[Update, April 2, 2012: Another embarrassing and inexcusable election scandal in Florida. Palm Beach Elections Overturned After Hand-Count Reveals Op-Scans Mistallied Results. As Brad Friedman’s article further suggests, we MUST
have a verifiable paper trail for all election tallies have a physical count of ballots by humans before an election is certified. ]
[Update, June 13, 2011: This piece is made even more relevant by the recount discoveries and legal challenges surrounding the Wisconsin Supreme Court elections – Mike]
In 2000, the United States experienced a very close and heavily contested presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Bush won a minority of popular votes, but after legal challenges were exhausted, he had a majority of the Electoral College, giving him the election. Enough serious questions were left forever unanswered to shake Americans’ confidence in the honesty of the election outcome. The result was a nationally revamped polling system, switched from paper ballots to electronic voting machines.
In November 2004, the United States experienced another close presidential election, this time between John Kerry and George W. Bush. The national exit polls showed what seemed to presage a clear Kerry victory … but that’s not how it turned out. Bush again took the election, this time with a slim majority of the popular vote. Yet, there were still many questions about ballot tampering and vote count manipulation.
Apparently eliminating paper had not eliminated suspicions or suspicious outcomes.
Here’s an interesting coincidence which also occurred in 2004, just about 3 weeks after the U.S. election outcome: Ukraine had a presidential election later that same November. This election was between incumbent president Viktor Yushchenko and opposition candidate Viktor Yanukovic. To Americans, the names are likely to look and sound nearly indistinguishable. Interestingly, in some ways, so was the election.
After the polls closed, exit polling suggested that incumbent President Yushchenko had clearly lost by a significant margin. After the votes were counted, however, President Yushchenko had carried the day by a narrow lead.
As I understand it, exit polling is accurate to within a high degree of statistical certainty; much more so than pre-election polling. It is considered very unusual and highly suspicious for an election outcome to vary very much from exit poll results. So, when President Yushchenko confounded the Ukrainian exit polls and won, there was instant suspicion voiced loudly and often by other European and western-style democracies. One of the loudest voices was, fascinatingly, the United States, headed by President Bush.
Oh. Did I mention that about 3 weeks earlier, President Bush had confounded the exit polls and won a slender victory over those same exit polls’ clearly predicted winner, John Kerry?
You shouldn’t feel embarrassed if you were unaware of this. Very little was made of it in the post-election analyses of the Bush victory. Oh, it was mentioned a couple of times, here and there, but it quickly disappeared beneath the sea of spin and the news cycle.
Now in case you missed it, here’s the irony: Ukraine experienced an international political crisis over its election result and polling disparity. The equally odd outcome in the United States, which presumably had much more sophisticated and accurate polling assets at the media’s disposal than in Ukraine, experienced nary a hiccup of inquiry nor a ripple of eyebrows.
There have been other notable election oddities in the U.S. since 2004. The most recent ‘wowzer’ occurred in the Supreme Court election in Wisconsin. Apparently, someone made a 14,000 vote ‘oopsie’ there which changed an important bellwether election outcome. This is made more curious by the fact that this same person has a history of other forehead-wrinkling election ‘oopsies’ over the years.
Over the past decade or so, whether or not there have been any actual election shenanigans or voter frauds – and I am not here accusing or excusing any of the parties potentially involved in any of the aforementioned outcomes – perception is reality, and I believe that an increasing number of Americans have serious doubts about the honesty of American elections.
If this was, say, Vanuatu (and no offense to Vanuatu, but they don’t have the world’s most powerful economy or military), the world might not care or pay much attention. What amazes me is that the United States DOES have the world’s most powerful economy and military. Shouldn’t our elections be at least as trustworthy as the elections that we expect in, say, Ukraine? And shouldn’t the world’s other democracies insist upon it?
The United States is a proud (and some would say, ‘arrogant’) nation, and Americans are a proud (and some would say, ‘arrogant’) people, but ‘de Nile’ isn’t just a river in Egypt.
Democracy relies on many essential elements, including a feeling that your views have been heard, and leaders willing surrendering power peacefully to their newly-elected successors (viz., Ivory Coast). The single most important pillar of democracy, I believe, though, is the trust of the body politic in the honesty of the election results. In the absence of that trust, elections are seen as charades and leaders are considered to be without legitimacy.
More than once, the democracies of North America and Europe have supervised elections in other nations in order to ensure the honesty of their outcomes and the validity and acceptance of their mandates.
It’s entirely possible that the United States has elections of overall exemplary honesty, and odd outcomes and errors may in fact be nothing but human idiosyncrasy.
But wouldn’t it be nice at this stage to have some impartial 3rd parties watch some elections and let us know for sure?