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This nation is not a Super Slurpee, Mr. President. With that said, let’s pretend there isn’t an American attack on a sovereign nation in the offing, that Europe is still among America’s allies, and global warming is just a paranoid speculation by all those diaper-butt scientists. Let’s pretend the space shuttle touched down in the usual manner, Al Qaeda isn’t gearing up for another urban planning project, and North Korea is very, very sorry about all those naughty threats it made and even as we speak they’re hammering their swords into ploughshares–although what they could possibly want with ploughshares when nothing grows in their country, I cannot surmise. In other words, let’s pretend -and we will be pretending so hard the veins will stand out like whipcords in our necks–that all is well with the rest of the world. That still leaves some shall we call them difficulties? Difficulties here at home. And they’re not going to go away until we pry open Pandora’s Black Box: the voting machines.
Because the American Experiment, as it is known, ended on November 4, 2002. Not much has been made of this, but it seems like a noteworthy subject. Until that day, this country had a pretty simple system for choosing its leaders: candidates ran against each other for public office, and then the voters would come out in very small droves to vote for the candidate with the most money. There were anomalies that tested the efficacy of the system once in a while, if efficacy is the word I want. It might be defecation. I’ll have to look it up. But in general the arrangement was unsatisfactory to everyone, and so we kept it. Then a strange thing happened. During a race for the presidency, the loser won.
This had happened before: there’s a thing called the Electoral College, and it’s how the Electoral College votes that actually determines who shall be president. It’s a peculiar system and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but the premise is that each state has a bunch of electors who get together and vote, and these votes are sent on to Washington. Ideally this college, which doesn’t offer diplomas or student loans, takes a bead on who the voters voted for, and votes for same. But way back in 1824 and 1876, there wasn’t a clear winner–in the first case because nobody got a majority, and in the second case because there was so much fraud in the South they sort of drew straws and chose Rutherford B. Hayes. The more things change, the more they don’t. But the real kicker was in 1888, when one candidate got the most popular votes (votes from humans) but the other candidate got the most votes from the Electoral College. It was all perfectly legal, and not nearly as boring as I make it sound. In the year 2000, the presidency was won by the loser again (and what a loser this time). But this time it wasn’t just an anomaly. The Supreme Court jiggered the election, the Electoral College’s votes were skewed, and a guy named Hanging Chad declared George W. Bush the president.
This proved to be a terrible mistake, and to ensure such an arschficken never occurred again, lots of clever boots got together and decided to install digital voting machines in place of the old-fashioned steam-powered ones in common use throughout the country. But because America is currently in the grip of Capitalism as extreme as Communism was back in the good old days, we couldn’t have a government agency take care of this. That might involve new bureaucracies and public spending, and besides launching the trifling $40,000,000,000 Homeland Security Department, this administration opposes that sort of thing.
So instead of ‘open source’ software to tabulate the votes as they are entered into the machines, private companies got to write private code for the purpose. (‘Open source’ software is any program whose code is publicly available, so that ordinary people may fail to understand it, not just computer experts). Now Australia has computerized voting, and the source code is readily available (it can be found at http://www.elections.act.gov.au/EVACS.html, if you’re that much of a geek). I’ve looked at it and it’s so short and simple a monkey could understand it. My monkey has looked at it too, and he assures me this is the case. But the American code is not only secret, it’s also 200,000 lines long, which makes it ‘spaghetti code’, so called because it’s impossibly tangled and complex, or because it’s made of pasta.
Not only is the American voting code secretly held by private companies (naturally for copyright reasons; the Dollar trumps Democracy every time), but private companies manufacture the voting machines. And those companies are owned, predominantly, by Republican interests. Including Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who won by a landslide on machines made by Election Systems and Software (ES&S), a company he owned a considerable interest in. And he wasn’t the only one.
Computerized voting machines in the 2002 election did all kinds of weird things: if you pressed the Democrat’s name in some counties in Texas, for example, the Republican’s name was chosen. And in Cormal County, Texas, three Republican candidates won by exactly 18,181 votes apiece. There’s the kind of coincidence the FBI loves. But it gets even more amazing: in two other races elsewhere in this great nation, Republicans won by–wait for it–18,181 votes. The odds of this are similar to the odds of waking up on the surface of Mars with your underwear on your head and a bowling trophy gripped between your knees. These results were eventually ‘adjusted’, proving it was all just a wacky coincidence. But how can we know? Because there is no physical evidence of how a vote was cast. No punch card, no paper ballot, no twig with notches in it. And they stopped doing exit polling in 2002 (apparently the results weren’t coming out right– I see what they mean) so we can’t even get an objective comparison of the digital results with the voter’s intentions by asking them how they voted as they leave the polling place, bilious and sickened. Kind of makes you feel all scared and crampy, doesn’t it? But yes, gentle reader, it does get worse.
There is a complex connection between the companies that make voting software and machines and the GOP, as mentioned above. But it’s not some remote connection that only folks with tinfoil beanies and radios in their fillings could understand. These are partnerships, blind trusts, corporate ownership kind of connections. Who’s pals with whom. Connections that make sense of some of the most astonishing outcomes of 2002, where vast majorities of black voters voted for anti-black candidates, for example, or where Republican votes skyrocked and Democratic numbers plummeted, reversing historic trends, or machines tallied more votes than were actually cast (according to a Florida official a 10% margin of error is acceptable–that would be over ten million votes nationwide). In Alabama, Democrat Don Siegelman won the election for governor and went home. The next morning, 6,300 of his votes were gone, and Republican Bob Riley took the job instead. Don’t worry: ES&S is looking into the problem. Not the government, not an independent commission. Golly.
Need more? There’s lots more. ES&S shows up in many of the problem areas, but they’re not the only ones. ‘Computer Glitches’ accounted for the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes nationwide, and the irregularities everywhere are both mystifying and highly suggestive, considering the system was supposed to smooth the way for fair and glitch-free elections in America. Could be just glitches, or it could be a concerted effort to steal the vote.
So when 2004 comes along and we see historic Republican victories across the country, landslides in every territory, and you feel like there’s no reason to try any more, remember this: yes, the Republicans have the system rigged. But so did a certain German chancellor in the 1930’s. He predicted a Thousand Year Reich. It lasted half a decade. Then again, they didn’t have computers back then, so maybe I’d better not sound an optimistic note. After all, there’s an inescapable conclusion about the fundaments of American democracy here, which is that the vote–the single most vital instrument of democracy–has been tampered with on an unprecedented scale. And like falling off a thousand-foot cliff, just because you haven’t hit the ground doesn’t mean you’re not dead. In the year 2002, Americans lost the right to vote. One could argue it was all just bugs in the system. But where there are that many bugs, there’s an infestation.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org