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Recipe for a Cooked Election

A nasty little secret of American democracy is that, in every national election, ballots cast are simply thrown in the garbage

cooked election illustration
Doug Griswold/KRT

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 rotten 1,389,231.
  • 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 same.

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 for president.

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 Mexican-American.

Our team drove an hour across the high desert from the Taos Reservation to Española 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. Española 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 officials.

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 unreliable.

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 leaders accountable.


Greg PalastGreg 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 www.GregPalast.com

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