Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Cage Match: Kennedy vs. Manjoo

Last week after I posted the Rolling Stone article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on the 2004 election, I was chided by one of my more thoughtful conservative fellow bloggers for taking Mr. Kennedy at his word and that there were a lot of articles, including some from liberal publications, who did not accept the facts of the Mr. Kennedy’s claims.

Having already been burned on the Rove-is-indicted and the Iranian Jewish-star stories last month, I am certainly willing to read and discuss alternate points of view on this story, ratchet up my healthy skepticism, and I am more than happy to do it in a civil discourse as opposed to some of the more energetic methods at other blogs and sites wherein the writer’s parentage is called into question and accusations of indecent conduct with certain barnyard creatures are levelled.

To that end, I offer a sampling from Salon, which published one of the more cogent rebuttals to Mr. Kennedy’s article by Farhad Manjoo, and has now posted a face-off between Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Manjoo.

Mr. Kennedy gets the first turn.

It was good to see Farhad Manjoo weigh in on my article in Rolling Stone about the 2004 election. Unlike reporters in the mainstream media, Manjoo has displayed a willingness to actually read the published reports that document the electoral travesty that occurred in Ohio. It is a shame, however, that in his attempt to debunk my article, he commits precisely the sins of omission and distortion that he accuses me of having perpetrated.

The key example of this is Manjoo’s flatly inaccurate claim that the Democratic National Committee report identifies only 129,543 voters, or 2 percent of the electorate, who were disenfranchised by the long lines in Ohio. I can only point to the executive summary of the DNC report, which states:

“Scarcity of voting machines caused long lines that deterred many people from voting. Three percent of voters who went to the polls left their polling places and did not return due to the long lines.”

Manjoo seizes on one line in the 204-page report and then attempts to play a clumsy game of gotcha. But if he had read more carefully he would have understood that the 129,543 votes he refers to were only a subset of those disenfranchised by the long lines. Had Manjoo read a mere paragraph further in the report, he would have seen that it identifies a second group, comprising roughly 48,000 citizens, or 0.83 percent of Ohio’s electorate, whose votes were also suppressed because of the lines and other factors.

The authors of the DNC report aggregate these totals to arrive at the 3 percent figure that I cited. Does Manjoo pretend to have a better grasp on the data than the DNC’s own experts? If so, his beef is with them, not me.


Manjoo has made a cottage industry for himself in attempting to debunk concerns about the validity of the 2004 election. Given that he has staked his professional reputation on the thesis that Bush beat Kerry fair and square, it’s unsurprising that he should be eager to attack my piece. But it is a shame that his faith in the election results has blinded him to the point that he can dismiss the widespread and uncontested evidence of vote suppression as nothing more than a “hit parade” of irrelevant facts and figures. He also remains strangely silent on the transparently crooked recount process, which has kept this debate alive by preventing us from knowing the actual outcome of the vote in Ohio.

Manjoo’s outrage and professional energy would be better directed at those who mounted a concerted campaign to obstruct hundreds of thousands of American voters from going to the poll and having their vote counted in 2004. The nation still needs a thorough and honest exploration of what happened across the country, so we can begin the urgent work of instituting real reforms — ensuring that such abuses do not continue to undermine democracy and cast doubt on the integrity of our entire electoral system.

Mr. Manjoo replies:

I appreciate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s response to my article, and I’d like to first note that I agree with him on one main point — that we should urgently begin the work of honest election reform. We differ on how to go about that effort, however. Kennedy believes that any such reform effort must begin with an examination of whether Republicans stole the 2004 race. I disagree for many reasons, but mainly because the evidence that John Kerry actually won Ohio is so slight that any such effort is, in my view, doomed to failure — and such a failure would damage the entire reform movement.

Kennedy says that I’ve made a “cottage industry” of attempts to debunk the concerns surrounding the 2004 election. But as my reporting history at Salon shows, I’ve been exploring the various threats to honest elections for several years, and I thoroughly covered the threats to the 2004 race. He’s right that I’ve criticized some who’ve been quick to claim that the race was stolen. But this is not because I think elections in America are perfect — in fact, just the opposite is the case.

We’ll only improve the process if we begin by honestly reviewing the facts — and once again, I’ve got to disagree with the ways in which Kennedy interprets some of the key sources he cites to arrive at his conclusions.

Read the entire article (endure the ad if you’re not a Salon subscriber) and decide for yourself. Having now read a lot of the articles (and having flashbacks to growing up in Ohio politics), I am inclined to believe that if anything nefarious occurred in the 2004 election in Ohio, those evil plots were overwhelmed by incompetence, miscommunication, and just plain human error.

Salon also did a lot of javelin catching for their troubles in printing Mr. Manjoo’s rebuttal. Joan Walsh answers the critics.

Farhad Manjoo’s article criticizing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Rolling Stone piece “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” generated hundreds of letters, most of them critical, and hot debate in the blogosphere (with most but not all lefty voices raised to criticize Salon). […] But with people denouncing Manjoo, and Salon, as pawns of Karl Rove, it’s worth taking a minute to place this debate in its proper political context.

Salon has aggressively covered Republican efforts to suppress Democratic voter participation going back to December 2000, when we revealed how Florida’s program to purge supposed felons and other people allegedly ineligible to vote prevented thousands of eligible voters, most of them African-American, from casting ballots — just one example of the many GOP maneuvers that suppressed votes for Vice President Al Gore. (Writer Greg Palast brought us the story, and a team of Salon reporters contacted county election officials in Florida to report it out with him.) Just a few days later, we followed up with a feature on the Republican-connected firm that carried out the purge, ChoicePoint, along with a history of GOP efforts at voter suppression. (The storyline is old and simple and continues through today: Republicans tend to back efforts to aggressively “purge” voter rolls of those who’ve moved or who vote infrequently, while Democrats tend to oppose them, since they usually scrub low-income voters who move more, vote less, fail to work the system adequately and — surprise — happen to favor Democrats.) We’ve followed the story doggedly ever since.


Salon will continue to try to get to the bottom of charges of election theft in Ohio, but we don’t think the available facts prove the election was stolen. We also think unproven claims of theft weaken Democrats’ credibility and keep them from the work needed to build an electoral majority, as well as to reform the broken voting system that is at least one obstacle to that majority. While the blog posts below display a range of opinion about whether Kennedy or Manjoo makes the most effective case, they also show an increasing weariness of battles about the “theft” claim, when both sides agree there were serious problems in Ohio. As Chris Bowers of MyDD puts it, “Simply rehashing these old arguments is not going to get us very far in creating the sort of electoral reform we need … From what I can tell, there are only two things that will allow us to move forward with unity and hope. First, we need a lot more on the ground activism to try and retake control of our electoral infrastructure. Second, we need a national agenda for election reform that people on all sides of this issue can get behind.”

We couldn’t agree more.

I also think that if both sides would trade in their tin-foil-hats for thinking caps and not look for ways to play “gotcha” but instead rationally explore the elements of the events, we might not only get the real answers, we might also be able to actually do something about fixing the system.

Wow, what a concept.