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Conspiracy Theories Abound After Election

John Kerry (search) may have decided against contesting the vote count that gave President Bush (search) a second term, but that hasn't stopped some observers from charging that the American voting system is seriously flawed.

In what some have dubbed "Votergate 2004 (search)," reports are floating around that optical-scan voting machines in Florida were hacked while others counted backward; in Ohio, more ballots were cast than voters were registered and some people were denied ballots. And behind it all, according to some theorists, was an effort to undermine Kerry's presidential bid.

A flurry of rumors bandied about by Web bloggers and others have created a conspiracy-theory atmosphere that many say is creating a whole lot of something out of nothing.

"There are lots of problems out there that really need to be addressed in the wake of the 2004 election," said Jim Adler, president of e-voting company VoteHere, which specialized in election audit technology. "I'm concerned that these conspiracy theories are diverting focus from real problems to the imaginary problems."

"By and large, 'Votergate' complaints don't seem to be talking about the problems that really occurred," said Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project.

Those "real" problems included extremely long lines at some polling places, not enough voting machines at others and situations like that in North Carolina, where thousands of votes are missing and the outcomes of two statewide races are still up in the air.

"One of the good things about Election Day 2004 is that we're getting real data about how things went or how things didn't go," Chapin said.

For example, Nevada exit polls suggested that not everybody who got receipt-like forms after they cast their ballots at voting machines with paper trails actually looked at them, or the whole ballot for that matter.

"The bottom line on all of this is we do have the sloppiest election system of any industrialized democracy," said John Fund, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and author of a book entitled, "Stealing Elections." "And even if we don't want to go the Internet fantasy route, there [are] a whole lot of reforms that need to be done so that we don't play Russian roulette with our elections."

Enter the Exit Polls

A big reason some see conspiracy when they look at the Nov. 2 presidential results is that exit polls that day showed Kerry ahead of Bush. But as the night wore on and returns began flowing in, it became obvious that the data were downright wrong.

How the pollsters could have been so off was the source of much Monday-morning quarterbacking. Soon after that, the Web was abuzz with allegations of voter fraud from Broward County, Fla., to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, as rumors spread that Kerry was shorted the presidency.

However, while Democrats are still licking their wounds — inflicted not only by Kerry's loss but also from the losses in Congress this year — not one high-profile Democrat within the Kerry camp or party apparatus has said the 'Net-borne theories have any merit.

Bush won the election by about 3 percent (3.5 million votes) of the popular vote, 2 percent (about 135,000 votes) in Ohio, and by 5 percent (almost 400,000 votes) in Florida. That means some huge discrepancies would need to be found to reverse the election.

According to Verified Voting, a group formed by Stanford University professors, of the over 33,000 election incident reports filed, 12,795 were registration-related problems, 1,525 voter intimidation and 3,368 absentee-ballot related.

Rise of the Machines

Meanwhile, 1,870 of those reports were attributed to voting machine problems. But those in the industry say despite problems here and there, their wares worked brilliantly this year.

"From the voting technology aspect of things, I think what this seems to suggest is that as a country, we're getting to a point where we can't take 'yes' as an answer," Bob Cohen, spokesman for the Information Technology Association of America, said in response to the scrutiny of electronic voting machines and the criticism they faced.

"The fact is, electronic voting machines worked great … this is an enormous success story."

Cohen, Adler and others contend that in the 2000 presidential elections, about 2 million votes were simply lost. At that time, about 90,000 machines were used. This year, about 40 million votes were cast on 175,000 to 180,000 machines, which means about 30 percent of the electorate used the technology. According to them, the increase in the use of machines helps reduce the number of votes lost.

The challenge for the machines, they acknowledge, is to provide voters with proof that their vote was cast — and counted.

"The take-away from this election is, there's no provable trust in electronic voting — you don't get a receipt like you do when you use an ATM or when you buy a lottery ticket or when you track a package," Adler said. "You just sort of have this feeling, 'Boy, I hope they count that.'"

The lack of regular paper trails and such "proof" is one reason the technology aspect of this year's elections — which left room for the conspiracy theories to grow — has come under the microscope.

Groups like MoveOn.org are encouraging voters to contact their congressmen if they think their vote wasn't counted or was miscounted. Half a dozen U.S. lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office (search) to investigate reports of voting irregularities, many of them involving electronic touch-screen voting machines.

"There are 200,000 precincts in this country … there are going to be problems. You know, there was a computer in North Carolina that actually ate 4,500 votes," Fund said. "There are genuine problems but we shouldn't be distracted, if we can, by Internet fantasists."