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Latest Conspiracy Theory -- Kerry Won -- Hits the Ether

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page A02

MIAMI, Nov. 10 -- The e-mail subject lines couldn't be any bigger and bolder: "Another Stolen Election," "Presidential election was hacked," "Ohio Fraud."

Even as Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign is steadfastly refusing to challenge the results of the presidential election, the bloggers and the mortally wounded party loyalists and the spreadsheet-wielding conspiracy theorists are filling the Internet with head-turning allegations. There is the one about more ballots cast than registered voters in the big Ohio county anchored by Cleveland. There are claims that a suspicious number of Florida counties ended up with Bush vote totals that were far larger than the number of registered Republican voters. And then there is the one that might be the most popular of all: the exit polls that showed Kerry winning big weren't wrong -- they were right.

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Each of the claims is buoyed by enough statistics and analysis to sound plausible. In some instances, the theories are coming from respected sources -- college engineering professors fascinated by voting technology, Internet journalists, election reform activists. Ultimately, none of the most popular theories holds up to close scrutiny. And the people who most stand to benefit from the conspiracy theories -- the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee -- are not biting.

"At this point the number of irregularities brought to our attention is not going to change the outcome of the election," said DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera. "The simple fact of the matter is that Republicans received more votes than Democrats, and we're not contesting this election."

The Ohio vote-fraud theory appears to stem from the curious ways of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. During even-numbered years the county's canvassing board posts vote totals that include the results from outside the county from congressional districts that spill over Cuyahoga's borders. The quirk made it look as if the county had 90,000 more votes than voters.

The disparities were spotted, and urgent mass mailings began: "Ohio precincts report up to 1,586% turnout . . . 30 Precincts in Ohio's Cuyahoga County report 'over' 100% turnout!" Later, the county added a disclaimer to its Web site in an attempt to explain the numbers.

"It takes me about three times to explain" why the fraud allegation is untrue, said Kimberly Bartlett, community outreach specialist for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. "You have to ask them why no top Democrat is making these charges."

There also have been reports of more votes counted than voters in some counties in Florida and North Carolina. Steve Ansolabehere of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project said the preliminary results do not add up. "We'll see if there's anything dramatic or widespread once we see the full certifications come in," he said.

The Florida case is more nuanced than the Ohio voting battle. Numerous bloggers have noted that President Bush's vote totals in 47 Florida counties were larger -- in some cases much larger -- than the number of registered Republican voters in the same counties. A widely distributed piece on Consortiumnews.com said the results "are so statistically stunning that they border on the unbelievable."

The article's main numbers are correct. But the central premise -- that there is something suspicious about Bush getting more votes than the number of registered Republicans in rural counties, which use paper ballots -- may not be suspicious at all.

It is does not account for thousands of independents or for voters who do not list party affiliation. It is also common for Florida Democrats, particularly the "Dixiecrats" in the northern reaches of the state and the Panhandle, to vote for Republicans, a pattern that is repeated in much of the Deep South.

"Florida has always been the land of the Dixiecrats," said Walter R. Mebane Jr., a professor of government at Cornell University who specializes in voting issues. "In Florida, as you go north, you go south."

Despite its apparent flaws, the Florida theory raises some interesting questions. For instance, a further look at Florida voting patterns shows that the number of counties with more Bush votes than registered Republicans jumped from 32 in 2000 to 47 in 2004. Bush's improved performance might be explained by Al Gore, a southern moderate, having had more appeal to Dixiecrats four years ago than Kerry, who is from Massachusetts, did in this election.

The theories on exit polls are even more slippery. Because the early exit polls that were leaked and caused so much excitement among Democrats are not publicly distributed, the criticisms have not been based on statistics. Instead there are comments such as those from Zvi Drezner, a professor at the California State University at Fullerton business and economics school, who wrote that "the exit polls did not 'lie' " and described "a gut feeling that the machines did not report the correct count."

Many voting experts say the theory that the exit polls were correct is deeply flawed because the polls oversampled women. MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III also has said focusing solely on the early polls favoring Kerry in Ohio and Florida is the wrong approach because exit polls in some Democratic-leaning states tilted toward Bush, evening out the national picture.

The U.S. Justice Department, which handles complaints fielded by a bipartisan commission formed after the 2000 election chaos, said the allegations of vote buying and voter-registration fraud were no different than the pattern of previous elections. But other sources are documenting huge numbers of complaints. Verified Voting, a group formed by a Stanford University professor to assess electronic voting, has collected 31,000 reports of election fraud and other problems, but nothing that would overturn the Nov. 2 outcome.

Still, messages posted on the aptly named Quixotegroup discussion cluster -- which takes its name from the literary figure Don Quixote who used his lance to tilt against windmills -- urged members to send fraud evidence to the law firm of Kerry's brother, Cameron Kerry, to persuade the Democratic candidate to "unconcede."

A high-ranking Democrat, mindful of balancing respect for the complainers and a desire to move on, summed up the conspiracy theorists with a line from Alexander Pope: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."

Keating reported from Washington. Staff writers Paul Farhi and Susan Schmidt in Washington contributed to this report.

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