Downside UP

A Voice of Contemporary Political Economy Volume V, Issue 1: January/February, 2005
Ronald G. Woodbury

The 2004 Presidential Election
Process and Issues: What Happened and Why?

Not surprisingly, Democrats and other progressives(1) are in a tizzy. The Party ran a very strong campaign with a good candidate. Counting the efforts of its progressive political allies in political action committees (PACs) and 527 organizations like Move-On and America Coming Together, the Party raised enough money to match the Republicans. It got out the vote in record numbers. While everyone can do his and her share of Monday morning quarterbacking about one decision or another, John Kerry was up against a candidate portraying himself as a wartime leader defending the country against terrorism. Many stalwarts on the intellectual wing of the party blanched at the focus on Kerry’s wartime heroism, but the decision to focus there was a rationale response to a reasonable estimate of the Bush strategy. What candidate could have done better? Who can say whether either an anti-war campaign or one focused on the jobless recovery of a weak economy would have garnered more or fewer votes? And the fact is, it was not a big loss but a very close race.

Now is the time for progressives of every stripe -- almost all of whom supported Kerry, even if for no other reason than that he was not Bush -- to get beyond the 2004 election not by dwelling on failures but by a realistic assessment of what happened. My email box has been filled for over two months with stories of fraud and intimidation. We need to figure out what role they really played. Just as importantly, we need to look at issues from terrorism and moral values to the economy and social security. Those who see the Democratic Party as the only viable instrument of progressive policy have to ask tough questions about adjustment to a political center seemingly moved yet again further to the right. Progressives as a group need to ask whether there is an alternative to the Democratic Party and a better way to influence the political direction of the country.

As matters stand right now, in mid-January, 2005, I would say that a lot of the stories racing around the internet about election fraud are not credible. But, combined with the evidence of voters kept from registering -- or voting -- the credible stories raise serious questions about the integrity of the 2004 elections. Whether or not the evidence is enough to bring into question the final result, Democrats and other progressives have to face up to the fact that an awful lot of people, Democrats as well as Republicans, voted for George Bush, they did it for real reasons, and those who want to win the next election have to decide what they want to do to embrace or counter those reasons. There are both tactical and ideological questions to address. To win down the road, progressives may have to face up to choices between purity of faith and winning, or decide that good ideology is in fact good politics. If so, Democrats and progressives will maintain a good marriage. I think this is possible. I am not so confident that it will happen.

This issue is devoted to an analysis of both the election process and the issues that made a difference. The next issue will sketch the roots of the present American political landscape, sort out the choices facing Democrats and progressives, and ask Downside Up readers to propose their ideas for political action and progressive programs from this day forward.

The greatest risk for progressives is to assume that we cannot turn the tide without giving into it. We cannot let despair lead to inaction.

Still a Mess

I’m not sure the election was even over before the first horror stories began piling up in my email in-box. These ranged from vast, and ultimately hard to believe, conspiracies, to voting machine screw-ups, to very real efforts to limit the Democratic vote, especially among African Americans. Many of my readers are convinced that American democracy is already dead. I think American democracy is in serious trouble and it could be in more if changes are not made, but it is important to sort out fact from fiction, and struggle on for election reform and better political strategy.

A Grand Conspiracy to Hack
One of the most persistent stories around the internet – and surely a despairing one if true – is of the systematic hacking of the election by “polling place operatives” posing as Homeland Security and FBI agents but actually technicians familiar with Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S, Triad, Unilect, and Danaher Controls voting machines. The scheme supposedly came to light when some of the “operatives” complained that they had not been paid their share of the $29 million allocated by the Republicans to do the job. While this story has had great currency on the internet. I just don’t believe that anyone could hire what, with payments of $29 million, would have to be thousands of people, without at least hundreds of them – or their friends and relatives – turning out to be Democrats or just plain Republicans and other good citizens with enough integrity and genuine concern for American Democracy to blow the whistle.

I may even be prepared to believe the story representative John Conyers has brought to the fore about a supposed (it was a self-identification) Triad employee who took apart a voting machine in Hocking County, Ohio, just before a 3% sample recount was to begin. But that would still be just one case and it was just as likely a hoax. Maybe over years, a la the conspiracy TV shows and movies that flood our media, someone could build a large cadre of super-disciplined hackers. I believe that the companies themselves could program voting machines as they come out the door. I believe voting machines connected to the internet can be hacked. But the $29 million story just doesn’t hold water.

Democratic Registrations/Republican Votes
A far more plausible story, because based on hard evidence, is built around discrepancies between Democratic registrations, Republican votes, and optical scan machines in what is still, along with Ohio, one of the two most important “swing” states: Florida. In this study, Thom Hartmann reports on many Florida counties with heavily Democratic registrations that voted heavily for Bush. His explanation is that these were counties using easy-to-hack op-scan machines tied to a central tabulator. Those counties with touch screen machines voted in line with their registrations. (“Evidence Mounts that the Vote Was Hacked,”, November 6, 2004)

Those who say Hartmann is wrong point out that the counties he is talking about are rural, conservative “Dixiecrat” counties where most (white) people have always been Democrats, often still vote Democratic in local elections, and keep their party registration. That is pretty easy to believe in a state where voter registration is overwhelmingly Democratic but the state has for some time been evenly balanced in actual statewide elections – that is why it is a swing state! More important is the story by The Miami Herald, which did much to out Governor Jeb Bush’s attempt to use wildly erroneous felon lists to purge likely Democratic voters from the voter rolls. The Herald did a hand count of over 17,000 optical scan ballots in rural Suwannee (yup, the one Stephen Foster wrote the song about (but never saw)!), Lafayette, and Union counties. It found no significant discrepancy between the official tallies and the newspaper’s hand count. (The St. Augustine Record, November 29, 2004, page 3A).

It does not help the critics’ case that, to confirm it, they used Pennsylvania as a “yardstick” with which to compare Florida’s rural counties. Pennsylvania Democratic politics, however “conservative,” just cannot be, even in rural areas, compared with the Dixiecrat racial politics of the Old South. I would suggest that a better explanation of what happened is that Hartmann’s op-scan counties were mostly in North Florida while those using touch screen machines were in South Florida. In Florida, it is the North which is Old South and Dixiecrat, where cotton was grown and African Americans worked the fields.(2) Democrats in newer, wealthier, and more urban counties in South Florida are more often migrants from the North.

Voting Machines: Still a Mess
Hartmann is probably off-target in pointing to electronic op-scan voting machines as the explanation for voting discrepancies in the rural Florida counties he looked at. Indeed, other studies suggest that electronic touch-screen machines are the problem and older op-scan systems (as used in my county on the northeast coast) are a better choice. But there seems no doubt that, whatever the system, there are continuing problems with voting machines, both electronic and punch card.

In Broward County, Florida, touch screen voting machines counted backwards; as more people voted, the official vote count went down. In one Columbus, Ohio, suburb, election officials have acknowledged that electronic voting machines credited Bush with winning 4,258 votes, even though only 638 people voted. ( from the Palm Beach Post, AP, and CNN stories, November 5, 2004) In Youngstown, Ohio, 25 electronic machines “transferred an unknown number of votes” from Kerry to Bush (Michael Powell and Peter Slevin, “’There Isn’t Enough to Prove Fraud,’” The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, December 20, 2004, page 12).

Far more serious, Broward was one of three traditionally Democratic – but not rural, North Florida, or Dixiecrat – counties which, along with Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, a University of California at Berkeley study by sociologist David Hout concluded “may have delivered at least 130,000 excess votes for Bush.” Charles Stewart III, a voting expert at MIT, was skeptical of this conclusion until he ran the numbers himself and came to the same conclusion: “’There’s something funky in the results from the electronic-machine Democratic counties.’” While George Bush got 381,000 more votes than Kerry in Florida, there is enough of a problem here to raise doubts about the integrity of the election there (See Powell and Slevin).

So also in the other major swing state, Ohio, where the problem is not optical scan versus touch-screen but that 70% of voting is by the infamous punch card machines that caused so much havoc with hanging chads in the Florida 2000 presidential election. Hanging chads and stray marks are primary causes of “spoilage” – votes not counted because of physical problems with ballots. Greg Palast, who did so much to point out how spoilage disenfranchised Democrats, and especially African Americans, in the 2000 election, has found the same problem in Ohio (and New Mexico with Hispanics in Republican-controlled districts). Referring to an ACLU study, he puts spoiled ballots at 93,000 in a state Bush won by only 118,000 votes. (, November 16, 2004;, November 21, 2004)

Commenting on the problem with touch-screen machines, Berkeley sociologist Hout concludes that it is still “’a software problem, not a corruption problem.’” Stewart of MIT even concludes that thanks to improved technology, “’nationwide, we counted perhaps 1 million votes that we would have lost four years ago.’” This is an implicit reference to the 2-3 million votes not counted in past elections and the 2-3 million more regularly lost because of problems with voter registration. Indeed, as these numbers tell us, there have always been major problems with the American voting system and last year’s problem may have been, if we are to believe Hout, smaller than earlier ones.

Disenfranchising Voters: Felon Lists, Long Lines, and Provisional Ballots
In the 21st century, the question should not be whether we have as big a mess as we have always had – or no more corruption – but whether we have far more than is necessary. Hout comments that “’We would never tolerate this level of errors with an ATM. The problem is that we continue to do democracy on the cheap.” But that leaves unexplained the question of why we have not put our resources behind a better election process. It does not seem to me unfair to suggest that the failure to make the system better is part of a pattern of disenfranchisement which is deliberate, demonstrable, and conspiratorial. It is designed to keep vulnerable voters, primarily African Americans, who are 90% Democratic voters, from exercising the franchise. If it is not ordinary fraud; it is in the same ballpark.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, like officials in other states in 2000, 2002, and 2004, didn’t accidentally employ wildly inaccurate felon lists to purge tens of thousands of qualified African American voters from the rolls. After doing it in 2000 and 2002, and getting caught, he tried again in 2004. Then, even after he was warned that the latest list was full of inaccuracies, he still sent it out to county election supervisors. (See Chris Davis and Matthew Doig, “E-mail on felon list contradicts governor,“ Manatee Herald Tribute, October 16, 2004, p. 1, and “Florida and the Electoral Crisis of 2000 and 2004,” Downside Up, October, 2004. Bush was ultimately forced to abandon the 2004 purge.)

I have already talked about the Ohio decision to leave 70% of voting machines with the punch card system. It seems no accident that Ohio’s Secretary of State in charge of elections, J. Kenneth Blackwell, is Bush’s campaign chair for Ohio – the same dual role Katherine Harris had in Florida in 2000. Nor does it seem an accident that in hundreds of primarily African American urban precincts across the state, insufficient numbers of voting machines of any kind kept tens of thousands of people in Columbus, Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, Dayton, Akron, Cincinnati, and other cities waiting in line to vote for four, six, and even 10 hours. Blackwell made the decision to delay the purchase of touch-screen machines, citing (perhaps correctly) worries about their security, but made no other provision for more machines. (See Powell and Slevin.)

In both Ohio and Florida, the provisional ballot has been construed as narrowly as possible. Intended by Congress in the “Help Americans Vote Act” (HAVA) to deal with the problem of voters coming to vote where their names were not on the rolls, the law has, in many cases, resulted in fewer rather than more people having their votes counted. Need I add that minorities and the poor are disproportionate users of these ballots! In Ohio, Blackwell decided that voters would have to cast their ballots not just in the county but in the precinct where they officially live, forcing officials in Cleveland and Cincinnati to reverse long-standing policy of accepting ballots cast in the same county.

Where Blackwell interpreted state law narrowly to the disadvantage of voters, Florida’s law was written narrowly. The idea of the provisional ballots is that the voter not on the list in the precinct where she or he shows up, fills out a “provisional ballot,” and if the voter turns out in fact to be registered, his or her vote is counted. In some states, the vote is at least supposed to be counted in state-wide and presidential elections even if the voter is in the wrong precinct. In Florida, it is not counted for any election. In 2004, many voters who moved could not vote in their previous precinct because they did not live in it anymore, and could not vote in their new precinct because they had not changed their registration address. As it turns out, the only way to vote is to lie to election officials in your previous precinct and risk criminal action. In Ohio, uncounted provisional ballots would have narrowed Bush’s margin by another 18,000 votes (Slevin and Powell).

Badly Flawed but Not Stolen

A lot of Downside Up readers and friends are not going to be happy with my conclusion about fraud and corruption. They have invested a lot of political and emotional energy in the idea that George Bush won because of fraud, that Karl Rove stole the election. This conclusion derives in part from a profound belief that 50% of the American people could not possibly be so insane – or ignorant – as to vote for him. Yet, in the end, I don’t add up the numbers to equal a stolen election any more than do Democratic Party professionals.

Add up all the provisional votes not counted, the registrations purged and lost, the voters intimidated and discouraged by long lines, the miscounting machines, the spoiled ballots, and maybe some hacking. If you assume that most all of the lost votes would have gone to Kerry, there are clearly enough votes to switch both Florida and Ohio to the Kerry column and give him the presidency. But in a system which has historically “lost” four to six million votes, it is a one-way look at the mess. It doesn’t look at all at how many Democratic votes should have been Republican. (Democrats have no incentive to do that and Republicans no need!) As statisticians would say, the margin of error is far too high to conclude that Kerry was the actual winner.

This is not to say that there are not really serious problems with the American electoral system. Once again, as in 2000, we cannot say that the discrepancies between exit polls and final vote tallies are – as the media keep repeating – conclusive evidence of the failure of exit polls. In 2000, they were fully explained by confusing (e.g. butterfly) and spoiled (e.g. hanging chad) ballots. In 2004, hanging chads were still around and misused provisional ballots opened a new chapter. The people talking to the exit pollers were telling whom they thought they had voted for. That they actually voted for someone else or their vote was not counted is not a failure of the exit polls.

Whatever improvements were made in 2004, continuing problems include: an electoral college which gives a disproportionate number of electoral votes to states with small populations, winner-take-all elections in each state (except two)(3), partisan control of the electoral process (e.g. Blackwell, Jeb Bush, and Katherine Harris), touch screen voting without a paper trail, voting machines manufactured by wildly partisan companies (e.g. Triad, Diebold), voting machines connected to tabulators over the internet, and the sheer ease with which voting machines can be fixed, even before they are connected on-line. These are among the reasons why the United States does not meet international standards of democratic elections.(4)

Why the Republicans Really Won/the Democrats Really Lost

At some point, dwelling on the 2004 election, especially the idea that it was stolen, becomes dysfunctional. It is far more important, for both parties, but especially the losing party, to figure out why they lost and what they can do to move on to victory in future elections. In this regard, I have been tremendously impressed by two recent articles in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition (December 13-19, 2004) from which I am going to shamelessly paraphrase here (Dick Meyer, “The ‘Moral Values’ Myth,” pp. 22-23, and Steve Rosenthal, “How Bush Won Ohio,” p. 23).

Meyer explains how “moral values” came to be identified as the number one issue in the election. It came from one “dodgy” exit poll question that was picked up by the media the way “family values” was picked up in 1996. It was the most cited of seven issues, picked by 22% of exit poll voters. Of those, 80% voted for Bush, only 18% for Kerry. This amorphous issue has become the boogeyman of Democrats fearful about the collapse of the Enlightenment world, and taken up by Republicans looking for more ammunition to pound on Democrats. It reinforces the idea of a nation deeply divided over values in a red/blue world.

But 20% of exit poll voters picked “the economy/jobs” as their number one issue and they also split 80% and 18%, this time for Kerry. If the poll had combined “terrorism” and “Iraq” instead of asking about them separately, Meyer suggests that they would have come in as the top issue for 34%. “Moral values” was the first item on the list from which voters chose and that alone could have greatly affected the result. Why, asks Meyer, should Democrats see the moral values issue as a crisis and Republicans not worry just as much not only about the economy/jobs issue, but also about the 54%-45% split of “moderate” voters for Kerry and the 53%-46% split of new voters also for Kerry.

In short, the sky is not falling for Democrats any more than a new sun is rising for Republicans. Democrats, says Rosenthal, are caught up in a set of “myths” which distort their understanding of what happened in the election and, implicitly, undermine their ability to design a strategy to win future elections. The chief executive officer of the Democrat-oriented 527 organization, America Coming Together, Rosenthal and his colleagues took a poll of Ohio rural and exurban (outside suburban but not rural) counties which Bush won by 17% or more, and examined other election statistics. They found the following myths about why Bush won:

Myth: Driven by “moral values” and the gay marriage referendum, frequent church goers carried the day.
Reality: Nationwide, there was no change in frequent church goers; in Ohio, their share of the electorate actually declined by 5%. Bush increased his share of them by 1% over 2000 but increased his share of non-church goers by 4%!

Myth: Bush won by mobilizing Republican strongholds and suppressing turnout in Democratic areas.
Reality: Turnout in Democratic-leaning counties, like Cuyahoga (Cleveland), was up 8.7%, while it was up only 6.3% in Republican-leaning counties. [This does not refute the idea that thousands of Democratic-leaning African American voters abandoned their effort to vote as a result of long lines; the urban turnout might otherwise have increased even more.]

Myth: A wave of newly registered Republican voters in fast-growing rural and exurban areas carried Bush to victory.
Reality: Among these voters, Bush won by just 5% of newly registered voters.

Myth: Republicans ran a superior volunteer-driven mobilization effort.
Reality: Rural and exurban voters were just as likely to have been contacted by Kerry supporters.

Neither did Rosenthal find evidence that the Democrats lost because they failed to make personal contact with voters. Only 20% of rural and exurban voters were contacted by someone from their church and only slightly more by other conservative organizations. They were more likely to have been contacted by a labor union and just as likely to have been visited at their home by a Kerry supporter. Less than 2% were visited by a Bush supporter they knew personally. In short, Rosenthal finds, Democrats went “toe-to-toe” with Republicans in rural areas and far out-weighed Republican efforts in urban areas.

However depressing it may be for Democrats, who find the idea absurd, it was, says Rosenthal, terrorism that trumped all other issues, including moral values. By 54% to 41%, voters decided that they were safer now than in 2000. By 55% to 42%, they agreed that Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, and by 51% to 45% that going to war was the right thing to do. Bush out-polled Kerry 58% to 40% on the question of who could do the better job of handling the war on terrorism. On the issues of terrorism, strength, and leadership, among voters who had voted in the 2000 Bush-Gore election, Republicans were able to boost Bush’s margin over his Democratic opponent from 3% to 5%.

In light of Meyer noting that the economy and jobs was the second most important issue among voters, it is significant that Rosenthal finds the real problem with Democratic efforts was their failure to exploit Ohio’s weak economy. Kerry lost the debate over who could best handle the economy, 49% to 45%.

2006 and Beyond

Looking to the future, Democrats have to realize that they ran a good campaign. They just need to run a better one. The problem isn’t either not having enough money or not having mobilized potential voters. Karl Rove is brilliant but not unbeatable. The election was not stolen, and neither were Democrats drowned in a sea of propaganda about moral values. Republicans may have benefited greatly from the opportunity to play up Bush as a “wartime leader in the fight against terrorism,” and they may be tempted to keep up the drumbeat, but the people may also grow weary of the drumbeat. Will another terrorist attack be seen by Americans as a failure to protect the country or more evidence of the need for continued anti-terrorist leadership? Will the absence of an attack diminish support or prove the need for a continuation of existing policies? Perhaps Democrats need to run, as they have so often before, on the economy and jobs – although that might not work so well if the economy is doing well in 2006 and 2008.

Most of all, both parties have to realize that, despite the Republican victory, it was hardly smashing. Bush won five states, with 64 electoral votes, by 5% or less.(5) That is a potential shift of 128 votes (64 fewer for Bush plus 64 more for Kerry = 128) out of a final difference of 34 electoral votes between the two (286-252)(6). Recent polls show that Bush’s approval rating, even on the eve of his inauguration when ratings are usually high, is less than half -- less than his percentage of the popular vote on November 2.

The March issue of Downside Up will address how each party might develop issues and strategies to hold onto the five swing states they have and move the other’s five in to their own column. It will also call for your ideas about a progressive platform, regardless of party.

  1. I go back to the early 20th century for this term to describe the Democrats and Republicans who, as “progressives,” together advocated restraints on the excesses of corporate capitalism, good government, and more equal opportunity for all Americans: an income tax, child labor laws, railroad regulation, anti-trust legislation, food inspection, direct election of senators, establishment of a Federal Trade Commission, and professional management of local government. Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson are the most well-remembered, if not the most important, leaders of what historians call the “Progressive Era.”
  2. Until the 20th century, South Florida was mostly wetlands with small groups of Indians and a white population in Key West.
  3. The current two are Maine and Nebraska. Many other states have proposals in the works. Colorado rejected the idea in the last election.
  4. See “The American System of Elections: Not,” Downside Up, November, 2004.
  5. Kerry had almost the same: five states with 62 electoral votes won by less than 5%.
  6. The actual final electoral vote was 286-251 + 1, the “1” a “faithless” Kerry elector who voted for Kerry’s VP candidate, John Edwards.
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Downside Up is published to educate the public about political, economic, and social issues from personal finance to international relations. In order to maintain flexibility in administration and allow for donations to political organizations, Downside Up is not set up as a charity and contributions are not tax-deductible. Email correspondence may be sent to Responses to email may appear in the newsletter but not necessarily be responded to personally.

Ronald Woodbury is the publisher, editor, and general flunkey for all of Downside Up. While publication benefits from the editorial advice of one of his daughters and occasional other pre-publication readers, they will, for their own privacy and sanity, remain anonymous. The web spinner's name is also best left anonymous.

Woodbury has a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history and economics from Amherst College and Columbia University. In addition to many professional articles, he has published a column, also called Downside Up, in the Lacey, WA, Leader. After a 36 year career as a teacher and administrator at six different colleges and universities, he retired with his wife to St. Augustine, FL, where he continues to be active in church and community. He has two daughters, one a physician and one an anthropologist, and six grandchildren.

Ronald Woodbury
Downside Up