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No political act requires quite the same leap of faith as voting. Sure, the average citizen’s one chance to participate in democracy comes as the ballot box. But what happens to your vote once you’ve pulled the lever, punched the computer card, or placed an X through the appropriate box?

Ken and Jim Collier “discovered” that at least on national election nights – the only time the ballot count really counts – the votes are all processed through a central corporation. A private corporation. The owners of the entity are the same media that report the results of the elections. When the News Election Service (NES) was incorporated back in 1964, by ABC, CBS, NBC, the Associated Press, and United Press International, it either put the vote count under the aegis of responsible media organization concerned about reporting accurate and timely election returns, or in the clutches of a power-mad cabal.

The Colliers elect to see it as the latter, which is not surprising, because, as the authors of the book Votescam, the Collier brothers are the nation’s self-styled leading advocate of the theory that all national elections, presidential and congressional, are rigged.

The News Election Service provides an ideal mechanism for chicanery – especially in the cyber-epoch of computerized voting. A little monkey-wrenching with a single, central, and private cote-tabulating computer – well, it’s much cleaner than taking reams of paper ballots out into the West Texas outback and incinerating them as Lyndon Johnson did in an early congressional race. And it’s more civilized than digging up the dead, or at least their voter registration cards.

The Collier hypothesis is as follows: The major media corporations use their direct and discreet access to NES to fix election results in advance. This not only enables them to make incredibly accurate projections, but, more significantly, to pick the president and the Congress. Not surprisingly, these politicians turn out to be slaves to corporate interests.

The actual vote totals are verified by county registrars – the only public officials responsible for counting votes. But that process doesn’t wind up until months later. By that time everyone’s lost interest, the media doesn’t report those official results anyway, and if they did, there is ample time to tamper with those counts as well.

The media companies whelped NES when they realized that their prior practice of assembling returns individually led to occasionally embarrassing discrepancies in their reporting. These days, however, the actual returns have become irrelevant. Media election reporting derives almost exclusively from exit polls, in which a representative from a polling group hired by an individual media company asks voters leaving the polls a simple question: “Who’dja vote fer?”

Exit polling has been widely (and rightly) criticized for removing the electoral process from the hands of voters and transferring it to the statisticians. But at least it represented a small step toward decentralized election reporting. News organizations were, once again, actually competing – thus mitigating the chance of the next chief exec being selected by a coffee klatch somewhere in the bowels of Rockefeller Plaza.

In 1990, that hope withered.

“The three major television networks and Cable News Network,” reported the New York Times on February 26, 1990, “have agreed to create a single election day exit poll of voters that would provide the same information at the same time to each organization.”

The new unified group has operated since the 1990 congressional elections. Votescam becomes Pollscam.

Vote fraud in America is as old as American democracy. The Colliers simply posit its existence on a rather more expansive scale than the seemingly infinite number of well-documented local riggings. Computer technology only makes altering vote totals easier. The most popular election software, EL-80, has been found by independent computer experts to have switched the names of candidates, failed to record some votes, and failed to print out error reports. EL-80 is also easily accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of computer language. It is written in COBOL, and anyone who knows that language – and by the early eighties any college student who wanted to learn it, could – can break into the program.

Taken together, say the Colliers, centralization of election reporting, vulnerability of high-tech voting, and corporate power adds up to one grim finality:

“It is the prescription for the covert stealing of America.”