In general, I'm no conspiracy theorist. I do think there's strong evidence that Gore would have won the election in 2000 were it not for a coordinated strategy in Florida of denial of ballot access by Bush supporters which was augmented by the butterfly ballot fiasco. I think there is some evidence that denial of access and/or corrupted/broken voting tabulation swung the outcome of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, although it seems ambiguous to me. But I tend to believe that these are isolated actions and that there was not a top-down effort to steal the presidential election in either year.
That said, events of the last few days have me carefully looking over the election equipment status in key swing states, and worrying that chicanery in Virginia or Florida or Jefferson/Arapahoe counties in Colorado will end up being the deciding factor in this election. The reason for my worry is that I posed a simple question to myself: if I were in charge of a "vast right-wing conspiracy", and I was planning on stealing this election, how would I go about it?
The answer breaks down into three parts:
1) Generate enough FUD* about Obama to keep things close.
that's "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, for those not down on the lingo.
This is certainly what's going on right now. I'm accustomed to the McCain camp sending out lie after lie about Obama, such as the constant refrain that he will raise everyone's taxes. After all, if they're lying about McCain's and Palin's records, why not lie about your opponent as well?
That said, McCain's latest ad left me in something of a state of shock (and led to me immediately donating money). It's one thing to lie about someone's record. It's another thing to falsely state that he wants to teach sex ed to kindergartners. It's still another altogether to so blatantly play the race card by juxtaposing Obama's face against little white kids while printing the word "sex" on the screen. It's not hyperbole at all when Josh Marshall states, "John McCain is running the sleaziest, most dishonest and race-baiting campaign of our lifetimes".
It puts the Obama campaign in a tough spot, because they want to stay on message, which basically involves stapling McCain to Bush and talking about the economy, but they have to respond to this crap as well. Fortunately, the media seems to be slowly souring on McCain's lies, so it's not as much of a two-front war.
2) Twist the polls so that it looks like you might win.
Because if you win from 10 points down, it looks VERY suspicious. If you win from 2 points down, then hey, the polls were a little off, so no big deal.
This is the part that really got me thinking lately. You've probably heard of the recent polls that show McCain moving into a small lead over Obama. Now, you may pass those off as a convention bounce. But what you may not know is that those polls had EXTREMELY suspicious partisan ID breakdowns. In other words, despite overwhelming evidence that Democrats outnumber Republicans this year by a very large margin, those results were based on pools of responders that were roughly equally Democratic and Republican. In other words, those polls are almost meaningless.
I've thought throughout the general election season that the polls have understated Obama's support, due to Obama's historic efforts to register voters who are not considered "likely voters" by the polling models. But these polls go far beyond that, and actually tilt things away from what has been considered the baseline for polling so far this year. They're exactly the sort of polls you would create if you were trying to generate a false level of confidence that McCain might win.
I want to emphasize that I have absolutely zero evidence that Gallup, CBS, et. al. were influenced by an outside source to twist their polling results. That said, of course there are people at those polling places who have their own biases. Moreover, any large media conglomerate has an incentive to make their poll results surprising and new, because it gives them a narrative to work with.
3) Actually steal the election through vote-adding or vote-removing.
This is the obvious necessary final step to stealing an election. The interesting/worrisome thing is that despite the controversies of 2000 and 2004, there are still plenty of places where voting systems are vulnerable/questionable. Ohio, which has switched to Democratic executive control, has cleaned up its act fairly well. Every county in the state either uses paper ballots or has a voter-verified paper trail for all digitally recorded votes. Pennsylvania is a potential recount nightmare, but if Pennsylvania is the swing state than Obama's already lost anyway.
The real concerns this time around are Virginia, Colorado, and our old friend Florida. Virginia is in terrible shape, with many counties using nothing but touchscreens that don't produce a paper trail. If Virginia stays "too close to call" deep into the night, don't get your hopes up. Colorado is mostly in good shape, except for two counties, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties. This sounds OK unless you realize that those two counties contain most of the Denver suburbs and account for over a fifth of the state's population. Florida does appear to be offering paper optical scan ballots in every county, but they are also using touchscreen voting that lacks a paper trail. A word of advice to any Democratic voters in Florida - .
Anyway, I hope none of this makes me a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy nut. I'm not necessarily trying to argue that there is an overarching strategy underway to steal the election. What I am arguing is that some of the groundwork for election-day dirty tricks is right there in front of us.