Monday, August 30, 2004

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

Madame Butterfly Flies Off with Ballots
Florida Fixed Again? Absentee Ballots Go Absent
by Greg Palast

Sunday, August 29, 2004.

On Friday, Theresa LePore, Supervisor of Elections in Palm Beach, candidate for re-election as Supervisor of Elections, chose to supervise her own election, no one allowed. This Tuesday, Florida votes for these nominally non-partisan posts.

You remember Theresa, "Madame Butterfly," the one whose ballots brought in the big vote for Pat Buchanan in the Jewish precincts in November 2000. Then she failed to do the hand count that would have changed the White House from Blue to Red.

This time, Theresa's in a hurry to get to the counting. She began tallying absentee ballots on Friday in her own re-election race. Not to worry: the law requires the Supervisor of Elections in each county to certify poll-watchers to observe the count.

But Theresa has a better idea. She refused to certify a single poll-watcher from opponents' organizations despite the legal requirement she do so by last week. She'll count her own votes herself, thank you very much!

And so far, she's doing quite well. Although 37,000 citizens have requested absentee ballots, she says she'd only received 22,000 when she began the count. Where are the others? Don't ask: though she posts the names of requesters, she won't release the list of those who have voted, an eyebrow-raising deviation from standard procedure.

And she has no intention of counting all the ballots received. She has reserved for herself the right to determine which ballots have acceptable signatures. Her opponent, Democrat Art Anderson, had asked Theresa to use certified hand-writing experts, instead of her hand-picked hacks, to check the signatures.

Unfortunately, while Federal law requires Theresa to allow a voter to correct a signature rejection when registering, the Feds don't require her to permit challenges to absentee ballot rejections.

I know what you're thinking. How could Madame Butterfly know how people are voting? Well, she's printed PARTY AFFILIATION on the OUTSIDE of each return envelope. That certainly makes it easier to figure out which ballot is valid, don't it?

And dear Reader, please take note of the implications of this story for the big vote in November. Millions have sought refuge in absentee ballots as a method to avoid the dangers of the digitizing of democracy. Florida and other states are reporting 400%-plus increases in absentee ballot requests due to fear of the new computer voting machinery. Some refuge. LePore is giving us an early taste of how the Bush Leaguers intend to care for your absentee ballot.

If there's no safety in the absentee ballot, how about the computerized machines? The LePores of America have that one figured out too.

On Friday, the day on which Theresa began her Kremlim-style vote count, the New York Times ran a puff piece on Jeb's Palm Beach political pet. Cub reporter Amy Goodnough derided fears of Democrats who painted "dark scenarios" about the computer voting machines Madame Butterfly installed over the objections of the state's official voting technology task force.

If you're wondering why the experts told her not to use the machines, I'll tell you -- because the New York Times won't. It's not because the voting specialists are anti-technology Luddites. The fact is that Florida counties using touch-screens have reported a known error rate 600% greater than the alternative, paper ballots read by optical scanners. And those errors have occurred -- surprise! -- overwhelmingly in African-American precincts.

First Brother Jeb has teamed with LePore to keep the vote clean and white. Together they have refused the Democrats request for the more-reliable paper ballots as an option for voters.

In Leon County, by contrast, Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho insisted on paper ballots and did not lose a single vote to error in the March presidential primary. Sancho told me it's a slam-dunk certainty that the computer screens will snatch away several thousand Palm Beach votes.

Theresa and the Jebster have been quite close since LePore came out of the closet. The Republican-turned-Democrat, nominally independent, this year accepted the sticky embrace of the Republican Party. One really has to wonder if she ever truly left the Blues in the first place.

It's a shame that Supervisor LePore was too busy counting her votes and rejecting ballots to respond to my phone calls. I wanted to be the first to congratulate her on her election victory -- two days before the election. Or maybe she fears I might be the early birddog who catches the butterfly as she turns back into a worm.

Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. His article on vote manipulation in Florida for Harper's Magazine, was nominated for a 2002 National Magazine Award.

On September 28, Disinfo/Ryko will release on DVD his film, "Bush Family Fortunes," based on Palast's investigative reports for BBC Television -- described as "courageous reporting." (Michael Moore) and "twisted and maniacal" (Katherine Harris). View a 2-minute preview at

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Don't Bore Us With The Facts, Please!

August 30, 2004
Of Campaigns and Breakfast Cereals

Most national issues today are so complicated, so difficult to understand and have opinions on, that they either intimidate or, more often, bore the average voter."

So wrote Harry Treleaven, an advertising man who took a leave of absence in the mid-1960's to work on the Texas Congressional campaign of 42-year-old George Herbert Walker Bush. Mr. Treleaven was not upset by the fact that voters were turned off by the complexity of important political issues. After all, he was in advertising. The goal was to sell product, not explore issues.

Mr. Treleaven became a key figure in Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. Joe McGinniss, in his best-selling book about that campaign, "The Selling of the President,'' said of Mr. Treleaven:

"There was no issue when it came to selling Ford automobiles; there were only the product, the competition and the advertising. He saw no reason why politics should be any different."

Mr. Treleaven died in 1998, but the path-breaking cynicism of his type of politics hangs like a shroud over this year's presidential campaign.

You want complicated issues? Start with Iraq - a war with no clearly defined goal, not even the remotest timetable for victory, and no exit strategy whatsoever. The ad men (and women) will reduce this monumental tragedy to crisp, poll-tested campaign sound bites.

Or consider the economy. We're in a new world of work in which good jobs at good pay with good benefits are ever more hard to find. Despite the administration's insistence that the economy is strong and getting stronger, there is no light at the end of this dismal tunnel. Job growth is anemic. The middle class is being relentlessly squeezed. And the Census Bureau tells us that in 2003, for the third year in a row, the number of Americans who are poor increased.

As David Leonhardt wrote in The Times on Friday, "The economy's troubles, which first affected high-income families even more than the middle class and poor, have recently hurt families at the bottom and in the middle significantly more than those at the top."

These are issues that should be ruthlessly explored, but the politicians, their handlers and much of the media have taken their cues from Harry Treleaven. You don't want to bore the readers or viewers or voters with anything too complicated. A well-rehearsed comment or two will suffice, followed by the jokes on Leno and Letterman, and then it's on to the "real world" of Paris and Kobe and whatever.

This week's Republican convention in New York is a rigidly scripted theatrical event that will garner a grand total of three hours of live coverage on network television - a reprise of the Democrats' rigidly scripted extravaganza in Boston last month. Anyone who drifts off message will be viewed as a nut.

So we won't get anything but pap about Iraq. We'll be told about the miraculous economic healing powers of the Bush tax cuts. We'll be told that the era of George Bush II has been a rousing success for America.

Serious voters who would like to hear a discussion (from the leaders of both parties) about why we are in Iraq and when and how we might get out of there will be disappointed. So will voters interested in exploring ideas about the leadership role of the United States in the post-9/11 world, which is at least as important as the role thrust upon the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II.

More scary stories are emerging about global warming, and our dependence on foreign oil is undermining our security like never before. But these topics, too, are complex, and therefore, according to the advertising folks and media gurus, too difficult and boring for general consumption.

In other words, we're a nation of nitwits, and a presidential campaign at a critical moment in world history will be spoon-fed to us like an ad for Wheaties.

Raymond Price, a speechwriter for Nixon in the 1968 campaign, was as contemptuous of substance in politics as Treleaven. "It's not what's there that counts," he wrote, "it's what's projected." In Price's view, "Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we're talking about."

Voters could revolt against this kind of humiliating treatment. But that would happen only if the Treleavens and Prices of the world were wrong.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company