HOW TO STEAL AN ELECTION
TABLE OF CONTENTS
[Click on Preface or Chapter to see excerpt]
The presidential election of 2000 was stolen from Al Gore. This is an historical observation, not a partisan charge. The observation is no more partisan than acknowledging that supporters of Lyndon Baines Johnson helped steal the 1948 Democratic senatorial primary in Texas from Coke Stevenson, allowing LBJ to be elected U.S. Senator—and change the course of history. There have been many other cases of stolen elections in American history, of course, though typically evidence of such thefts takes decades to emerge. In the present case, investigations in the past six years have revealed a series of events that provide evidence of theft beyond a reasonable doubt.
Chapter 1 Irreparable Harm—An Overview
“Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we got it!”
Those were the words uttered by John Ellis about a quarter after two in the morning following Election Night 2000, moments before FOX network projected George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore in Florida, and thus the next president of the United States…
The man who uttered the crucial words that led to FOX’s projection of Bush as the winner in Florida was the head of FOX’s decision team, responsible for projecting the winners in all the statewide contests on Election Night. John Ellis is also the cousin of George W. and Jeb Bush, at that time the governors of Texas and Florida, respectively. (Ellis’ mother, Nancy Ellis, is the sister of former President George H. W. Bush.) For much of the previous evening and early morning, Ellis had been on the phone with his cousins, who were both at the same location in Austin, Texas. “It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth,” he told the New Yorker, the following week, “me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the President-elect. Now, that was cool.”
Chapter 2 Election Night Projections — A Brief History
In the summer of 1967, CBS hired a quiet-spoken, dark-haired, full-bearded, thirty-two-year-old statistician from the U.S. Census Bureau to run the network’s election night operation. Over the next four decades, Warren Mitofsky would revolutionize the way networks called the election, invent exit polls, design a vote projection system that is still being used today, head the first network consortium election night projection system, leave the consortium under less-than-ideal circumstances to found his own exit poll company, become an election night consultant for CNN and CBS who needed him to compete against the other networks, and—after the Election Night 2000 disaster, followed by the meltdown of the exit poll operation on Election Night 2002— stage a Charles de Gaulle-like return once again to head (along with his younger colleague, Joe Lenski) the new network consortium. In the process, with his blunt, no-nonsense style and his disinclination to suffer fools gladly, Mitofsky would become the dominant personality in his field, angering some people in the industry, earning respect from most. Today, with a distinctive gravely voice, the white-haired, clean-shaven dean of exit polls often appears on national television programs to explain the intricacies and, more recently, the problems of election night polling.
[NOTE: Warren Mitofsky died suddenly on Friday, September 1, 2006. See the following obituaries: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/05/AR2006090501477.html, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/09/03/politics/main1963665.shtml ]
Chapter 3 “Hell to Pay”
The first sign that Election Night 2000 would become what veteran pollster Warren Mitofsky later called “the worst election I can remember” came at exactly nine o’clock. He and his partner, Joe Lenski, a 1980 graduate of Princeton, and several other assistants and I, were all peering at computer screens in a windowless room in the CBS building on 235 West Fifty-seventh Street in New York City, a block and a half east of the Hudson River. …
At 9:00 p.m. election night 2000, Mitofsky and Lenski were switching back and forth between the pages (what the analysts called “decision screens”) covering the presidential contests in Louisiana, Ohio, and Minnesota, as they considered whether to call a winner in any of those races. Lenski’s colleague, Larry Rosen, told the team leaders to switch to page 2 of the Florida presidential data, which displayed the votes according to five geographic “strata” in the state—the Miami area, the rest of the south, the Tampa Bay area, the central area, and the north. What Mitofsky and Lenski saw made them wince.
Chapter 4 The “Cool” Cousins
If anyone could have stopped FOX’s rush to judgment the morning after Election Day, it was Cynthia Talkov, the thirty-seven year-old Berkeley-trained statistician who sat next to John Ellis for thirteen hours of FOX’s election coverage. The fact that she didn’t stop the call has plagued her ever since. She believes that the FOX call triggered the calls by the other networks, erroneously giving the impression that George W. Bush was the winner, influencing Al Gore to concede the race prematurely, and setting up a political environment after the election that clearly favored Bush over Al Gore. But her distress over the FOX projection was only tangentially related to the possibility that the miscall might have been one of the crucial elements in Bush’s improbable victory in 2000. She was mostly devastated because she was the statistician with the responsibility for stopping any calls not supported by the data. And she knew it was not data that spurred Ellis to call the election for Bush, but the exhortations of George W. Bush’s own brother, Jeb Bush.
Chapter 5 The Bandwagon
One of the reasons the Ellis controversy didn’t get more play is that none of the network decision teams would admit to being bamboozled by another network. Indeed, the general consensus among the press seemed to be that while it may have been questionable for FOX to have hired someone so close to the candidates to be in charge of calling the election, no real harm was done. After all, within four minutes of the FOX call, all the other networks made the same projection. And no network admitted doing so because of another network’s actions. Thus, as Jack Shafer of the online magazine Slate wrote, “Although Ellis has been fairly upfront about rooting for his cousin, we need to remember that he was looking at the same data as Mitofsky and the other network seers who made the same call.” Conclusion: All the networks projected Bush the winner because of compelling data that demanded such a call, and it was just coincidence that FOX did it first.
Here is a very different scenario about what happened on Election Night 2000:
Chapter 6 Scapegoat
In the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election night fiasco, with the legal and political fight between Gore and Bush still underway, House Republicans opened a separate front with an attack on the networks for biased coverage…
According to the [congressional] testimony of each network chief, the main problems with calling the wrong races on election night were caused by incorrect data from VNS. They did admit that there were “competitive pressures” among the networks, and that competition won out over accuracy. In the future, that competition could be better contained by insulating the decision desks from knowledge about how projections made by the other networks. ABC and NBC promised to take this route; the other networks did not.
Despite pointing to competition as a major problem, oddly enough, no network chief admitted that competitive pressures actually caused any wrong call. The two most important miscalls were the ones for Florida—Gore at about eight in the evening, and Bush at a quarter after two in the morning. But all of the network chiefs, briefed of course by their decision teams, blamed the two miscalls on bad VNS data, not on the decision teams who jumped the gun.
Chapter 7 Theft of the Election
Jeb Bush’s success in persuading his cousin to project George W. Bush the winner in Florida, though the data did not support the call, must have stunned the Florida governor. He could not possibly have known that FOX’s call would trigger the other networks to make the same mistake, nor that the resulting political environment would be so instrumental in George Bush’s eventual victory. No doubt Jeb Bush expected the call to be helpful, but that it turned out so much better than he could possibly have imagined was simple serendipity. And unlike many of his other successful actions to deprive selected blacks and poor people the right to vote, Jeb Bush’s sweet-talking his cousin John Ellis into making the miscall was not illegal or even in the realm of “dirty tricks.” It was mere political opportunism that almost no politician would have turned down.
…whether Jeb Bush actually believed his brother would win, or was manipulating his cousin to believe it in the hopes of obtaining some small media advantage, is a relatively trivial distinction. Jeb Bush’s actions that night were part of a much broader and sustained effort to help his brother become president of the United States, including some actions that were legal and others that were not. After six years and many unofficial investigations and reports into what happened in Florida both before and after Election 2000, the evidence seems overwhelming that the presidential election of 2000 was stolen—with participation by, at the very least, Jeb Bush’s office, Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s office, some Florida Republicans and other supporters, and ultimately by a majority of the Supreme Court. This theft of the election does not have to be seen as a grand conspiracy among the various actors. Many of the actions were uncoordinated, many accidental, though clearly some actions were part and parcel of a larger general effort to deprive blacks and poor people, mostly Democrats, of their right to vote.
Chapter 8 Election 2004—Another Uproar
Election 2004 would be the first major test for the networks and their election night projection system since the disastrous miscalls of 2000. Once again, the election was expected to be close, some political observers even suggesting that this time it might be the Democratic candidate who would win the most electoral votes while losing the popular vote. After all the apologies and excuses the networks gave for their performance in 2000, they were determined not to commit the same errors this time. In 2000, being first won out at the expense of being right. This election, it would be different. This election, they would get it right.
At about three in the afternoon of Election Day 2004, Tuesday, November 2, I arrived at 34 W. Main Street, Somerville, New Jersey. Upstairs, in windowless offices, an array of computers on either side of two walls carried the results of thousands of polls across the country. This was the headquarters of the new network consortium’s exit poll operation, headed now by Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski, the CBS/CNN gurus I was with on Election Night 2000.
Mitofsky was sitting at one of the computers and turned around with a half grin on his face. “I can tell you right now what the headlines will be in the morning,” he said without preamble or greeting. “Osama bin Laden Helps Kerry.” It was the grin of someone who thinks he has a secret, a secret of great interest that few others know. And the secret he believed he had was that John Kerry would be the next president of the United States. As it turned out, that information wasn’t a secret. Early results from the exit polls had metastasized on the Internet, so that anyone paying attention and surfing the web already knew what Mitofsky thought he knew. But what everybody thought they knew was wrong.
Chapter 9 Never Say Never Again
Whenever a major catastrophe occurs, there are always people who will call for steps to avoid such a disaster in the future. That certainly was the prevailing sentiment during the Congressional hearings on February 14, 2001, when almost every person who spoke before the committee either explicitly stated, or at least implied, that what happened on Election Night 2000 should never happen again…
CBS News President Andrew Heyward acknowledged at the Congressional hearings, the miscalls made by the networks on Election Night 2000 were not only “deeply embarrassing,” but were “damaging to our most important asset—our hard-won credibility.” Yet, despite the apparent caution on Election Night 2004, the networks have not fully addressed the fundamental problem that led to the most egregious error on Election Night 2000—network competition. Instead, they have blamed VNS for technical matters and hired a new operation that is updated technically, but little changed…
“They were careful in 2004,” [ Murray] Edelman [editorial director of VNS in 2000] said of the network decision teams. “The 2000 election was still fresh. But they will start edging back…they have a culture of competition.” How long before they repeat the errors of Election 2000? Edelman’s response: “It’s just a matter of time.”
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