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Ukraine vote yields important lessons for U.S. democracy

BY LANCE DEHAVEN-SMITH  Opinion   Miami Herald   03 February 2005

Ukraine's 2004 presidential election offers important lessons for American democracy. U.S. election laws and national opinion have yet to catch up with recent developments in election technology and administration. In particular, they are blind to what the Ukraine Supreme Court referred to as ''massive fraud,'' where the integrity of an election is subverted by many small problems that are mutually reinforcing.

When the Ukraine Supreme Court invalidated Ukraine's presidential election, the Court said that a variety of flaws made it impossible for the election 'to determine the voters' will.'' Problems cited by the court included inaccurate voting lists, precinct totals that exceeded the number of registered voters, and a host of bugs in the electronic system for counting votes.

These and similar problems were equally prevalent in the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 and probably altered the election outcome in both cases.

? In Florida and Ohio, not enough voting machines were placed in the inner cities, which resulted in long lines and multi-hour delays that inevitably discouraged Democratic turnout.

? Florida's program for felon disenfranchisement was systematically biased against traditionally Democratic constituencies.

? In 2000, Florida officials dragged their feet in conducting legally mandated recounts, and in 2004 Ohio officials behaved similarly.

The main evidence of massive fraud in the Ukrainian election came from exit polls. The pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was initially reported to have defeated his rival Viktor Yushchenko by 1 percent of the votes casts. However, exit polls conducted by Ukrainian research organizations indicated that the election had actually been won by Yushchenko.

Vote tabulations in the 2004 U.S. presidential election also failed to match the exit polls. The proportion of votes credited to Bush and Kerry in the official results differed from the split reported in the exit polls in 10 out of 11 battleground states. It would not have been surprising if the U.S. election results had departed slightly from the exit polls in one or two states, but it was astounding that they did so in 10 states, and that in each instance Bush's support was greater in the vote tabulations than in the exit interviews. An analysis by Steven Freeman at the University of Pennsylvania calculated that the odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 250 million which is to say, virtually impossible.

However, unlike this year's presidential election in Ukraine, the 2004 presidential election in the United States was left intact despite legal challenges and protests. In large part this was because U.S. election laws and political culture fail to take into account the potential for systematic bias in election administration. U.S. laws and public opinion focus, instead, on the possibility that unscrupulous candidates might arrange for votes to be cast illegally by individuals using false identifications, forged absentee ballots, or other ruses.

These kinds of election shenanigans were common in the 19th Century and in much of the 20th, but in recent years they have been eclipsed by scattered mischief that is carried out or abetted by public officials responsible for election administration. One factor that has contributed to this shift from the conspiratorial tampering of the past to the massive fraud that is so prevalent today is the poorly conceived effort to remake government in the image of the private sector. In recent years, civil-service protections for government employees have been greatly weakened, and many governmental functions have been contracted out to private corporations.

These changes in American public administration have created a new spoils system that makes massive fraud likely in today's elections because it effectively ties public employment and government contracts to election outcomes. In Florida and Ohio, for example, many corporations, public officials and government workers had a vested interest in the reelection of President Bush. No conspiracy was needed to orchestrate their activities. Multiple biases with cumulative effects could be (and were) introduced into the election system through the independent efforts of numerous individuals acting on their own initiative in the pursuit of the same objective.

Until U.S. election laws are reformed to guard against massive fraud, our elections will remain vulnerable to systemic abuses. To be sure, bias in election administration could probably be prosecuted today under existing laws. Certainly, officials in Florida and Ohio appear to have violated their official oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of their states. They may have also broken federal civil-rights laws by intentionally weakening the voting power of African Americans. However, these acts of massive fraud have gone unpunished and, indeed, uninvestigated because most Americans have yet to recognize the new form of election tampering that is undermining our democracy.

Lance deHaven-Smith is professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University.

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