The Crisis of Exit Polling and Voting Systems
Sunday book excerpt: The Hidden History of the War on Voting
Exit Polling around the World
Most Americans, when they hear the name Viktor Yushchenko, vaguely remember a Ukrainian politician lying in a hospital bed with a severely disfigured face, the result of poisoning with a deadly form of dioxin, the toxic ingredient in Agent Orange. But it was exit polls that got him there.
Exit polls are polls taken outside of voting stations or polling places, where people who have already voted are questioned as they’re leaving. They’re considered far more accurate than other types of pre- or post-election polling because they don’t rely on people answering their phones, returning a mailed inquiry, or asserting that they intend to vote when they may well not.
In a clean election environment, it’s safe to assume that nearly 100 percent of the people polled actually voted, and history shows that such polls are typically (outside the United States) accurate to within a fraction of a point, or a point or two at most, depending on how many people are polled.
Exit polls are held in such regard that when, in the 2007 Kenyan election, Mwai Kibaki (the government’s choice) was declared the election winner over Raila Odinga—who the exit polls reported had easily won—riots broke out, and, to quote the Carter Center, “more than 1,000 died and some 600,000 fled their homes.”77 In response, the Carter Center went to Kenya to monitor the re-vote (which was also severely marred by fraud).
Similarly, back in 2004 in Ukraine, Yushchenko—the reformer outsider candidate—was well ahead in the regular polling against Viktor Yanukovych. When the election returns came in, however, the government election commission reported that Yanukovych had won the election by 49.5 percent to 46.6 percent for Yushchenko. When it became widely known, however, that exit polling done by three different organizations concluded that voters had actually turned out for Yushchenko 54 percent to 43 percent for the guy the government said had won, people took to the streets in what was called the Orange Revolution.78
The Washington Post said in an editorial, “Despite the government’s brazenly unfair campaign, a majority of Ukrainians voted for . . . Yushchenko [and] authorities then tried to steal the election.”79
The US government, along with many European allies, declared outrage at the election fraud, proven by (among other events) the exit polls. They suggested that the election-result tampering was orchestrated by pro-Russian supporters of Yanukovych. To quell the riots, a new election was called, and as Yushchenko began to fall ill from the dioxin poisoning, he was elected the new president of Ukraine.
In Germany, exit polls have been used for years to functionally call elections as soon as the polls close, even though hand counting of paper ballots can take days. They’re rarely off by more than a fraction of a single point. They’re considered so reliable and so important that the German government criminalized releasing even preliminary results before the polls close; when two Twitter users leaked exit polls 90 minutes before the polls closed in 2009, it provoked a national scandal.80
Similarly, exit polls are routinely used to call elections all over the world, where paper ballots are almost universally used and thus can take days to count. A quick summary of AP headlines shows the reporting trend in the United States: “Exit polling indicates Peruvians vote to fight corruption,”81 “Poland: Exit poll gives centrists edge in key mayoral races,”82 “Exit polls suggest Irish voters have repealed abortion ban,”83 “Exit polls: Dutch vote on spying law too close to call.”84 And that’s just the Associated Press.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, a network sponsored by the government of Great Britain, where exit polls are also used to report election results before the paper ballots are counted, routinely uses exit polls all over the world to call elections.
A quick search finds elections being called by the BBC, in just the past three years, in Italy, the UK, Israel, Japan, India, the Netherlands, Haiti, Tunisia, France, Ireland, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Australia, Indonesia, Crimea, Portugal, Macedonia, Ecuador, the nation of Georgia, Kosovo, Latvia, Greece, Argentina, and even the Moscow mayor’s race in Russia.85
Every single one turned out to accurately call the election it headlined.
Exit Polls in the US and Red Shift Explained
We used to use exit polls that way in the United States too. Techniques were tried and refined on a variety of local bases around the country for decades through the mid-20th century, but Warren Mitofsky fine-tuned it from an art into a science and conducted the first real acid test of the technique in 1967, accurately calling the Kentucky governor’s race that year. Throughout the 1970s, virtually every election was called by the networks based on exit polls, and the technique was considered noncontroversial.
In the 1980 presidential election of Carter versus Reagan, the East Coast exit polling results were reported by NBC News hours before the West Coast polls had closed (the exit polls showed Reagan had won), producing bipartisan outrage; the networks promised to tighten up their handling of exit poll data, which was virtual news gold.86
Everything was going well until the 2000 election, when the exit polls clearly showed Al Gore winning the presidency (including in Florida, which, it turns out, he did win when all the ballots were counted by the news organizations a year after the election), and the networks called the election for Gore before all the states had reported their counts.
While election exit polls are still the gold standard worldwide, since that 2000 election they seem to have gone to hell in the United States.
In the 2004 presidential election, exit polls called John Kerry the clear winner with a margin of more than two million votes, even winning handily in Ohio, but this time the networks held back.
As ABC News reported in a postmortem of their reporting on the exit polling of the 2004 election:
The exit poll estimates in the 2004 general election overstated John Kerry’s share of the vote nationally and in many states. There were 26 states in which the estimates produced by the exit poll data overstated the vote for John Kerry by more than one standard error, and there were four states in which the exit poll estimates overstated the vote for George W. Bush by more than one standard error. The inaccuracies in the exit poll estimates were not due to the sample selection of the polling locations at which the exit polls were conducted. We have not discovered any systematic problem in how the exit poll data were collected and processed.87
The exit polling companies, in the four years since 2000, had developed a new strategy to report their polls—unique to the United States in its widespread use—in which they’d “adjust” their results to reflect what the individual states reported as the actual vote.
ABC News’ postmortem noted, “[T]he final exit poll data used for analysis in 2004 was adjusted to match the actual vote returns by geographic region within each state.”88 That “final” and “adjusted” data purported to show that John Kerry had won by only about a half-million votes, and he’d lost the decisive state of Ohio, which became the reporting the networks went with.89
In 2004, fully 22 states experienced what has now come to be called “red shift”—where the polls are “wrong” but almost always in a way that benefits Republicans.
For example, in the 2016 election, the exit polls showed Hillary Clinton carrying Florida by 47.7 percent to Trump’s 46.4 percent, although the “actual” counted vote had Trump winning by 49.0 percent to 47.8 percent. Trump gained 2.5 percentage points . . . somehow.90
In North Carolina, exit polls showed Clinton winning 48.6 percent to 46.5 percent, but the votes that were counted turned out with Trump’s 49.9 to Clinton’s 46.1, a red shift of 5.9 percentage points for the GOP.91
Pennsylvania’s exit polls showed that Clinton won 50.5 percent to Trump’s 46.1 percent, but when “eligible” votes were counted, Trump carried the state 48.8 percent to Clinton’s 47.6 percent—a red shift of 5.6 percentage points.
In Wisconsin, it was Clinton beating Trump in the exit polls 48.2 percent to 44.3 percent, but the “real” count put Trump over the top at 48.8 percent to 47.6 percent, a red shift of 5.1 percentage points.
Perhaps even more interesting, in states without a Republican secretary of state, there is virtually no shift at all, either red or blue, and hasn’t been ever. The election results typically comport with the exit polls in those states.
Given that red shift began to explode across the American electoral landscape in a big way with the 2000 election, and it continues to favor the candidates of one party in a way not seen in any other developed nation that does exit polling, a number of theories have evolved to explain it.
Warren Mitofsky, who’d been doing exit polling since the 1960s and invented the modern technique in the 1970s, found himself and his firm terribly embarrassed with the results of the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections when the red shift numbers were enough to throw critical elections to Republicans. He came up with the theory of the “shy Republican voter,” which postulated that, for some reason, Republican voters were just simply embarrassed to tell exit pollsters that they’d voted for a Republican.
That theory was widely reported in the media and became the go-to excuse for adjusting exit poll numbers by changing them to conform to state-reported results after the 2004 election.
Few people buy it, however, particularly since there are no similar examples in any other nation in the world, even where a winning leader may otherwise be seen as a war criminal or buffoon. Exit polls—except when there’s clear fraud—are the single most accurate way to measure an election outside of counting actual ballots.
Voting Machines, Hacking, and Red Shift
Given that much of the red shift that America has seen in the past three decades exploded after the passage in 2002 of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which allocated billions of dollars to the states to buy electronic voting machines from private corporate vendors, many people alarmed by widespread red shift were quick to blame the machines.
And, indeed, they are easy targets.
The 2002 senatorial election in Georgia, done entirely on electronic voting machines that produced no paper or receipts, was severely marred by accounts of lost memory cards containing votes from largely urban areas and produced a result that flipped the polls upside down.
War hero Max Cleland, who’d left three limbs in Vietnam and was nationally famous and popular (and ahead in the Georgia polls by five points a week before the election), was defeated by eight points by Saxby Chambliss, a Vietnam War–era draft dodger who’d run a bizarre campaign questioning Cleland’s patriotism.92
The Georgia governor’s race that year saw a similar reversal of poll versus outcome results favoring the Republican challenger, Sonny Perdue, who was seven points down in the polls but beat incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes with a 16 percent swing on Election Day, something unheard of in modern politics absent a last-minute scandal (and there was none).93
Similarly, in the 2018 Georgia election, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, Geoff Duncan, beat Democrat Sarah Riggs by 123,172 votes. Inexplicably, the Georgia electronic voting machines—which still don’t have any audit ability or paper trail—registered slightly over 160,000 voters who simply chose not to vote for either of the lieutenant governor candidates. When Politico investigated, “the Georgia Secretary of State’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.”94
And when a lawsuit was filed against Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who both ran the election and ran successfully against Stacey Abrams for governor) to access the actual votes, a server was mysteriously wiped clean in a way that prevented even the NSA from recovering its data.95
Frank Bajak reported for the AP, “A computer server crucial to a lawsuit against Georgia election officials was quietly wiped clean by its custodians just after the suit was filed, the Associated Press has learned.” Bajak said, “It’s not clear who ordered the server’s data irretrievably erased.” The lack of data effectively killed the lawsuit, and when the AP repeatedly inquired of the agency that wiped the server, “It did not respond to the AP’s question on who ordered the action.”96
Howard Dean rather famously hacked into a Diebold election computer tabulator and changed the results of an election in 90 seconds on CNBC while filling in for Tina Brown on her Topic A show on August 8, 2004. When he was made chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the video was pretty much scrubbed off the internet, although recuts of it pop up from time to time.97,98
There was also, to add flames to the conspiracy fire, the simple reality that the two biggest voting machine vendors in the 2000s were banking giant Diebold, whose CEO, Wally O’Dell, famously wrote a leaked 2004 letter promising to “deliver Ohio for George W. Bush,” and Election Systems & Software, which was started by two Christian end-times-rapture-believer brothers and then passed through other GOP-connected hands over the years.99
Hacker conventions, year after year, have featured demonstrations of how easy it is to hack a wide variety of voting machines used in the United States—in 2018, the hack of a clone of the Florida election system was accomplished in less than 10 minutes by an 11-year-old.100
It’s an example of why Ireland, after experimenting with American voting machines for one election, sold its $80 million worth of machines for scrap metal (for a mere $79,000); it refused to resell them as voting machines, taking a huge loss on the deal, so that there was no chance any other country would buy them and make the mistake of using them in an election.101
As the New York Times has documented, among others, our intelligence services are worried about how easily foreign governments (particularly Russia, China, and North Korea) can get into most states’ election systems.102 The states themselves, however (at least those controlled by Republicans; California famously decertified all of its machines in 2004), continue to stonewall or refuse to change to more secure systems.103
And while it’s not hard to believe that in a state with a centuries-old tradition of election fraud (mostly by white people against black people) like Georgia, “losing” memory cards with votes on them104 or even “patching” machines in the weeks before the election without notifying anybody (both things that are well documented)105 could have thrown an election, it’s harder to conceive of it as a multi-decade national conspiracy.
On the other hand, voter suppression very much has been at the core of a multi-decade effort by the GOP and may well explain red shift as much as hacked or rigged machines. We’ll circle back to that in a moment.
Privatizing the Vote with Voting Machines
While the security of our elections has apparently been put at considerable risk by bringing private, for-profit vendors into the voting business, there’s a larger issue that virtually nobody is discussing.
The Bush administration’s practice of hiring Dick Cheney’s nearly bankrupt company, Halliburton, with multibillion-dollar no-bid noncompetitive contracts to replace functions carried out by GIs for over 200 years (at a fraction of the cost) might have saved Halliburton and made millions for Cheney and his family but was only a “small” crime against our commons, which include our military. Such privatization of our military functions has led to nearly half of the defense budget now going to for-profit corporations.
Similarly, privatizing Chicago’s parking meters by leasing them to a European company and leasing Indiana’s highways to an Australian corporation are crimes against the commons and our democracy, but small crimes.106,107 Ditto for privatizing our schools, water systems, and electrical grids—activities that, since the 1980s, have gobbled up around half of all the electric and water utilities and, in Betsy DeVos’s Michigan, about half of the schools.
Privatizing our prisons and immigration detention facilities leads to the perverse result of for-profit corporations lobbying for longer sentences for drug and other crimes, but that’s a matter of public policy that can and should be debated in the open.
Privatizing our airwaves, as Bill Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act largely did, has turned out to be a public policy disaster and led to, as Forbes explained in a recent headline, the “15 Billionaires [Who] Own America’s News Media Companies,”108 but it’s reversible with enough public outrage.
But the vote is the single mechanism by which we, the people, can register our approval or disapproval of such policies and even effect their reversal. It’s the ultimate expression of the commons of our government, because it’s how we determine the course and future of our government.
To have allowed privatization of the vote—as happened on a nationwide scale with HAVA in 2002—is a crime against democracy and our commons unlike any in the history of our nation.
Now our votes are counted in secret by private corporations with specific agendas that are met, in part, by spending millions on lobbying members of Congress. They refuse to show us their software, citing trade secrets, and generally lease, rather than sell, their generally Windows-based and deeply insecure systems to states.
At the very least, states should own any voting machinery and infrastructure used in their territory, and the software should be open-source. At best, we should follow Ireland’s example.
Suppressing the Vote with Provisional Ballots
The Help America Vote Act may provide another answer to the puzzling mystery of American red shift.
That legislation, written in large part by Representative Bob Ney, R-Ohio, contains a provision requiring people who show up to vote—even if they’ve been purged from the voting lists—to be given something called a “provisional ballot.”
“The main reason we did that,” the former congressman told me, “was because, particularly across the Deep South, people were simply being turned away at the polls. In most cases it was because they were black, but in many cases it was also being done in districts where the opposition party controlled most of the election apparatus, typically Republicans turning away people in Democratic districts.
“We wanted to make sure,” he added, “that every eligible voter had both a chance to vote and some level of certainty that his or her vote would be counted after they went to all the trouble of voting.”
The parable about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is worthy of citing here. The HAVA law was passed on a bipartisan basis, after the hanging-chad disaster in Florida in the 2000 election was the main excuse given the media for that state’s substantial red shift. But the giant loophole it created for GOP vote suppressors was that provisional ballots are almost never counted.
Rules vary from state to state, but usually if voters are given a provisional ballot, they must then, within a few days of the election, present themselves in person at a state or county office to prove that they are who they say they are and that they were legally registered to vote and were purged incorrectly. The HAVA law requires that voters getting provisional ballots be told this, but in actual practice in Republican-controlled states this is almost never the case. (Although, even when it is, the percentage of people who’d be willing or able to take time off work to jump through all these hoops is tiny.)
Independent investigative reporter Greg Palast, whose work is published by the BBC, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Salon, found this to be very much the case (and worse) when he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92-year-old cousin, Christine Jordan, to the polls in Georgia, and poll workers repeatedly refused to give her even a provisional ballot until Palast intervened.109
After voting for half a century in the same place, she’d been purged from the rolls by Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s policies and people. Eventually, after multiple tries with Palast threatening lawsuits and making a scene on camera at the polling place, Jordan got a provisional ballot, although it almost certainly was never counted.
In the years immediately preceding the election, Kemp had purged well over a million voters from Georgia’s rolls and prevented the registration of around 50,000 mostly African American voters from being processed. In all probability, large numbers of these people turned out and voted anyway, with provisional ballots. And, not realizing that their provisional ballot vote would never actually be counted, if they encountered an exit-poll taker outside the polling place, they probably would have registered their vote with the pollster.
Thus, one simple explanation for all that red shift in Republican-controlled swing states is that the voters reporting their Democratic votes to exit pollsters simply didn’t know that their vote would never be counted, and neither did the pollsters.
None of these issues are part of the mainstream of public debate in America, although they’ve been hot topics in other countries, from Australia to Ireland to Canada. Perhaps if enough of us speak out, one day soon our election exit polls will again agree with our vote tabulations.
Diluting the Vote with Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering and money in politics are the two main ways in which the impact of our votes—after they’re cast and counted—is diminished, often to the point of irrelevance. American voters are aware of these, and their persistence and power may well account for why so many people don’t bother to register to vote, and only a fraction of those registered show up on any given election day.
Gerrymandering entails using the process of redrawing congressional districts to provide a substantial political advantage to one party at the expense of others. A gerrymander of state legislative districts in Wisconsin in 2012, for example, produced a map where Republicans lost the statewide vote for the members of the State Assembly by 47 percent to 53 percent, but the GOP nonetheless ended up with 60 seats in the 99-seat legislative body.
In 2017, Emily Bazelon of the New York Times reported the results of a Brennan Center study:
In the 17 states where Republicans drew the maps this decade—for 40 percent of the total House seats in the country—their candidates won about 53 percent of the vote and 72 percent of the seats. In the six states where Democrats drew the lines, for only about 10 percent of the House, their candidates won about 56 percent of the vote and 71 percent of the seats.110
Gerrymandering has been part of American politics since one of the Founders, Elbridge Gerry, supervised, as governor, the redrawing of Massachusetts’s congressional maps to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party in the election of 1812. Both parties have done it since that era, although the Supreme Court, in a 1964 ruling, decreed that districts must at least have roughly equivalent population numbers.
On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that while “racial” gerrymandering is still unconstitutional, it’s just fine for political parties to do “partisan gerrymandering.”111
Six Democratic-controlled states use nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional lines, a practice that has made elections more competitive and interesting in New Jersey and California. Thirteen states do the same for state legislative districts.
In every case, experience shows that nonpartisan districts produce results that more accurately reflect the makeup of the voter base, but now that the Supreme Court has told the GOP that they can gerrymander to their hearts’ content, it’s a safe bet that they’ll simply use political rather than racial considerations as their justification, and their billionaire friends will be dropping hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2020 and 2030 state elections to ensure GOP control of the state legislatures that redraw district lines.
By going for nonpartisan commissions, the Democrats, assuming that the Supreme Court would limit partisan gerrymandering, essentially unilaterally disarmed. Time will tell whether they adopt Republican policies or if we’ll continue to see more and more states severely gerrymandered by the GOP as they did in North Carolina, for example: in 2018, a state that votes pretty much 50/50 Democratic/Republican sent three Democrats and 10 Republicans to the US House of Representatives.112
Depressing the Vote with Money in Politics
Money in politics has a long and ignominious history.
Corruption by money of individual politicians, and of the legislative process as a whole, hit three peaks in the history of our nation: during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, the Roaring Twenties in the last century, and the years since 2010 when the Supreme Court struck down numerous campaign finance and good-government laws, throwing the doors open to corporate and billionaire cash with its Citizens United decision.
The Gilded Age excesses led to the Tillman Act of 1907, which made it a federal felony for a corporation to donate money or anything of value to a campaign for federal office. It was gutted by Citizens United.
The political corruption of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations led directly to the great crash of 1929, causing most corporations to pull back from the political arena until the 1970s, when Lewis Powell revived it with his infamous memo to billionaires and corporate CEOs.
After the Watergate investigations revealed Nixon’s bribery and other scandals, Congress passed numerous reforms of money in politics, although the Supreme Court struck down the most consequential of them; and as long as there’s a conservative majority of at least five votes on the Court, that’s unlikely to change.
Therefore, this is the situation today:
A billionaire oligarch, Rupert Murdoch, programs his very own television news network to promote the interests of the billionaire class with such effectiveness that average working people are repeating billionaire-helpful memes like “cut regulations,” “shrink government,” and “cut taxes”—policies that will cause more working people and their children to get sick and/or die; will transfer more money and power from we, the people, to a few oligarchs; and will lower working-class wages over time.113
A small group of billionaires have funneled so much money into our political sphere that “normal” Republicans like former US senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker point out that they couldn’t get elected in today’s environment because they’d face primary challengers funded by right-wing billionaires.
The corporate media (including online media), heavily influenced by the roughly $1 billion that the Koch network, Sheldon Adelson, the Mercers, etc., poured through their advertising coffers and into their profits in the last presidential election, won’t even mention in their “news” reporting that billionaire oligarchs are mainly calling the tunes in American politics, particularly in the GOP.
Former president Jimmy Carter pointed out on my radio show that the United States “is now an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery,” in part as a result of the right-wing Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.114
Nobody in corporate media—even on the “corporate left”—is willing to explicitly point out how billionaires and the companies that made them rich control and define the boundaries of “acceptable” political debate in our country.
Thus, there’s no honest discussion in American media of why the GOP denies climate change (to profit petro-billionaires), no discussion of the daily damage being done to our consumer and workplace protections, and no discussion of the horrors being inflicted on our public lands and environment by GOP appointees.
There’s not even a discussion of the major issue animating American politics just one century ago: corporate mergers and how they damage small business and small towns.
Although it’s been this way before in American history, it wasn’t within our lifetimes. The last time the morbidly rich had this much power in American politics was in the 1920s, when an orgy of tax cutting and deregulation of banking led to the Republican Great Depression.
Our nation now faces a massive crisis provoked by the loss of democratic representation for the majority of the American electorate as so clearly demonstrated by a 2014 study out of Princeton showing that the likelihood of legislation passing that represented the interests of that bottom 90 percent was equivalent, statistically, to white noise.116
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