Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Lonely Libertarian, BS Detector

The following is an exchange the lonely libertarian has been having over the past week with another member of a school discussion list. It started when this article by the UK's Greg Palast about Republican efforts to steal elections was posted.

The article was big on conicidinces, and short on evidence- a classic conspiracy piece. So I had to respond.

The lonely libertarian's first response:

There's a reason why I don't buy conspiracy theories. Whether you're talking about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 factual manipulations or rants from ultra conservative bloggers (or in this case liberal bloggers), manipulating and misinterpreting facts to prove a preconceived view of the world hardly counts as evidence.

This blogger where this story comes from is a perfect example. This statistic that blacks are 900% more likely than whites to have their votes thrown out actually comes from Florida, I think from the 2000 election. This blogger Greg Palast neglects to mention this. It is unclear why we should believe this number from Florida is indicative of the entire country and not a statistical outlier.

You can often times find the specifics of these claims by googling. For instance, I found this site here:

The Florida statistic is mentioned, as is a similar 500% statistic for Hispanic voters in New Mexico. If these drastic disparities are common, why aren't there similar statistics for other states and other elections? You'd be hard pressed to find them.

Additionally, given our system of secret balloting, (although I must admit, I'm unsure if this is the case everywhere besides Connecticut), I wonder how this racial data is calculated in the first place. According to Greg Palast, he calculated that 89% of rejected and spoiled ballots were from voters of color. But this is only possible through statistical mumbo jumbo- We know racial data because of the census or other statistical surveys. And we know election results because the ballots are counted. We do know for certain that ballots from certain districts were thrown out, but unless other states don't use secret ballots, and keep track of voter records by race, there is no way of knowing the racial background of an individual ballot that was rejected. In fact, there's no real way of knowing, district by district, the racial composition of who actually voted. Remember the millions of Americans that don't vote, and the 30-40-50 or whatever % of the population who doesn't vote. Even if you knew the racial composition of registered voters, you'd have no way of knowing the racial composition of those who actually voted.

I'm sure there are all sorts of extrapolations that statisticians can do to calculate these numbers, but I'd want to know how they got them, and how accurate they actually are.

But throwing aside the misuse of statistics, there are still all the undocumented allegations- For instance there is the claim that in New Mexico, only Hispanics were rejected for failing to have a middle initial on their voter registration, but not their license. If there was any evidence of this, why is it not documented? Why no mainstream media coverage?

My point is not that we should believe everything the government and media tells us- just that all the "truths" we receive, from whatever source, should be taken with a grain of salt. The media would have a field day if George Bush or the Republicans actually did attempt to steal an election. There was a great deal of questionable behavior on both sides in Florida in 2000, all of which was reported by the media. Even if you don't buy the media as truth tellers, the media clearly responds to the bottom line above all else, and controversies that can be supported with actual evidence are reported on. (If you're one of those who think the media has a liberal or conservative bias, you're not paying attention- the media thrives on tragedy and controversy and often times goes to great lengths to manufacture its own- they care more about ratings than they do politics- only the blatantly political care about politics)

These sorts of conspiracy theories are much more like religion than they are an integral part of the political debate. They're not based on facts, but on faith.

If there were really anything to these sorts of allegations Democrats of all stripes would be all over this. After all, with 90% + of blacks voting Democrat, why on earth wouldn't some politicians actually get out and do something to try and get back all these votes that are being taken away. It would be insane not to.

Believing that politicians care a great deal about votes makes perfect sense, and is a reasonable assumption to base an opinion on. Believing that Republicans (or Democrats) are truly concerned with suppressing votes and acting illegally and Unconstitutionally is just plain biased, and more than a bit of a stretch.

And my final point? These conspiracy theories merely gloss over- sometimes even makes people ignore- actual problems. I makes logical sense that votes are much more likely to get rejected from poor districts, and that these poor districts may be disproportionately minority in comparison to other districts. After all, lower levels of education, and more importantly, older voting equipment is more likely to cause problems. But framing this issue as 1- racial, and 2- a matter of Republican criminal behavior serves only partisan political points while obscuring the real issues of poverty, voting technology, and voting uniformity.

The response from the original poster:

And now, a response.....

"This blogger where this story comes from is a perfect example." Those were the words of the person who responded to my email (which was a cut-and-paste of another author's column). The article sent appeared in the Guardian UK website. Greg Palast is not some "blogger" trying to make a name; rather, he is one of the most respected US reporters in the UK, and a regular contributor to the Guardian, BBC newsnight, and the Observer UK.

But I will not waste time defending the author, or his stats. The purpose of the Prof. Long's board is for discussion, and I am glad someone called me out for the posting. But you answered your own question. "If there was any evidence of this, why is it not documented? Why no mainstream media coverage?" That is the point. Why should I have to read UK newspapers just to incite discussion of the voter problems in the US? Why was Keith Olberman (another reporter, not blogger) on MSNBC the only reporter to even discuss OHIO voting problems (evein if it was for 15 minutes)? Where is the outrage? Answer that question and we can have a real discussion.

You wrote this, too. "My point is not that we should believe everything the government and media tells us." But, wait, that's my point. I do not believe the US media because they ignore stories which do not equal ratings, which you correctly spelled out. I like ideas such as Mr. Palast's because it reignites discussion of lond-since-dead topics. You won't find FOX news, CNN, or anyone in-between (get it?) discussing it, and for that, it is worth it to post on Prof. Long's board and discuss.

"But framing this issue as 1- racial, and 2- a matter of Republican criminal behavior serves only partisan political points while obscuring the real issues of poverty, voting technology, and voting uniformity." Those 3 issues are the center of the argument Palast was making; that the technology was manipulated to create voting nonuniformity so as to ignore votes of the poor. How can you say those issues are being ignored? They are finally being discussed. And if Palast's article is my way to open that discussion, than I will continue to post other columns like it.

And as for being partisan, you wrote, in the same article, that we should not believe everything the gov't tells us, but that believing that the gov't may have acted illegally regarding voter fraud is a "bit of a stretch." Is your point that we should trust what the government does, but not believe what they say? If so, that is a great discussion for another day. Post an entire column about that. I would like to read it.

And my final response:

This was the question I was left with-
"Is your point that we should trust what the government does, but not believe what they say?"

I don't think we should either trust or distrust government inherently. We should at all times remain skeptical of government, but skepticism is different than inherent mistrust of our basic institutions of democracy. Does government lie to us? Certainly. Does government make stupid mistakes? It probably makes stupid mistakes a lot more often than it lies to us- witness the 1.4 billion scammed from the government in the Katrina and Rita relief efforts.

If you're of the belief that elections can be stolen by those at the top with impunity, then what real hope do you have for change? Certainly not from the ballot box.

If on the other hand, you believe that we need to improve the way elections are conducted, and that mechanical and other technical problems lead to millions of uncounted votes, then you have a real foundation on which you can base solutions to the problems. There may well be issues of voter fraud, by locally isolated incidents are a far cry from implicating the leaders of our major political parties.

And one final comment on statistics- Palast mentions the 3 million uncounted votes- I'd be curious to know how this compares, percentage-wise, to previous presidential elections.

I suppose my main point is this- absent any real evidence of wrong doing, I'm not going to go on faith that an election was stolen- I'd rather focus my time, and have other people focus their time, on more concrete problems. I for one, am thankful that the U.S. is very different from the Ukraine.


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