Saturday, January 19, 2013

Exit Polls and SMARTech (2004)

[Author’s Note: This post is part of the 7 part series Conspiracy Check. The series factchecks the claims of Liberal commentator Thom Hartmann concerning allegations of fraud and treason during 5 presidential elections.]

Hartmann’s next conspiracy concerned the 2004 presidential election. The election came down to Ohio. The private company SMARTech had been given the contract by Ohio’s Secretary of State to back up the vote calculations on election night. SMARTech had significant ties to the national Republican Party. Ohio’s servers crashed and the vote totals were rerouted through SMARTech. Hartmann then strongly implied that SMARTech stole Ohio, and thus the election, for Bush.

 “The vote totals that poured into the system from SMARTech’s computers in Chattanooga flipped the exit polls on their head. The lead that John Kerry had in the exit polls had magically reversed by more than 6 percent, something unheard of in any other nation in the developed world.”

Hartmann’s main source was Craig Unger’s book, Boss Rove. I admit that I have not read Unger’s book. However, Unger did discuss the book on Democracy Now. Unger was asked if he thought Ohio was stolen in 2004.

“CRAIG UNGER: Well, there was no question there was massive fraud. If you want to actually count the votes, unfortunately it’s impossible because so much evidence was destroyed.”

Unger confirmed almost all of Hartmann’s claims in the interview, everything except his conclusion the election was most likely stolen. However, neither Hartmann nor Unger addressed concerns with the exit polls in the 2004 election.

 Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International were the two companies responsible for creating the National Election Poll, the organization that conducted the 2004 presidential exit polls. The two organizations released a report to explain the problems with the exit polls in 2004. The polls were different from the results in many states, not just Ohio. 

”There were 26 states in which the estimates produced by the exit poll data overstated the vote for John Kerry by more than one standard error, and there were four states in which the exit poll estimates overstated the vote for George W. Bush by more than one standard error.”

The report concluded that the error in the exit polls was the result of Kerry voters being more likely to talk to exit poll researchers than Bush voters.

“Our investigation of the differences between the exit poll estimates and the actual vote count point to one primary reason: in a number of precincts a higher than average Within Precinct Error most likely due to Kerry voters participating in the exit polls at a higher rate than Bush voters.  There have been partisan overstatements in previous elections, more often overstating the Democrat, but occasionally overstating the Republican.  While the size of the average exit poll error has varied, it was higher in 2004 than in previous years for which we have data.”

Mark Blumenthal wrote extensively on the controversy at Mystery Pollster.

Summarize: [If you want to explain the exit poll discrepancy] Absent further data from NEP, you can choose to believe that an existing problem with exit polls got worse this year in the face of declining response rates and rising distrust of big media, that a slightly higher number of Bush voters than Kerry voters declined to be interviewed. Or, you can believe that a massive secret conspiracy somehow shifted  roughly 2% of the vote from Kerry to Bush in every battleground state, a conspiracy that fooled everyone but the exit pollsters – and then only for a few hours – after which they deliberately suppressed evidence of the fraud and damaged their own reputations by blaming the discrepancies on the weakness in their data.


Don’t get me wrong. I am disturbed by the notion of electronic voting machines with no paper record, and I totally support the efforts of those pushing for a genuine audit trail. If Ralph Nader or the Libertarians want to pay for recounts to press this point, I am all for it. I know vote fraud can happen, and I support efforts to pursue real evidence of such misdeeds. I am also frustrated by the lack of transparency and disclosure from NEP, even on such simple issues as reporting the sampling error for each state exit poll. Given the growing controversy, I hope they release as much data as possible on their investigation as soon as possible. The discrepancy also has very important implications for survey research generally, and pollsters everywhere will benefit by learning more about it.  

While there is no doubt that there was Florida-like problems in Ohio in 2004, the evidence that the election was stolen is inadequate. Hartmann did not explain that the exit polls disproportionally favored Kerry compared to the final vote tallies in 26 states, not just in Ohio. This missing fact throws his near certainty that the election was stolen into a much different light.

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