Toward Election Integrity
Steven Freeman is a academician who believes strongly in subjects such as election integrity, and then is able to back it up with the evidence of solid, peer-reviewed research.
Steven has a national reputation for his work in examining the actual results of elections. He has received four national awards for his research. He was chosen to be one of the major speakers at this year’s National Media Reform Conference in Memphis, TN.
His analyses, together with a study by UC Berkeley’s Sociology and Demography departments, are recognized to have been the first serious attempts to examine the validity of the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. Freeman and Joel Bleifuss wrote Was The 2004 Election Stolen? Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and The Official Count. (Seven Stories Press, 2006). More recently, he has researched and published information about the 2008 election in California that had some intriguing results based on very rigorous analysis of exit polling data. See “Did California Voters Really Ratify Proposition 8?” 4/19/10.
Freeman holds a Ph.D. from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Organizational Dynamics, where he teaches research methods and survey design, a domain that includes polling. He is the founder of a group called Election Integrity. See electionintegrity.org
A number of groups in San Diego have joined to put together a “Defending Democracy Forum,” togther. The groups include: Peace and Democracy Action Group of First Unitarian Universalist Church, Psephos, P.A.C.E. and Common Cause of S.D. The meeting will be at 6 pm on July 1 at the First UU Church of San Diego, 4190 Front St., S.D. 92103. Freeman will be the keynote speaker. There will be a showing of the trailer of the exciting film “SAVE KLSD” by Jon Monday and Jennifer Douglas. There will be lots of networking, before and after the event. See www.activistsandiego.org or call 619-222-6036.
Steve Hays: One thing I’ve always wondered about is the way Germany, based on exit polls, announces the winners of their elections moments after the polls close. Why not in this country?
Steven Freeman: Yes, that happens to be the first addendum to my book. The results of the exit polls match up quite precisely with the election results.
Since the votes in Florida were announced in 2000 for Al Gore and then taken back, and later the projection was for George Bush, we don’t seem to use exit polls as much or seem to much as much faith in them.
Yes that’s an interesting thing. You can draw your own conclusions from that. In 2000, the only problem was the exit polls were too accurate. They allowed the media access to them prior to polls closing and it was on that basis that Jimmy Carter in 1980 conceded the election even before the polls closed in the West. Creating something of an uproar back then.
And then all of a sudden in 2000 the polls no longer accurate. Even in 1992 there was a big discrepancy in the Republican primary in New Hampshire. George Bush, Sr., is in office and is supposedly running dead even with Pat Buchanan and lo and behold, he wins by 16 percentage points.
Then George Bush, Jr., running in 2000, gets trounced in Florida according to the exit polls but somehow or another he gets the electoral votes from there. Then by 2004 everything is upside down. So largely with the rise of the Bush family and electronic vote counting the exit polls no longer match up. Not only that, you also get a tremendous amount of negative commentary from people like Karl Rove and the Republican chairman Ed Gillespie.
In 2004 it was dripping in irony. At the same time the Republican administration was paying for exit polls and using them in testimony to prove that the Ukrainian election was stolen. An exit poll disparity of roughly the same proportions here was totally dismissed.
Is there any difference between the way the Germans approach it and the way we do it?
The Germans system is totally transparent. Well, it was, now they are starting to adopt some of our systems. It has been transparent. The second the polls close they show the results and you can see exactly what the survey says and you can see exactly what the officials number are.
I started a polling group. We have a nonprofit called Election Integrity and we are doing things totally transparent. But there’s a large media consortium, it’s hard to even describe the organizational structure it’s so layered in bureaucracy, but basically all the major media groups in this country work together on this.
There’s a single exit polling organization for the media called the National Election Pool. They do their poll and they don’t release the data any more at all until they—as they describe it—correct the data, which means making sure it conforms with official numbers.
So your book describes this process of research and obviously, your analysis of the 2004 election.
Yes. And we only got the data from that election because there was a technical glitch that prevented them from correcting the data. Since then they’ve adopted a policy of not letting that data out at all. When I testified before a Congressional Committee, Rep. John Conyers, Jr., requested the data from the National Election Pool and they refused. They refused to give the data to anybody. Instead they gave it to a doctoral student in music in England who gave her analysis of it. Then a copy was sent to an entrepreneur in Florida. But they refused to give it to a group of Ivy League researchers on the basis of confidentiality.
So we have very confidential or secretive elections.
Our whole system is privatized. It’s what you would expect in the Soviet Union.
There’s no institutional support for this kind of research. I thought I had a National Science Foundation Grant for this. They were enthusiastic about it and then when I went to follow up on it no one returned my calls. There is absolutely zero institutional support for democracy in this country. There is no institutional support for it whatsoever.
I do this on my free time, on my own dime. I started a nonprofit group called Election Integrity right after the 2004 election when I saw what happened.
Is there a safer way to vote, absentee ballot, for instance? What do you suggest to people?
There’s no way to ensure your vote will be counted as cast. That’s the sad truth. The problem with voting with absentee is that it is a very easy system to fix in a lot of ways. First of all they can get screwed up in the mail. In Florida in 2004 the ballots of many Democratic registered voters were systematically rejected in certain Florida counties.
I don’t know specifically about California, but mail-in ballots around the world are notoriously easy to fix. In California I think all of them are now machine scanned, which can be a problem. There are auditing systems, but the audits are also plagued with problems. They happen much later and in many cases absentee ballots are not counted until after the winner is declared. By then, everything is moot anyway. Once the winner is declared the election is over. They might go back and look, but even when they find errors the elections are not overturned.
Can you more specifically identify what the problems might be?
Well, there are various layers of problems. It’s hard to say what The Problem is, but certainly machine counts—and it’s not just the touch screens. Touch screens are so obviously awful. There’s absolutely no way to verify the counts. At least with the scanned ballots there is the possibility of going back, auditing and finding fraud. There’s the possibility, and there virtually isn’t with the machines. I mean there could be if you had access to the machines, but then even in elections that are obviously and unquestionably wrong, example—There was evidence of the machine count in Washington state really being far off and even then when plaintiffs went in to get access to machines they were denied.
In 2006 in Sarasota FL supposedly 20% of the voters didn’t cast a vote in a tightly contested Congressional election. Even then, nothing changed. And nobody independent was granted access to the machines to see what might have happened.
So the touch screens are awful and we really can’t trust the audits that are done. There’s not a lot of attention paid to it and even when they find mistakes nothing happens as a result of it.
In San Diego in the Brian Bilbray and Francine Busby Congressional election they did an audit and they found all kinds of errors. They tired to get the election judge to throw out the results and he said Bilbray had already been sworn into Congress. It was too late.
Do you think it’s getting better or worse?
People were very optimistic when Obama was elected, thinking that would turn things around, but the trends for the most part are unfavorable. There are a couple of things. One is the early voting that virtually the whole nation has adopted as a wonderful thing. Early voting is practically the death knell of clean elections. We can’t even keep good ballot security from the time the polls open in the morning until they close in the evening.
Give people two weeks or a month to manipulate these things and absolutely they’re going to be fixed. Not only that but it gives the insiders a sneak preview into what the voting trends are, what they have to do to steal an election and make adjustments. Then you also take away the ability to get a confirmation of what happened. Exit polls are one of the few checks on the system, and with early voting you eliminate the possibility of those checks. So early voting is a disaster for election integrity, and that’s happening all over the country.
The other thing is this Citizens United decision [Supreme Court decision]. It’s an impossibly bad decision for election integrity. And I don’t even see the problem as the spending that’s going to result from it. First and foremost this acts as kind of a nuclear deterrent to clean elections. Any politician knows, any political aspirant knows, that if they take a position against these interests they’re faced with the possibility of unlimited attack. They know it’s something untenable.
Likewise, they know support is forthcoming. It’s like the corporations don’t even need to spend money or say anything. Everybody understands that this is a nuclear threat and nuclear deterrent toward anyone taking a stand against clear corporate interests.
Plus it’s just an absurd decision. The logic of it makes no sense. And finally the idea of corporate personhood, I mean that’s such an abstraction. It doesn’t even make sense that we have clear laws against foreign contributions, but corporations can be owned by anyone anywhere.
To me, it’s one more corrupt decision from this very political Supreme Court. It’s part of an overall trend against democratic accountability.
So what do you think people should do?
Well, that’s what we will be talking about in San Diego. It would take quite a movement really, quite a commitment to actually change things. Can that happen? We’ll look at it. I can give all the facts and expose the system, and other people are doing to have to take the lead in actually making changes.
There are limits to what one person can do. A person can become aware of the system, see through the fraud, help explain to others what’s going on. Maybe not get suckered into things like devoting too much effort into a fake election and instead look into the actualities of participatory democracy.
I mean the truth of it is, even if the system wasn’t fixed, and I think for most of our history it’s been really hard to fix an election—it’s gotten a lot easier with electronic counting—but for the most part throughout America’s history it has still not been that democratic. What it really takes is involvement. Going in and voting every 2 to 4 years is not going to change things because you are basically given a choice between the red team and the blue team.
There’s not a lot of difference between the two. They’re both funded from the same sources. They’re both subject to the same winnowing processes.
What it really takes is a day-to-day involvement and for the most part I think Americans have lost the skills of political action and political organization. It takes some degree of organization to actually effect changes.
That means forming groups and coalitions and talking to other people regularly, taking collective action, and those kinds of skills have atrophied for the most part in America.
So I think those sort of thing are much more important and even things like this meeting, where we’re just getting together and talking, meeting like-minded people, and maybe developing some sort of public space for discussion. Those sorts of things are really essential to any kind of future democracy we might have.