Conspiracy Theories Abound After Bush Victory

There were minor voting irregularities on Election Day -- long lines, voting machine breakdowns, shortages of provisional ballots -- but some people are now leveling charges of voter fraud.

Doug Chapin, a nonpartisan election analyst, finds the claims to be baseless. "There were no problems that would lead me to believe that there were stolen elections or widespread fraud," he said.

"There was no overwhelming reason to cast doubt on the outcome of this election," seconded Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "George Bush got more votes this time."

Nevertheless, many people have devised various theories, including stories of voters in largely Democratic counties in Florida whose votes were changed for Bush, phantom voters in Ohio and exit polls showing John Kerry in the lead that were truer than the final tally. Off the record, many Democratic strategists dismiss such allegations, but they also know such resentment can be channeled for political use in the future.

Those Florida Democrats Who Mysteriously Voted for Bush

Based at least in part on these conspiracy theories, three Democratic congressmen have written a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

"We are requesting an investigation into all the allegations, of irregularities with respect to the electronic and other voting machines so that people can have confidence in the result of this election, and so that any weaknesses are changed before the next election," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

The congressmen's letter mentions the Web site, which questions why so many counties in Florida that have more registered Democrats than Republicans ended up voting for Bush. The Web site implies someone fixed the results.

In regard to Lafayette County, one of the counties in question, it is true that there are far more registered Democrats in that county than Republicans (3,570 to 570, respectively), and that the county elected Bush in this year's election, but the county elected Bush in the last election, too.

Four years before that, the Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, won in Lafayette County as well, as did the first President Bush four years before that.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, the co-chair of the Kerry campaign in Florida, says he knows why Bush was re-elected, and it has nothing to do with fraud.

"We did a good job, but the other side did a better job," he said.

Meek expresses serious concern that the conspiracy theories might create a sense of helplessness among voters and suppress future Democratic turnout.

The counties in question use Optiscan ballots (where voters indicate their choice by marking a circle with a No. 2 pencil), which was not the voting method people worried about before the election since, unlike electronic voting, the ballots leave a paper trail, and unlike punch card ballots, they can be counted and used easily.

"Before the election in many places you saw people questioning the process because they were concerned about the result," said Chapin. "And now there are people looking at the result and using that as a basis to question the process."

Ohio Conspiracy Theories

In the battleground state of Ohio, where conspiracy theories abound, a Web site for Cuyahoga County seemed to show more votes than voters in some precincts.

The county's Web site was confusing -- it lumped several precincts' absentee ballots together and then counted them several times, for each precinct. But those were glitches in vote-reporting -- not vote-counting. The "phantom" voters who mysteriously appeared and voted for Bush in the county -- which voted overwhelmingly for Kerry -- did not exist other than in the imagination of Democrats upset about Kerry's loss.

This afternoon, the Web site that first raised the questions about the Cuyahoga votes took it all back. "OK," wrote the Webmeister at "Americans 4 America," "finally had a chance to figure this out. I apologize for any anxiety that went along with these numbers. It seems that data is useless without knowing how counties arrived at the numbers and this was a particularly tricky process."

Exit Polls as Fact?

Finally, there is the controversy regarding the television networks' exit polls, which seemed early on to indicate a better day for Kerry than the one he actually had.

But as we now all know, the exit polls were off a bit. Regardless, exit polls are not hard data, they are as accurate as polling -- which is sometimes on target, and sometimes not. "If I'm given exit polls and voting results, and I'm [asked] which do I rely on more, I rely on voting results," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Clearly for many people, however, results are not enough. When Mark Twain remarked that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can put on his shoes, it's astounding to think he was speaking decades before the invention of the Internet.

Clayton Sandell contributed to this report.