As I write, the outrageous Florida vote leaves the world uncertain whether Al Gore or George W. Bush will be the next president of the United States. Within hours, recount results will be announced by the Florida Secretary of State -- a Republican named Katherine Harris, who (as most non-Floridians do not know) has a shady history of receiving illegal campaign contributions and doing favors for wealthy backers. This is the woman who oversaw her state's bizarre election -- an election which, to note only the most famous oddity, gave Pat Buchanan his highest numbers in a heavily Jewish sector of the state. This same woman is the person we must now trust to "verify" Bush'
s ascension to the White House.
One question now haunts us -- a problem no mainstream pundit dare state nakedly: Do Republicans in Florida practice vote fraud?
Harris won't seriously discuss the possibility. Neither will Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother to the national candidate. And I strongly doubt that former Secretary of State James Baker will look into the matter.
But we must.
Consider, first and foremost, the issue of absentee ballots. We've all read many news stories describing the Republican emphasis on voting "in the comfort of your own home." (Never mind the fact that absentee voting was originally instituted to help travelers, soldiers and the hospitalized, as opposed to the merely lazy.) The GOP routinely mails application forms en masse. In every state, the party seeks the loosest possible regulations on witnessing and identification. Absentee voting is, as the senior Bush might put it, a Republican "thing."
Now consider these quotes from a report on vote fraud, published by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement:
"Absentee Ballot Fraud: - The desire to facilitate the opportunity for each
person to vote has resulted in increased opportunity to use absentee ballots improperly. (Once one has registered fraudulently, he or she can obtain an absentee ballot for every election thereafter if he or she wishes. The lack of "in-person, at-the-polls" accountability makes absentee ballots the "tool of choice" for those inclined to commit voter fraud.)"
"The absentee ballot is the "tool of choice" for those who are engaging in
election fraud. The absentee ballot's very nature makes it the mechanism to
use when trying to capitalize on a voter's infirmities or desire to make
some quick money. Both federal and Florida law make absentee ballots
available to anyone who seeks them, with no requirement of "justification"
for not appearing in person at the polls. Given this easy access to absentee ballots, the "tool of choice" will remain popular among those who corrupt the elections process.
"The absentee ballot's integrity is only as good as the weakest link in the
voter registration process, and the voter registration process is extremely
open to fraud and abuse. Once registered to vote, any person may request and utilize an absentee ballot without ever having to appear in person to vote. If the voter registration process does not require significant proof of
citizenship, address, and identity, then those inclined to commit fraud will
capitalize on the process by successfully registering those who have no
right to vote, and then "facilitate" their (illegal) vote by absentee
Why does the Republican Party adore a form of voting which is the "tool of choice" for those who seek to abuse the system?
This question brings us to the related issue of absentee votes originating overseas. Florida law allows voters outside the country to send in ballots on the day of the election; these votes may not be counted until as much as ten days later.
George W. Bush has repeatedly assured the public that the overseas absentee vote still uncounted in Florida will surely break Republican. How can he be so certain? Why is this man smirking?
The Republicans argue that the overseas absentee vote comes primarily from military personnel; fighting men, we are told, always stand with the G.O.P. But we should question that assumption. Today's military includes an extremely high number of black people, and blacks support Gore even more fervently than they did Clinton. White recruits often come from low-income families, and the poor are more likely to vote Democratic. It is reasonable to presume that those serving in the armed forces are quite sensitive (as the national press, sadly, was not) to the questions surrounding Bush's "missing year" in the National Guard. Soldiers have surely noticed that Gore
served in Vietnam, a fate the well-connected Bush fils avoided.
Beyond that: Why does Dubya seem so assured that all of those overseas votes will come from people in uniform? Roughly 1000 Florida residents live in, and vote from, Israel. While conspiracy theorists of a certain stripe will no doubt "go ballistic" (to borrow another Bushism) at the prospect of the Israel-based vote proving decisive, the fact remains: This group usually supports a Democratic ticket.
Given these factors, we can only view with deep suspicion Bush's serene confidence that he has the overseas vote in the bag. Perhaps he does. But who is holding the bag?
Republicans never even address the question of fraud, aside from Jeb Bush's pro-forma reminders that vote tampering is illegal. (As though illegality conferred impossibility!) The G.O.P. speaks only of a second count, pretending that a new tally is a mere formality that will ordain the Bush election as God's judgment. But a result obtained by electoral trickery may read the same no matter how many times one totes up the numbers -- and such a result remains no less duplicitous. No-one should rest assured that democracy has prevailed if the recount goes to Bush.
"A THING OF THE PAST"?
Those who speak of electoral engineering usually run into a wall of glib reassurances. At these times, the media try their damnedest to lull Americans away from thinking any unthinkable thoughts.
For example: A story in the November 9 edition of the Los Angeles Times insists that electoral fraud is "a thing of the past. And the now almost legendary instances would be virtually impossible today. Modern balloting methods and intense public scrutiny make it much harder for politicians to stuff ballot boxes, allow dead people to vote, and abscond with ballots from unfavorable precincts." The pre-eminent voice of California journalism assures us that vote-rigging, like a Sarah Bernhardt performance or a taste
of legal absinthe, is something that moderns can only read about; we will not experience it directly.
No one should believe these smug -- and provably incorrect -- guarantees.
What does the LAT mean by "modern balloting methods"? Nobody can rationally claim that the methodology of voting has entered the 21st century -- in some cases, the technology even pre-dates the 20th century. If anything, the rise of absentee voting makes election rigging far easier today than it was in the dark era of Boss Tweed. Indeed, the possibility of absentee ballot shenanigans would have so excited Tweed, his drooping mustache would have stood upright.
As for "intense public scrutiny": Most voters in California, Texas, Illinois, Georgia and elsewhere remain blissfully ignorant of the evidence of recent electoral hugger-mugger in those states.
The exception, interestingly, is Florida -- where the fraud has become about as subtle as a gator's bite.
The dead see so much action in Florida elections, the state resembles an Anne Rice novel. The easily- confused elderly and the mentally ill are cajoled by "handlers" into casting absentee ballots for candidates whose names hardly even register on the consciousness of such voters. No-one checks the identity of a registered voter; a "Florida" voter may well hail from out of state, or even another country. Very little stops an absentee voter from going to the polls on election day. There are precious few
safeguards against voting in more than one precinct. (In the second debate, Bush asked Gore supporters to vote "only once." Please note that he made no such request of his own fans.) And yes, old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing does go on.
The previously-cited Florida Department of Law Enforcement study outlines these problems, and many others. The history of recent Florida elections is appalling. A few examples:
Three years ago, scandal decimated public confidence in the results of the Mayoral elections in Miami. Ballots were switched. Non-Miami citizens participated. Votes were bought and sold like stocks. Provably phony data filled many a registration card. Corpses did their civic duty, thanks to the Lazarus-like properties of the absentee ballot.
In 1993, an election in Hialeah was marked -- and marred -- by the phenomenon of campaign workers filling out absentee ballots. That same year, campaign workers in Daytona Beach "witnessed" signatures on absentee ballots they did not actually witness. A year earlier, campaign workers in Hardee and Dixie counties "assisted" voters in the booth, and distributed absentee ballots the mentally handicapped and the very old. In Baker county in 1990, voters were paid a mere $10 apiece to mark their ballots a certain way.
There are many more examples. In Jeb Bush's Florida, the history is there, and the mechanism is in place. The key device is the absentee ballot. In 1988, such ballots transformed Senator Connie Mack's 3000-vote lead on election day (a percentage so small as to trigger a recount) into an astonishing 34,000 vote victory, achieved during the second tally. His opponent, Buddy MacKay, went public with charges of computer tampering, but chose not to contest the results. Gore, one hopes, will not be so generous.
All of which brings us to the current, highly questionable vote in Florida.
AN ILLEGAL BALLOT
By now, most Americans know about the controversy concerning the Palm Beach ballot design, which placed Al Gore's name second, even though one had to punch the third hole to vote for the Democrat. This confusing lay-out gave Pat Buchanan over 3000 votes in Palm Beach, a heavily-Jewish area rarely considered a stronghold for an ultra-conservative who once praised Hitler's military record and who questioned the numbers killed in the Holocaust. Over 19,000 ballots were summarily cast out, largely due to multiple markings. Those markings were caused by this very same ill-conceived design.
Such a ballot design is simply illegal under Florida law, which stipulates that the place to mark one's choice should always be to the right of the candidate's name. Nevertheless, Republican overseer James A. Baker III struck a note of Joseph Heller-esque surrealism when he finally deigned to address this problem. Referring to the 19,000 voters whose ballots went sailing into the round file, Baker told the Today show: "They did have a chance to have their voices heard."
To borrow a line from one of Dubya's commercials: "Really?" How far could those voices carry, once they were consigned to the garbage pail? (Perhaps the Buchanan blunder did not cause the double-vote anomaly. How difficult would it be for a crooked ballot-toter to ruin a certain number of ballots, simply by pushing in an extra hole? Given Florida's recent history, we cannot dismiss the possibility.)
Baker went on the state what has become the Republican party line on the ballot: "And let me tell you something else about that ballot: That ballot was posted, as required by Florida law, in newspapers and public places all over the state of Florida. Not one complaint was received about that ballot, which, by the way, was approved by a Democrat who was elected. A Democratic election supervisor approved that ballot. And we haven't heard one gripe about that ballot until after the voting took place."
Baker ignores the fact that most voters do not peruse the sample ballot carefully, if they bother to scan it at all. Those who did glance at the sample probably presumed that the lay-out would be more comprehensible once they reached the voting booth. The undisputed fact that so many people did complain after voting proves, beyond rational argument, that the ballot had severe problems.
And if the ballot design was illegal under state law (as, in fact, it was), who cares whether the election supervisor in that locale was Democratic, Republican, Green or Venusian? She obviously screwed up.
Here in Los Angeles, a local television reporter repeated the Republican propaganda line that the Reform Party (Buchanan's party) had met with unprecedented success in registering Palm Beach voters. Shockingly, the reporter believed this partisan codswallop without submitting the assertion to independent double-checking or even the test of basic common sense.
Fortunately, Buchanan himself has denounced this nonsensical claim. But the instantly-infamous Palm Beach blunder provides only one troubling instance of claimed electoral irregularity.
GUILTY OF "VOTING WHILE BLACK"
According to the "Washington Post" (November 9) roughly 100,000 Florida ballots listed no preference for the office of president, although votes were cast for lesser offices. While there are always a few such ballots in every election, can we actually believe that an astoundingly high percentage of Florida voters refused to register an opinion on the main race? It is far easier to accept that someone counting ballots simply applied small pieces of tape to cover the punched holes, before running the card through the tallying machine.
The most serious questions concern Volusia county, where the voters tend to be moderate Democrats.
Reportedly, thousands of Gore votes (perhaps as many as 10,000) mysteriously disappeared from the computers in Volusia county on election day, according to ABC news. Unnervingly, this number matches the 9,888 votes that (according to CBS) mysteriously went to the unknown Socialist candidate, James Harris. Harris pulled not much more than 10,000 votes statewide. Any naïve Nellies who don't find this situation suspicious might want to consider purchasing my old Chevy. (That white smoke coming out of the tail pipe? Hey, that just means the car's happy!)
Interestingly, in Palm Beach, the Socialist received over 300 votes, even though there are almost no registered Socialists in that area.
The day after election day, CNN filed a detailed report of a locked ballot box still resting in its polling place, a church pre-school in Miami (where Gore ran strongly). Those votes alone might decide the election. Unfortunately, no follow-up stories have revealed why the box was left behind, or where it went. There have been other, vaguer reports, of post-election "found" ballot boxes in northern Florida.
There have also been allegations that older voters (who trend Democratic) were told at the polls -- falsely -- that they could not participate unless they had registered for that particular election.
Jesse Jackson is investigating reports that black voters were turned away. Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic party, has reported disturbing tales of highway patrolmen intimidating black voters in Wakulla county and elsewhere. Apparently, the cops watched carefully any black person driving up to a voting place; such motorists were scrutinized carefully for any citable offense, however minor. In other words, these citizens were guilty of a VWB -- "Voting While Black."
All along, the Bush camp has insisted that absentee votes would decide the Florida race in their favor. But absentee ballots are, as demonstrated above, the preferred means for rigging elections.
And just why did the Voter News service (whose central computers are hardly above outside tampering) originally declare Florida for Gore? The announcement presumably had the effect of spurring Bush voters in later time zones on to the polls. Granted, part of the Florida panhandle is in the central time zone -- but that sparsely-populated area is largely Republican. The premature "Gore-wins-Florida" announcement had potential benefits across the country which far outweighed any possible drag on northern Florida. To date, we have had no comprehensible explanation as to how this
all-too-convenient "glitch" occurred.
WHO WATCHES THE WATCHWOMAN?
Perhaps most troubling of all: The election process is overseen by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose history inspires little confidence.
She swept into office in 1998 despite proof -- not allegations, but proof -- that she had taken illegal campaign contributions. The most frequently cited example: Harris, formerly a state Senator, received $20,000 from an insurance company called Riscorp, which benefited from legislation she voted on. (The head of that company was later found guilty of paying off elected officials to the tune of some $400,000.) According to the August 14, 1998 "St. Petersburg Times":
"A 1994 memo shows that Riscorp officials advised Harris' then-campaign
manager on how to change the addresses listed for Riscorp checks to keep the media from tracing them back to Riscorp.
"Federal prosecutors listed Harris' campaign manager, David Lapides, as one of the "co-conspirators" or "co-schemers" in the effort to hide the true
identity of campaign contributors on campaign finance reports. Lapides was never charged in the scandal, and he could not be reached for comment.
"Consultant Joan Collier, a former Riscorp employee, was paid by Riscorp to work on Harris' Senate campaign. She spent about $6,200 on fund-raisers, campaign materials and other consulting work -- all billed to Riscorp."
Despite this evidence, Harris has managed to keep her job. Jeb Bush's state government has not prosecuted her. Obviously, the threat of prosecution makes anyone guilty of corrupt campaign practices open to manipulation.
Yet this is the woman who bears ultimate responsibility for last Tuesday's election in Florida. And this is the woman who will, no doubt, announce a recount favoring George Bush.
Do you trust her?
The pundit class is now applying all its formidable powers of rhetoric and factual evasion to force a Gore concession before this highly questionable vote can be properly investigated. They hope to force a Bush presidency on us through political pressure, even though he may have lost at the ballot box. Republicans are hoping that voter fatigue will finally turn against Gore.
But any recount, even a careful hand count, does NOT constitute an investigation into the many disturbing charges of fraud. A recount does not fix the problem of an illegally-constructed ballot. A recount does not take those 19,000 discarded votes out of the trash basket. A recount does not address the problem of "Voting While Black."
What we need is clear: A NEW VOTE IN FLORIDA. Not just in Palm Beach. The whole state.
Supporters of democracy -- not just supporters of Democrats -- should demand nothing less.