Democratic Election Protection Strategy's Missing Link: Electronic Vote Counts
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There is a new feeling in Democrat Party circles that Barack Obama will win and win big in November. The latest polls show Obama moving ahead in swing states, edging John McCain by more points than polling margins of error. More importantly, as voter registration starts to close on Monday in half the states, the number of new voters who are likely to support Obama and Democrats in November significantly outpaces registration by new likely Republican voters.
The Republican response to Obama's rising fortunes has been to go negative and attack his character, history and judgment. But while Sarah Palin and John McCain, and their campaign's television ads, are leading this front, the GOP has launched another, less-seen attack: targeting the credentials of likely Obama voters.
In just the past two weeks, Republican officeholders, party officials or their allies in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Indiana and Montana have sought to present hurdles to likely new Democratic voters in the form of barriers to early voting in Ohio and Indiana, legal challenges to new registrants in Colorado, Wisconsin and Montana, and threats to voters who may have lost their homes in foreclosures in Michigan who would be ineligible to vote if they did not update their registrations with their latest address.
Moreover, the Republican National Committee has launched a national media offensive against ACORN, a low-income advocacy group that registered 1.2 million new voters this summer, calling it a "quasi-criminal" group after its partisans found two problematic registration forms in a Florida County out of more than 130,000 new voters registered by ACORN in that state. Another GOP disinformation campaign was seen in Philadelphia, where flyers appeared telling voters in minority neighborhoods they might be arrested for outstanding traffic offense while voting in November.
These tactics not new and are anticipated by Democrats. Moreover, they only represent the most visible "election protection" issues facing the Obama campaign and party. Less visible, but perhaps more pernicious, are private contractors with partisan ties who have been hired by state and county election officials to program the software used in computers that count the vote on Election night. It is one thing for Democrats to come out of the starting gate with a lead in voter registration and momentum in the polls; it is another to hold that lead at the finish line, when the votes are counted.
The question one month before Election Day is whether the Obama campaign and Democratic National Committee have an election protection strategy that not only deals with more overt forms of voter suppression, but also with ensuring the accuracy of the vote count. The answer is not yet on electronic vote counts, according to dozens of background conversations with Democratic Party lawyers, donors, state party staffers and others working with the DNC since the Democratic Convention in Denver.
Compared to 2004, the DNC -- which is spearheading the election protection effort while the Obama campaign takes the lead on voter registration -- has made incredible progress. Unlike 2004, the DNC has surveyed election systems and procedures in every county in America. It has created and recruited a new national network of attorneys willing to march into court on its behalf. It has drawn up state legal manuals, descriptions of the voting machinery and has a campaign with a fabulous communications network that enables party leaders to reach its ground forces. This is unprecedented for Democrats, laudable and necessary.
But as Republicans turn to ever more negative campaigning and tactics, the DNC -- which does not comment publicly on this subject -- has yet to finalize its plan to safeguard the finish line in this election: the vote count in swing counties in the swing states. As one person involved in this process said Monday, "If only they had this missing piece, it would all work so much better."
The thinking in top DNC election protection circles seems to be the belief that a tidal wave of new voters will swamp any of the injustices, slights and insults to voters caused by the GOP's traditional voter suppression tactics or breakdowns in the voting machinery. What the party and campaign has not yet committed its resources to doing, according to people involved in this planning, is to independently audit or monitor the electronic vote count to guard against GOP loyalists padding returns -- to boost the numbers in areas John McCain will likely win, but not by the margins that may be cited as unofficial returns on Election Night.
The DNC is realistic and knows it has no way to stop GOP insiders from stealing votes by shifting the percentages awarded to each candidate in a given county. For example, in 2004 in southwestern Ohio, analyses by activists, academics and the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee after that election saw two things: what appeared to be inflated voter turnout, with some localities hovering just below 100 percent; and much higher percentages for George Bush than for John Kerry compared to rest of the state. The countywide tabulators in these counties were programmed by a private firm with a spin off that boasted of its support for Republicans by selling a commemorative edition of the infamous butterfly ballot from the 2000 election in Florida. That poorly designed paper ballot confused elderly Democratic voters who mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore.
The DNC's current plan appears to rely on campaign volunteers to call random precincts in red counties in swing states to collect the reported results. In contrast, the Ohio Green Party will be stationing observers at polling places and in the county Board of Election office to conduct an independent vote count by comparing the number of people who sign into vote with the reported totals. The Green Party response will not reveal if GOP loyalists with access to the vote-counting machinery have programmed software to reallocate the percentage of the vote awarded to McCain and Obama. But it will guard against stuffing ballot boxes if it can deploy enough election observers in Ohio's reddest counties.
Compared to 2004, unprecedented numbers of election protection efforts are underway inside and independent of political parties. One group, led by distinguished academics, plans to conduct an independent exit poll in Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania. This poll is a check and balance for accuracy against official results and the broadcast media's national exit poll (which will not release raw data but adjusts its percentages once the official returns come in). Moreover, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is leading a mammoth voter hotline effort. Its partners include most civil rights organizations in the country, including groups representing Latino voters.
But none of these efforts has the organizational reach and resources of the DNC. As of Monday, October 6th, when voter registration is closing in half the states, the DNC's election protection team is still reviewing what to do about electronic voting machines that tabulate the vote. Of course, it still has time to craft a response. But as the smell of an Obama victory wafts through Washington, there is another powerful factor that may undermine even the best intentions of those working inside the DNC to ensure an accurate count.
There is a long-standing belief in DNC circles -- and Washington more broadly -- that publicizing voter suppression or vote counting problems will discourage new voters from turning out. Moreover, many Democrats do not want to draw attention to any details from the nuts and bolts of vote counts that could call into question the landslide they expect. This happened in November 2006, where election integrity activists saw several races with vote count problems that could have elected even more Democrats to the House. However, the party -- and many outside groups with liberal leanings -- said nothing that might have sullied the new Democratic majorities in Congress.
It does appear the DNC has not yet finalized its strategy concerning electronic vote counts. But as Obama's fortunes rise in the polls and with voter registration trends favoring the party, there is a rising resistance to going the extra mile to ensure the vote counting machinery will not be tampered with by GOP loyalists -- as the last stand in an increasingly attack-driven negative campaign.