Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Washington microcosm

I'm sure glad the Democrats took my advice [as if!] and made Howard Dean chair of the DNC. It'll bring some fresh life to the party -- but he has his work cut out for him.

If he wants a good case in microcosm of what he's up against, particularly the kinds of tactics that Democrats will be facing, he should take a good look at the fight over the election of Washington's governor.

For the time being, Democrat Christine Gregoire appears fairly secure in her narrow 129-vote win. Dino Rossi, her Republican opponent, has continued to pursue his court challenge of the election, even though the rulings so far have not gone his way. A Chelan County Superior Court judge ruled last week that state law does not provide for a revote, which is what Republicans have been pushing for. The state Supreme Court eventually will make the final decision, though that likely won't happen until June at the earliest -- by which time Gregoire will have had about six months to entrench herself as governor.

But that doesn't mean Republicans will give up. Even now, they continue to beat the war drums, demanding a revote, while Rossi steadfastly refuses to concede.

This public campaign -- waged largely on the right-wing talk-radio bandwidths, as well as those belonging to conservative bloggers like Stefan Sharkansky's Sound Politics -- is in fact representative of Republicans' larger effort to remake America into a one-party state.

The whole idea, it seems, is to attack relentlessly, barraging the public with a steady drumbeat of misinformation and wild speculation, all designed to undermine the legitimacy of the Democrats.

And if you want to see how to counter it, check out the work that's been conducted so far by progressive Northwest bloggers, particularly the folks at Also Also and Preemptive Karma. (For a great read on these battles, be sure to also visit David Goldstein's blog, Horses Ass.)

Late last week, Carla at Preemptive Karma and Torrid Joe at Also Also posted their most recent analysis of the election results, particularly Sharkansky's claims that the rate of errors in King County, a Democratic stronghold, were significant enough to change the election's outcome. Indeed, the entire revote campaign is focused on the King errors. But as Carla and TJ point out, its errors were well in line with what occurred elsewhere:
Notice Spokane County. Rossi won this county easily. Total voters are fewer than one fourth of King County’s. But they have twice as many errors as King per voter. Moreover, their discrepancy represents more voters than ballots, a condition which Sharkansky claimed lacked plausibility as a type of honest error. However Spokane is apparently a Republican leaning county—is it therefore not worth mentioning? Are their errors not so egregious?

Be sure, while you're at it, to read some of their previous analyses, including the first installment of the vote analysis (cross-posted here) as well as pieces on the revote, and Sharkansky's atrocious public behavior, not to mention as his attacks on his critics. Both of these bloggers are non-journalists, but the work they've performed so far has been so sound that it would make any working journalist proud.

Somewhat unsurprisingly for those of us skeptical of conservatives' claims to be openly engaging their critics, Sharkansky has banned both Carla and TJ from his boards, refuses to link to them, and likewise has banned any links to their work even in his comments. (I guess Michelle Malkin must be his role model.) In response, Carla has continued to respond with strong factual refutations.

TJ at Also Also likewise took apart Sound Politics' claims that the occurrence of votes by ineligible felons tipped the scales in Gregoire's favor. This particular claim is significant, since it appears likely to play a major role in Republicans' ongoing legal challenges to the election.

However, as University of Washington Law School professor Eric Schnapper recently explained in a Seattle Times op-ed, this whole issue of felons voting is extremely problematic, because most of the measures taken so far to remove these felons from the rolls have had the effect of keeping thousands of eligible voters from legitimately taking part in the democratic process:
There are an estimated 150,000 adults in Washington who are ineligible to vote under current law. The prohibition applies to Washington residents who were convicted in Washington, in any of the other 49 states or a foreign country, or by the federal government.

But there is no centralized, reliable list of all those so convicted. Computerized criminal histories often include individuals arrested for felonies but eventually convicted only of misdemeanors, or even acquitted. Many of these records have insufficient information to indicate whether the person arrested is the same individual as a voter with the same, or a similar, name.

The upshot of Republican demands to remove felons from the rolls is to place an extraordinary burden on the election process itself:
In Washington, as in Florida, local election officials have properly objected to a system that requires them to conduct investigations of thousands of individual voters, a process for which election officials have neither the resources nor the expertise. County election officials would need an army of investigators to check out the many thousands of possibly illegal voters who would be identified if the voter rolls were compared with the state, out-of-state and federal criminal-history records.

An election official in King County would have to figure out whether the John Doe registered in Ballard was the same John Doe convicted of auto theft in Spokane (or Miami) in 1990 or the John Doe who had his civil rights restored by a state board in Olympia (or Tallahassee) in 2000. Investigations of voters with possible out-of-state convictions would be particularly impracticable.

The end result of this effort to purge felons from the rolls has been the disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters. That indeed calls into serious question the legitimacy of the election, or at least its close outcome, though not in the way Republicans would like. As Schnapper put it in his conclusion:
So long as 150,000 Washingtonians are prohibited from voting, the unsolvable problem of determining who is and is not eligible will confound local election officials, and call into question the result of every close election.

It's worth remembering that the purging of felon voters from the rolls had a significant effect on both of the most recent national elections. Disenfranchised voters resulting from felon purges almost certainly decided the outcome in Florida in 2000, and they probably had an effect in Ohio in 2004. (Notably, the felon purge planned in Florida last year was abandoned when it turned out that Hispanics had been "accidentally" omitted.)

There were other factors at play in the Washington election that likewise echoed some of the serious issues raised in the national vote, especially questions surrounding electronic voting technology. Rick Anderson at Seattle Weekly reported on a study that raised legitimate issues about the outcome in Snohomish County, the state's third-most populous county:
Even if you have followed every strange twist and U-turn of the 2004–05 Washington gubernatorial election, would it surprise you to hear that more than 100,000 votes were never recounted? These are the electronic votes from the two counties, Snohomish and Yakima, that have computerized touch-screen voting in Washington. The computers do not include a mechanism to recount and compare votes for error. More than 2.7 million paper votes statewide were recounted by optical-reader machine and by hand, ultimately giving Democrat Christine Gregoire a hairbreadth 129-vote victory. But the 106,000 touch-screen ballots—constituting almost 4 percent of the state vote—were simply re-totaled without review and added in. A new study questions the validity of many of those touch-screen votes, suggesting that Gregoire should have beaten Republican Dino Rossi in the initial tally of ballots on Election Day. Rossi was on top at that point by 261 votes, before a final hand recount gave the election to Gregoire.

The study that Anderson cites was conducted by Paul Lehto, an Everett attorney, and Jeffrey Hoffman, a Michigan engineering professor, who took a close look at the Snohomish vote:
They contend the outcome of the Nov. 2 election was affected by electronic irregularities. Their 29-page report found that problems of switched votes or machines freezing up occurred at more than 50 polling places. Under their scenario, Gregoire likely beat Rossi in Snohomish County or, at worst, lost by a much narrower margin—meaning she likely lost enough votes to account for Rossi's 261-vote statewide lead shortly after Election Day. Two-thirds of Snohomish County voted with paper absentee and provisional ballots, favoring Gregoire over Rossi by 97,044 to 95,228. The remaining one-third, voting electronically Nov. 2, favored Rossi—and by a much greater margin: 50,400 to 42,135. Though they can't prove it, Lehto and Hoffman think many Democratic votes were switched to the GOP. They believe it was "a mathematical impossibility that Gregoire's 1,800-vote lead on absentee paper ballots was completely overcome by an 8,000-vote Rossi landslide on Election Day on the Sequoia touch screens, ultimately leaving Republican Rossi with a 6,000-vote margin in traditionally Democratic Snohomish County."

Of course, this isn't the first time questions have been raised about this voting technology. The 2004 results in Ohio and Florida likewise demonstrated some serious anomalies (which may in turn explain the remarkable exit poll discrepancy in the election).

What emerges from the bigger picture of the Washington vote is, in fact, almost a replica in miniature of the Republican strategy for the national vote. It has four essential components:
-- Undermine the legitimacy of any Democrat elected to office, regardless of the margin.

-- Undermine public confidence in long-established election procedures, particularly hand recounts, as well as confidence in the integrity of the officials conducting the elections.

-- Undermine the voting rights of minorities and lower-income voters, particularly by purging supposed felons from the voting rolls, thereby discouraging participation in the election process and underscoring their historic disenfranchisement.

-- Undermine the integrity of the voting process itself by introducing readily manipulable electronic voting technology that leaves no auditable paper trail.

If Howard Dean and the Democrats want to have any hope of turning around their fortunes, they're going to have to not just acknowledge these problems, but attack them aggressively.

When Republicans mount nasty misinformation and smear campaigns, they need to respond quickly and vigorously. Countenancing these attacks without a response only lends them legitimacy.

When the misinformation attacks established procedures and hard-working public officials who perform their work as well as can be reasonably expected, Democrats need to defend them with facts and figures, as well as a hefty dose of moral outrage.

They need to question the way felon voter-roll purges have been conducted, particularly pointing to the numbers of errors with which these purges have been riddled (since Republicans, in Washington at least, seem to have developed a recent attachment to absolute accuracy in election processes). They should also point out the enormous expense and effort that an effective and accurate felon purge would require, and contrast that with the actual effect a purge would have over the long term. Most of all, they need to point out that Republican agitation over this issue points to a real hostility to widespread public participation in the democratic process.

And they need to demand immediate implementation of a requirement for auditable paper trails in any voting technology, whether paper or otherwise. This cannot wait. Republicans are hoping to push these changes past the 2008 election, and they should not be allowed to do so.

Of course, that's just a start for Dean and the Democrats. But it would be a good, solid start.

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