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US voting: call in the UN observers

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 7 November 2012


'Redshift' is a phenomenon that has to do with changes in the frequency of photons. 'Redshift' is also an index of suspected electoral fraud in the United States. The term refers to the discrepancy between what voters say in exit polls about the direction of their vote and what is the ‘recorded vote’. The discrepancy is almost always to the benefit of the Republican Party. Hence, 'redshift '– red in the U.S. case being the colour of the right.

The discrepancy is of such magnitude that many electoral districts ‘flip’ from a Democrat majority in exit polls to a Republican majority in the ‘recorded vote’. Then states flip. Then, according to the statistician Richard Charnin, the nation flips.

Charnin’s study of elections from 1988 to 2008 found that 137 of 300 presidential exit polls fell outside a statistically predictable margin of error – instead of the 15 that one might expect. And of the errant polls, 132 went in favour of the Republican Party – where one might expect eight. The probability of such a result is infinitesimally small.

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One explanation of the discrepancy between exit polls and recorded votes is the inaccuracy of exit polls as predictors of election results. An aspect of this type of argument involves the claim that right-wing voters are less likely to disclose the direction of their vote or even to agree to participate in exit polling. In the United Kingdom, this is known as the ‘Shy Tory problem’.

In the U.S. presidential election of 2004, it was known as the ‘reluctant Bush responder’. Warren Mitofsky, the inventor of exit polls, explained that Democrat voters were by a large margin more likely (and eager) to take part in exit polls than voters for Bush. This explanation as to the reluctance of Republicans and independents to participate in exit polls is also endorsed by the right-leaning Rasmussen polling company.

Such straightforward explanations are not the sole province of the right. Mark Blumenthal for example provides a comprehensive response to analyses of 'redshift' in terms of electoral fraud. But it is certainly the case that exit polls are used in Third World countries as pointers to electoral fraud, where discrepancies with the recorded votes on the magnitude of the U.S. example exist. Other intuitive explanations of redshift draw on the long history of electoral fraud in the U.S, and include dead men voting, live men voting early and often, and black men voting not at all.

The explanation given by Richard Charnin and others however focuses not on the affiliation or characteristics of voters but on the party affiliation of voting machines. In an article in the November issue of Harper’s, Victoria Collier has traced how the Republican Party ‘aims to paint the country red’. Collier notes how the federally sponsored roll-out of modernised voting machines after 2002 has transformed, utterly, the possibilities for vote rigging in U.S. elections. The earliest indication of these new possibilities was the count in Ohio in the 2004 election that gave only 38 per cent of the vote to John Kerry, where exit polls had predicted a Kerry win with 67 per cent of the vote. The odds of such a discrepancy due to sampling error are 1 in 867,205,553. Such a discrepancy in, say, Baghdad would raise any Iraqi eyebrow.

Collier notes the concentration of ownership of voting machines and software in a handful of private corporations that are openly partisan towards the Republican Party. The problem with electronic voting is not ‘computer glitches’ but voting machine capitalists like the Urosevich brothers, whose key employees often have longer criminal records (for white-collar crimes like fraud and extortion) than do those denied the vote because of felony convictions. Collier cites puzzling examples of ‘redshift’ that appear to have some connection to manipulation and hacking of voting machines and technology.

One protection against ‘redshift’ – and to electoral probity – is to go back to the hand counting of votes. This is a path taken by Ireland, which discontinued e-Voting in 2009 and recently consigned the machines to scrap recyclers.

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Another safeguard would be to number ballot papers and match them against an elector number on the electoral roll. The U.S. is unlikely to institute compulsory voting in the near future, but compulsory enrolment and careful government management of the rolls would act as a further guarantee of electoral probity.

If all else fails, the Third World experience of observers from the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division might prove useful. Indeed, American electoral history undercuts any authority of the U.S. to give other countries lessons in the conduct of democratic elections. Electoral chicanery and fraud are venerable features of the American political landscape. The U.S. is a political system and a culture where vote rigging and tampering have very deep roots. These features are not new and they are not one-offs. The long history of electoral fraud has weighed heavily on American politics, to the detriment of its civil and political life. 

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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