Of Legitimacy, Paper Trails, and the Power of The Blogosphere: The Clinton/Diebold Episode

I like this because it makes so many useful points about so many important things in this election season. In particularly, I think there are valuable take aways about the importance of asking questions without pre-judging, the value of a paper trail in voting to everyone, and the power of the blogosphere to raise and answer serious concerns.

Yesterday, the progressive bologosphere began to buzz with rumors that Hilary Clinton had “stolen” the NH primary from Barack Obama because of errors by the Diebold optical scanning machines used by some NH polling places. The allegation rests on an observed swing in results between precincts using the Diebold optical scanners and hand count districts. Notably, the Brad Blog posted this piece which stated that “informal statistics” indicated that precincts counted by hand generally favored Obama by 2%, whereas precincts using the Diebold optical scanners generally favored Clinton by 4.5%, creating a 7% swing.

Few circumstantial evidence items appeared to lend credence to the rumor. Ron Paul supporters claimed Diebold shorted him 31 votes in one NH town. Diebold is not generally trusted by progressives, Clinton is not generally trusted by a number of progressives, and the pattern of wild variance between polling data and actual vote turn outs is similar to that seen in 2004, including the apparent consistency of the error. A general failure of the technology should produce a spread of errors, why would the same machine favor one candidate consistently?

This had the capacity to turn quite ugly (and I suppose still could). But the internet breeds the ability to check facts and analysis and discover more plausible explanations. This analysis from “DHinMI” on Daily Kos Diary, for example, shows why these accusations don’t hold up. Most importantly, NH requires a paper trail, so that it is easy to double check results. The variations are not consistent at 4.5% and only for Diebold optical scanners, but follow a geographic variation that more accurately accounts for the differences. The Ron Paul missing votes likewise appears to be a human error on the part of the town clerk certifying the results rather than the count itself.

To this I will add that we need to remember that we are dealing with relatively modest sample sizes. Quite good by the standards of modern statistical analysis but still relatively small so that a few thousand people changing their minds for different reasons out of over a hundred thousand votes cast can produce a statistically significant change.

But I must disagree with DHinMI that “ultimately, there’s tremendous arrogance and/or ignorance at play when people assume that Hillary Clinton’s victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary is or might be explained by election fraud.” It is a responsibility of citizens to hold their elected leaders accountable, to question results that raise legitimate questions, but — ultimately — to accept answers supported by the evidence. Certainly anyone leaping to the conclusion that Clinton conspired with Diebold on the basis of an initial question went way too far, and should accept the lesson in caution. But the investigation and retention of paper ballots will hopefully do what such investigations do when the subject is innocent: provide a definitive answer that lays the matter to rest and proves once again the integrity of the process, providing needed legitimacy.

I expect many people will shake their heads at those irresponsible internet nuts and their vile rumors, and will take the wrong message that the internet is full of whacko progressives who degenerate to conspiracy theories rather than face unpleasant realities. But I prefer to see this as an excellent example of the system working, just as a mild cold is a symptom of my functioning immune system driving out a virus. It emphasizes the need for paper ballots and mechanisms for confirming results, the importance of getting questions about legitimacy answered rather than having them fester, and the importance of the internet in letting people debate the facts and squash “whisper campaigns” one way or the other.

In Kenya, we have seen what happens when an election loses legitimacy because of widespread mistrust and efforts to suppress inquiry. I rejoice to live in a country where citizens feel free to exercise their responsibility to investigate and question election circumstances that raise questions, and equally rejoice that NH and the internet provide the means to answer those questions. It is neither arrogance nor lunacy to want to double check elections — especially in light of the suspicions raised in the past. Nor is it conspiracy or arrogance to provide answers that sustain the result. Indeed, if there is one lesson we can all take from this, it is the value of treating all those who take their duties as citizens seriously enough to participate with the respect due to a fellow and comrade rather than the hostility of an enemy combatant.

Stay tuned . . . .

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  1. John says:

    Well said.

    I remain extremely skeptical of the results in Ohio in the 2004 election. It’s good when elected officials have the technology & organization & motivation to convincingly demonstrate that results are accurate.

    Nothing good comes from elections whose results are not trusted by the electorate. Verifiable paper trails seem to be a sine qua non for a confidence-inspiring election.

  2. Shun says:

    I like this line:

    “…the internet is full of whacko progressives who degenerate to conspiracy theories…”

    Actually, from the number of Ron Paul fanatics, it looks more like the Internet is populated by wacko libertarian conspiracy theorists, but hey, that’s just from my perspective.

    I’m waiting for this to play out, as well. Hopefully, the hand-count of the ballots will provide us with some answers. If Hillary won fair and square…cool. Good game.

    If there were shenanigans…

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