Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Un-Stolen Election

NY Times editorial writer Adam Cohen
was among those who bought Siegelman's 
tale of a stolen election. 

      “Mr. Siegelman went to sleep on election night thinking he had won. But 
overnight, Republican Baldwin County reported that a glitch had given Mr. Siegelman,

a Democrat, about 6,000 extra votes. When they were subtracted, Republican Bob
Riley won by roughly 3,000 votes. James Gundlach, a professor at Auburn University,
crunched the numbers and concluded that Mr. Siegelman lost because of ‘electronic
ballot stuffing,’ possibly by an operative who accessed the computers and ‘edited’ the
results, though others dispute his analysis.”
            -- From, “A Tale of Three (Electronic Voting) Elections,” a 2008 column by the
New York Times’ Adam Cohen.

        "The hook is Rove’s fingerprints are found there too."
         -- Siegelman, to Mark Crispin Miller, a blogger and professor at New York University.

,          The following is from the chapter in, "The Governor of Goat Hill," about the Alabama's 2002 gubernatorial election, and called, "Siegelman v. Riley." Siegelman, with the aide of gullible folks in the national media, has succeeded to some degree in altering the history of that election. 
           As with so much of the re-casting of the history of the Siegelman case, for this one to be true -- an election, quite literally, stolen by "Republican operatives" -- one has to assume a conspiracy and, naturally, conspirators. According to Siegelman, Karl Rove puppet-mastered the "stolen" election.
           One also has to assume that the Alabama media is lazy, brain dead, incurious, and serving the interests of the GOP. Otherwise, how could the reporters at the Mobile Press-Register, Birmingham News, Montgomery Advertiser, Associated Press, and on and on, not uncovered this conspiracy?
       This recounting of the 2002 election begins with a scene in the Press-Register news room on the night of the election.

            Never does the news room buzz as on election night. Every editor, clerk and
reporter, regardless of beat or schedule, is at their stations, save those out following
candidates. Pizza is delivered and engulfed. The atmosphere is fun, with folks joking
and screaming the latest results across the newsroom and everyone settled in for a
long night sure to end, at least for many of the reporters, at a downtown bar.
            As the night progressed, the expected easy Riley win turned nail-biter. With
half the state’s precincts in, Siegelman held a tiny lead. Among those still out was
heavily-Republican Baldwin County, where the early numbers showed a big Riley
edge -- enough to give him the lead and, in all likelihood, the election.
            Joe Danborn’s assignment that night was to monitor the Baldwin County
vote, precinct by precinct, so we could unofficially call races in our neighboring
county by press-time.
            At about 10:20 p.m., Danborn let out a cry. The Baldwin County Probate
Court had just released the unofficial totals it provides to the media and candidates.
Joe’s precinct totals – and for that matter, the precinct by precinct totals on the
probate court’s web-site -- showed Riley with a shade over 31,000 votes, and
Siegelman with 12,736.
            Out of nowhere, Siegelman’s total had shot up by 6,334 votes, to 19,070.
After the numbers from the late-reporting counties came in, Siegelman led –
meaning he’d been re-elected -- by a sliver of some 3,000 votes.
            The Siegelman campaign knew something funny had happened in Baldwin
County. It too had people on the ground, collecting precinct by precinct tallies.
But Siegelman – as perhaps would many candidates in the same situation – didn’t
look the gift horse in the mouth. He raced out to declare victory.
            “How sweet it is!” he yelled out to his backers.
            “You have delivered a great victory for Alabama today,” he said, and urged Riley to
concede. “I would hope Mr. Riley would not prolong it and would not drag it out.”
            The Riley campaign, befuddled by the Baldwin change, declined Siegelman’s
invitation. Within an hour of Siegelman’s victory speech, Baldwin County Probate
Court Judge Adrian Johns reported the mistake.
            Siegelman’s phantom 6,370 votes evaporated. The pendulum swung back to
Riley, making him the victor by 3,117 votes, or less than a quarter of a percent of the
1.3 million ballots cast. It was the closest gubernatorial election in Alabama history.
            At 1:20 a.m., Riley’s son Rob stood in for his dad by announcing to the Riley
crowd that his father was claiming victory.
            At a press conference the next morning Siegelman came out firing. “Votes
were changed after midnight with nobody present,” he charged.
            We were about to have our own mini-Florida.


           The many post-mortems established beyond question that a downloading
error caused a computer to misread a data pack from the Magnolia Springs
precinct, where Siegelman actually received 342 of the 1,294 votes cast. The data
pack – a cartridge similar in appearance to an eight-track tape -- spit out the
correct number at the precinct level. The problem occurred when it was taken to
the sheriff ’s department with all the others. For reasons not entirely clear, when
inserted into the computer there it produced the whacky numbers.
            These weren’t the official results, but numbers generated early for a summary
sheet distributed to the media and representatives for the candidates. Siegelman
wasn’t the only benefactor. The same sheet showed an astonishing 13,935 write-in
votes for a state senate race. The actual total was 235.
            “That tells you right there that you’ve got fried numbers,” said Mark Kelly,
a representative for the company that provided the election systems used by
the county.
            Most felt that fault rested with county election officials, who should have double-checked
the numbers before releasing them to the media. Some blamed the AP for
reporting the numbers too soon, but considering the rush to get the results, it’s not
surprising that the wire service accepted the numbers provided by the county.
            For the Siegelman side to be right, more than 50,000 people would have had
to vote in Baldwin County. That’s about 6,000 more than actually did.
            Five years later the blunder became part of the fabric of claims by Siegelman,
Democratic congressional leaders and many in the national media that pretty
much everything bad that ever happened to Siegelman was due to “Republican
operatives.” This silliness, like so much else, occurred post-Jill Simpson – as in,
after the Rainsville lawyer signed an affidavit accusing Karl Rove and others of
engineering Siegelman’s prosecution.
            Before June 2007 – which is to say, before Jill Simpson’s affidavit and her
national debut in the pages of the New York Times and Time magazine -- Siegelman
blamed Riley for his prosecution but never once mentioned Rove. After Simpson,
he let Riley slide and spoke of nothing else but Rove. As Siegelman’s story
developed, he began assigning Rove a role in the Baldwin County snafu.
            “Mark, I mention the vote stealing in every interview,” he told Mark Crispin
Miller, who runs the far-left blog, “News from the Underground,” and is, egads,
a professor of media studies at New York University.
            “‘60 Minutes’ cut it out. Dan Abrams didn’t want to go there either. I have told
the story to the Washington Post and L.A. Times. The hook is Rove’s fingerprints
are found there too,” said Siegelman.
            You have to hand it to Team Siegelman – they sold the stolen election fantasy
to the New York Times and plenty of others. A June 2007 editorial in the Times
conjured hobgoblins in action by referring to Siegelman’s 2002 defeat as being
“marred by suspicious vote tabulations.”
            Three months after that editorial, Adam Cohen, the assistant editor of the
Times editorial page, wrote an op-ed below the ominous headline, “The Strange
Case of an Imprisoned Alabama Governor.” Cohen told readers that Siegelman
“appeared to have won by a razor thin margin” but that “a late night change in the
tallies in Republican Baldwin County” gave Riley the win.
            “Mr. Siegelman has charged that the votes were intentionally shifted by a
Republican operative,” wrote Cohen. “James Gundlach, an Auburn University
professor, did a statistical analysis of the returns and found that the final numbers
were clearly the result of intentional manipulation.”
            Cohen cited the Gundlach study in another column as well.
            Best I can tell, the theoretical spine upon which the Gundlach study rests
is an assertion that computers don’t make mistakes or, in any event, that they
don’t produce different results if operated in a consistent manner. That’s an
absurd notion, as anyone who has spent any time at all working on computers
can attest.
            With Gundlach having eliminated mechanical error, fraud – and thus, a
stolen election – was the only remaining possibility, and the conclusion reached
by his study.
            Gundlach, incidentally, was a professor of anthropology and sociology, not
computer science, and his politics are as left as Rush Limbaugh’s are right. What’s
amazing is that in many influential circles – including the editorial board of the New 
York Times -- it’s now accepted as gospel that Siegelman beat Riley, that the election 
was stolen from him by Republican operatives, and that the Gundlach study proves it.
            In 2008, the Democratic majority of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee
climbed aboard when it unleashed its report on “selective prosecution” by the Bush
Justice Department. The report mentioned the Baldwin County vote in making its
case that Siegelman was prosecuted for political reasons. The report stated that the
2002 election was, “marred by serious allegations of vote tampering, focused on the
as-yet-unexplained shift of several thousand votes” from Siegelman to Riley.
            The committee was wrong on multiple counts, including that votes were
shifted to Riley. Not even Siegelman said that.


            Siegelman’s actions immediately following the election belie his claims of an
election stolen by GOP operatives in Baldwin County. Nothing is more telling
than his insistence upon a statewide recount. If all he needed was 3,117 votes,
why not focus all his energies on the 6,370 “stolen” votes from that county?
            The answer: Because they weren’t stolen; they never existed; and he knew it.
Siegelman and his legal team knew that victory wasn’t to be found by a
recount in Baldwin County, but used the goof-up there as a stalking horse for
their broader goal – a statewide recount. If they could pull that off , they just
might be able to scrabble up enough Siegelman votes, void some of Riley’s, and
scrap their way to the magic number of 3,117.
            “I cannot imagine a more fair way to resolve this situation,” Siegelman said at
a press conference the next morning, in urging a statewide recount.
            “What Don Siegelman wants now is to get his hands on the ballots,” responded
Republican lawyer Matt Lembke, adding that Riley’s team would not “stand by
and let this unwarranted and dangerous recount occur.”
            Three days after the vote, and with election officials throughout the state
seeking his guidance, Pryor issued an attorney general’s opinion based on a 1953
law that prohibited breaking seals on election materials without a formal challenge.
“You can’t break the seal based on not liking the count,” wrote Pryor.
            To which Rip responded, “The bottom line is it’s a Republican conspiracy at
its worst.”
            Siegelman’s alter ego, Golden Flake, erupted with novel grounds for a
statewide recount: His voters were stupid.
            “I would argue that most of Bob Riley’s voters have taken a test where you
have to fill out those things. I represent poor people, working class folks, mom-and-
pop store owners. A lot of those people didn’t necessarily know the right technique to vote an optical scan ballot.”


            It was Siegelman’s fellow Democrats who drove the stake into his recount
            In 2000, Democrats throughout the country went to war for Al Gore.
            Alabama’s Democratic leadership made no such effort on Siegelman’s behalf. He
sent a mass mailing to supporters asking for help in raising the $500,000 he
estimated he’d need for the challenge. The response was underwhelming.
            His only real hope was the legislature. State law provides a means for a
candidate to challenge an election in the legislature, which in theory -- it’s never
happened -- would consider evidence and decide the election. Montgomery lawyer
Joe Espy, a Democratic Party go-to guy for such matters, was hired by Siegelman
to lead his recount challenge. Espy said the governor was considering calling a
special session in late November to turn the election over to the legislature.
On paper, Siegelman looked unbeatable. Democrats held 64 out of 105 seats
in the House and boasted a 25-10 majority in the Senate.
            But in public statements and private meetings, Democratic leaders told
Siegelman to forget it.
            “It would be totally divisive to come before the legislative body. To a man or
woman, nobody was interested in having it before the legislature,” said House
Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton, a black Democrat from Birmingham, after
a meeting of Democratic house members.
            Party leaders described it as a no-win situation: Support Siegelman and get
accused of stealing the election; support Riley, and anger your base by risking the
perception that you care more for Republicans then Democrats.
            “I think it’s over. You get beat, you go to the house,” said Democratic House
member Jeff Dolbare. “Stop moaning and groaning.”
            “Siegelman just never has had a great reserve of hard, hard relationships . . .
that he could call on that would just tow the line for him, particularly in the legal
arena,” lobbyist Bob Geddie said after Siegelman folded. “(His) support in the
Legislature had just about dwindled to a handful in the last couple of years.”

            Siegelman’s final option was the Alabama Supreme Court, which he hoped
would order recounts in all 67 Alabama counties. The court directed the Riley
campaign to file its argument against the recount by Nov. 18, a Monday.
            Siegelman’s lawyers were to fi le a response the next day, with the court to entertain
oral arguments on Thursday.
            Nobody seriously believed Siegelman had a chance. His legal arguments were
shaky; eight of the nine justices were Republicans; and there was no evidence to
suggest that a recount could erase Riley’s 3,117 vote advantage.
            The Riley team filed its brief early Monday. To the extent there was a response,
it was a call that afternoon from Siegelman, congratulating Riley on his victory.
            “The two men had a very amicable and friendly conversation,” said former
state Supreme Court Justice Terry Butts, who Riley had engaged to assist with the
recount battle.
            At 6 p.m., Siegelman, his wife at his side, publicly conceded. Though smiling
and outwardly calm, his hands began to shake as he approached the end of his
speech. The 56-year-old political lifer told the gathering he believed he would
have won a recount, but, “for the good of the state of Alabama, for the good of
our people, I am dropping my request for a recount.”
            “This decision has not been easy and it’s been painful. It’s been painful in part
because I feel like I’m letting you down, letting you supporters down. But I truly
believe it would hurt Alabama more to put us through this divisive process.”
Siegelman was, with what even his harshest critics acknowledged, bowing
out with class. He’d spent 20 of the previous 24 years in public office and surely
recognized that only a miraculous comeback could return him to the highest
perches of government and the only life he’d ever wanted.
            In the newsroom reporters and editors gathered around the televisions. My
chief recollection is of the camera panning Siegelman’s disconsolate staff and
finding Jasper Ward, Rip’s friend from Georgetown. He was or had been crying,
and I couldn’t help thinking, “Why is a bright kid like you crying over his loss?”
            It was another example of me failing to appreciate the something in
Siegelman that others – many good people included – saw in him, and inspired
them to follow.
            There are of course two accounts of what occurred the day Siegelman
conceded – the one described above, and the one introduced five years later, by
Dana Jill Simpson.

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