Voting and Counting

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

October 22, 2004

If the election were held today and the votes were counted fairly, Senator John Kerry would probably win. But the votes won't be counted fairly, and the disenfranchisement of minority voters may determine the outcome.

Recent national poll results range from a three-percentage-point Kerry lead in the A.P.-Ipsos poll released yesterday to an eight-point Bush lead in the Gallup poll. But if you line up the polls released this week from the most to the least favorable to President Bush, the polls in the middle show a tie at about 47 percent.

This is bad news for Mr. Bush because undecided voters usually break against the incumbent - not always, but we're talking about probabilities. Those middle-of-the-road polls also show Mr. Bush with job approval around 47 percent, putting him very much in the danger zone.

Electoral College projections based on state polls also show a dead heat. Projections assuming that undecided voters will break for the challenger in typical proportions give Mr. Kerry more than 300 electoral votes.

But if you get your political news from cable TV, you probably have a very different sense of where things stand. CNN, which co-sponsored that Gallup poll, rarely informs its viewers that other polls tell a very different story. The same is true of Fox News, which has its own very Bush-friendly poll. As a result, there is a widespread public impression that Mr. Bush holds a commanding lead.

By the way, why does the Gallup poll, which is influential because of its illustrious history, report a large Bush lead when many other polls show a dead heat? It's mostly because of how Gallup determines "likely voters": the poll shows only a three-point Bush lead among registered voters. And as the Democratic poll expert Ruy Teixeira points out (using data obtained by Steve Soto, a liberal blogger), Gallup's sample of supposedly likely voters contains a much smaller proportion of both minority and young voters than the actual proportions of these voters in the 2000 election.

A broad view of the polls, then, suggests that Mr. Bush is in trouble. But he is likely to benefit from a distorted vote count.

Florida is the prime, but not the only, example. Recent Florida polls suggest a tight race, which could be tipped by a failure to count all the votes. And votes for Mr. Kerry will be systematically undercounted.

Last week I described Greg Palast's work on the 2000 election, reported recently in Harper's, which conclusively shows that Florida was thrown to Mr. Bush by a combination of factors that disenfranchised black voters. These included a defective felon list, which wrongly struck thousands of people from the voter rolls, and defective voting machines, which disproportionately failed to record votes in poor, black districts.

One might have expected Florida's government to fix these problems during the intervening four years. But most of those wrongly denied voting rights in 2000 still haven't had those rights restored - and the replacement of punch-card machines has created new problems.

After the 2000 debacle, a task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush recommended that the state adopt a robust voting technology that would greatly reduce the number of spoiled ballots and provide a paper trail for recounts: paper ballots read by optical scanners that alert voters to problems. This system is in use in some affluent, mainly white Florida counties.

But Governor Bush ignored this recommendation, just as he ignored state officials who urged him to "pull the plug" on a new felon list - which was quickly discredited once a judge forced the state to make it public - just days before he ordered the list put into effect. Instead, much of the state will vote using touch-screen machines that are unreliable and subject to hacking, and leave no paper trail. Mr. Palast estimates that this will disenfranchise 27,000 voters - disproportionately poor and black.

A lot can change in 11 days, and Mr. Bush may yet win convincingly. But we must not repeat the mistake of 2000 by refusing to acknowledge the possibility that a narrow Bush win, especially if it depends on Florida, rests on the systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters. And the media must not treat such a suspect win as a validation of skewed reporting that has consistently overstated Mr. Bush's popular support.