Recipe for a Cooked Election
By Greg Palast
-- -- A nasty little secret of American democracy
is that, in every national election, ballots cast are simply
thrown in the garbage. Most are called "spoiled," supposedly
unreadable, damaged, invalid. They just don’t get counted. This
“spoilage” has occurred for decades, but it reached
unprecedented heights in the last two presidential elections. In
the 2004 election, for example, more than three million ballots
were never counted.
Almost as deep a secret is that people are
doing something about it. In New Mexico, citizen activists,
disgusted by systematic vote disappearance, demanded change —
and got it.
In Ohio, during the 2004 Presidential
election, 153,237 ballots were simply thrown away — more than
the Bush “victory” margin. In New Mexico the uncounted vote was
five times the Bush alleged victory margin of 5,988. In Iowa,
Bush’s triumph of 13,498 was overwhelmed by 36,811 votes
rejected. The official number is bad enough — 1,855,827 ballots
cast not counted, according to the federal government’s
Elections Assistance Commission. But the feds are missing data
from several cities and entire states too embarrassed to report
the votes they failed to count.
Correcting for that under-reporting, the
number of ballots cast but never counted goes to 3,600,380. Why
doesn’t your government tell you this?
Hey, they do. It’s right there in black and
white in a U.S. Census Bureau announcement released seven months
after the election — in a footnote. The Census tabulation of
voters voting in the 2004 presidential race "differs," it reads,
from ballots tallied by the Clerk of the House of
Representatives by 3.4 million votes.
This is the hidden presidential count,
which, with the exception of the Census’s whispered footnote,
has not been reported. In the voting biz, most of these lost
votes are called "spoilage." Spoilage, not the voters, picked
our President for us. Unfortunately, that’s not all. In addition
to the three million ballots uncounted due to technical
"glitches," millions more were lost because the voters were
prevented from casting their ballots in the first place. This
group of un-votes includes voters illegally denied registration
or wrongly purged from the registries.
Joe Stalin, the story goes, said, “It’s not
the people who vote that count; it’s the people who count the
votes.” That may have been true in the old Soviet Union, but in
the USA, the game is much, much subtler: He who makes sure votes
don’t get counted decides our winners.
In the lead-up to the 2004 race, millions of
Americans were, not unreasonably, panicked about computer voting
machines. Images abounded of an evil hacker-genius in Dick
Cheney’s bunker rewriting code and zapping the totals. But
that’s not how it went down.
The computer scare was the McGuffin, the
fake detail used by magicians to keep your eye off their hands.
The principal means of the election heist — voiding ballots —
went unexposed, unreported and most importantly, uncorrected and
ready to roll out on a grander scale next time
Like a forensic crime scene investigation
unit, we can perform a post mortem starting with the exhumation
of more than three million uncounted votes:
- Provisional Ballots Rejected.
An entirely new species of ballot debuted nationwide in
2004: the "provisional ballot." These were crucial to the
Bush victory. Not because Republicans won this "provisional"
vote. They won by rejecting provisional ballots that were
cast overwhelmingly in Democratic precincts. The sum of "the
uncounted" is astonishing: 675,676 ballots lost in the
counties reporting to the federal government. Add in the
missing jurisdictions and the un-vote climbs to over a
million: 1,090,729 provisional ballots tossed out.
- Spoiled Ballots. You
vote, you assume it’s counted. Think again. Your "x" was too
light for a machine to read. You didn’t punch the card hard
enough and so you "hung your chad." Therefore, your vote
didn’t count and, crucially, you’ll never know it. The
federal Election Assistance Commission toted up nearly a
million ballots cast but not counted. Add in states too shy
to report to Washington, the total “spoilage” jumps to a
- Absentee Ballots Uncounted.
The number of absentee ballots has quintupled in many
states, with the number rejected on picayune technical
grounds rising to over half a million (526,420) in 2004. In
swing states, absentee ballot shredding was pandemic.
- Voters Barred from Voting.
In this category we find a combination of incompetence and
trickery that stops voters from pulling the lever in the
first place. There’s the purge of "felon" voters that
continues to eliminate thousands whose only crime is VWB —
Voting While Black. It includes subtle games like
eliminating polling stations in selected districts, creating
impossible lines. No one can pretend to calculate a hard
number for all votes lost this way any more than you can
find every bullet fragment in a mutilated body. But it’s a
safe bet that the numbers reach into the hundreds of
thousands of voters locked out of the voting booth.
The test kitchen
But do these un-votes really turn the
election? Voters from both parties used provisional or absentee
ballots, and the machines can’t tell if a hanging chad is
Democratic or Republican, right? Not so. To see how it works, we
went to New Mexico.
Dig this: In November 2004 during early
voting in Precinct 13, Taos, New Mexico, John Kerry took 73
votes. George Bush got three. On election day, 216 in that
precinct voted Kerry. Bush got 25 votes, and came in third.
Third? Taking second place in the precinct,
with 40 votes, was no one at all.
Or, at least, that’s what the machines said.
Precinct 13 is better known as the Taos
Pueblo. Every single voter there is an American Native or
married to one.
Precinct 13 wasn’t unique. On Navajo lands,
indecision struck on an epidemic scale. They walked in, they
didn’t vote. In nine precincts in McKinley County, New Mexico,
which is 74.7 percent Navajo, fewer than one in ten voters
picked a president. Those who voted on paper ballots early or
absentee knew who they wanted (Kerry, overwhelmingly), but the
machine-counted vote said Indians simply couldn’t make up their
minds or just plain didn’t care.
On average, across the state, the machine
printouts say that 7.3 percent — one in twelve voters — in
majority Native precincts didn’t vote for president. That’s
three times the percentage of white voters who appeared to
abstain. In pueblo after pueblo, on reservation after
reservation throughout the United States, the story was the
Nationally, one out of every 12 ballots cast
by Native Americans did not contain a vote for President.
Indians by the thousands drove to the voting station, walked
into the booth, said, “Who cares?” and walked out without voting
So we dropped in on Taos, Precinct 13. The
"old" pueblo is old indeed— built 500 to 1,000 years ago. In
these adobe dwellings stacked like mud condos, no electricity is
allowed nor running water — nor Republicans as far as records
show. Richard Archuleta, a massive man with long, gray pigtails
and hands as big as fl ank steaks, is the head of tourism for
the pueblo. Richard wasn’t buying the indecision theory of the
Native non-count. Indians were worried about their Bureau of
Indian Affairs grants, their gaming licenses, and working
conditions at their other big employer: the U.S. military.
On the pueblo’s mud-brick walls there were
several hand painted signs announcing Democratic Party powwows,
none for Republicans. Indecisive? Indians are Democrats. Case
closed. The color that counts It wasn’t just Native Americans
who couldn’t seem to pick a President. Throughout New Mexico,
indecisiveness was pandemic ... at least, that is, among people
of color. Or so the machines said. Across the state,
high-majority Hispanic precincts recorded a 7.1 percent vote for
nobody for president.
We asked Dr. Philip Klinkner, the expert who
ran stats for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, to look at the
New Mexico data. His solid statistical analysis discovered that
if you’re Hispanic, the chance your vote will not record on the
machine was 500% higher than if you are white. For Natives, it’s
off the charts. The Hispanic and Native vote is no small
potatoes. Every tenth New Mexican is American Native (9.5
percent) and half the remaining population (43 percent) is
Our team drove an hour across the high
desert from the Taos Reservation to Espaņola in Rio Arriba
County. According to the official tallies, entire precincts of
Mexican-Americans registered few or zero votes for president in
the last two elections. Espaņola is where the Los Alamos workers
live, not the Ph.D.s in the white lab coats, but the women who
clean the hallways and the men who bury the toxins. This was not
Bush country, and the people we met with, including the leaders
of the get-out-the-vote operations, knew of no Hispanics who
insisted on waiting at the polling station to cast their vote
for "nobody for President." The huge majority of Mexican-
Americans, especially in New Mexico, and a crushing majority of
Natives (over 90 percent), vote Democratic.
What if those voters weren’t indecisive;
what if they punched in a choice and it didn’t record? Let’s do
the arithmetic. As minority voters cast 89 percent of the
state’s 21,084 blank ballots, that’s 18,765 missing minority
votes. Given the preferences of other voters in those pueblos
and barrios, those 18,765 voters of color should have swamped
Bush’s 5,988 vote “majority” with Kerry votes. But that would
have required those votes be counted.
The voting-industrial complex
New Mexico’s Secretary of State, Rebecca
Vigil-Giron, seemed curiously uncurious about Hispanic and
Native precincts where nearly one in ten voters couldn’t be
bothered to choose a president.
Vigil-Giron, along with Governor Bill
Richardson, not only stopped any attempt at a recount directly
following the election, but demanded that all the machines be
wiped clean. This not only concealed evidence of potential fraud
but destroyed it. In 2006, New Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled the
Secretary of State’s machine-cleaning job illegal — too late to
change the outcome of the election, of course.
But who are we to second-guess Secretary
Vigil-Giron? After all, she is a big shot, at the time
president, no less, of the National Association of Secretaries
of State, the top banana of all our nation&rsquos elections
Vigil-Giron, after putting a stop to the
recount, rather than schlep out to investigate the missing vote
among the iguanas and Navajos, left the state to officiate at a
dinner meeting in Minneapolis for her national association. It
was held on a dinner boat. The tab for the moonlight ride was
picked up by touch-screen voting machine maker ES&S Corporation.
Breakfast, in case you&rsquore curious, was served by
touchscreen maker Diebold Corp.
At the time of this writing, Vigil-Giron is
busy planning the next big confab of vendors and state officials
-- this time in Santa Fe, "the city different." But aside from
Wal-Mart signing on as a sponsor, nothing much is different when
it comes to the inner workings of the voting industrial complex.
Except for one thing.
Where's the action?
While Vigil-Giron is greeting her fellow
Secretaries and casually introducing them to this year's
vendors, it is likely she'll keep quiet about a few things.
Voter Action, a group of motivated citizens, some jumping into
activism for the first time, sued the state of New Mexico in
2005 over the bad machines and the failure to count the vote.
The activists ran a public campaign with their revelations about
New Mexico's broken democracy. Last year, Voter Action invited
our investigations team to lay out our findings to huge
citizens' meetings in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Soon, the whole
horrid vote-losing game was on local community radio and TV
stations. It worked.
Governor Richardson, who ducked the issue
for three years, and his Secretary of State, once openly hostile
to reform, had to relent in the face of the public uprising. In
February of 2006, Richardson signed a model law requiring that
all voting in the state take place on new paper ballot machines,
with verifiable tabulating systems. Richardson now claims the
mantle of leader of the voting reform campaign.
Voter Action, successful in New Mexico, is
now pursuing lawsuits in seven states to stop the Secretaries of
State from purchasing electronic voting systems which have
records of inaccuracy, security risks, and have been proven
In New Mexico we learned, once again, that
the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To protect your right
to vote, you must know what is happening in your state – before,
during, and after Election Day – and be willing to hold your
Greg Palast is the author of the New York
Times bestseller, Armed Madhouse: Who’s Afraid of Osama
Wolf?, China Floats Bush Sinks, the Scheme to Steal ‘08, No
Child’s Behind Left and other Dispatches from the Front Lines of
the Class War from which this report is adapted. Matt
Pascarella, writer and researcher working with Palast,
contributed the update to this report. See their work at
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