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Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried
The e-mail messages and Web postings had all the twitchy cloak-and-dagger thrust of a Hollywood blockbuster. "Evidence mounts that the vote may have been hacked," trumpeted a headline on the Web site CommonDreams.org. "Fraud took place in the 2004 election through electronic voting machines," declared BlackBoxVoting.org.
In the space of seven days, an online market of dark ideas surrounding last week's presidential election took root and multiplied.
But while the widely read universe of Web logs was often blamed for the swift propagation of faulty analyses, the blogosphere, as it has come to be known, spread the rumors so fast that experts were soon able to debunk them, rather than allowing them to linger and feed conspiracy theories. Within days of the first rumors of a stolen election, in fact, the most popular theories were being proved wrong - though many were still reluctant to let them go.
Much of the controversy, called Votergate 2004 by some, involved real voting anomalies in Florida and Ohio, the two states on which victory hinged. But ground zero in the online rumor mill, it seems, was Utah.
"I love the process of democracy, and I think it's more important than the outcome," said Kathy Dopp, an Internet enthusiast living near Salt Lake City. It was Ms. Dopp's analysis of the vote in Florida (she has a master's degree in mathematics) that set off a flurry of post-election theorizing by disheartened Democrats who were certain, given early surveys of voters leaving the polls that were leaked, showing Senator John Kerry winning handily, that something was amiss.
The day after the election, Ms. Dopp posted to her Web site, www.ustogether.org, a table comparing party registrations in each of Florida's 67 counties, the method of voting used and the number of votes cast for each presidential candidate. Ms. Dopp, along with other statisticians contributing to the site, suggested a "surprising pattern" in Florida's results showing inexplicable gains for President Bush in Democratic counties that used optical-scan voting systems.
The zeal and sophistication of Ms. Dopp's number crunching was hard to dismiss out of hand, and other Web users began creating their own bar charts and regression models in support of other theories. In a breathless cycle of hey-check-this-out, the theories - along with their visual aids - were distributed by e-mail messages containing links to popular Web sites and Web logs, or blogs, where other eager readers diligently passed them along.
Within one day, the number of visits to Ms. Dopp's site jumped from 50 to more than 500, according to site logs. On Nov. 4, that number tipped 17,000. Her findings were noted on popular left-leaning Web logs like DailyKos.com and FreePress.org. Last Friday, three Democratic members of Congress - John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Robert Wexler of Florida - sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office seeking an investigation of voting machines. A link to Ms. Dopp's site was included in the letter.
But rebuttals to the Florida fraud hypothesis were just as quick. Three political scientists, from Cornell, Harvard and Stanford, pointed out, in an e-mail message to a Web site that carried the news of Ms. Dopp's findings, that many of those Democratic counties in Florida have a long tradition of voting Republican in presidential elections. And while Ms. Dopp says that she and dozens of other researchers will continue to analyze the Florida vote, the suggestion of a link between certain types of voting machines and the vote split in Florida has, at least for now, little concrete support.
Still, as visitors to Ms. Dopp's site approached 70,000 early this week, other election anomalies were gaining traction on the Internet. The elections department in Cleveland, for instance, set off a round of Web log hysteria when it posted turnout figures on its site that seemed to show more votes being cast in some communities than there were registered voters. That turned out to be an error in how the votes were reported by the department, not in the counting.
And the early Election Day polls, conducted for a consortium of television networks and The Associated Press, which proved largely inaccurate in showing Mr. Kerry leading in Florida and Ohio, continued to be offered as evidence that the Bush team somehow cheated.
But while authorities acknowledge that there were real problems on Election Day, including troubles with some electronic machines and intolerably long lines in some places, few have suggested that any of these could have changed the outcome.
"There are real problems to be addressed," said Doug Chapin of Electionline.org, a clearinghouse of election reform information, "and I'd hate for them to get lost in second-guessing of the result."
It is that second-guessing, however, that has largely characterized the blog-to-e-mail-to-blog continuum. Some election officials have become frustrated by the rumor mill."It becomes a snowball of hearsay," said Matthew Damschroder, the director of elections in Columbus, Ohio, where an electronic voting machine malfunctioned in one precinct and allotted some 4,000 votes to President Bush, kicking off its own flurry of Web speculation. That particular problem was unusual and remains unexplained, but it was caught and corrected, Mr. Damschroder said.
"Some from the traditional media have called for an explanation," he said, "but no one from these blogs has called and said, 'We want to know what really happened.' "
Whether that is the role of bloggers, Web posters and online pundits, however, is a matter of debate.
Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University, suggests that the online fact-finding machine has come unmoored, and that some bloggers simply "can't imagine any universe in which a fair count of the votes would result in George Bush being re-elected president."
But some denizens of the Web see it differently.
Jake White, the owner of the Web log primordium.org, argues that he and other election-monitoring Web posters are not motivated solely by partisan politics. "While there are no doubt large segments of this movement that are being driven by that," he said in an e-mail message, "I prefer to think of it as discontent over the way the election was held."
Mr. White also quickly withdrew his own analysis of voting systems in Ohio when he realized the data he had used was inaccurate.
John Byrne, editor of an alternative news site, BlueLemur.com, says it is too easy to condemn blogs and freelance Web sites for being inaccurate. The more important point, he said, is that they offer an alternative to a mainstream news media that has become too timid. "Of course you can say blogs are wrong," he said. "Blogs are wrong all the time."
For its part, the Kerry campaign has been trying to tamp down the conspiracy theories and to tell supporters that their mission now is to ensure that every vote is counted, not that the election be overturned.
"We know this was an emotional election, and the losing side is very upset," said Daniel Hoffheimer, the lead lawyer for the Kerry campaign in Ohio. But, he said, "I have not seen anything to indicate intentional fraud or tampering."
A preliminary study produced by the Voting Technology Project, a cooperative effort between the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to a similar conclusion. Its study found "no particular patterns" relating to voting systems and the final results of the election.
"The 'facts' that are being circulated on the Internet," the study concluded, "appear to be selectively chosen to make the point."
Whether that will ever convince everyone is an open question.
"I'd give my right arm for Internet rumors of a stolen election to be true," said David Wade, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, "but blogging it doesn't make it so. We can change the future; we can't rewrite the past."