Exit-Poll Withdrawal and Rage at the Machines

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Election Day just isn't what it used to be.

In times past, political junkies would spend the day engaged in their favorite biennial game: trading secret "exit poll" results that hinted at the final results hours before the polls closed. But then came 2004 and the infamous exit polls that prematurely inaugurated President John Kerry -- forcing exit pollers to go into hiding.

And so, while all Washington waited yesterday, the exit pollers -- two representatives from each television network and the Associated Press -- huddled in a room in New York over the results of voter interviews. Determined not to let faulty results out early, they denied themselves all contact with the outside world, surrendering their cellphones and e-mail and submitting to escorted bathroom breaks.

Frustrated by these circumstances, the chatterers pondered their limited options and settled on an alternative game: They would complain about the election results -- in advance.

"Because of the machinery and the chicanery that is inevitably involved in our elections," peace activist Kevin Martin announced at a morning news conference in Takoma Park, "the vote will actually understate the mandate for peace that does exist in this country."

Linda Schade, another participant in the event at the Takoma Park Middle School parking lot, had already amassed a list of grievances nine hours before the polls closed: "We've got precincts where the power cards weren't included. A woman in Switzerland who applied in August didn't receive her absentee ballot. We've got screens crashing."

Aboard Air Force One, reporters were in exit-poll withdrawal. "Do you have any reports from the Senate, exit polls, at all?" one asked White House press secretary Tony Snow. "I'm not going to talk about exit polls," Snow answered. He then offered some expansive thoughts on the "integrity of voting."

Even the Drudge Report, which took pride in posting the leaked exit-poll results before the networks, was shut out of the action. So Drudge joined the complainers: "Voting Machine Woes Cause Early Delays . . . Poll Workers Struggle with Touchscreen Tech . . . Polls ordered to stay open late in Indiana."

By midday, everybody was complaining about voting irregularities. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee held an event in Prince George's County to allege that "paid GOP poll workers" were handing out mailers falsely claiming prominent endorsements for Michael Steele. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman went on Rush Limbaugh's radio show to protest "irregularities" in Pennsylvania and the possibility of "vote fraud" in New Mexico.

And before a single Election Day vote had been cast, the liberal group People for the American Way had scheduled three briefings about "potential election problems." The potential was realized in time for the first briefing, at noon. "Issues beyond belief," proclaimed Sharon Lettman. "This is completely unacceptable." Jonah Goldman of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, reported "huge confusion" and "widespread disenfranchisement."

Three hours later, Lettman was apocalyptic. "We're calling for congressional hearings to examine robo calls!" she announced, referring to automated telephone assaults on voters. "This is an egregious act," she said of the "robo-call atrocities."

While final verdicts on the irregularities would have to wait until the polls closed, elections experts said most of the problems were glitches rather than the Florida-style debacle. But some sounded ominous, including the FBI's investigation of fraudulent phone calls in Virginia. And many made for good entertainment while Washington awaited exit polls.

In Ohio, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) had trouble operating her newfangled electronic voting machine. In Missouri, a poll worker illegally demanded identification from the state's top elections official, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. In Kentucky, a poll worker grabbed a voter by the neck and threw him out of the polling place because the voter chose not to pick a candidate in a judicial election. In Pennsylvania, a voter smashed a voting machine with a paperweight. And in Colorado, somebody sprayed "chemicals that emitted a smell similar to a skunk" on a Democratic congressional candidate's office.

The charges grew more hysterical. Republicans sent out a statement alleging "voting-machine rigging" in New Jersey. MoveOn.org offered a $250,000 reward for evidence of election fraud and voter suppression. Activist Lyndon LaRouche joined the game late, identifying "wild irregularities in voting-machine operations" orchestrated by "the pro-fascist Bush administration."

Questionable stuff, to be sure. But what was the alternative for a political junkie? Waiting for early returns from Indiana, where, with 2 percent of precincts reporting, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) led his Libertarian opponent with 86 percent of the vote.

Finally, at 5 p.m., the exit pollers ended their self-imposed quarantine in New York and let the first results trickle out. The political gossips raced to the phones. Whitehouse is up 13 in Rhode Island! McCaskill's up six in Missouri! The first results hinted at Democratic gains of at least seven seats in the Senate.

But minutes later, another batch of numbers came out. The Rhode Island race was down to seven points, Missouri was down to two -- and the polls were still open. After a painful delay, political Washington was once again playing its favorite game.

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