Maybe Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel honestly won two U.S. Senate elections. Maybe the citizens of Georgia simply decided that incumbent Democratic senator Max Cleland, a wildly popular war veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, was, as his successful Republican challenger suggested in his campaign ads, too unpatriotic to remain in the Senate. Maybe George W. Bush, Alabama's new Republican governor Bob Riley, and a small but congressionally decisive handful of other long-shot Republican candidates really did win those states where conventional wisdom and straw polls showed them losing in the last few election cycles.
Perhaps, after a half-century of fine-tuning exit polling to such a science that it's now sometimes used to verify how clean elections are in third world countries, it really did suddenly become inaccurate in the United States in the past six years and just won't work here anymore. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that the sudden rise of inaccurate exit polls happened around the same time corporate-programmed, computer-controlled, modem-capable voting machines began recording and tabulating ballots.
But if any of this is true, there's not much of a paper trail from the voters' hand to prove it.
You'd think in an open democracy that the government -- answerable to all its citizens rather than a handful of corporate officers and stockholders -- would program, repair, and control the voting machines. You'd think the computers that handle our cherished ballots would be open and their software and programming available for public scrutiny. You'd think there would be a paper trail of the vote, which could be followed and audited if there was evidence of voting fraud or if exit polls disagreed with computerized vote counts.
You'd be wrong.
The respected Washington, D.C., publication The Hill has confirmed that former conservative radio talk-show host and now Republican U.S. senator Chuck Hagel was the head of, and continues to own part interest in, the company that installed, programmed, and largely ran the voting machines that were used by most of the citizens of Nebraska.
Back when Hagel first ran there for the U.S. Senate in 1996, his company's computer-controlled voting machines showed he'd won stunning upsets in both the primaries and the general election. The Washington Post said Hagel's "Senate victory against an incumbent Democratic governor was the major Republican upset in the November election." According to Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting.com, Hagel won virtually every demographic group, including many largely black communities that had never before voted Republican. Hagel was the first Republican in 24 years to win a Senate seat in Nebraska.
In 2002, Hagel ran again, this time against Democrat Charlie Matulka. He won with 83 percent of the vote, the biggest political victory in the history of Nebraska. About 80 percent of those votes were counted by computer-controlled voting machines put in place by the company affiliated with Hagel. Built by that company. Programmed by that company.
"This is a big story, bigger than Watergate ever was," said Matulka "They say Hagel shocked the world, but he didn't shock me." Is Matulka the sore loser the Hagel campaign paints him as or is he democracy's proverbial canary in the mineshaft?
In Georgia, Democratic incumbent and war hero Max Cleland was defeated by Saxby Chambliss, who'd avoided service in Vietnam with a "medical deferment" but ran his campaign on the theme that he was more patriotic than Cleland. While many in Georgia expected a big win by Cleland, the computerized voting machines said that Chambliss had won.
The BBC summed up Georgia voters' reaction in a November 2002 headline: "Georgia Upset Stuns Democrats." The BBC echoed the confusion of many Georgia voters, adding, "Mr. Cleland -- an army veteran who lost three limbs in a grenade explosion during the Vietnam War -- had long been considered 'untouchable' on questions of defense and national security."
Hagel's and Chambliss' victories sealed Republican control of the Senate. Odds are, both won fair and square, the American way, using huge piles of corporate money to carpet-bomb voters with television advertising. But the possibility of impropriety in an election casts a shadow over American democracy.
"They can take over our country without firing a shot," Matulka said, "just by taking over our election systems."
Is that really possible in the U.S.?
Harris thinks Matulka may be on to something. The company tied to Hagel even threatened her with legal action when she went public about his company having built the machines that counted his landslide votes. (Her response was to put the law firm's threat letter on her Web site and send a press release to 4,000 editors, inviting them to check it out, BlackBoxVoting.com/election-systems-software.html).
"I suspect they're getting ready to do this all across all the states," Matulka said in a January 30, 2003, interview. "God help us if Bush gets his touch screens all across the country," he added, "because they leave no paper trail. These corporations are taking over America, and they just about have control of our voting machines."
Meanwhile, many exit-polling organizations have quietly gone out of business, and the news arms of the corporations that own our national media networks are suggesting the days of exit polls are over. Virtually no exit polls were reported in 2002, creating unease for many American voters, who had come to view exit polls as proof of the integrity of their election systems.
As all this comes to light, many citizens and even a few politicians are wondering if it's a good idea for corporations to be so involved in the guts of our voting systems. The whole idea of a democratic republic was to create a common institution (the government itself) owned by its citizens, answerable to its citizens, and authorized to exist solely "by the consent of the governed."
Prior to 1886, it was illegal in most states for corporations to be involved in politics at all, much less to service the government's core voting mechanism.
Wisconsin, for example, had a law that stated: "No corporation doing business in this state shall pay or contribute, or offer consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee, or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office."
The recent political trend has moved us in the opposite direction, with governments turning over the administration of various functions to corporations answerable only to CEOs, boards, and stockholders. The result is the enrichment of those corporations and the increasing appearance of -- and possibility for -- impropriety.
On most levels, privatization is only a small sin against democracy. Turning water, septic, roadway, and prison systems over to private corporations has enriched a few of the most powerful corporate campaign contributors, but it hasn't been the end of democracy.
But turning the programming and maintenance of voting over to private, for-profit corporations, answerable only to their owners, officers, and stockholders, puts democracy itself at peril.
Perhaps Matulka's been reading too many conspiracy-theory tracts. Or maybe he's on to something. We won't know until a truly independent government agency looks into the matter.
After Bev Harris and The Hill's Alexander Bolton asked the chief counsel and director of the Senate Ethics Committee why he had not questioned Hagel's 1995, 1996, and 2001 failures to disclose the details of his ownership in the voting-machine company when he ran for the Senate, the director reportedly met with Hagel's office on January 25th and January 27th. On the afternoon of January 27th, the director resigned.
Meanwhile, back in Nebraska, Matulka had requested a hand-count of the vote in the election he lost to Hagel. His request was denied because, he said, Nebraska has a just-passed law that prohibits government election workers from looking at the ballots, even in a recount. The only machines permitted to count votes in Nebraska, he said, are those made and programmed by the corporation formerly run by Hagel.
As Matulka shared his news with this reporter, he sighed loud and long on the phone, as if he were watching his children's future evaporate.
"If you want to win the election," he finally said, "just control the machines."
Thom Hartmann is the author of Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights.