An interview with investigative journalist Greg Palast
by Daniel Strumpf
Interviewing Greg Palast is a bit like rummaging through your mother’s nightstand – you’re bound to learn some things you’ll wish you hadn’t. As an investigative journalist for the BBC’s Newsnight and England’s Sunday newspaper, The Guardian, Palast is most famous for exposing racist scheming behind the 2000 Florida election scandal nearly a year before the mainstream American media got around to it.
If you’ve never heard of Palast, an American himself, it’s probably because his muckraking investigations cause nightly newscasters to question their manhood and make bespectacled editors cower beneath their desks as they consider the possibility of retribution. But plenty of others have taken note.
Michael Moore used Palast’s articles about the 2000 elections as well as those probing links between the bin Laden and Bush families as the backbone of Fahrenheit 9/11. Palast chronicled his own investigative exploits in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a tome that spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list. He also produced the critically acclaimed documentary Bush Family Fortunes. Most recently he landed a gig as a contributing editor with Harper’s magazine, and his articles regularly appear in Hustler magazine, in addition to various Internet sites.
CityBeat caught up with Palast last week, a day after the U.S. House and Senate certified the 2004 electoral vote, and he had plenty to say about the state of the American electorate. Palast will speak Monday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest. But be forewarned: you might have trouble looking your country in the eye afterward.
CityBeat: You started writing about the 2004 vote count before the election. What have you found? Greg Palast: Before the Nov. 2 attack on our democracy, I wrote a piece called The Other Floridas because I saw the disaster heading in three states in particular — New Mexico, Ohio and Colorado — besides Florida, and I could see that the fix was in.
See, the real secret of the American elections is that we have an apartheid vote counting system. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave black and brown people the right to vote, it didn’t give them the right to have their votes counted. That’s left up to the states and counties and they have done a very good job of basically just chucking out a whole lot of dark-colored votes.
And how does it happen that black votes aren’t counted? They don’t put a mark on your ballot and say it’s a black vote, chuck it out. We have something in the U.S. called “spoilage” — in other words, votes that are cast but not counted. In the 2000 election, spoilage accounted for about 2 million votes. I suspect that when the numbers are done for this election, that number will be closer to 3 million votes.
Why don’t they count them? In most cases it’s bad machinery and, just like black and Chicano areas get crap schools and crap hospitals, they also get the crap voting machines.
The official investigation by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in Florida in 2000 determined that one in seven black votes was simply thrown away, not counted for technical reasons. The horrible fact is that, as it turns out, Florida was pretty darn typical of the nation. About one in seven black votes are simply discarded. The No. 1 culprit, by the way, is punch-card machines. And while there is tremendous scrutiny and screaming and hollering about the new computer systems, that’s what Hitchcock called the “Mac Guffin,” the false clue.
In Ohio, they were more than thrilled to say, ‘OK, we’re not going to put in computers, but were not going to fix the bad punch-card machines.’ So you ended with 93,000 votes lost to punch-card-machine errors — 93,000! Overwhelmingly, those were cast in black precincts.
How did the addition of provisional ballots change the game?
You have these spoiled ballots there and then you have these new back-of-the-bus, Jim Crow ballots that were created for just this election, the provisional ballot. And that was the result of the Help America Vote Act. As soon as George Bush tells us he’s going to help us vote, I get very nervous.
These provisional ballots are saying that as soon as there is a problem with a voter – you get challenged by some Republican hit man at the polls – you get handed a provisional ballot. In the old days, you’d say, ‘No, screw you, I’m voting anyways. If you believe I’m a fraudulent voter then arrest me.’ But instead, the Republican Party has challenged hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people all over the country in this election, resulting in massive numbers of provisional ballots, which were, in the main, chucked in the garbage.
And you think that influenced the outcome?
One state that people haven’t looked at is Arizona. People say, ‘Well, it wasn’t close,’ but I suspect that Kerry won Arizona. I’m pretty confident he won Ohio, dead certain he won New Mexico, where, supposedly, Bush won by 5,000 votes, but you had a massive non-count of Hispanic and Native-American votes. If you’re Navajo, they throw out your ballot. You get provisional ballots, crap voting machines and they just don’t count them.
The House Judiciary Committee just released a report commissioned by Congressman John Conyers Jr. titled, What Went Wrong in Ohio? The report cited “massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies” that were “caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior.” Do you think that report can fix the problem in Ohio?
The danger would be, just like the Civil Rights Commission before it, that if we particularize it to Ohio, we miss the goddamn point. The problem is systematic. It’s national. It’s racist. It’s classist.
You cannot fix the system through technical means. They tried that in 2000 and ended up with the provisional ballot, which was originally intended as a reform. Actually, it was Conyers who proposed the fucking provisional ballot and now he’s writing a report saying this is one of the worst things that ever happened to us.
If you don’t address the main issue, which is racism in vote counting, and you don’t address our failure to commit ourselves to democracy, then forget it — there is no technical fix which will work. Provisional ballots, computer voting, punch cards — forget all of that shit. That’s not what it’s about. There is no technical fix to democracy except a commitment to vote and a punishment that if they don’t count the votes, you’re going to go into the streets.
And I love Conyers. Everything in his report is right except the implication that something was wrong in Ohio. Something is wrong in America and the disease erupted in Ohio.
What did you think of the historic challenge to the Ohio vote count on the floor of the Senate?
The truth is that it’s unacceptable. I travel all over the world, and in Uganda they wouldn’t accept that type of non-count of the votes, votes thrown out, games being played, this kind of gotcha game.
The Republicans in Ohio, one of their favorites was if someone walked into the wrong precinct, they handed them a provisional ballot knowing that the secretary of state, Mr. Blackwell, had already ruled that if anyone voted in the wrong precinct, they wouldn’t count their provisional ballot. So they’re literally handing people ballots they knew in advance would never be counted. Think about that.
By the way – and I’m sure it’s the same way in California – when someone goes to the wrong precinct, that’s often simply the wrong table in a high school gym or something.
It’s very sophisticated. In the old days I watched the Boss Daley machine in Chicago steal votes by filling out fake absentee ballots and that type of game. Now it’s done by statistics, probability and racial profiling.
What the Republican Party did is a federal crime. The problem is the perps are in charge of the courts and in charge of the prosecution…. The response to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission outing the fact of the non-count of black votes in Florida in 2000 was to remove the chairwoman of the commission. She was just replaced with someone who will be quite pliant and bless the fixing.
So, if you predicted this would happen, you must feel somewhat vindicated?
No, I feel like hell. It’s my country, I’m an American and here I am broadcasting on BBC Television a week before the election how they are going to steal it and I’m showing these, basically, hit lists of black people from the Republican Party.
That’s against the law. You cannot do racial profiling for the purpose of challenging voters. It hasn’t been done since the Jim Crow era, and there they were, we caught them. But it’s pretty goddamn sad when you can’t report the news about your own country in your own country.
So if you exposed this information before the election, why didn’t the Democrats do anything?
The Democrats don’t stand up for the same reason that jellyfish don’t — they’re invertebrates. I found out from a member of the Democratic National Committee that what they were concerned about were people like Zell Miller and others in the party who were telling them that if they start defending the black vote, they are going to lose the white vote. I think that they are concerned of being seen as a defender of the black voter and would rather simply quietly take the black vote for granted and pander to the racism of the system.
Plus you have a problem that all politics is local. If a local politician is elected by a bent racial system, they are not going to go way out of their way to change that system, even if the top of the ticket suffers.
So this isn’t just a vast Republican conspiracy. You’re saying it goes beyond party lines?
Well, I think it is a vast Republican conspiracy in the technical sense. When I say that, do understand that I’m not a conspiracy nut; I’m a conspiracy expert. I used to be an investigator for government racketeering cases, which are conspiracy cases. These racial hit lists were copied to the research director of the Republican National Committee in Washington, and were sent to the chairmen of the Republican Party state committees. This is not like low-level trickster stuff; this is the coordinated national kind of lynching by laptop that was going on in secret.
If we had a different Justice Department, these guys would be up on conspiracy charges. This is a violation of civil-rights law, the Voting Rights Act and racketeering law.
You mentioned that your parents live here in San Diego. Have you followed our ongoing mayoral saga?
What that race shows is that we have lost respect for the core idea of democracy – that you count the goddamn votes. When they played games like that in the Ukraine, the U.S. refused to recognize the election. The U.S. didn’t say, ‘Oh well, I guess that’s the rules.’ We said the rules are fixed by the rulers to make sure they stay in power. It ain’t acceptable. That ain’t democracy.
Same thing in San Diego. If you write in a candidate’s name, you can’t tell the intent of the goddamn voter? A legal voter casts a vote and they don’t count it? This doesn’t pass the basics for worldwide standards of elections.
And they have gotten us to the point where we actually accept this stuff. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, we don’t count those votes because someone didn’t check a box. Get into the goddamn streets! Close down the 405!
If Americans want to have elections where all the votes are counted, they have got to stop thinking that they can change the future by hitting that remote-control button. That’s one thing the Ukrainians did — they went out into the street in below-freezing weather and shut the country down. The Yugoslavs, the Peruvians, the Nigerians all went out into the street at gunpoint and said, ‘We aren’t tolerating this.’
If you want to have a regime determined by manipulation and games, then you deserve it. It isn’t good enough to vote and say, ‘Well, if you feel like counting it, that’s OK.’ Get fucking mad. Get angry because if you don’t stop them on this, it builds. When the Democratic Party didn’t take a stand in Florida, they were asking for Ohio — they were begging for it. And we see it in San Diego and Washington State. It’s the same thing.
You have an article coming out in the February issue of Harper’s about the Iraqi oil fields. Can we get a preview?
In the months before the invasion in 2003, I was able to get an inside document from the U.S. State Department detailing the division of the assets of Iraq, including the privatization of the oil fields, the chopping up and selling off of Iraq’s oil fields. It was detailed, everything [down to] changing the nation’s copyright laws — I mean just wacky stuff. This was the first military invasion in which the invading army had prewritten copyright laws to protect Microsoft and Sony.
So basically the military invasion was coupled with a kind of corporate takeover, and these plans were written by U.S. corporate lobbyists who sat there and just rewrote Iraq’s laws in advance. That included the division of the Iraq oil fields but here’s the big irony. You know who objected to the division and sell-off of the U.S. oil fields? The U.S. oil companies. They said, ‘We want you to reestablish the state oil company that Saddam had busted up.’ And why would the U.S. oil companies want that? Well, what do the U.S. oil companies love more than owning oil fields? What they love more is $50-a-barrel oil. Look at what these companies are making. They haven’t seen money like this since the ’73 oil embargo. They are just rolling in it. They love OPEC.
What they wanted to do is make sure that once the U.S. conquered Iraq, we effectively have a seat on the OPEC council and that OPEC stays strong enough to gouge the wallets of the American consumer.
So, what I’ve found, and I can’t give you too much detail because I can’t scoop my own piece in Harper’s, is a story of this war between the anti- and pro-OPEC forces internally in the administration on how they divide up Iraq’s oil fields. Of course, what’s missing here is what the Iraqis want to do with their oil fields. No one is asking them. They’re not involved.
George Bush gets inaugurated in a few days and you, Howard Dean and others just contributed to a book called, What We Do Now: Manifesto for the Post-11/2 World. So what do we do now?
We have a drug problem in America and it’s called television. We have a nation being turned into a bunch of fucking droids and getting so fat that pretty soon Americans are going to start oozing into each other’s protoplasm. We’ll just be giant globs with several feet and several heads probably wired straight into the television. This is the future I see.
Someone asked, ‘How do you explain what we do next,’ and I said, ‘Dance. Fuck. Fight.’ Make yourself indigestible to the system so that if you are ever swallowed up, you will be vomited out. I really think so. Make yourself unemployable. You’ll never get an interesting job if you’re employable. Get arrested, form a punk band and go to Indonesia and fall in love with someone who doesn’t speak your language. I’m not kidding.