The Black Box Election

That chill in the air means October surprise season is upon us

As the Republicans at Madison Square Garden hunkered down with marshmallows at the ready, hopeful of parlaying any violence amid the protests outside into a modern Reichstag fire (rallying cry: The Democrats did this!), the president at last had cause to rejoice. For days preceding the convention, the airwaves crackled with the unrelenting roar of tedious, trivial arguments about Vietnam and the things Bush's opponent had or hadn't done there. The grand irony in this, which was that Bush spent his own period of military service drinking and whoring around bars in Alabama, was rarely mentioned. The swift-boat slurs helped win Bush a bounce in the latest L.A. Times poll, which put him back in the lead at 49-46.

But troubling omens continued to loom. Despite his own best non-efforts, Lt. John Kerry--the first Vietnam-era soldier to go missing in action 35 years after the fact?--had yet to demonstrate that he could put to sleep all of the people all of the time. To the contrary, Kerry's master plan of standing around in nice clothes while everyone watched Bush continued to pay incremental dividends. Last week a Zogby/Wall Street Journal summary of battleground state polls gave Kerry the edge in 14 of 16. A previous Zogby poll had given Kerry a 50-43 lead nationally. There may be good reason to doubt the polls more than usual this year--no one really knows what a "likely voter" looks like in this furious season--but so far the Democrats have survived and even prospered by letting Bush campaign against Bush.

This could change dramatically. Another stateside terror attack obviously tops the list of Bush-friendly contingencies. Failing that, what else might the regime responsible for Florida 2000 and the invasion of Iraq have up its sleeve? The question has become a matter of morbid urgency outside the U.S. and on the internet, spawning a number of speculative October Surprise scenarios for manipulating the election. Usually the dialogue revolves around not whether Bush II will try to cheat, but how. Some untold portion of the American public seems to share the view. Ten percent? Thirty? More? We will never know, since pollsters, like trial lawyers, always avoid questions whose answers might prove embarrassing or unforeseen.

Still, there are clues. As I write this, a Google search of the string Bush "October Surprise" 2004 yields around 22,000 results. One website, octobersurprise.net, has posted a running ballot on the most popular theories. In ascending order, they include a troop pullout from Iraq, 4.3 percent; WMD "found" in Iraq, 5.9 percent; a new military front in Israel, Iran, or North Korea, 8.5 percent; election suspended by terror alert, 15.6 percent; bin Laden captured or killed, 35.4 percent.

Of all the plotlines suggested in the survey, the best bet is one the Bush campaign has already used to great effect once before: election fraud. A meager 11 percent of voters at the October Surprise site tabbed it most likely, though it is the least complicated of them all, and relatively free of risk if done right. For their collective ignorance, voters there and elsewhere can mainly thank the Democrats and the press. It was the party of the people, remember, that charitably buried the real story of what happened in Florida four years ago, after Al Gore took a hard look at the situation and opted to go off in the woods, grow a beard, and find himself.

Consequently everyone knows that the matter was settled by the political intervention of the Supreme Court (even if few understood why that was supposed to be scandalous), and almost no one knows about the prior fraud that helped make the election so close in the first place. The journalist Greg Palast has written extensively about the centerpiece of the Florida 2000 effort, which involved hiring a private firm to scrub state voter rolls of ex-felons who were ineligible to vote--a few thousand of whom, it was later revealed, were not ex-felons and had been disqualified illegally. Most of these were black, and registered Democrats.

Would the Bush crew attempt such a thing again in 2004? They already have, to little notice outside the state of Florida. Earlier this summer, a consortium of media companies sued for release of the latest version of the state's felon list. Brother Jeb spent $125,000 in legal fees fighting the
request but was eventually compelled to turn it over. Once again, errors abounded and the numbers seemed to reek of tampering. Among some 47,000-plus entries, there were 22,084 African Americans on the list--and 61 Hispanics. Hispanics comprise 20 percent of Florida's population; they also vote Republican in overwhelming numbers. Delving into the list, the Miami Herald showed that over 2,000 of the people named did not belong there. The New York Times reported that thousands of Hispanics whose names should have been listed were not. The state was forced to scuttle the list, but it was business as usual. Optimists will claim that Florida is a special case--part of the Deep South and therefore devoutly corrupt in its elections as a matter of regional pride.

But this is no longer true, if it ever was. The whole business of collecting and counting votes is in the midst of a messy and ill-advised technological transformation that has opened gaping windows for fraud as well as error. This year 29 percent or so of the ballots cast for president will be recorded on touch-screen ballot boxes equipped with Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) technology. Typically these devices create no paper backup of the voting transaction, so there is no potential for recounts in the usual sense. When the voting is done, we get--whatever the machines give us.

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