If Barack Obama really plans to win the presidency, he had better be willing to back an independent exit poll, says Steven Freeman, professor of research methods at the University of Pennsylvania. Freeman argues that the 2004 election was stolen, and exit polls are the best way to guard against the same thing happening in 2008.
Co-author of Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count, Freeman is trying to raise money for such an effort this November. He contends that current exit polling is marred by a lack of transparency in the media consortium that controls it. And it’s not a just a matter of the Republicans fixing elections for Republicans. Freeman also believes this year’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire was stolen. “There’s overwhelming evidence that Obama won it, probably by double digits,” he says, although the official returns gave it to Hillary Clinton. Because he studies the data, not the story behind them, he would have no way of knowing whether Clinton stole the primary or whether Republicans scared of facing Obama rigged it in favor of Clinton, he explains. But he is without a doubt: the numbers don’t lie.
After a varied business career and a Ph.D. from MIT in 1998, Freeman began teaching research methods. He was never interested in politics. Election Day 2004 changed that. At a small social gathering, he was looking at exit polls on a computer while friends were watching returns on TV. He’d call out a state for Kerry, and his friends would call the same state for Bush. He walked away perplexed at how exit polls, which never vary by more than two or three percent from election returns, could have been so far off.
Comparing exit polls with election returns, Freeman found a discrepancy of 7 percent nationwide and 11 percent in Ohio. The divergence “cannot be explained by chance,” he writes in his book. Although Freeman does not speculate on how Republicans stole the election, he insists that the odds are longer than 100 million to one that Republicans played fair. In order to get closer to how the fraud was perpetrated, one would have to compare exit polls and returns within each precinct, but when Freeman asked the media consortium for those data, he was stonewalled, he says.
Mainstream media commentators were quick to dismiss the idea of election fraud as conspiracy theory. Yet Freeman says his statistical analysis has never been seriously challenged. Voices on the right have begun debunking exit polls as inaccurate, while the United States uses exit polls as evidence of fraud in the elections of other countries. “The irony is so extreme,” he says, pointing out that recent elections in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Peru have been overturned on the basis of exit polls. In November 2004, Colin Powell criticized Ukraine’s election as fraudulent based on exit poll discrepancies comparable to those that had taken place just weeks prior in the United States.
Some commentators wondered if Bush voters were less likely to respond to exit polls. But Freeman found evidence that in conservative precincts people were slightly more likely to participate in exit polls than in liberal precincts. While exit polling data perhaps offer the most compelling evidence of a stolen election, Freeman also cites demographics and voting patterns. Comparing how people voted in a given precinct in 2000 with how they voted there in 2004 offered striking contrasts. “It just doesn’t hold,” he says. “It’s utterly inconsistent.”
Freeman’s not alone. The dean of U.S. polling over the past half century, Lou Harris, concurred with the voting-pattern argument: “Ohio was as dirty an election as America has ever seen,” he told Rolling Stone. “You look at the turnout and votes in individual precincts, compared to the historic patterns in those counties, and you can tell where the discrepancies are. They stand out like a sore thumb.” Others spoke out too. Robert Kennedy wrote a hotly contested piece in Rolling Stone, diligently footnoting all of his assertions. And polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who supported Bush in 2004, wrote a piece in Vanity Fair, essentially arguing that Ohio was stolen for the Republicans.
In several telephone conversations last week, Freeman sounded slightly deflated. He spoke with the tone of a man battered by his inability to communicate something basic and crucial to his peers.Yet he speaks, too, with the calm authority of someone giving a dissertation defense. His accent still carries the trace of his native Long Island, and he talks a little like a mobster holding back most of what he knows.
—Brendan Cooney for Guernica
Guernica: In your book, you conclude that John Kerry won the 2004 election by five percentage points nationally, or about 10 million votes. Is your sense that the fraud was done through computer voting systems being reprogrammed to flip votes?
Steven Freeman: We now know the many ways the votes were stolen. I show some of them in Chapter 1 of my book. And since the book was written, Bob Fitrakis, Harvey Wasserman, Richard Hayes Phillips and others all over the country have documented dozens more, including fully accounting for half a million stolen votes in Ohio alone. We have Diebold admitting their machines drop votes.
Guernica: Exit polls, as you note in your book, are used around the world to ensure fair elections. When the difference between actual returns and exit polls is large, this is front page news and the result is sometimes overturned, as happened in Georgia and Ukraine. But here, such a discrepancy was not even reported in the press. Instead, the exit polls were adjusted to conform with the returns. The assumption was that the exit polls must have been wrong. Why is that?
Steven Freeman: This is a question that I—and others—have been asking since November 2004. I suggest that you ask the press that reported on the exit poll discrepancy in Georgia and Ukraine, but not here.
Guernica: The National Election Pool is the consortium of news companies that conducts exit polling in the United States. Your book describes how the NEP changes its exit poll data after the results are in, to reflect those results. (The assumption is that the exit poll data are not data in themselves but just a provisional estimate of the official vote.) Those “corrected” exit polls were the ones mistakenly evaluated by a Cal Tech/MIT study that was reported by the media as evidence to dismiss “conspiracy” theories. How could the top researchers in the field make such a basic mistake?
There is now an election integrity movement—hundreds of groups around the nation—that are not simply going to sit by silently if a presidential general election is stolen.
Steven Freeman: This is another question that I—and others—also have been asking since November 2004. Additional questions: why was the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Center study you mention unsigned? (No authorship was ever acknowledged). Why did it take the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Center a month to acknowledge their error? (I, and others, advised them about their error as soon as the New York Times published their story.) Why didn’t the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Center, or better yet, the University Press offices issue a press release accompanying the admission of error? Why didn’t the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or MSNBC or other media groups which cited the study ever subsequently report the error, even after it was acknowledged by Cal Tech/MIT?
Guernica: Given the long-standing accuracy of exit polls (you look at European exit polls and show that they’re usually off by less than 0.5 percent), and given the fact that exit polls are used in developing countries to keep the elections honest, why is there the assumption here that exit polls do not constitute data in themselves, and are to be manipulated after the returns come in?
Steven Freeman: The National Election Pool insists ad nauseum that their poll is not designed to detect fraud, and it’s true as far as it goes. In fact, data are used routinely for purposes other than for which they were collected. The more important reason is they have in fact been rewarded with a primo contract that discourages—and may well prohibit—them from ever asserting fraud.
Guernica: But why were reporters (and academics) so quick to dismiss exit polls in 2004? Is it because everyone’s bought into the myth of the United States as the torchbearer of democracy, so that the thought of a stolen election is not even conceivable?
Steven Freeman: It’s partially that. But reporters and academics were not generally so quick to dismiss exit polls in 2004. Many reporters were very interested in what I had to say, but interviews I did for MSNBC, CNN and NPR (Terry Gross) went unaired; and stories in which I was interviewed by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Washington Post writers were never published. In some cases, reporters told me outright simply that their editors killed the story. Likewise my work has received enthusiastic endorsements from prominent academics throughout the country in all relevant fields. But most reporters and academics get their news as the rest of us do. If a story is censored, if there is intentional disinformation or confusion, then they will never get the proper arguments, data, and analysis with which they draw their own conclusions.
Investigators can open up slot machines in Las Vegas to inspect their internal mechanisms and their records of recent gambling outcomes. But the same guidelines don’t apply for voting machines.
Guernica: Your book refers to the fact that 95 percent of the computer scientists and software engineers polled by the Association for Computing Machinery in 2004 opposed the use of electronic voting systems, because they’re so easy to hack and because without a paper trail there’s no way to audit them or do a recount. Still, most people vote that way, and most of our leaders are convinced they’re a good thing. Why?
Steven Freeman: The public votes that way because it has no choice. Local election officials like voting machines because it replaces what they see as a tedious task with something easier and with the panache of high tech. Moreover, they are now courted, wined and dined by voting machine makers. They justify e-voting as a reduction of burdensome time demands and/or labor costs. And it’s true that in some states, especially in the west, ballots can be absurdly long—although I think a compromise can easily be reached in which federal and state-wide races use hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB) and permit counties to do whatever they want for local races.
Guernica: If we are to believe both the 2000 and 2004 elections were stolen by Republicans, to what extent was the 2004 election made easier to steal by the use of unregulated computer-voting technology?
Steven Freeman: Electronic voting is an invitation to commit fraud. Conventional fraud may occur and not be detected but it is, in principle, detectable, and flagrantly egregious behavior can usually be limited through the courts and public pressure. With electronic voting systems, however, fraud may be undetectable, and those who have been declared the losers are left with no recourse to verify results.
Guernica: Will the 2008 election be even easier to steal than the previous two?
Steven Freeman: In some ways, it is easier than ever. Virtually no institutional safeguards have been adopted to hinder election theft. Given the lack of response by the media, political officials, party officials, the criminal justice system, pollsters, pundits and political scientists, those who have committed fraud in past elections can only be more emboldened. In this year’s presidential primaries, fraud was never even hypothesized in the press despite an array of evidence suggesting decisive vote alterations in many states. Where we’ve looked closely, hypotheses other than fraud don’t hold up at all—for example, in New Hampshire, where Obama lost to Clinton despite Obama’s double-digit lead in the polls and despite winning by a double-digit margin in the 40% of New Hampshire precincts where votes were cast on paper and hand-counted.
On the other hand, the public is no longer quite so naïve as it had been. And there is now an election integrity movement—hundreds of groups around the nation—that are not simply going to sit by silently if a presidential general election is stolen. These groups are slowly but steadily making the public aware of election fraud and bringing the issue up in public forums. We probably had a material impact in 2006 when, for the first time in many election cycles, election fraud appeared to have been restrained, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania and California, the states in which these groups have been most active. In November 2006, my group, Election Integrity, conducted the first Election Verification Exit Poll and we are gearing up to do so again in the upcoming U.S. federal elections.
99% of U.S. ballots are counted by machines using proprietary software, owned and operated by clandestine corporations.
Guernica: What are others ways to make elections safer from fraud?
Steven Freeman: The guiding principle is transparency. No system is perfect, but at least in a transparent system, fraud is difficult and it can be limited and detected. U.S. election systems, however, are about as transparent as a CIA plot. 99% of U.S. ballots are counted by machines using proprietary software, owned and operated by clandestine corporations. Even when there are obvious problems, as when there were 18,000 missing Sarasota County votes in the 2006 election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, courts have ruled that neither citizens, nor researchers, nor candidates may have access to the machines that tabulated the votes. The machines, their workings and their software are all protected as proprietary. Why that prevents investigation is yet another logical lapse.
As I note in my book, computer chips of Las Vegas slot machines are kept on file at the state’s Gaming Control Board. If a gambler believes she or he has been cheated, the casino is required to contact the Gaming Control Board which has investigators on call around the clock. Investigators can open up machines to inspect their internal mechanisms and their records of recent gambling outcomes. Moreover, Board inspectors regularly show up unannounced at casinos to compare computer chips to those on file. If there is a discrepancy, the machine is shut down and investigated.
Guernica: So slot machines have even more transparency and oversight than voting machines. Las Vegas trumps Washington.
Steven Freeman: In contrast, even if a voter has evidence that a voting machine has manipulated their vote, in most cases their only recourse is to call a Board of Elections number which may or may not be answered to lodge a complaint that may or may not be investigated. Even if an election official wanted to investigate, he or she wouldn’t have a chip on file to compare to the one found in the machine. Apologists for voting machine makers assert that they will have higher tech cyber-secure systems. If we ask how that protects against insider fraud, they will stare at us and say straight-faced, “Well, you have to trust somebody.” Both responses are as wrong as can be. Cyber-security makes for less transparency, not more. Voting and elections are, in fact, predicated on the idea that you must not trust any particular person or any particular group.
Guernica: Is an optical-scanning device, in which the voter votes by hand and then feeds the ballot into a computer, the best way to go, because it leaves a paper trail?
Steven Freeman: Much of the press, the political establishment and the public have latched onto the importance of a paper trail. But let’s not forget that Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004 were stolen not by paperless voting machines, but with a full audit trail backed by laws that provided for stricter audit and interpretation requirements than demanded recounts. A paper trail, as opposed to a paper ballot, is clearly inadequate. Many municipalities now use retroactively fitted DREs (direct record electronic paperless e-voting machines). But any “paper trail” from these machines is illusory.
Guernica: So your preference is for hand-counted paper ballots?
Steven Freeman: Hand-counted paper ballots offer two subtle yet important advantages over any machine-based system. First, it delays the first count. Believe it or not, delayed official numbers are a benefit. The claim that the public demands a fast count is a fabrication. At best, a fast count is self-serving for the media, creating something of an election night spectacle that may attract viewers. Once a count is reported in the media, it takes on the stature of fact—as we’ve seen in suspect election after suspect election when a media “call” leads to a Democratic concession speech. The first count is the decisive count, so it’s critical to get that right and not have to depend on a so-called recount to do it.
It is often the case now that those who are in the position to choose the system are the beneficiaries of corrupted counts, and are either indebted to, or expect to be future beneficiaries of, continued corruption.
And there’s the act of counting. Ultimately, democracy depends on participation. When you think about it, the very idea that one can expect to walk into a voting booth and cast a secret ballot that’s actually going to effect real change is delusional. Those who control the system will not permit it, and why should they? Participation should be, of course, much more than simply counting votes on election night, but counting votes is an important (first) step in participatory democracy, an assurance that one understands what is happening, and has some control over it. Active involvement in the process and vigilance over it is ultimately the missing ingredient toward restoring democracy in this country.
Guernica: Why were theories that Republicans stole the 2000 election reported openly in the mainstream media but similar theories about 2004 reported as paranoid? Is it simply that academic statistical analyses like yours were too difficult for reporters to understand?
Steven Freeman: That’s part of it. But my analysis is not that difficult to understand. It’s more that the 2000 theft was so overt and so public that coverage simply could not be avoided and the sitting administration was in control in 2004 with the full power of the presidency to reward those who acted in their interests and to punish those who would affront them.
Guernica: There has been some good news since your book came out in 2006. More than half the states now have laws requiring electronic voting machines to keep paper records, for example. On the other hand, unregulated electronic voting technology seems to be the way we’re moving. There seems to be little support in Congress for the idea of requiring a paper record of every vote. Overall, are you encouraged or disheartened by recent trends in voting policy?
Steven Freeman: Overall, the trend continues away from fairness, away from a healthy democracy, away from regulation and transparency. There are many good proposals for election and voting reform on the table. The most reliable technologies are the simplest and most transparent. England, Canada and Germany, like most democracies throughout the world, use hand-counted paper ballots. For jurisdictions that determine they must use machines (e.g., because of the volume of races and questions on the ballot), we have created and meticulously documented systems for automated vote counts that are transparent and auditable. When such systems are not adopted by jurisdictions, it is not because they are unworkable, but because they are workable. Unfortunately, it is often the case now that those who are in the position to choose the system are the beneficiaries of corrupted counts, and are either indebted to, or expect to be future beneficiaries of, continued corruption. In the end, we will only have an honest system to the extent that the public demands it.
Guernica: Sounds bleak.
Steven Freeman: Some states have introduced or even adopted legislation mandating manual recounts in close elections. But there are three reasons why we should not find this development reassuring. First, for example in Ohio, the trigger mandating a recount is too tight, .5% (whereas Bush’s margin in the 2004 Ohio Presidential election had been 2.5. It did come down to 2.1% due to provisional ballots and machine errors that were detected and corrected.). If wide-scale fraud were committed, it’s unlikely that the culprits would leave such a tight margin. Knowing the statistical parameters that would trigger a recount permits anyone engaged in fraud to make sure that the stated results fall outside this limit.
Second, if the fraud involves electronic voting systems, there is no paper trail to verify how votes were cast. Third, we saw how the ballots were recounted in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. Even with the world watching and the most powerful elected position in the world at stake, neither count was conducted lawfully, logically or systematically. In fact, neither count was even completed.
Outside verification of election results is becoming less and less possible. We run the danger that for 2008 and beyond, there will not be even an inkling of reliable past results, on which we can anchor and analyze results, such as we were able to do in chapter six of our book (for all the shortcomings of the 2000 election, we have fairly high confidence in the approximate accuracy of that election’s results in most states). Telephone polls will become even more unreliable as response rates and landline usage decline yet further.
Even if exit polls continue to be conducted, we will never know the unadjusted results.
Worst of all, we may never obtain the benefits of exit poll verification, even to the limited degree that we were able to do so in 2004. A backlash against exit polling began when the official result sharply diverged from projections in the Florida 2000 presidential election. Computer malfunctions reportedly prevented the release of exit poll data on Election Day 2002, and voting preference results were never released, although other public opinion data from the polls were. Speaking to the National Press Club in the aftermath of the 2004 election, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said, “I would encourage the media to abandon exit surveys on Election Day. … I’ve been through this before. In 2000 the exit data was wrong on Election Day. In 2002, the exit returns were wrong on Election Day. And in 2004, the exit data were wrong on Election Day—all three times, by the way, in a way that skewed against Republicans and had a dispiriting effect on Republican voters across the country.”
As with the trade from punch cards to electronic voting, we trade messy but visible mechanics for a black box in which anything can happen hidden from public view.
Even if exit polls continue to be conducted, we will never know the unadjusted results from any NEP poll. We were only able to uncover the exit poll discrepancy in 2004 as a result of blogger leaks and a technological glitch that prevented NEP from doing “timely” updates of adjusted data. In the aftermath of the election, while there was little comment about the discrepancy and still less investigation, the Washington Post’s polling expert Richard Morin, Gallup’s David Moore, and NEP co-director Joe Lenski scapegoated bloggers who released the data as the source of the problem. When the late NEP pollster Warren Mitofsky discussed future “improvements” for NEP exit polls, he emphasized that no unadjusted data will be released even to their clients. In other words, the “improvement” is keeping the relevant data away from inquiring minds.
Guernica: It almost sounds as if all election officials have turned a deaf ear to your concerns?
Steven Freeman: So far, the agencies overseeing U.S. elections (the National Association of State Election Directors, the Federal Elections Commission and the Election Assistance Commission, established to oversee and aid Help America Vote Act spending) have politely listened to testimony about the importance of voting verification, but have done little to ensure it. On the other hand, they have been moving forward with a variety of measures designed to increase early voting, voting by mail, and absentee voting. Although these measures are proposed as important conveniences, such voting systems present both new invitations for fraud and extreme hurdles for verifiability. Absentee, early, and mail voting all raise chain-of-custody issues. In a trustworthy voting system, all ballots will be in plain view from the time they are cast until the time they are counted and recounted. It’s hard enough to ensure that with Election Day voting. Given the ways that elections are administered and monitored in this country, it is not plausible that verifiable chains of custody can be secured for a week or more of early voting.
Finally, absentee, early, and mail voting undermine independent verification through an exit poll. If large numbers of voters cast their vote through alternative systems, then we no longer have a representative sample of voters showing up at the polls, from which accurate surveys can be conducted.
In the aftermath of Florida 2000, the media and academics roundly ridiculed punch-card voting systems. But rather than investigate, report, and prosecute criminal actions, Congress both blamed technology and put faith in technology. And so, the United States rushed headlong into a brave new world of electronic voting, replacing the imprecision of counting chads with blind trust in Diebold, ES&S and Sequoia. Today, instead of investigating, reporting, and prosecuting criminal actions, legislatures blame Election Day procedural shortcomings, and adopt early, absentee, and mail systems that are far less secure. As with the trade from punch cards to electronic voting, we trade messy but visible mechanics for a black box in which anything can happen hidden from public view.
Guernica: The United States does have a longer history of elections than most countries. Why then are we such a mess? Are we actually moving backwards? Why have we not figured out how to conduct a free and transparent election?
Steven Freeman: Election administrators and most politicians will say that the system has never been better, that a messy system has been thoroughly cleaned up. Only those who are concerned about the integrity of the count view the current system unfavorably. It’s not a matter of figuring out how to conduct a free and transparent election. Indeed, for those who control the nation’s election machinery, figuring out how to conduct a totally non-transparent election has been an extraordinary, crowning achievement. The challenge for the rest of us is how to undermine that achievement and restore our say in the system.
Guernica: You said in another interview when asked about your biases that you despise Democrats. Why?
Steven Freeman: Because they have betrayed their constituencies and their country by not challenging clearly fraudulent election practices and results. It’s one thing to steal an election, another to let it be stolen. The Republicans, fault them if you will, are what they are, fighting for what they believe in and their constituencies. The Democrats are not what they appear to be, and repeatedly betray their most loyal constituencies, allowing these constituents’ energies, dollars, best efforts and faith to be lost and diverted in electoral charades.
Guernica: Despite all that you know, will you vote in November?
Steven Freeman: Absolutely. The democracy crisis is certainly not to going to resolved by abstention from voting. Even though your vote may not be counted as cast and even though you may not be able to do anything about it, the one thing you can do is to show up on Election Day and affirm the importance of voting. Voting is the most basic step in a long journey that must also include awareness, education and organizing if the promise of self government is ever to be realized.
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