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What Went Wrong in Ohio

The Conyers Report on the 2004 Presidential Election
Academy Chicago Publishers, 154 pp, $10.95

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In the wake of the 2004 presidential election, opponents of President George W. Bush speculated, some quite forcefully, about vote-rigging. There was a brief flurry of such dissent, but really, once John Kerry conceded, the outcome was inevitable: The protests would fade, and Bush would head back for four more years in the Oval Office.

 

 

But for those who'd hoped to upend Bush -- or really, for anyone truly concerned about democracy -- there is still plenty to get angry about. In Ohio, for instance, the pivotal state in the awarding of the electoral votes that kept Bush in office, there's perhaps nearly as much to decry, investigate and correct as in the infamous instance of Florida in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court itself halted the recount that would have (we later learned) given Al Gore the Electoral College victory to go with his plurality of the popular vote.

 

A good primer on Ohio's woes is What Went Wrong in Ohio: The Conyers Report on the 2004 Presidential Election. The report, recently issued in paperback, collects the findings of hearings conducted in late 2004 by the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee. The hearings were requested by U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the committee's ranking Democrat and, sad to say, one of Congress's last few fighting Dems.

 

Those shocked and dismayed by the election's official outcome can conjure déjí vu with the Conyers report. It's a litany of gaffes and misdeeds in the Buckeye State, starting well before election day and continuing well after. What the report calls "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies" include:

A "conscious failure to provide sufficient voting machines" in many districts -- invariably, districts that were urban, poor or heavily African-American, and which delivered majorities for Kerry -- which helped create poll lines up to 10 hours long;

Restrictions on the use of provisional ballots, effectively disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters;

Selective intimidation, on grounds of the validity of their voter registration, of some 35,000 predominantly minority voters by Ohio's Republican Party (a practice known as "caging");

Improper purging of voter rolls and registration errors that prevented some 10,000 people from voting in Cuyahoga County (county seat: Cleveland) alone;

More than 90,000 spoiled ballots on which no vote was cast for president; and

Improper conduct by a voting-computer company that likely suppressed the possibility of a hand recount.

 

In Republican stronghold Warren County, election officials counting votes, claiming a "terrorist threat," barred reporters and observers; meanwhile, ballots in other counties were left completely unsecured. Some precincts reported more votes tallied than signatures in poll books; in more than a dozen counties, an underfunded Democratic candidate for State Supreme Court received thousands more votes than the Kerry-Edwards ticket. The list goes on.

 

The comprehensive review, compiled from news accounts and first-person testimony, provides a context for another election-night anomaly the report examines: Kerry's lead in exit polls, whose disappearance in official ballot tallies could likely be explained only by wildly inaccurate vote counts. Overall, Democratic staff and members of the Democratic Judiciary Committee fielded close to 100,000 complaints about the election in Ohio, and the nonprofit Election Protection Coalition has testified that complaints in Ohio outnumbered those in any other state. Nearly all the irregularities seemed to redound to Bush's benefit, Kerry's detriment, or both.

 

The Conyers report traces much of the trouble back to Kenneth Blackwell. As Ohio's Secretary of State, Blackwell is in charge of elections there. He was also co-chair of Ohio's Bush-Cheney campaign. According to the Conyers report, when Blackwell wasn't busy doing things like requiring absentee ballots to be submitted on paper of a certain weight and restricting the use of provisional ballots, he was delaying certification of the vote long enough to prevent a recount, and failing to investigate allegations of serious breaches of state and federal voting rights law. In December, presented by the committee with three dozen questions about voting irregularities, Blackwell answered none.

 

The misallocation of voting machines violated Ohio election law; some of Blackwell's decisions on absentee and provisional ballots were challenged successfully in court; and Ohio Republican Party intimidation of voters was found illegal. But enough damage had already been done, it's easily conceivable, to have swung the election.

 

The Conyers report, originally issued in January, lays blame where it legitimately can, avoiding speculation about motives. It calls for a challenge to Ohio's electors (which a dozen or so Congresspeople including Conyers attempted in January), for more hearings on the irregularities, and for election reform in such areas as the auditing of voting machines and the casting and counting of provisional ballots.

 

Make no mistake -- other states, Pennsylvania included, had their share of irregularities. But in Ohio more than elsewhere, it's impossible to chalk it all up to mechanical error, human incompetence or even mere ass-covering. And even if it were possible, such circumstances can't be countenanced. Yes, the 2004 election is over. But now that we've recovered from election fatigue, the Conyers report suggests it's long past time to make sure we never have another one like it.

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