A year ago this month, Americans came out to vote for their president in one of the tightest races in US history, as filmmakers around the country showed up with their cameras to document the process. Now that Americans have had time to digest the results, and filmmakers have had time to edit their footage, there is a crop of new documentaries that pose very different questions about the same election - questions like "How could Kerry have lost?" and "Did those computerized machines really count your vote?"
The latter may sound like a conspiracy theory to some, but after a look at "Votergate", which investigates shocking flaws in the new computer voting systems, it's hard not to wonder who really won the election. Directed by Russell Michaels and Simon Ardizzone, the feature documentary is still in post, but a 30-minute version is available for download at votergate.org for educational purposes. The film focuses on Diebold Election Systems, one of the three major manufacturers of voting machines and the market leader, which oddly enough is based in Ohio. Owned by a Republican who publicly stated the he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president", the company refuses to share it's software programming, citing security issues.
However, when a grandmother named Bev Harris who was curious about the new machines did a Google search, she was directed to the company's website, where she found unsecured files stored from the past six years, and promptly downloaded them. When Harris showed the data to top computer scientists and security experts, they were stunned. "I teach a lot of graduate level computer security courses at the Florida Institute of Technology," says Dr. Herbert Thompson in the film, "and if someone submitted the Diebold Gems server version that Bev showed to me... they would fail."
"Votergate" contains some remarkable statistics, largely uncontested by experts, including the episode when one voting machine took 2,747 votes for Kerry and switched them to Gephardt in 2004, the time that 144,000 votes were counted in Indiana - in a county of 19,000 voters, and the incident when a Diebold machine subtracted 16,022 votes from Al Gore in Florida 2000. What is perhaps most alarming is that many of the machines were allowed to be designed and implemented without any backup paper ballot capacity or any way to verify the results, so that when election law which allows for a recount is invoked, there is no way to actually recount the votes, since the computer just spits out the same totals each time.
Because of the lack of verification available, no one will ever know if Kerry would have won if it weren't for the computerized voting machines, but to many observers he seemed to run such a poor campaign he might have lost no matter what. Steve Rosenbaum's "Inside the Bubble" looks not at computer error, but human error, as the viewer is granted access to a world very few people have ever been privy to - John Kerry's inner circle. Much like the programming code of the Diebold machines, it's easy to see why his "bubble" of five trusted advisers was kept so secret, and it wasn't because of security issues. The people Kerry surrounded himself with were by many accounts quite similar to Bush's unqualified frat boy cronies, and this film seems to support that notion - which would explain why Kerry refuses to watch it, stating, "I think I know what happens."
One wonders why the filmmakers were granted such intimate access if they were potentially going to be so vehemently against the finished product. "Getting access is always the difficult part in any documentary," Rosenbaum told indieWIRE. "But in politics, as in lots of things, people want to tell their story. Once the campaign knew the film wasn't going to come out before the election, everyone mellowed out and pretty much let us shoot as much as we wanted to." The results are definitely compelling, enough so that conservative television hosts from Tucker Carlson to Sean Hannity have jumped on the story, showing clips from the as-yet-unreleased documentary as well as interviewing the filmmaker.
Rosenbaum is happy to see the film getting such attention, but is unimpressed with the campaign's reaction. "Calling the film boring before anyone had seen a frame makes the campaign look like they're trying to hide something," he says, "which I think was strange. They agreed to let us make the film. The ending isn't what we wanted, and once the campaign had lost, asking questions about why is certainly fair. James Carville has said the Democrats have no narrative. I think the film supports his diagnosis - now we need a cure."
Another new documentary, with the working title "Ohio: An American Vote", is said to look at the 2004 election from a more journalistic perspective, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, the filmmakers sent 15 camera crews across Ohio to document the last few days of the presidential race, and the results are said to confirm what Rosenbaum captured in his own cameras - that the Bush campaign was helmed by masters of the political game, and Kerry's people just couldn't meet the challenge.
There are likely several more films in the works on this very subject, and in the months to come it will become more clear if audiences want to relive the horror of 2004, but given the appetite for political films of late it seems likely they will. " 'Fahrenheit' kind of opened the door to films that could be overtly political," says Rosenbaum. "George Bush is an excellent villain. John Kerry had a great sound track. It was a classic good versus evil story, and it seemed pretty clear that it wasn't going to have a happy ending."