called the Election Center, a private foundation based in Texas that agrees on behalf of state election directors to keep an eye on whoever is doing the certification, but it also receives money from voting machine companies. So the whole situation is rife with lack of accountability and conflict of interest. And we know there have been enormous problems.

MJ: Has the cause of electoral reform scored any gains since 2000?

AG: Some things have improved. For example, there was very spotty provisional voting in 2000. In Florida it didn't exist at all. If you showed up at the polling station and the officials said you weren't on the list, there was nothing you could do. Now, you do have the option of voting provisionally -- in other words, you vote first and they check whether you're eligible afterwards. That's an undoubted improvement. There's also much wider availability of early voting, which means voters can come to the polls one week, two weeks, ahead of time and get their voting out of the way. Anything that increases the window of possibility for people to exercise their right to vote has to be a good thing.

MJ: Clearly there were major problems with the vote in 2004, notably in Ohio. From your reporting do you think that, given a fair vote, John Kerry would have won the state and thus the Presidency?

AG: I think that at this point the question is a distraction. And I say that first of all because nobody can claim to have evidence that that was the case, because the data is missing. I personally think it's very unlikely, which is not to minimize all the massive problems in Ohio. More particularly, harping on the claim that Kerry should have won, versus the other side, which says that's nonsense, is to turn the whole issue into a partisan dog-fight—which is exactly what's wrong with the political system in the first place. You're never going to get electoral reform if people see it in terms of cheering for their side.

MJ: And yet there were big problems.

AG: My argument about Ohio in the end is that for all the problems this was not an exceptional instance of how elections are conducted in the United States; rather, it's a very well documented instance of how they almost always are conducted. The problems were real: the co-chair of Bush's reelection campaign in the state, for example, was also the secretary of state, and thus ultimately responsible for the conduct of the election; Democratic areas were allocated far fewer voting machines, proportionally, than Republican ones, making it more difficult to vote; and so on. But in a tight race, in a battleground state, where one party is in control as the Republicans are in Ohio, this is what you get. What you've got to focus on is that the system has allowed this to go on for a very long time.

MJ: And that's despite repeated attempts, over the years, to reform the system. How strong or effective is the election reform movement right now?

AG: What you've got is an awful lot of grassroots groups, many of which are ad hoc citizens' groups. Sometimes it's people sitting in their living rooms looking at all this stuff—which is all extremely laudable. Some have done extremely valuable work, others perhaps a little less so. What you don't have is a credible public figure that can act as a standard-bearer for all of them and can get onto the TV shows and into congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, and really start holding the politicians' feet to the fire and saying, Look, you have to do something about this.

MJ: Is there general agreement on what needs to be done?

AG: From a strictly technical point of view, there's no mystery about what needs to be done. Many, many experts who have looked at the question, and they've all come to broadly the same conclusions. If you look globally, the system of casting and counting votes that works best is, strangely enough, hand-marked paper ballots counted by hand. I don't think that's a practical solution in the American context because you have so many multiple-race elections, and there are tremendous logistical implications in getting that all together. So you do need machines. It seems at the moment that the cheapest, most reliable, easiest-to-verify machine is the precinct-based paper ballot that is then read by an optical scanner. That needs to be done in tandem with a random, targeted recount, ideally involving three percent of the vote, in order to make sure the tabulation machines are working right. The advantage of the optical scan machines is that if there's a question you have the paper ballot that you can go back to.

There are many suggestions in terms of making voting more available. There are procedures for provisional balloting and absentee balloting that should in theory make things easier for voters to maximize the integrity and transparency of the system. And if you ask international election experts, people like the Carter Center, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they'll tell you that what you need in order to have a decent electoral system is a central electoral commission, uniformity of standards, equal unpaid access to the media, electoral districts that are properly competitive rather than gerrymandered, and on and on—all things the US does not have.

MJ:Is there reason to think some or any of this will actually happen?

AG: Well, The problem with all of these suggestions is that they really depend on the political culture, and if you have a political culture that's not interested in promoting the integrity of the system, then it doesn't matter what forms you have; there'll always be the possibility that somebody's going to mess around with the system. You have to change the political culture, and how you do that, well—that's a tough one.