23 November 2014

One of the most wildly inaccurate pre-election polls in memory, which was off by over 40 points on some predictions, may prove to be deadly accurate as an indicator of the problems we face as a nation with our voting process - and democracy itself.

But you won't learn this by reading the Columbus Dispatch, the newspaper that conducted the poll just prior to Ohio's Nov. 8 election. The paper's public affairs editor conceded to me that the poll results the Dispatch wrote about, wrongly indicating massive public support for several proposed constitutional amendments, were, in essence, the journalistic equivalent of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

"Much like the American space program, both our triumphs and our shortcomings are out there for all to see," Darrel Rowland said in an e-mail. Unlike NASA, however, which did manage to find that faulty O-ring, the newspaper's powers that be don't seem particularly interested in learning how their big public flop occurred. "We'll certainly double-check the poll mechanics," he said, "but see no reason to discontinue a methodology that's proven accurate for decades."

And Rowland's right, as far as I can tell: The Columbus Dispatch's survey of voters, conducted by mail, has historically been a reliable poll; it has been cited for its precision in the scholarly journal Public Opinion Quarterly and is considered far more accurate than telephone surveys. There is no faulty O-ring, in other words; the methodology doesn't need changing.

And that's why there's a story here that must not be allowed to vanish.

The story is about how America votes, and evidence that pandemic chaos and perhaps even centrally orchestrated malfeasance are accompanying the spread of electronic voting machines to the nation's precincts. We know there's cause to worry about the state of our democracy because of the historical accuracy of the Columbus Dispatch voter poll.

Of the five proposed amendments on the ballot, only the first - a $2 billion state bond initiative to promote high-tech industry - was not related to the conduct of elections, and oddly enough its results were accurately forecast in the poll (predicted yes vote, 53 percent; final yes vote, 54 percent). Then it gets hairy.

Issue 2 would have made absentee voting easier in the state. It had lots of high-profile support, and the Dispatch poll predicted a cakewalk for it: 59 percent yes, 33 percent no, 9 percent undecided. The actual result: 36 percent yes, a whopping 63 percent no.

Then there was issue 3, which would have lowered the campaign-contribution limits that a lame-duck state legislature had raised a year ago. Prediction: 61 percent yes, 25 percent no, 14 percent undecided. Actual result: 33 percent yes, 66 percent no.

The results of issue 4, to control gerrymandering by establishing an independent board to draw congressional districts, were only slightly less dramatic. Prediction: 31 percent yes, 45 percent no, 25 percent undecided. Result: 30 percent yes, 69 percent no. And for issue 5, to establish an independent board instead of the secretary of state's office to oversee elections, a 41 percent predicted yes vote shrank to 29 percent, while the no vote ballooned from 43 to 70 percent.

Ka-boom goes the Challenger.

Here's the telling thing. The Dispatch, member in good standing of the mainstream media, has no interest in raising doubts about the integrity of the U.S. electoral system, and so hasn't looked in that direction for an explanation of what voting-rights activist Bob Fitrakis called a polling error of "Landon beats FDR" proportions.

Instead, the paper blames the notorious volatility of statewide referendum issues. Rowland hypothesized "a huge shift in the electorate in the last few days before the election, when the ads started peppering airwaves." Maybe, though Fitrakis maintains that the big pre-election ad blitz was conducted by the losing side.

Why, I wonder, in a state that made a national spectacle of itself with widespread irregularities and voter disenfranchisement a year ago, would there be so little interest in investigating whether the "voting chaos" reported by the Toledo Blade or the "night of surprises" reported by the Dayton Daily News could have produced tainted results?

"One problem discovered Tuesday: Some machines began registering votes for the wrong item when voters touched the screen correctly," wrote Jim Bebbington in the Daily News. "Those machines had lost their calibration during shipping or installation and had to be recalibrated."

But the spark won't jump in the media mind. You know: Hmm, we have widespread confusion in the voting process, a recent GAO report that cites many glaring insecurities in e-voting, and our own polls indicating big victories that turn into big defeats. Could it be ...? Nah! What are we thinking? This is the world's greatest democracy.

Relax.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com. © 2005 Tribune Media Services, Inc.