What Do We Do Now?

Greg Palast

Manifesto for the Post-11/2 World
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On January 21st Greg Palast will speak with other What We Do Now contributors at Cooper Union in New York City @ 7pm.

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KERRY WON. THE OFFICIAL TALLY STINKS.

Here’s How The Election Was Spoiled Rotten.

(From What We Do Now)

I know you don’t want to hear it. You can’t face one more hung chad. But I don’t have a choice. As a journalist examining that messy sausage called American democracy, it’s my job to tell you who got the most votes in on November 2, 2004. In Ohio and New Mexico, it was John Kerry.

Really, no foolin’.

Most voters in Ohio thought they were voting for Kerry. In the wee hours of the morning after the election, CNN’s exit poll showed Kerry beating Bush among Ohio women by 53 percent to 47 percent. Kerry also defeated Bush among Ohio’s male voters 51 percent to 49 percent. Unless a third gender voted in Ohio, Kerry took the state.

So what’s going on here? Answer: the exit polls are accurate. Pollsters ask, “Who did you vote for?” Unfortunately, they don’t ask the crucial, question, “Was your vote counted?” The voters don’t know.

Here’s why. Although the exit polls show that most voters in Ohio punched cards for Kerry-Edwards, thousands of these votes were simply not recorded. This was predictable and it was predicted.

Once again, at the heart of the Ohio uncounted vote game are, I’m sorry to report, hanging chads and pregnant chads, plus some other ballot tricks old and new.

The election in Ohio was not decided by the voters but by something called “spoilage.” Typically in the United States, about 3 percent of the vote is voided, just thrown away, not recorded. When the bobble-head boobs on the tube tell you Ohio or any state was won by 51 percent to 49 percent, don’t you believe it … it has never happened in the United States, because the total never reaches a neat 100 percent. The television totals simply subtract out the spoiled vote.

Whose Votes Are Discarded?

And not all votes spoil equally. According to the brutal statistics tucked away in the unread reports of the US Civil Rights Commission and Harvard Law School’s Civil Rights Project, of the two million votes spoiled in a typical presidential electio, more than half come from African-American precincts. In other words, about one million black votes simply vanish, chucked into the dumpster.

We saw this in Florida in 2000. Exit polls showed Gore with a plurality of at least 50,000, but it didn’t match the official count. That’s because the official, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, excluded 179,855 spoiled votes. In Florida, as in Ohio, most of these votes lost were cast on punch cards where the hole wasn’t punched through completely — leaving a ‘hanging chad,’ — or was punched extra times. Whose cards were discarded?

Civil Rights Commission and Harvard team statisticians went through the pile of ballots in the dumpster and calculated that 54% of those discards ballots were cast by black folks. Your chance a vote-counting machine will “reject” your ballot depends on your skin color. A Black citizen of Florida (see illustration) is 900% more likely to have their ballot tossed out on a technicality than a white one.

The sorry truth is that Florida is terribly typical. That horrid ratio holds nationwide.

So here we go again. Or, here we don’t go again. Because unlike last time, Democrats didn’t even ask Ohio to conduct a hand of these punch cards with the not-quite-punched holes (called “under-votes” in the voting biz). Nor are they demanding we look at the “over-votes” where voter intent may be discerned.

Ohio is one of the last states in America to still use the vote-spoiling punch-card machines. And the Secretary of State of Ohio, J. Kenneth Blackwell, wrote before the election, “the possibility of a close election with punch cards as the state’s primary voting device invites a Florida-like calamity.”

Blackwell, a rabidly partisan Republican, warmed up to the result of sticking with machines that have a habit of eating Democratic votes.

When asked if he feared being this year’s Katherine Harris, the politically ambitious Secretary of State said, “Last time I checked, Katherine Harris wasn’t in a soup line, she’s in Congress.”

In Ohio, 93,000 votes were spoiled. According to studies of the top voting demographer in Ohio, Mark Salling of Cleveland State University, the match between votes spoiled and African-American precincts is “overwhelming.”

“Provisional Voting” – Jim Crow’s Back-Of-The-Bus Ballots

Add to the spoiled ballots a second group of uncounted votes, the ‘provisional’ ballots, and — voila! — the White House would have turned Democrat blue.

But that won’t happen because of the peculiar way provisional ballots are counted or, more often, not counted. Introduced nationally by federal law in 2002, the provisional ballot was designed especially for voters of color. Proposed by the Congressional Black Caucus to save the rights of those wrongly scrubbed from voter rolls, it was, in Republican-controlled swing states, twisted into a back-of-the-bus ballot unlikely to be tallied.

Unlike the real thing, these ballots are counted only by the whimsy and rules of a state’s top elections official. In Ohio, that gives a virtual ballot veto to Bush-Cheney campaign co-chair Blackwell.

Mr. Blackwell has a few rules to make sure a large proportion of provisional ballots won’t be counted. For the first time in memory, the Secretary of State has banned counting ballots cast in the “wrong” precinct, though all neighborhoods share the same President.

Over 155,000 Ohio voters were shunted to these second-class ballots. The election-shifting bulge in provisional ballots (more than 3% of the electorate) was the direct result of the national Republican strategy that targeted African-American precincts for mass challenges on Election Day.

This is the first time in four decades that a political party has systematically barred — in this case successfully — hundreds of thousands of Black voters from access to the voting booth. While investigating for BBC Television, we obtained three dozen of the Republican Party’s confidential “caging” lists, their title for spreadsheets listing names and addresses of voters they intended to block on any pretext.

We found that every single address of the thousands on these Republican hit lists was located in Black-majority precincts. You might find that nasty and racist. It may also be a crime.

Before 1965, Jim Crow laws in the Deep South did not bar Blacks from voting. Rather, the segregationist game was played by applying minor technical voting requirements only to African-Americans. That year, Congress voted to make profiling and impeding minority voters, even with a legal pretext, a criminal offence under the Voting Rights Act.

But that didn’t stop the Republicans of ’04. Their legally questionable mass challenge to Black voters is not some low-level dirty tricks operation of local party hacks. Emails we obtained show the lists were copied directly to the Republican National Committee’s chief of research and to the director of a state campaign.

Many challenges center on changes of address. On one Republican caging list, 50 addresses changed from Jacksonville to overseas, African-American soldiers shipped Over There.

You don’t have to guess the preferences registered on the provisional ballots. Republicans went on a challenging rampage, while Democrats pledged to hold to the tradition of letting voters vote.

Blackwell has said he counted all the “valid” provisional ballots. However, his rigid regulations, like the new guess-your-precinct rule, were rigged to knock out enough voters to keep Bush’s skinny lead alive.

Other pre-election maneuvers by state and local Republican officials — late and improbably large purges of voter rolls, rejection of registrations — maximized the use of provisional ballots which will never be counted. For example, a voter wrongly tagged an ineligible “felon” voter (and there’s plenty in that category, mostly African-Americans), will lose their ballot even though they are wrongly identified.

Bush, according to the networks, “won” by 136,483 votes in Ohio — before any attempt to hand-count the spoiled ballots; before anyone counted a single provisional ballot. Count them up and the totals begin to match the exit polls; and, golly, you’ve got yourself a new president.

Enchanted State’s Enchanted Vote

Now, on to New Mexico, where a Kerry plurality — if all votes are counted — is more obvious still. Before the election, in TomPaine.com, I wrote, “John Kerry is down by several thousand votes in New Mexico, though not one ballot has yet been counted.”

How did that happen? It’s the spoilage, stupid; and the provisional ballots.

CNN said George Bush took New Mexico by 11,620 votes. Again, the network total added up to that miraculous, and non-existent, ‘100 percent’ of ballots cast.

New Mexico reported in the last race a spoilage rate of 2.68 percent, votes lost almost entirely in Hispanic, Native American and poor precincts — Democratic turf. From Tuesday’s vote, assuming the same ballot-loss rate, we can expect to see 18,000 ballots in the spoilage bin.

Spoilage has a very Democratic look in New Mexico. Hispanic voters in the Enchanted State, who voted more than two to one for Kerry, are five times as likely to have their vote spoil as a white voter. Counting these uncounted votes would easily overtake the Bush ‘plurality.’

Already, the election-bending effects of spoilage are popping up in the election stats, exactly where we’d expect them: in heavily Hispanic areas controlled by Republican elections officials. Chaves County, in the “Little Texas” area of New Mexico, has a 44 percent Hispanic population, plus African Americans and Native Americans, yet George Bush “won” there 68 percent to 31 percent.

I spoke with Chaves’ Republican county clerk before the election, and he told me that this huge spoilage rate among Hispanics simply indicated that such people simply can’t make up their minds on the choice of candidate for president. Oddly, these brown people drive across the desert to register their indecision in a voting booth.

Now, let’s add in the effect on the New Mexico tally of provisional ballots.

“They were handing them out like candy,” Albuquerque journalist Renee Blake reported of provisional ballots. Over 20,000 were given out. Who got them?

Santiago Juarez who ran the “Faithful Citizenship” program for the Catholic Archdiocese in New Mexico, told me that “his” voters, poor Hispanics, whom he identified as solid Kerry supporters, were handed the iffy provisional ballots. Hispanics were given provisional ballots, rather than the countable kind “almost religiously,” he said, at polling stations when there was the least question about a voter’s identification. Some voters, Santiago said, were simply turned away.

Kerry Blacks Out

Some crackpot writer in Salon.com claimed he had absolute proof the vote count in Ohio wasn’t bent: “Kerry conceded.”

Kerry’s diving to the mat tells us only that he and his advisors understood the cold calculus against taking the fight to the end. To count the ballots, Kerry’s lawyers would, first, have to demand a hand reading of the punch cards. Blackwell, armed with the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore diktat, would undoubtedly pull a “Kate Harris” by halting or restricting a hand count. Most daunting, Kerry’s team would also, as one state attorney general pointed out to me, have to litigate each and every rejected provisional ballot in court. This would entail locating up to a hundred thousand voters to testify to their right to the vote, with Blackwell challenging each with a holster full of regulations from the old Jim Crow handbook.

Given the odds and the cost to his political career, Kerry bent, not to the will of the people, but to the will to power of the Ohio Republican machine. I can understand it, but I can’t applaud it.

It was heartening that, during his campaign, John Kerry broke the political omerta that seems to prohibit public mention of the color of votes not counted in America. “Don’t tell us that in the strongest democracy on earth a million disenfranchised African Americans is the best we can do.” The Senator promised the NAACP convention, “This November, we’re going to make sure that every single vote is counted.”

But then Kerry became the first presidential candidate in history to break a campaign promise after losing an election. The Senator waited less than 24 hours to abandon more than a quarter million Ohio voters still waiting for their provisional and chad-spoiled ballots to be counted.

“Get Over It”? Not Me.

We have yet to total here the votes lost in missing absentee ballots, in eyebrow-raising touch screen tallies, in purges of legal voters from registries and other games played in swing states. Kerry won, so hold your victory party. But make sure the shades are down: it may be become illegal to demand a full vote count under PATRIOT Act III.

Why dwell on these things? Our betters in the political and media elite have told us to get over it, move on.

But where do we move to? What’s on the other side when we “get over” democracy?

If there’s a point to this piece it is that America still maintains a segregated Apartheid voting system. Black, Hispanic and Native-American voters are the immediate targets, but all Americans dispossessed by the system are the victims — those without jobs, without health insurance, without decent schools — you know the list. As the demographer Phil Klinkner pointed out, it was the rich, those with incomes over $100,000 a year, who provided George Bush with his margin of victory over the rest of us.

I say, “over the rest of us,” because Bush did more than defeat a candidate named Kerry, he defeated the voters, not just through ballot manipulations but through a billion-dollar avalanche of purchased advertising and PR disinformation. We the people were defeated because our government was turned into a profit-center to generate returns for those donors who paid for this electoral class war.

Here’s an idea. It’s time for a new Civil Rights movement, a Democracy Movement. In the Fifties and Sixties, Martin Luther King led nationwide protests to force the government to give all Americans, in particular African Americans, the right to vote. Unfortunately, we won the right to vote but not to have those votes counted.

Democracy, the vote, must be our demand. Again.

Greg Palast is the author of, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” (Penguin 2004). He is a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine for whom investigated the vote. At www.GregPalast.com, you can view his investigations of the vote and the Bush Administration for BBC Television’s Newsnight.

Oliver Shykles and Matthew Pascarella contributed to this report.