by Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman
January 23, 2013
The re-election of Barack Obama was made possible in part by the triumph of a new social movement—a great grassroots upheaval aimed at election protection and meaningful universal suffrage, that must include a transparent and reliable vote count.
The Republican Party’s concerted effort to steal the presidency again failed in 2012, but only because of major breakthroughs that have been forcing their way into the mainstream since Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004.
Throughout these past dozen years, the GOP “suppress and shift” election theft strategy has focused on two main tactics:massive disenfranchisement of citizens (mostly non-white, poor and young) suspected of voting Democratic; and the manipulation of electronic voting machines and tabulating devices with software capable of flipping thousands of votes with a few late night keystrokes.
This year the Republicans’ blatant, barely concealed disenfranchisement efforts evoked a major national outcry, and a significant backlash that carried all the way to the op ed page of the New York Times. Because activists have focused on the issue since Florida 2000, there was in place a fast-growing awareness that millions of legitimate voters were being stripped from the registration rolls, especially in key swing states.
Less widely accepted has been the vulnerability of electronic voting machines. Manipulated tallies were used in Volusia County, Florida in 2000, and throughout Ohio in 2004 to elect and re-elect George W. Bush. In 2008 and 2012, Obama’s popular vote margins were sufficient to overwhelm the potential theft in key swing states. But the possibilities of electronic vote theft are stronger than ever. In the long run, if the US is to ever have a meaningful democracy, electronic voting and tabulating machines must be eliminated in favor of universal hand counted paper ballots.
Preventing unwanted voters from casting their ballots in key elections is a long-standing national tradition. It dates back at least to the Jim Crow days in the post-Civil War south, when the Democratic party and its terrorist wing, the Ku Klux Klan, systematically prevented African-Americans from voting in the eleven states of the former Confederacy , and elsewhere.
In Florida 2000 the Republicans used an old Jim Crow law disenfranchising former felons as a pretext for stripping the voter rolls of at least 90,000 voters. Most were African-American and Hispanic, and the vast majority weren’t ex-felons at all, but people with same or similar names or the same date of birth to other citizens who may or may not have been ex-felons, and may or may not have been residents of Florida.
In Ohio 2004, more than 300,000 voters were stripped from registration rolls in heavily Democratic urban areas throughout state. In the city of Cleveland, nearly 25% of all voters were eliminated from the voting rolls. Also, Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell deployed a wide range of deceptive tactics aimed at misleading voters and suppressing turnout. Democratic areas were shortchanged on voting machines and denied paper ballots. Tens of thousands of voters were forced to use provisional ballots which were then discarded.
Federal Judge Algernon Marbley in the King-Lincoln-Bronzeville suit, in which we are attorney and plaintiff, ordered Ohio’s 88 county election boards to preserve their voter records for a statewide recount. But 56 of the counties illegally destroyed all or some of their election records. No prosecutions have resulted and no recount has ever been done.
After losing in 2008, even after purging 1.2 million voters from the rolls, the Republicans came into 2012 with a massively escalated campaign to suppress the vote. The 2012 purge of the registration rolls in Ohio topped 1.1 million voters. Led by Indiana and Georgia, GOP-controlled legislatures began passing laws demanding state-issued photo identification cards. New York University’s Brennan Center estimated such laws could disenfranchise more than ten million voters.
Republican secretaries of state, especially in Ohio and Florida, worked hard to trim early voting opportunities for suspected Democrats. Once again inner city polling places were plagued with long lines and extended waits. But the worst happened during early voting in cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland, where Ohioans—mostly African-Americans—waited up to five hours to vote. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted revived many of the tactics used by Blackwell, which were also adopted by GOP operatives in other states. Among other things, Husted would only allow one early voting center in the major urban areas, predictably creating long lines.
Tens of thousands of voters were also forced to vote with provisional ballots. A disproportionate number were African-American. Many were tripped up by detailed demands imposed by Husted apparently designed to nullify as many votes as possible.
But this year the activist community was prepared. Heavily challenged in court, the photo ID laws were largely overturned. As in 2008, thousands of volunteers worked in key states to make sure people came out to the polls and to protect their rights once they did. Angered by the GOP tactics, thousands of nearly disenfranchised voters made a point of waiting through hours of contrived delays to cast their ballots. Many were still standing in line to vote even as Barack Obama was proclaiming victory.
The Obama campaign and various voting rights groups challenged Husted in court over early voting hours, provisional ballot directives, and voter ID rules.
Overall, the response of the election protection movement was powerful and effective. Obama’s re-election was essentially secured by a movement that prevented the Republicans from disenfranchising enough voters to guarantee their victory.
ELECTRONIC VOTE THEFT
But no turnout for Barack Obama or any other candidate could have withstood a full-scale electronic vote shift. Unlike the widely accepted understanding that massive disenfranchisement can swing an election, assertions focussing on electronic vote theft continue to arouse divisive passion.
Yet there remains a simple bottom line: there is absolutely no secure means of monitoring, confirming, recounting or legally challenging a vote count that has been registered and tabulated electronically. In reality, our entire electoral system is sitting duck, and is far more vulnerable to electronic manipulation that it was in 2000.
Back then, at a critical moment on election night, 16,000 electronic votes from Volusia County, Florida, were deleted from Al Gore and 4,000 added to George W. Bush. Though the count was later reversed, Fox News commentator John Ellis—Bush’s first cousin—used the shift to reverse pronouncements that Gore had won the election.
In Ohio 2004, which would decide the presidency, CNN reported shortly after 11pm that John Kerry had defeated Bush by more than 200,000 votes. But at 11:14 pm the electronic tally was shifted to a computer bank in SChattanooga, Tennessee. Soon thereafter the lead definitively shifted to Bush, who officially won the state–and thus the presidency—by some 118,000 votes. The exit polls clearly showed Kerry winning.
Secretary of State Blackwell’s no-bid contract for the Ohio 2004 electronic vote count had been awarded to the Akron-based GovTech Corporation. Its founder, Michael Connell, was a long-standing associate of the Bush Family. Connell ran the GOP’s lead IT company, New Media. New Media processed Ohio’s votes through a server farm in Chattanooga, which also housed the email of the Republican National Committee, and of Karl Rove. The owner of the server farm was born-again political activist Jeff Averbeck of Smartech.
On November 3, 2008, Connell was deposed in Cleveland by attorneys Fitrakis and Cliff Arnebeck as part of the King-Lincoln federal lawsuit. Questioning focused on his possible role in electronically flipping the 2004 Ohio vote count. On December 19, while facing a follow-up deposition, Connell died in a mysterious private plane crash.
By then it had become clear that no recount of the Ohio 2004 election would be possible. Judge Marbley had issued a decision requiring that all 88 county election boards preserve all balloting records from Ohio 2004. But when Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner went to collect them, she discovered that 56 of the 88 counties had violated Marbley’s ruling. Accompanied by a series of widely varying excuses, the boards of election had made it impossible to track the true presidential vote count in the deciding state in one of America’s most bitterly contested elections.
In 2012, the GOP was prepared to repeat history. For a decade the Help America Vote Act had been spreading electronic voting machines throughout the US. More than half the nation’s votes were cast and/or counted this year on electronic devices. Yet the courts have ruled that the software on these machines is proprietary, meaning the public has no access to how they are coded, or how the votes are counted.
In Ohio, nearly all 2012 votes were cast and counted electronically. The Free Press reported that in Cincinnati, the notoriously insecure and unreliable Hart InterCivic voting machines were deployed by a company, HIG Capital, controlled by major Romney campaign associates who are investment partners with Romney family members.
The widespread belief that Ohio could decide the presidential outcome helped make that FreePress story go viral.
Just prior to election day, documents leaked to the Free Press from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office confirmed that an uncertified and untested software patch had been appended to ES&S machines on which 80% of the state’s votes would be cast and transmitted. The software had no safeguards to prevent an inside party from altering the vote count.
Further Free Press research uncovered the operations of Scytyl, a Spanish-owned company hired by a number of states to manage the overseas electronic vote count. But Scytyl’s software was also capable of manipulating the vote count in entire states, again without meaningful public access or recourse.
As Election Day approached, Democrats complained that touch screen machines had them pushing the button for Barack Obama while seeing Mitt Romney light up. In Colorado, Republicans claimed they were pushing Mitt Romney’s name while Barack Obama lit up. The complaints resembled those in Youngstown, Ohio 2004, where voters complained they were attempting to vote for John Kerry while George W. Bush’s name lit up. Mahoning County election officials in Youngstown, Ohio explained that the vote flipping was “only” happening on 31 machines.
This year, amidst saturation election night coverage, Karl Rove urged Fox reporters to refrain from calling Ohio for Barack Obama. Rove’s confused, angry outburst mentioned crashing websites run by the Ohio Secretary of State, and seemed to mirror the fateful Foxist backtracking of Bush cousin John Ellis in Florida 2000.
As in 2008, Barack Obama’s wide margin put the 2012 election out of reach of electronic vote theft. He could have lost Florida, Ohio and Virginia and still won in the Electoral College.
But the outcome in a close election might well have been different. Both Ohio and Florida were vulnerable to electronic flipping by the Republican governors and secretaries of state that controlled the electoral apparatus in both states. In a close election, they could easily have put Mitt Romney in the White House.
The electorate and much of the media reacted this year with great anger to the GOP’s national disenfranchisement campaign. Many people who came out to vote and stayed in long lines voiced angry defiance of the Republican attempt to deny them the right to do so.
But the reaction to the possibility of electronic vote theft has been muted and even hostile. The official lie propagated by the Democratic Party and their apologists is that there has not been a single case of vote tampering. In fact there have been hundreds of such cases (once case in point comes in a 17-page Free Press report (at freepress.org) documenting phantom electronic votes in Miami County, Ohio). Some Democrats worried openly that talk of the possibility of electronic vote theft might discourage people from voting at all.
Clearly this didn’t happen in 2008 or 2012. But it’s also clear that the vulnerability of electronic voting continues to put our democracy at profound risk. Until it is done away with altogether, and replaced with universal hand-counted paper balloting, the sanctity and reliability of our vote counts is moot.
The grassroots election protection movement that has arisen to deal with these issues has attained significant nationwide status. Given its popular momentum and gravity of the cause, it seems destined to take a place among the great political campaigns of our time.
It has already won some tangible victories. US Attorney-General Eric Holder has now endorsed automatic universal voter registration. The palpable anger over GOP attempts at mass disenfranchisement will not soon be forgotten. There is much new talk—nowhere near powerful enough—about abolishing the Electoral College. And the potential for electronic vote theft is at least being discussed as never before. Hard hitting reports by Forbes.com among others was accurate and admirable throughout the 2012 election cycle.
But there are also disturbing developments on the horizon. The courts continue to rule that software on electronic voting machines is proprietary, and thus beyond the control of scrutiny of the public. Thus we are still prey to having our public elections controlled by private corporations.
And in response to another round of long lines and voter disenfranchisement, there is talk of “convenience voting” by internet and cellphone. These are terrible ideas, as they can never be secured and are even more vulnerable to hacking than the touchscreen machines now in place.
So the public has no access, no guarantees, no recourse. The veracity of our electoral vote counts remain a blind item. Though Barack Obama won this election, other down-ticket races—past, present and future—may well have been manipulated.
For example, California’s bitterly contested referendum on GMO food labeling is still being subjected to a detailed recount. Mathematicians and social scientists are now reporting unexplained patterns of vote shifting that appear to be based on the size of precincts. The larger the precinct, the more the vote differs from the predicted norm.
Over the coming years, this new grassroots election protection movement will battle it out over the life-and-death issue of the integrity of our voting process. Banning money from politics, abolishing the Electoral College, automatic universal voter registration, universal hand-counted paper ballots, easier access to voting, the removal of partisan private for-profit companies and more will be at its core.
But even at this young age, the movement has played a critical role in electing and re-electing a president, and in preserving the integrity of countless elections, with an eye toward a vastly reformed system.
Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan and Canada all use universal hand-counted paper ballots. Ireland has just pitched its electronic machines to do the same.
That and a few other key democratic reforms would be a dream come true for this new movement. As election protection activists, we will be proud to watch that happen here in the United States as well.
Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman have co-authored five books on election protection.
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