By Jefferson Flanders

New Hampshire officials yesterday finished a hand recount of some 40% of the votes from the Granite State’s Democratic presidential primary, an election which featured Hillary Clinton’s dramatic victory over Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, the recount of paper ballots produced no significant change in the results. Clinton lost 25 votes and Obama dropped 5; officials said any errors during the primary voting process were human, and not a product of voting machine failure or fraud.

Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, who received a paltry 1.4 percent of the primary vote, had paid $27,000 for the partial recount. The diminutive Ohio Congressman, known for his belief in UFOs and left-of-center politics, had cited “serious and credible reports, allegations and rumors” about the electoral process, “unexplained disparities between hand-counted ballots and machine-counted ballots,” and “the stunning disparities between various ‘independent’ pre-election polls and the actual election results,” when he requested the recount.

But Kucinich’s call for a recount wasn’t, as he claimed, “about the integrity of the election process.” Rather, it reflected a culture of conspiracy that has enveloped the Netroots (the Democratic Party’s angry political activists and left-of-center bloggers who have organized through the Internet) since the disputed 2000 presidential election. In an ominous sign for centrist Democrats, the “allegations and rumors” circulating on “progressive” websites suggested that Clinton’s victory over Obama, the darling of the anti-war Left, had somehow involved fraudulent vote switches.

The Netroots buzzed about rigged Diebold optical scan voting machines (hence Kucinich’s focus on “machine-counted ballots”) and suppressed exit polls that had supposedly projected an Obama win. Diebold machines are a particular fixation of the Netroots, because, it is argued, their vote-tallying software can be easily hacked, and because Diebold’s executives have links to the GOP. New Hampshire simply recounted its optical scan sheets, validating the machine tabulations through this paper trail. (There are valid concerns about computer-based voting, especially touch-screen machines; malfunctions, lack of a paper audit trail, poor user design, and other issues have caused many states and localities to move towards optical scan technology and/or simple paper ballots.)

So who was behind this alleged vote fraud in New Hampshire? One Netroots theory suggested that the “Clinton Machine” or “Clinton Mafia” had rigged the vote for the former First Lady (who, ironically, once railed against the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”) Another sinister possibility, floated by cable television talk show host Bill Maher among others, was  that the Republicans had cooked New Hampshire’s results because they feared Obama and preferred to run against Clinton as the Democratic candidate. The airing of these fantasies led Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo, a self-described leftist, to muse despairingly about the “sullen childishness at work” of claiming “that any election that dramatically doesn’t go your way was stolen.”

The Netroots and vote fraud

Mainstream Democrats bear some culpability for the persistence of this conspiratorial world-view. They failed to distinguish between legitimate concerns about shoddy voting practices in the 2004 presidential election and overwrought claims that the GOP had “stolen the election” by disenfranchising minorities and rigging voting machines in Ohio. For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer joined Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones in formally objecting to the certification of Ohio’s electoral votes, a symbolic—and cynical—move designed to raise questions about the legitimacy of President Bush’s win. While a Democratic National Committee taskforce grudgingly conceded in June 2005 that there was no evidence of fraud in Ohio, the continuing harsh rhetoric of Democratic leaders about Republican electoral tactics encouraged activists on Netroots sites like Democratic Underground and Daily Kos to continue to spin their vote-fraud theories.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls contributed to the 2004 election conspiracy theories. That exit polls carry a margin of error (about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well) hasn’t been widely publicized. Exit polls also rely on representative voter samples, and when large numbers of voters refuse to participate (a growing trend in the U.S.), it can skew the sample and distort any resulting projections. They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections.

These flaws were ignored by Democratic activists and bloggers when, as evidence of fraud, they pointed to those pivotal states where exit polls had projected Sen. John Kerry as the winner but where President Bush triumphed when the actual votes were tallied. In explaining the discrepancy, Edison/Mitofsky Research (the firm that conducted the 2004 exit polls) concluded that Republican voters had refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats, leading to an overestimation of the Kerry vote totals. (Pollsters have dubbed the tendency of more conservative voters to shy away from revealing their voting preference the Shy Tory, or Shy Republican, Factor.) Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional elections exit polls.

Those New Hampshire “discrepencies”

Just as in the 2004 and 2006 elections, there are plausible explanations for all of the New Hampshire “discrepancies” cited by Rep. Kucinich and the Netroots. Obama did garner higher totals in rural places where votes were hand counted, and Clinton did better in urban areas with electronic voting machines. But Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee also showed more strength in rural areas than in larger cities, while Mitt Romney fared better in urban areas. As Ron Paul, the Republican/libertarian candidate, noted in dismissing suggestions of fraud: “Results almost always vary between urban and rural areas.” Voters in different places may prefer different candidates. Demographics represent a more likely cause for any geographical disparities than any sinister plot to hack voting machine software to shift votes from one candidate to another. (It should be noted that Republican Albert Howard of Michigan, who received 44 votes in the primary, is paying for a recount of the GOP ballots.)

And the gap between opinion polls and final Democratic vote wasn’t as stunning as Kucinich has suggested. While pre-vote polls favored Obama, polling firms apparently stopped surveying too early, missing a late swing to Clinton by women voters. The polls also relied on outdated turnout models. What about those exit polls allegedly favoring Obama? Salon’s Farhad Manjoo reports that it wasn’t so: news network analysts regarded the Clinton-Obama race as too close to call based on the available survey data.

If Kucinich had looked at the New Hampshire results dispassionately he could have saved his struggling campaign the $27,000 it ponied up for the recount. But the Ohio Congressman is pandering to the Netroots. He is now calling for a “complete and accurate recount of all ballots”, justified, he says, by the slightly changed vote totals in the initial recount, to be paid for by New Hampshire. That unwillingness to accept the results isn’t surprising. Even before the recount had commenced, had begun questioning the chain of custody of the ballots. After all, the thinking goes, why wouldn’t the sinister forces that fixed an election, rig the recount to cover their tracks?

Such paranoia stems from eight years of powerlessness, and eight years of assuming the worst about the country’s leadership. This Netroots culture of conspiracy and its “sullen childishness” will prove problematic for the Democrats in the future. If Campaign 2008 features any more narrow primary victories by Clinton over Obama, look for fresh allegations of vote fraud from the angry Left. If this scenario unfolds, and Clinton nevertheless wins the nomination, will her victory be regarded as illegitimate by elements of her own party? And what might that mean in November?

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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