1996 Nebraska general election

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In Nebraska's 1996 Senate election, Chuck Hagel won a shocking upset. A political newcomer, he defeated a popular Democratic governor in a landslide, despite constantly trailing in the polls. It turned out that before running for Senate, Hagel was chairman and CEO of ES&S's precursor AIS, the Omaha company whose machines would count his votes. He stepped down from AIS just before entering the race, but unethically failed to disclose that he had worked at AIS and still owned shares in it through the McCarthy Group, whose founder would later become his campaign finance director. Statistical analysis confirmed the suspicion of election fraud brought on by Hagel's surprise upset and AIS conflict of interest.

Pre-election polls

Chuck Hagel was initially running far behind his opponent, Democratic governor Ben Nelson. During the summer, Hagel was down as far as 21% in the polls. His well-run campaign was able to narrow the gap, and an October political skirmish over negative ads might have pushed people away from Nelson. In late October, Gallup projected 49% Nelson to 44% Hagel.[1] A couple days before the election, the Omaha World-Herald came out with a poll showing both candidates tied at 47%.[2] The November results, however, had Hagel win by 14%.

Exit polls

The VNS conducted exit polling for the Nebraska Senate election, but the unadjusted results were never revealed. However, VNS reported a skewed exit poll in 1996 that led to a missed call, potentially referring to the Nebraska race.[3]

Issues

Shocking upset

Chuck Hagel's upset victory was shocking, defying both polls and political wisdom. The odds were heavily stacked against him. He ran against a popular Democratic governor who had won a massive landslide (by 47%) only 2 years earlier.[4] Nebraska hadn't elected a Republican to the Senate in 18 years. And no polls predicted Hagel would win, let alone win by the extreme margin he did.[1] The most favorable poll was from the Omaha World-Herald, showing them tied a couple days before the election. Nobody studying the race expected anything close to Hagel's lopsided 14% victory.[2]

Similarly surprising results also occurred in the Republican Senate primary. Hagel came from virtually no name recognition to defeating popular attorney general Don Stenberg by 24%.[1] Stenberg was very well-liked among the conservative base, and had also won by a landslide in 1994.[5]

Shocking results, of course, aren't proof of anything on their own. Chuck Hagel could have turned the political tide in his favor both times. But they do point to a need for scrutiny. Even if the momentum was shifting in Hagel's favor, going from a projected dead-heat to a landslide win sat on the verge of implausible.

AIS conflict of interest

Chuck Hagel turned out to be deeply linked to the vendor that would count 85% of Nebraska's Senate votes.[6] In 1992, he became the chairman of AIS, the precursor to ES&S. He was promoted to CEO after Bob Urosevich left the company in 1993. At the same time, Hagel served as president of the McCarthy Group, the investment bank that owned AIS. Hagel did step down from both businesses in 1995, right before launching his campaign. But even then, he maintained a $1-5 million stake in AIS, which he transferred to the McCarthy Group.[7] He also stayed connected to AIS through his close friendship with Michael McCarthy, founder of the McCarthy Group.[1] McCarthy would go on to become Hagel's campaign treasurer in 1999.[8]

The number of ties Hagel had to the company whose machines elected him to the Senate should be alarming. He was an executive for both AIS and its parent company, and even after resigning, he kept financial ties with AIS and a close relationship with its parent company's executive. A conflict of interest doesn't prove anything, but it raises serious questions about whether the votes were counted accurately. Given the suspicious results, that's even more true.

Ethics violation

Just as worrying as the conflict of interest is how Hagel attempted to hide it. He omitted being the chairman or CEO of AIS from all of his required Senate disclosure forms. After taking up that $1-5 million investment in the McCarthy Group, he forewent the need to disclose the Group's assets (including AIS) by calling it an "excepted investment fund". Under the Senate's rules, the McCarthy Group was not an excepted investment fund: it was neither publicly-traded nor widely traded. The Senate ethics committee chair, who doubted Hagel's disclosure exemption, appeared to be strong-armed into resigning.[7][8]

Hagel was incredibly intent on obscuring his ties to AIS, going as far as outright lying to omit his connections. That raises another question: if nothing untoward happened between Hagel and AIS, why wouldn't he be transparent?

Statistical anomalies

A statistical analysis of Douglas County NE (the state's largest county) found evidence of tampering in Hagel's 1996 election. It looked at CVS and precinct vote share graphs for several elections from 1987-2008. Most elections showed few to no irregularities, including the noncompetitive Senate races in 2006 and 2008. Hagel's suspect 1996 race, by contrast, was highly irregular. This irregularity only showed up in two other races: Hagel's 2002 reelection and the 2004 presidential election. An irregular vote pattern that only shows up in suspect races, including Hagel's 1996 race, offers strong evidence that the 1996 election was fraudulent.[9]

Aftermath

Chuck Hagel's suspicious 1996 election hinted at what was to come with electronic voting machines. In the 21st century, as use of the machines became widespread, more elections would follow that defied expectations and showed signs of electronic tampering. Hagel's situation also reflected the disturbing conflicts of interest in the elections industry.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Political analysis of Hagel's two upsets
  2. 2.0 2.1 How to Rig an Election on Hagel's election
  3. Joseph E. Uscinski, "Too Close to Call? Uncertainty and Bias in Election-Night Reporting" (mirror) - mentions a missed call by VNS in 1996
  4. 1994 NE gubernatorial race
  5. 1990s NE attorney general races
  6. Wired, "How E-Voting Threatens Democracy", 2004/03/29 - confirmation that 85% of votes in Hagel's race were counted by AIS
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bev Harris uncovers the Chuck Hagel situation
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hagel hid ownership in McCarthy Group
  9. Statistical analysis of Hagel's elections