Democracy on the Ballot

With opinion polls heading into Tuesday's election a dead heat, the result could come down to a controversial counting of ballots in a replay of Florida 2000. That could put the focus on how Americans vote, a story that has so far been a subtext to this presidential race.

The news media tends to concentrate on the more dramatic horserace rather than the complicated issues surrounding how the winner will be determined. But the public is evidently interested. It has catapulted to bestseller status a humorous new book that probes the questionable techniques developed over the past 20 years to influence the outcome of national elections.

The humor to be sure is black. Having taught statistics at Indiana University, author Greg Palast is well aware that a dry political science study of the subject would not have sold nearly 20,000 copies in its first four weeks. Illustrated with a 48-page centerfold of Ted Rall comics, and with an Introduction and a chapter by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (Seven Stories Press, 284 pps.) reached the top 10 on the The New York Times list. Clearly outraged, Palast's flippancy, however, risks taking the edge off the issue's deadly seriousness.

His investigation reveals a systematic effort, bankrolled by some of the nation's richest people, to deny votes to some of the country's poorest. Palast's central claim is that it's a campaign to revive the voting restrictions of the pre-civil rights era. "Forget all the baloney about democracy you heard in the sixth grade from Mrs. Gordon about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act," he writes. "Ballot-box apartheid remains as American as apple pie."

Palast is a hybrid private investigator, reporter and social satirist. A University of Chicago graduate in economics, Palast was an investigator for the federal government and labor unions, leading the government's largest ever racketeering case against the Long Island Power Co. that won $4.8 billion from a jury in 1988. Fed up with the state of investigative journalism, he turned his skills to reporting in the late nineties for the BBC and the Observer newspaper in Britain.

Palast first waded into the electoral morass in Florida 2000, the most controversial American election since Tilden-Hayes in 1876. That was decided in a backroom, exchanging withdrawal of Federal occupation troops from the South for Hayes' victory.

Palast has a knack for prying into back rooms. And he's been thrown out of a few too. He wormed into Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's offices to find evidence that Florida swept enough questionable felons from the rolls to influence an election decided by 543 votes.

Palast for instance obtained a computer disk from Harris' office listing 91,000 purged felons. He says he checked each one and none had been convicted of a crime. He also got hold of a confidential letter from Gov. Bush's office ordering election officials to knowingly break state law by purging from the rolls felons who had been convicted in other states, not in Florida, before moving there.

Palast makes a persuasive case that so-called anti-voter fraud measures are themselves a fraud because voting fraudulently--a felony--practically doesn't exist. He's says on average only six people a year are convicted of it. "A half-dozen jerks convicted of voting illegally. In the whole country.... but in the Voter-Fraud Hysteria Factory these six become so threatening and dangerous that they will be used to take away the vote from six million."

That's the number--5,901,814 to be exact--of voters that his study of U.S. Election Assistance Commission records show were illegally denied their ballot in the 2008 election.
Despite this, Palast says Republican governments in swing states like Florida, Arizona and Ohio, keep trying to keep "fraudulent voters" from voting--for the other party. "To win an election, you need votes," he writes. "Or just as good, you need to take away the votes of your opponent."

So Palast argues in Billionaires and Ballot Bandits that state Republican parties are using nine ways to reduce the Democratic turnout by striking mostly blacks, Hispanics, Jews and students from the voting rolls in a variety of ways, such as through felon lists, undelivered mail, demanding ID cards and provisional ballots as well as putting defective voting machines in their districts and not counting spoiled ballots though the voter's intention is clear.

The ID issue has gotten the most attention. Palast quotes the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU as saying that 5 million seniors, blacks, Hispanics and youth will be denied their vote because they lack proper government ID. But what is proper government ID? Student ID cards from the state university have been rejected in Wisconsin and just this week (Thursday) the Tennessee Supreme Court had to rule that photo library cards were acceptable.

The evidence Palast presents for each of these dirty tricks is credible and based on leaked documents, government statistics, academic studies, and interviews with election officials, experts and disenfranchised voters. While some Democratic officials are guilty of these maneuvers Palast argues the vast majority are done by Republicans.

And he doesn't stop there. He delves into the big money interests that he says are behind the tactics. Top of his list are oil magnates Charles and David Koch, Texas billionaire Harold Simmons and Paul Singer, the vulture fund financier about whom Palast devoted his previous book, Vulture's Picnic. Acting after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed corporations to give unlimited and undisclosed funds to political SuperPacs, these billionaires, according to Palast, are spending untold millions to determine who gets to vote. "What do these billionaires want? What do men who have everything want?" he asks. "Well, Congress, gift-wrapped, would be nice. The White House would be nicer."

They've funded the principal Republican SuperPacs Restore Our Future, Committee for Our Children's Future and American Crossroads. The book builds the case that these SuperPacs have directly funded the effort to suppress the Democratic vote next Tuesday. The billionaire's aim is to get politicians elected who will change laws, regulations and policies benefitting their business, he says.

Though the book is well-documented it can't be the last or authoritative word. Only a major, nation-wide Congressional investigation into such allegations can get to the bottom of it and remove any suspicion about American elections. It's a tall order given state-control of federal elections, the politics involved and the role Supreme Court-sanctioned Super Pacs are playing.

If a very tight race next Tuesday indeed becomes Florida 2000 redux, the issues explored in this book could well become what everyone is at last talking about.