Why Didn't Horseface Complain About the Horse Race?


When the ombudsman starts making more sense than the writer, something's gotta be wrong. Since writing a stolen-election column evocatively titled "The Silent Scream of Numbers," Tribune Media columnist Robert C. Koehler has been in a poop-slinging contest with Don Wycliff, "public editor" of the Chicago Tribune. Before getting into the competing claims in Koehler's column and Wycliff's underwhelming response, here's a key section from an exchange between the two, cited in a second Koehler column that was spiked by the Trib but posted on Koehler's own site:

"If John Kerry and the Ohio Democratic Party and all the other folks who had the most to gain from the election were making this challenge, I would get interested. But when the people with the most at stake don't step up, I'm suspicious."

So Don Wycliff, the Chicago Tribune's public editor, wrote to me in an e-mail exchange a few days ago, explaining why he, if not the Tribune itself, had no intention of investigating the issue with any seriousness…

Of all my objections to what he wrote, his contention that Kerry has the most at stake in all this is the most dispiriting, and most reflects the wrongheaded, "horse race" coverage of elections the media have shoved down our throats for as long as I can remember.

I grok Koehler's point, and I wouldn't be happy to be cheated out of my franchise (though in fact, I may have been so cheated last November). But I've run some numbers, and discovered the probability that the 2004 election might end with Tim Cavanaugh getting a $400,000-a-year job where I get to live in a mansion, be courted by sycophants, issue executive orders, kill people in foreign lands, control America's nuclear arsenal, and steal money from the populace, was incredibly small. John Kerry obviously had more at stake than any individual voter, and his refusal to fight for his advantages clearly carries more weight than any other factor. To pretend otherwise is to believe in platitudes.

As for the specific claims of Koehler and Wycliff, and more importantly of the competing vote-fraud camps they represent, neither man covers himself in glory. Wycliff's column noted above puts the C in mediocre, and is in no way a serious consideration of the issue. But Koehler demonstrates another discredited tactic—preemptively mocking those who would call him a conspiracy theorist:

Was the election of 2004 stolen? Thus is the question framed by those who don't want to know the answer. Anyone who says yes is immediately a conspiracy nut, and the listener's eyeballs roll. So let's not ask that question.

Let's simply ask why the lines were so long and the voting machines so few in Columbus and Cleveland and inner-city and college precincts across the country… why so many otherwise Democratic ballots, thousands and thousands in Ohio alone, but by no means only in Ohio, recorded no vote for president… and why virtually every voter complaint about electronic voting machine malfunction indicated an unauthorized vote switch from Kerry to Bush.

We might also ask why so many Ph.D.-level mathematicians and computer programmers and other numbers-savvy scientists are saying that the numbers don't make sense….

And we might, no, we must, ask…about those exit polls, which in years past were extraordinarily accurate but last November went haywire, predicting Kerry by roughly the margin by which he ultimately lost to Bush.

Yeah, and how could a cheap Italian rifle fire three shots in five seconds? And where did 19 boneheads from the Third World learn to fly jumbo jets and outsmart the national security colossus? And who profited from the assassination of Selena more than…Jennifer Lopez?

Of the rhetorical questions Koehler asks, several come with ready answers: I can't speak for "inner-city" Columbus and Cleveland, but my own experience, in an upscale, lily-white neighborhood of America's most leftwing city, where the Democrats control everything but the weather (maybe that too), the wait at my polling place was six times longer than it's ever been in my ten years of voting there. Is there anybody in this country who did not have a longer-than-usual wait to vote last year?

On to the no-president ballots: I have no answer to that one, though I do wonder what the exact issue is here. Is it the cheatin' Diebold machines which leave no paper trail, or a paper trail that has left a questionable record? As for the vote-switch, I have no answer either; I'm inclined to agree with Christopher Hitchens that Diebold should not be given another dime until it fixes the problem, and in fact I'm going back to doing most of my bank business through a teller. But reporting bias still goes a long way toward explaining this mystery—Kerry voters spotted these problems because they were the ones looking for these problems.

The Ph.D.-level mathematician Koehler favors—Celtic troubador and statistician Richard Hayes Phillips—looks like a more fun figure than most, but of course, the other side has its own batch of statisticians ready to roll. And what does it mean that "the numbers don't make sense"? If it's that the voting results don't match the exit polls, Koehler is trying to get away with two rhetorical questions for the price of one. If it's that population statistics don't match the turnout, there may be something to that, but these cases have been noted, corrected, and reported on in obscure journals like USA Today, and none of the numerical discrepancies have been large enough to turn the election, either nationally or in the immediate case of Ohio. (The vote-fraud zealots need to address whether they think hankypanky can really account for Bush's three-percent lead in the popular vote, and if not whether they'd really want Kerry to be president with the largest electoral/popular split in U.S. history.)

Koehler really goes wrong in claiming we might, nay must, ask about the exit poll discrepancy. Of all the stolen-election lifelines, this is the feeblest. Jimmy Rutenberg explained the specific problems with the exit polling in an article published three days after the election in that Republican Party house organ The New York Times. But the technical details of wrong exit polling only partly explain the larger story: that exit polls have always been wrong, and were traditionally "reconciled" through a fancy-sounding process that really amounts to changing the results when new information (i.e., the actual vote numbers) comes in. The difference in 2000 and 2004 is that now we know what the exit polls are actually saying when they say them. Thank you, embargo-breakers!

This last point is a good place to wrap up this voluminous post. Every American knows a great deal more about electoral shenanigans now than ever before. The reasons for this are almost exclusively what are ordinarily considered positive developments: higher turnout, very close elections, more public awareness, more information, and a system that, despite the best efforts of the party machines, is becoming more transparent. And with all that improved information, all indications are still that Bush won, almost fair and square. If the vote-fraud crowd wants a legitimate cause, let them look to a true election robbery: the 2004 Democratic primary, which the Clinton/McAuliffe mafia stole from Howard Dean.

Further reading: The Conyers report on the Ohio vote.