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Stealing the Election in Florida

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The Unreported Story of How They Fixed the Vote in Florida
From the book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin 2003)
by Greg Palast

Reprinted in part from Pelast's book by workingforchange.com.

'This series is part of the WorkingForChange campaign, in cooperation with Martin Luther King III of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to prevent the theft of the presidential election of 2004. There is a link included to sign onto the WorkingForChange/King petition.

Voting Machine Apartheid

Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the real horror of the 2000 election was not the vote count that so transfixed our media, but what she calls "the no count" -- the means of keeping citizens from voting or having their ballots voided.

And Florida used more than the voter purge in their "no count" bag of tricks. In February 2001, I found a doozy.

This fact caught my attention: In a presidential race decided by 537 votes, Florida simply did not count 179,855 ballots. And whether your vote counted depended a lot on your color. In Leon (Tallahassee), a primarily white county, only 1 in 500 ballots was uncounted, "spoiled," as they say in the vote biz, that is, voided for one reason or another. In neighboring Gadsden, with a high population of Black voters, 1 in 8 ballots was never counted.

Here's the breakdown of ballots not counted in Florida's Blackest and whitest counties:

BLACK COUNTIES
Population 25+% African American
Gadsden 52% Black population. Votes not counted: 12%
Madison 42% Black population. Votes not counted: 7%
Hamilton 39% Black population. Votes not counted: 9%
Jackson 26% Black population. Votes not counted: 7%

WHITE COUNTIES
Fewer than 5% African American
Citrus 2% Black population. Votes not counted: 1%
Pasco 2% Black population. Votes not counted: 3%
Santa Rosa 4% Black population. Votes not counted: 1%
Sarasota 4% Black population. Votes not counted: 2%

Detect a pattern?

How could this happen? Exactly how do votes "spoil"? And why do Black votes spoil so easily?

I found the answer in the Tallahassee office of Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. Like many other counties, Sancho's used paper ballots. These ballots are read by machine, "optically scanned." He had set up a voting machine to demonstrate its use. I tried it out, voting for Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader -- a deliberate error as a gag for a documentary film crew. I marked the ballot, then put it into a slot in the machine and -- grrrr-zunt! -- it shot back into my hands, recognizing my error. You cannot make a voting mistake on this machine, called an "Accuvote." Mighty cool. But if you can't make a mistake, how did so many votes "spoil" in paper ballot counties? I asked a clerk: Does every county using paper ballots have this machine? The answer -- yes and no -- was disturbing. The adjoining county, Gadsden, also had machine-read paper ballots, but did not activate the reject mechanism. Make one wrong mark on your ballot in Gadsden and your ballot disappears into the machine -- it will not be counted. For example, some voters had checked off and written in the name "Al Gore" -- yet their vote did not count for Gore. So I asked what I call The Florida Question: "By any chance, do you know the racial profile of counties where machines accept bad ballots?"

Then I got The Florida Answer: "We've been waiting for someone to ask us that." The clerk then pulled out a huge multicolored sheet, listing, for every Florida county, the number of ballots not counted. The proportion of uncounted ballots to the Black population, county by county, was a nearly perfect match. But Ted Koppel's Nightline tells us this was because Blacks were too ignorant to figure out the ballot. Could Ted have gotten it wrong? As the Tallahassee officials demonstrated to me, whether a ballot was counted or not had almost nothing to do with the voter's education or sophistication -- but an awful lot to do with the type of machine deployed and how the buttons were set.

Then I got to the 64 Dollar questions: What did Harris and the governor know and when did they know it? Was either aware of this racially loaded technical problem? Harris's office and Jeb's are literally a stone's throw away from Sancho's. The technicians told me, "That's why we set up this machine, so they could see it -- before the election."

The Consortium That Couldn't Count

Twisted press coverage murdered the story of ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls. But simply smothering the news wasn't good enough for The New York Times, CNN and the other keepers of the New Information Order. With other major news outlets, they joined together as "the Consortium" and spent a wagonload of cash to hire the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), of the University of Chicago, to conduct what was wrongly called a "recount" of the ballots. For months they held back the results. Finally, more than a year after the election, they released their findings. "Bush would have won anyway," headlines reassured us. So shut up, move on, get over it: The Lion of Kabul won fair and square. Or did he?

First, understand that NORC did not "recount" the ballots. Rather, its teams described each of the 180,000 "spoiled" ballots that Katherine Harris barred from the official total. This was the first count of these ballots. Also, NORC "coders" were not allowed to count these ballots either, merely provide physical descriptions of each ballot. They could note, in code, "Paper ballot, Gore circled," but could not count that ballot as a vote for Gore. The newspaper and television executives and editors, not the NORC experts, called the "winner" in this one.

Most Americans would have thought the goal of this million dollar investigation was to find out whom Floridians wanted to vote for. That tends to be what we mean by "democracy." But the news bosses were in no mood for a democracy that threatened the legitimacy of authority, especially with the war on in Afghanistan and an economy in the toilet. So, despite the fact that NORC coders clearly found that the majority of Florida voters thought they had voted for Gore, the papers called the NORC findings for Bush. Like, huh? NORC has put its data on the Web, so the Gore majority is there for all to see (for those who bother to look). The media chiefs' trick was to say that, going by various Florida rules, which knock out ballots with stray markings, Bush would have won. Well, we already knew that: That's how Katherine Harris called it for Bush -- on technicalities, not votes. Through this editorial three-card monte, the Republic was saved.

I watched the NORC operation firsthand in Miami in February 2001. There was an Alice in Wonderland weirdness in the process -- "First we announce the winner, then we count the ballots."

It was not difficult to discern which candidate the voters wanted. "It screamed at you," said one counter. If someone circled "Gore," who do you think he or she wanted as president? Yet, thousands of such ballots were tossed out of the official count. Tens of thousands were disenfranchised because of a wrongly placed or stray mark -- often made by the voting machine itself, as it turns out. The Consortium members did not comment on this exclusion of tens of thousands of clearly marked ballots or on its effect: the inauguration of the wrong person.

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