Bobby Kennedy Jr has a turgid expose at Rolling Stone which purports to blow the lid off the 2004 presidential election by claiming that 350,000 Ohio voters were prevented from reaching the polling stations. This, unsurprisingly, has excited the entire port side of the blogosphere. However, when one begins to read through the argument, supported by a slew of citations but no evidence at all, it sounds like a very tired rehash of all the conspiracy theories we heard between November 2004 and January 2005, when the Electoral College made the results final.
Kennedy’s lead argument gives readers enough excuse to stop on the first page. He argues that exit polls are “exquisitely accurate”, and therefore since the pollsters are infallible, their early returns must have been the truth:
Over the past decades, exit polling has evolved into an exact science. Indeed, among pollsters and statisticians, such surveys are thought to be the most reliable. Unlike pre-election polls, in which voters are asked to predict their own behavior at some point in the future, exit polls ask voters leaving the voting booth to report an action they just executed. The results are exquisitely accurate: Exit polls in Germany, for example, have never missed the mark by more than three-tenths of one percent.(17) ”Exit polls are almost never wrong,” Dick Morris, a political consultant who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, noted after the 2004 vote. Such surveys are ”so reliable,” he added, ”that they are used as guides to the relative honesty of elections in Third World countries.”(18) In 2003, vote tampering revealed by exit polling in the Republic of Georgia forced Eduard Shevardnadze to step down.(19) And in November 2004, exit polling in the Ukraine — paid for by the Bush administration — exposed election fraud that denied Viktor Yushchenko the presidency.(20)
News flash: mathematics is an exact science. Polling isn’t, and for at least one basic reason — you can’t force people to participate. The only people answering exit polls are those inclined to share their opinions. It also relies on the skill, integrity, and execution of the actual polltakers, many of whom are hired with little training. Moreover, reporting results in the middle of the sample almost always guarantees bad conclusions.
And interestingly enough, that’s exactly what two research firms looking into the exit poll debacle found:
Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International found that the Democratic challenger’s supporters were more likely than President Bush’s supporters to participate in exit polls interviews. They also found that more errors occurred in exit polls conducted by younger interviewers, and about half of the interviewers were 34 or under. …
They noted that in a number of precincts, interviewers were kept 50 feet or more away from polling places, potentially skewing results toward people motivated to go out of their way to participate in exit polls. They also found suggestions that interviewers may not have carefully followed rules for selecting voters at random, which may have skewed results.
Kennedy never addresses the ridiculous notion that a sample poll will have exquisite accuracy, while the real vote somehow is unreliable. As we often say, the only poll that really matters is taken behind the curtain and doesn’t rely on a pollster to conduct it. And his argument about the US government endorsing exit polling’s exquisite reliability is also fallacious. The government uses exit polling to look for massive vote fraud on a scale far outside the margin of error for exit polling, not to determine the accuracy of results to the tenth of a point. Only when exit polls show a remarkably different result than the vote counts do they come into play at all. The Ukrainian fraud did not involve a couple of percentage points, but rather a ten-point swing — and other obvious polling irregularities had already been documented, such as armed raids on polling centers.
Kennedy flat-out lies at least once, in this assertion:
In its official postmortem report issued two months after the election, Edison/Mitofsky was unable to identify any flaw in its methodology — so the pollsters, in essence, invented one for the electorate. According to Mitofsky, Bush partisans were simply disinclined to talk to exit pollsters on November 2nd(34) — displaying a heretofore unknown and undocumented aversion that skewed the polls in Kerry’s favor by a margin of 6.5 percent nationwide.(35)
The Edison/Mitofsky report showed several flaws in methodology, as noted above. They identified several factors that contributed to the errors in reporting the results, including reporting interim results on inadequate sample sizes.
Why would Kennedy put on his tinfoil hat in this manner? We find out in his second unsupported pillar of the stolen-election conspiracy theory — Ken Blackwell, the conservative Republican running for governor:
But in the battle for Ohio, Republicans had a distinct advantage: The man in charge of the counting was Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of President Bush’s re-election committee.(43) As Ohio’s secretary of state, Blackwell had broad powers to interpret and implement state and federal election laws — setting standards for everything from the processing of voter registration to the conduct of official recounts.(44) And as Bush’s re-election chair in Ohio, he had a powerful motivation to rig the rules for his candidate. Blackwell, in fact, served as the ”principal electoral system adviser” for Bush during the 2000 recount in Florida,(45) where he witnessed firsthand the success of his counterpart Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who co-chaired Bush’s campaign there.(46)
Blackwell — now the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio(47) — is well-known in the state as a fierce partisan eager to rise in the GOP. An outspoken leader of Ohio’s right-wing fundamentalists, he opposes abortion even in cases of rape(48) and was the chief cheerleader for the anti-gay-marriage amendment that Republicans employed to spark turnout in rural counties(49). He has openly denounced Kerry as ”an unapologetic liberal Democrat,”(50) and during the 2004 election he used his official powers to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Ohio citizens in Democratic strongholds. In a ruling issued two weeks before the election, a federal judge rebuked Blackwell for seeking to ”accomplish the same result in Ohio in 2004 that occurred in Florida in 2000.”(51)
Kennedy’s two witnesses for the persecution on this pillar: Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers. And Kennedy excoriates Blackwell as a “fierce partisan”? The Confederate Yankee isn’t fooled; he calls this piece an attempt “to smear a black fiscal and socially conservative candidate that has charisma, integrity, and cross-cultural appeal–in short, a real chance of winning.”
I note that Kennedy never once mentions Wisconsin, where real election-day dirty tricks and voter fraud occurred and actually resulted in prosecution. Perhaps that’s because voter fraud that benefits Democrats fails to interest Kennedy. I look forward to his expose on the 1960 election that made his uncle President.