Testing the Conspiracy Theory | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Testing the Conspiracy Theory 

People all over the country still suspect the presidential vote count was corrupt. I checked out one red-flag tally in Florida.

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Before the election I'd already planned a trip to my wife's parents' place near Fort Lauderdale for mid-November. George Bush beat John Kerry in Florida by about 400,000 votes, a much larger margin than most polls had predicted. Closer contests, like the one in Ohio, had quickly prompted official recounts. The lopsided Florida loss hadn't, but it was the one my in-laws and I had the most trouble stomaching.

Under Florida's sunshine laws, public records, unless they're specifically exempted by the legislature, are open to anyone who wants to look. So on November 8 I called Holly Whiddon, supervisor of elections for Glades County, Florida, and asked if I could recount the ballots in her county. "What day do you want to come?" she asked politely. I told her Monday, November 15, then asked if she needed me to fax her a Freedom of Information request. "Nope, we don't need that," she said. "Monday looks fine. I'll block out the morning for you, till lunch--I've got another appointment then."

I'd picked Glades County for several reasons. It was only a little over an hour's drive from Fort Lauderdale. More to the point, Bush's performance there seemed suspiciously strong--he'd gotten 60 percent of the vote in a county where only 30 percent of the voters had registered as Republicans, and he'd increased his 2000 count by a third--much more than Kerry improved on Al Gore's. Glades also had used machinery manufactured by Diebold, a company headed by Walden O'Dell, who'd pledged to "deliver" electoral votes for Bush. The machinery used optical-scan paper ballots, which, like punch-card ballots, can be recounted by hand--but more easily, because they list the candidate's name next to the voter's choice. And the small population of the county would make it possible to recount all of its 4,161 ballots before lunch.

The media tended to explain the results in counties like Glades by saying that the Dixiecrat vote, which had given Bush a narrow margin over Gore in 2000, gave him a much bigger margin over the northern, more liberal Kerry. This made some sense, and my doubts were further weakened by Whiddon's cooperativeness. But I still wanted to see the ballots, and she'd agreed that a hand count might reassure some skeptics.

There were plenty of them. The weekend before my trip I attended a forum hosted by Larry Quick, cofounder of the National Ballot Integrity Project. He said, "Numbers from Florida and a lot of places just aren't credible," and he put me in touch with Ida Briggs and Kathy Dopp, two mathematicians whose analyses of data from Florida and elsewhere had been widely cited on the Internet. Dopp, who lives in Park City, Utah, argued that results from counties using Diebold optical-scan machines were suspicious and that they didn't seem to jibe with results from counties with similar demographics. She also told me that various computer models showed that it was extremely unlikely that so many exit polls had been wrong. Briggs, a computer analyst from the Detroit area, told me that Monday, November 15, would be a big day, saying, "We've got evidence of an 'if-then'--it looks like if Kerry reached a certain level his votes started getting counted for Bush."

Lora Chamberlain of the Illinois Progressive Democrats referred me to Jeff Fisher, the defeated Democratic candidate in Florida's 16th Congressional District, which encompasses Glades. He told me that "in communication with the FBI" he was pursuing his own investigation. "You'll be there the day after they certify," he said, "so maybe their guard will be down." Fisher, Briggs, and Dopp all encouraged me to contact Bev Harris, whose group Black Box Voting has been alleging machine-count fraud for years and who'd recently started one of the broadest FOIA campaigns in history in pursuit of election data. She didn't reply.

The Glades County courthouse--in Moore Haven, population 1,635--was quiet, almost sleepy. Whiddon's assistant, Gail Young, looked out the window and pointed to rows of storage units a couple hundred yards away across Route 27, the town's main drag. "She's over there already," she said. "Didn't want to keep you waiting."

The ballots had been locked up since election night, Whiddon told me as she raised the sheet-metal door on one unit. "Pretty dusty in here, but I don't want to move 'em," she said. "We can start whenever you're ready."

"May I flip them and count while you watch?" I asked.

"Uh, I don't think so. I think only I can touch 'em."

Her cell phone rang. I could hear Young asking her to come back to the office. "You know I'm tied up this morning," Whiddon told her.

"I really think you need to come back," Young said.

Whiddon looked at me. I shrugged and said we could start in ten minutes. She thanked me, we stepped outside, and she locked the door.

I waited for 20 minutes, then walked back over to the courthouse. The office was hopping now. A film crew had arrived. Young was in tears. I heard several voices behind a divider, and a cameraman moved in and out of view. I motioned toward the man who was clearly in charge of the film crew, and he walked toward me. But before I could say anything to him, Young gestured toward me. "He's the one with an appointment," she said. "But y'all barge in with cameras and start accusing my boss. She is so honest, and you accuse her. I would lay down my life for her!"

The man apologized briefly, then turned to me and introduced himself as Russell Michaels, a documentary producer doing an election inquiry. I told him I was doing the same thing.

"We've done programs on Britain's Channel 4," he said. "This one's called 'Votergate.' We're following Bev Harris."

"Bev Harris? She's here?" I asked.

"Yeah. We're focusing on Diebold counties today."

"How much longer will you be?" I asked. "I had a nine o'clock appointment to look at the ballots with Holly."

"Oh," he said. "Well, we shouldn't be much longer. So you're doing an actual recount?"

"That's the plan. Unless I run out of time."

The documentary crew emerged from behind the divider with Harris and Whiddon. Young scowled, but to my surprise Harris and Whiddon hugged each other.

As the film crew was leaving, Michaels introduced me to Harris, who gave me her card. "Funny we wound up here on the same day," she said. Michaels asked me to call and give them "the real numbers."

Whiddon asked me to wait another minute while she made a phone call. Without lowering her voice she described the scene. "I didn't have much choice," she said, then paused and listened. "I had to deal with them," she said. Another pause. "OK, I guess I failed the test," she said, and hung up.

As we headed back to the storage unit, I asked her whom she'd called. I expected a guarded reply or none.

"Oh, I called the Diebold guys," she said without hesitation. "They said, 'You were being tested, and you failed the test.'"

"Failed the test? Isn't it one of your jobs to deal with media questions?"

"Yeah. But they think they should be the ones to deal with any questions about the machines."

With the morning half gone the two of us started the manual recount. Whiddon flipped the ballots one by one as I stood beside her with my notepad. The process went fairly smoothly, though a bit slower than I'd hoped, partly because her quarter-inch fingernails weren't ideal for ballot flipping.

When we got to the end of the first precinct I wondered if I might actually be onto something. Dozens of ballots seemed to be missing. Bush's true count was 20 percent lower than the published count. Kerry's was 5 percent lower.

The second through fifth precincts checked out, off by only one to three votes. The ballots also looked legitimate--the pencil markings varied, and occasionally voters had made mistakes, such as circling the candidate's name instead of filling the oval, that slightly lowered the machine count.

We moved on to the sixth-precinct stack. In the middle of it Whiddon found the missing ballots from the first precinct. "I figured it was something like that," she said. Now the first precinct checked out too.

We got through almost 2,000 ballots before Whiddon had to leave for her next appointment. They really did go for Bush by 60 percent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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