The sound of stealing

The late Chicago columnist Mike Royko often told a story about election night 1960 in Illinois, and the Presidential contest between then—Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. As Kennedy's lead over  Nixon in Illinois  kept falling through the night, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, the Senator's campaign manager,  nervously kept calling then—Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the father of the current Mayor Daley, to get an update on the race. Daley kept assuring Bobby that there was nothing to worry about. Illinois would come through in the end for his brother. Kennedy continued to remain one state short of victory in the Electoral College as night turned into day at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. Bobby's growing nervousness finally caused him to blow up at Daley and demand an explanation as to why the Mayor could be so sure of eventual victory in the state. Daley told Bobby that he was 'holding out' some precincts in the city, to which Bobby replied: 'How do you know they will be enough?'  Daley replied:  'I assure you they will be enough'.

One might have hoped that 44 years on, we would have evolved into a somewhat more transparent and legitimate way of deciding elections, particularly close ones.

Unfortunately, the events unfolding in Washington State the past few weeks in the very tightly contested race for Governor, suggest the Daley approach to politics is still being practiced. When your candidate (in this case, the Democratic candidate Christine Gregoire) appears to be coming up short,  the Party works to find some 'missing' votes. When they are still short at the end of the count, they have a recount, and find some more that need to be counted. When that still fails to put their candidate over the top, they demand and pay for a statewide hand recount, and 'find' some more. The process, as in Florida in the 2000 Presidential race, is to keep counting and finding votes until your candidate eventually takes the lead. Then you stop counting.  In Washington State in 2004, Democrats in King County are behaving like Chicago Democrats in 1960, and Broward, Dade and Palm Beach County Democrats in 2000.

In Florida in 2000, Vice President Al Gore never took the lead. He trailed on election night.  He was still behind after the mandatory statewide recount. He was behind after overseas ballots were added, and he still trailed after the hand recounts of selected heavily Democratic counties were added to the vote totals.  And as all the studies undertaken in 2001 by the major newspapers and television networks showed, had the entire statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court not been halted by the US Supreme Court, Gore still would have finished behind Bush in Florida in the end. 

Something similar has been going on in Washington State. The Republican candidate for Governor, Dino Rossi, held a lead of a few thousand votes near the end of the counting of the state's almost two million absentee ballots (70% of Washington's votes are cast this way).  Then, in heavily Democratic King County, officials 'discovered' 10,000 additional absentee ballots they had not originally included in the number remaining to be counted.  In addition, a Judge ordered the County to allow Democratic Party officials to obtain the names and addresses of 929 people whose ballots were classified as provisional because of mismatched or missing signatures, so as to facilitate the inclusion of these votes. This resulted in a  rather unorthodox invasion of privacy:  Democratic officials contacted these 929 individuals to ask whom they had voted for in the Governor's race. If they answered Gregoire, they were then shuttled to the county office to clear up their signature problem. This vote—mining technique added a net 400 votes for Gregoire. The 10,000 extra King County ballots added another 2,000 net votes for Gregoire. As a result of this final Gregoire surge from King County, Rossi's lead was cut to a scant 261 votes, of about 2.9 million cast.

Then the state began a required mandatory machine recount statewide. But King County officials decided to also hand recount 700 previously 'uncounted' ballots for Governor. These ballots were uncounted only in the sense that they had been put through the machine, and the machine had not detected any vote for Governor on them. In Florida terminology from the 2000 race, these were 'undervotes'. The County officials went hunting for chads and found enough to net Gregoire an additional 245 votes. When added to small changes in the machine recount in other counties, Rossi's lead slipped to just 42 votes. John Fund, the author of a new book, Stealing Elections: How Vote Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, wrote a column with a play—by—play on the Washington Governor's race that carried the story up to the conclusion of the first recount.  

The state Democratic Party then paid for a statewide hand recount of the ballots that had already been machine counted twice.  The machinations of this hand recount are described every day in the brilliant group blog As Rossi's statewide lead crept up to over a 120 votes as eastern Washington and more rural counties recounted their votes, desperate Democratic officials in King County reached back into their bag for one more cache of votes.  This time they discovered 573 uncounted absentee votes with missing or inconsistent signatures. They found another 22 hidden near some box in an office. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up).

'20 absentee and two provisional—found in several polling places in the side bins of plastic base units in which polling machines sit,' said Bill Huennekens, county election superintendent. All ballots are supposed to be logged on Election Night and returned in a sealed bag to election headquarters, but it didn't happen with these, he said'

The 595 missing votes come from precincts within King County that voted heavily Democratic.  Assuming these 573 or 595 votes break as other votes did in these precincts it might enable Gregoire to overtake Rossi statewide. 

Election officials in King County voted 2 to 1 to count the newly discovered votes.  Two of the three members of the King County canvassing board are Democrats. So County officials keep finding new votes in the heavily Democratic County, and the canvassing board keeps voting to count them.  Some of you may recall all the times during the 2000 hand recount in Broward County, when the two Democrats found a Gore vote, and the third member of the panel, the only Republican, could not discern one. Al Gore netted 567 net votes from the Broward under—vote mining operation, enough to cut Bush's statewide lead in half. 

We may know in a week or so if Democrats have found enough votes this time to get Gregoire into the lead. If this happens, the Democrats will then profess exhaustion with this long process, and ask all Washingtonians to join hands, sing Kumbaya, and accept the results as the will of the people finally being done. But in a state that has been trending Democratic — Kerry beat Bush by 7%, and both US Senators and 6 of 9 US House members are Democrats — the raw and heavy—handed search for votes in King County to elect Gregoire seems to be putting—off even some Democrats. A large majority of Washington residents indicated in a survey last week that they were uncomfortable with the continued recounts, and accepted the election of Rossi after the first recount was concluded. 

But power, and jobs and money are at stake in a Governor's election. The Democrats will not fold up their tents simply because a majority of voters would prefer clean elections.

UPDATE: John Fund writes us:

"I fear the only practical solution is a new election given the tainted nature of so much of the recount process...there is also no way Rossi holds his lead...Disputed ballot 81 yesterday was cast as a write in for "Christine Rossi". It was counted for Gregoire."

UPDATE 2: King County officials have "discovered" yet another stash of "lost" votes in a warehouse. No chain of custody, of course. It couldn't be used as evidence in court if the police produced something of similarly uncertain provenance. And the courts have authorized only a recount of existing votes, not a re—canvass.