Did Dubbya rig the election?

Michael Meacher smells something fishy in Bush's return to office. The evidence of fraud is not yet

The great mystery of the US presidential election was that the exit polls, which had been reliable guides in all previous elections, did not tally with the final results. Tony Blair, it is said, went to sleep on 2 November thinking John Kerry had won, but woke in the morning to find that George W Bush was the victor. Many Britons and Americans had the same experience. Nobody has advanced a satisfactory explanation. Now allegations are surfacing that the use of electronic voting systems and optical scanning devices may have had a significant influence on the result. Computer security experts insist that such sys- tems are not secure and not tamper-proof, yet they were used to count a third of the votes across 37 states. Though the Democrats remain strangely coy about the whole subject, academics and political analysts are now drawing comparisons between areas that used paper ballots and areas that used electronic systems. Is it possible that results in the latter were rigged?

An analysis of the poll by different states points up inconsistencies that cannot be explained by random variation. In Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Iowa, New Mexico, Maine, Nevada, Arkansas and Missouri, where a variety of different voting systems were used, including paper ballots in many cases, the four companies carrying out exit polls were almost exactly right and their results were certainly within the margin of error. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina, however, where electronic or optical scanning machines were used (though not exclusively), the tracking polls were seriously discrepant from the published result.

Two aspects of this are immediately striking. One is the large size of the variance, and the other is that in every case it favoured Bush. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the discrepancy favoured Bush by 4 per cent, in Pennsylvania by 5 per cent, in Florida and Minnesota by 7 per cent, in North Carolina by 9 per cent and in New Hampshire by an astonishing 15 per cent.

Moreover, extensive voting irregularities have been reported across the US - including intimidation, exclusion of black voters from electoral rolls, touchscreens that consistently registered support for Bush when the name Kerry was touched, and a large number of county precincts (including in Ohio) where the number of votes cast exceeded the total number of registered voters, sometimes by large margins. In Florida, for example, the number of votes reported for all the candidates exceeded the maximum possible voter turnout by 237,522, so that a minimum of 3.1 per cent of the votes must be fraudulent, and possibly considerably more. Florida uses electronic voting machines in 15 counties, and these account for a majority of the state's residents.

None of this is conclusive evidence of fraud. But an independent inquiry is surely needed to expose what really happened in Florida and several other states. Some Americans are already demanding such an inquiry. Court hearings, held in public in Columbus, Ohio, will very likely lead to at least a partial recount in that state. Ralph Nader, the Green candidate, may have secured a recount in New Hampshire, and is demanding recounts also in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. And a survey by the University of Berkeley, California, has shown that irregularities in Florida associated with electronic voting machines seem to have awarded 130,000 to 260,000 or more excess votes to Bush.

One's immediate reaction is that such large-scale fraud is implausible. But look at the history of the Republican Party, and its willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate the popular vote, and the idea seems all too likely.

The best-known example was the Watergate break-in of 1972, designed to get illicit access to Democrat plans for a presidential election that Richard Nixon feared he would lose. At the previous election in 1968, Nixon's aides were charged with persuading the South Vietnamese to delay their participation in peace talks to deny possible advantage to the Democrats, then in office.

But that was only a precursor for 1980. In that year, when Ronald Reagan was the Republican candidate trying to stop the re-election of President Jimmy Carter, a potentially treasonable plot was hatched, which came to be known as the "October surprise". To stop Carter getting the credit for securing the release of the 52 US embassy hostages seized after the Iranian revolution, members of the Reagan campaign flew to Paris to meet Iranian and Israeli representatives in October, less than a month before the election on 4 November. Several sources, including the New York Times (15 April 1991), confirm that not only did William Casey, the CIA director, attend those meetings, but so did the vice-presidential candidate George Bush (father of George W).

It was agreed with the Iranians that the hostages would not be released before the election. In return, the Reagan-Bush team promised to supply $40m of military equipment if elected. Military equipment started to flow to Iran from Israel on 21 October, the proffered release of the hostages was withdrawn, and Carter was defeated. The hostages were finally released on 21 January 1981, minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president.

The Iran-Contra affair followed in 1986-87. After the US Congress had passed the Boland Amendment in 1982 forbidding direct military aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration again ferried arms secretly to Iran (then subject to a US arms embargo), and then used the proceeds to fund weaponry for the Contras. Even when this deal, illegal at both ends, was later exposed, the administration's web of deceit managed to shield Reagan and Bush from the consequences of their conspiracy.

Once elected, Bush junior used his authority to keep this material hidden for ever. In November 2001, he signed an executive order that limited freedom of information by allowing either a past or sitting president to block access to White House papers. He then vetoed access to Reagan's papers, which would otherwise have been opened to public scrutiny in January 2002. Under this order, Bush's personal papers, detailing the decision-making process in the war on terrorism, could remain secret in perpetuity.

The most recent example of Republican manipulation is notorious. After the Bush-Gore race for the presidency in 2000, it later emerged that, under the governorship of George W's brother Jeb in Florida, around 30,000 black voters (overwhelmingly Democratic) had been illegally excluded from the voting rolls. When a stop was put to the recounts in the state, Bush was declared the winner by fewer than 540 votes.

So can we really be sure that this year's result was an accurate reflection of the popular will? It has emerged that the Diebold Gems software and optical scan voting machines used in counting a high proportion of the votes may not be tamper-proof from hacking, particularly via remote modems. Two US computer security experts, in their recently published book Black Box Voting, argue that "by entering a two-digit code in a hidden location, a second set of votes is created; and this set of votes can be changed in a matter of seconds, so that it no longer matches the correct votes". After the Florida fiasco four years earlier, the US Congress voted $3.9bn to improve the quality of voting systems. Perhaps the latest revelations about what happened where electronic systems were used may become known as the "November surprise".

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton

This article appears in the 29 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Would you buy a car that looked like this?