Volume 17 • Issue 26 | Nov. 19 - 25, 2004

Talking Point

Deciphering blogs, exit polls, and post-election news

By Jane Flanagan

For two weeks now the Internet has been abuzz with reports of voting irregularities. Democratic bloggers point to tens of thousands of discarded absentee ballots in Florida, nine-hour lines at the polls in Ohio, and then, of course, the fliers directing Ohio Democrats to vote Nov. 3, the day after the election.

Through it all the bloggers have been asking – “why isn’t the mainstream media covering this?”

I’ve been asking myself the same thing. Because some of these Internet reports are startling. Take the Florida results. In addition to discarded ballots, there was a analysis of voting in Florida, county by county. Conducted by a mathematician in Utah, it compared the number of Democrats and Republicans registered in each of Florida’s 67 counties. It then compared the number who voted for Bush and Kerry. It showed astonishing gains for Bush in Democratic districts. “How could that be?” I wondered.

But, according to people who study these things (professors at Harvard, Stanford and Cornell) many registered Florida Democrats have long been voting Republican. “Dixiecrats,” they’re called.

Well, okay.

But then there was those fliers telling Ohio Republicans to vote Tues, Nov. 2 and Democrats, Nov. 3. Another flier instructed Ohioans to the wrong polling place. I was so curious about these that I called an attorney at the Election Protection Coalition. This is a group of legal and public interest groups who banded together after the 2000 Florida election mess to monitor this one.

Attorney Marcia Johnson-Blanco faxed them over to me so I could see for myself.

Holding these documents in my hand was a startling sensation. “This goes on?” I wondered.

Apparently it does. During every election, say the experts. Johnson-Blanc concedes that Election Protection has no way of verifying who sent them or how widely they were distributed, so the question is likely to end there anyway.

But I only found out what the experts were thinking when the press finally reported on this. It was a very strange sensation to be reading all this stuff on the Internet and not finding anything about it in the Times or on the radio. The Internet was talking about Kerry “unconceding” and the mainstream media wasn’t even mentioning it.

After two weeks, the Times finally printed a story, on Fri, Nov. 12, “Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried.” The Washington Post came out with a similar story the day before. Thursday night, an NPR program addressed the subject. All came to the same conclusion: the fraud theories have no merit.

I am, of course, taking the refutations at face value. The professors know a helluva lot more about this than I do. Besides, if there really was something here, wouldn’t the Kerry campaign be on it? Kerry’s people said they have seen no evidence of intentional fraud or tampering.

Still, I wish the press had stepped in sooner. Until they covered the issue I didn’t know what Kerry’s people were saying. I’d spent a week reading the Internet and getting my hopes up.

Even so, a tiny part of me is still, well, wondering.

Part of it, I know, is that as a Democrat, I just can’t get over the idea that the country would really reelect George Bush. “What about Iraq? Nuclear buildup in Iran and North Korea? The billion-dollar deficit? Poor job growth? The eroding environment? etc., etc.”

Another reason is why I was on those blogs in the first place. (Something I don’t normally have time for.) What about those exit polls?

On Election Day, the exits indicated, in state after swing state, a significant margin for Kerry.

I did try to keep myself in check. I asked people here who know a lot more about this stuff than I do: “Just how reliable are these exit polls?” The consensus was “very.” Evidently the Kerry campaign thought so, too. One of our editors was on the phone with the Kerry people who told him, “It was a lock.” I left the office and bought a bottle of champagne.

Okay, the exit poll story did, of course, make the mainstream media. The explanation? “The exits were flawed.” The reason? “Too many women were counted” was one. “Republicans were less likely to talk to exit pollsters,” was another.

But I kept feeling there had to be more too it.

Apparently I’m not the only one. At least on the Internet. This week I got hold of a new document and it’s a doozy. It’s an analysis of the exit polls conducted by a research statistician, Steven F. Freeman, PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Freeman begins by explaining how and why exit polls are historically accurate. In certain countries of dubious electoral integrity, in fact, they are used authenticate the vote.

He then points out that the “too many women” theory is silly. Pollsters always adjust for gender, he said. It’s polling 101. When you have too many women, you stop questioning them, until you catch up with men, he said. As for the notion that Democrats talked more to pollsters than Republicans, it is only a hypothesis. It could as easily be stated that Republicans talked more, he said. Where’s the evidence?

Speaking of a lack of evidence, he also points out that the New York Times said it obtained a report by the pollsters debunking the theory that the exit polls were right and the vote count wrong. But the Times did not explain how the possibility was debunked, nor has it released the pollster’s report.

“In fact,” he writes “no evidence at all is presented of skewed survey data or any problems at all with the polls except that ‘uncorrected’ data was released to the public.” Uncorrected, he explains, refers to the raw poll data that streams in on Election Day. Later, as the actual returns come in, pollsters amend or “correct” their data accordingly.

Freeman then calculates the odds of the count being so far off from the polls in the three key swing states — Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. “The odds of all three occurring together are 250 million to one,” he reports.

Wow. This report is still new, so, given the usual lag time the Times should address this sometime later this week or next (I hope). Until then, I fear I will be blogging it.

These days, being a citizen is taking up a lot of my time. Used to be I could just read the newspaper and feel I had a handle on things. But then came those weapons of mass destruction.


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