As the presidential election draws nearer, the mainstream media are predictably distracted by all manner of sideshows. Whether it be Paris Hilton’s memorization of a one-minute script, Michelle and Barack Obama’s dating history, John Edwards’ love child, or the possibility that Putin has aligned with Karl Rove in order to provide John McCain with the perfect opportunity to show himself as a tough guy, the so-called news cycle is repeatedly derailed by trivia, hysteria, and scandal.
Even as CNN’s Bill Schneider evaluates the latest poll numbers or Fox News brings on the body language analyst, Dorothy Fadiman’s Stealing America: Vote by Vote submits that the most important story remains un-covered. Namely, the story of how Americans’ votes are counted. This isn’t about guessing what the one percentage point difference between the candidates in Montana will mean in the general election. This is about how voting works mechanically and digitally: how hardware and software, both maliciously altered and plain defective, lead to calculation errors — and, according to the film, stolen elections. As the film shows flags waving under patriotic drums, investigative journalist Greg Palast asserts, “The nasty little secret of American democracy, and we’re not supposed to talk about this, is that not all the ballots get counted.”
Not talking about it is a first target for Stealing America. While it stipulates that “all parties historically have stuffed ballot boxes and repressed votes,” it also makes the case that paperless touch-screen methods have only enhanced the capacity for wrongdoing. Advancing (more manipulable) technology has made the cheating worse. This conclusion is based on data indicated by assorted graphs as well as anecdotal evidence. “Either exit polls are becoming harder and harder to do or voting manipulation is becoming easier and easier to do,” says computer security consultant Bruce O’Dell. He also happens to be the documentary’s co-producer and an energized advocate for system reform — now.
“How do we know,” asks exceedingly somber narrator Peter Coyote, “if an election is fair?” (Let’s concerned that the film’s argument is not bolstered by sometimes unsophisticated phrasing, cheesy graphics and music, and uninspired organization.) Without any way to recount by hand, the available data are always-already subject to tampering. Over the past decade, the film observes, discrepancies between exit polls and election results have increased. The tampering may not be precisely organized but it is intentional and effective. And if Stealing America does propose a grand conspiracy at work, it does tend to point the finger at the Republicans, using the 2004 Presidential example as Exhibit A for much of its argument.
The documentary goes over points that have been made before, including the problems caused by uncounted ballots, vote switching, undercounts, faulty machines. Some of these are supported by personal testimony: Ohio State Senator Bob Hagan recounts seeing his vote switched from Kerry to Bush; computer expert Chuck Herrin describes how easy and fast it has been for him to change votes, “just to show that it could be done”; and Chris Hood, a former Diebold employee, recalls being asked to “place a software patch in machines at DeKalb county” in Georgia during the 2002 midterm election, when Max Cleland unexpectedly lost to Saxby Chambliss.
The film also makes the oft-heard point that purging of registrations in some precincts targeted black voters (Robert Kennedy Jr., in an interview borrowed from TV, says, “In Ohio, there were 300,000, almost all Democratic, voters purged from the rolls right before the election”; and Palast notes a “challenge list” was mounted that included mostly African American soldiers who were shipped overseas and so did not respond to requests for verification at home — never mind that troops are allowed to vote from wherever they are stationed).
As well, the film posits, the long lines at polling stations in poor neighborhoods are typically efforts to repress black and other minority populations’ votes. The numbers noted here are actually startling, as the numbers of working voting machines in such stations are low and the hours spent standing on line are high. Again, Kennedy provides background. During an appearance on The Daily Show, he says, “In some of the African American communities, there were lines that were 11 hours long. On average, black people had to wait three and a half hours to vote, while in white suburban communities, the wait was less than 18 minutes.”
If you feel less than certain when hearing such arguments (peppered with terms like “some” and “on average”), Stealing America‘s kudos to Comedy Central for being “one of the few mainstream venues exploring controversial election issues” may send you over the edge. But if you watch Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, you may be inclined to agree with this assessment. And besides, clips from these shows (on The Daily Show, a correspondent says of Bush, “This is not a man who’s going to let the numbers stand in the way of moving American forward!”) help to offset the unintentionally comedic performances gleaned from CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC (on CNN, the most frequently represented network, a reporter notes the use of “monitors and observers sent by Department of Justice” during the 2006 elections, as if this was an effective way to limit dishonesty).
The lack of investigation or even rudimentary coverage of voting problems is worthy of its own investigation — or at least attention and serious consideration of redress. When John Conyers hosted a hearing on the 2004 elections, pollster John Zogby (who is also interviewed in the film) states outright that “This election has produced unprecedented suspicion regarding its outcome.” And Ion Sancho, Supervisor of Elections Leon County Florida and a persuasive interview subject, still maintains that the cessation of recounting in the 2000 election was illegal, as well as resulting in “a clear loss of public trust in elections.”
This is the film’s most urgently pressed notion, that the failures of elections to reflect exit polls not only suggest errors in the system, but also convince voters not to vote. This is the worst possible outcome — apart from any individual election or specific party dominance. Stealing America urges viewers to be worried and to take action.