The Case of the Ohio Recount

In the whodunit over who won it, the true villain is slipping away

The game is still afoot in Ohio. Taking advantage of a state law that allows presidential candidates to request an official recount if they finance it themselves, David Cobb of the Green Party and Michael Badnarik of the Libertarians raised $113,600 in mid November, largely from progressives nearly tapped out after the campaign. Last week, the part-time bureaucrats of Ohio's 88 county boards of elections started slogging through the results once more. Teams of progressive volunteers watching over the recounts began clocking 20-hour days.

Meanwhile there have been the emotional hearings, led by ranking House Judiciary Committee member John Conyers, in which Ohio secretary of state and Bush-Cheney campaign co-chair Ken Blackwell was raked over the coals in absentia for answers to 36 questions about specific Election Day irregularities that Conyers posed to him in a now famous December 2 letter. The 36 questions are masticated endlessly in forums on—new outrages added each day, thousands of embittered idealists consuming the better part of their time in search of that elusive needle-in-haystack data point that will prove outright theft of the election. One lawyer, Cliff Arnebeck, even thinks he's found it, and has filed suit with the aim of kicking George W. Bush out of office.

It's possible that their vindication will come, that what's already being referred to as the "vote fraud community"—the allusion is to the "JFK assassination research community"—won't disappear up its very own grassy knoll. But the charges producing the greatest heat online often turn out to have the most innocent explanations. The recount isn't amounting to much, either. Last week the Franklin County Board of Elections did discover one extra vote for Kerry—offset by the extra vote they found for Bush. The irregularities volunteers have pointed to in the recount process itself are often picayune.

Recount 'em up: Ballot gazing in Cincinnati on December 15
photo: Lauren Heaton/Yellow Springs News
Recount 'em up: Ballot gazing in Cincinnati on December 15

In many Americans' minds, it's not too hard to imagine, this will all be received as further evidence of the activist left's irrelevance. Which would, in fact, be a tragedy. For elections in America are indeed broken, badly, and vulnerable to fraud. That fact is not politically neutral: The problems in America's election system have advantaged the Republicans, in significant and consistent ways.

If the Democrats had a Karl Rove—a cunning master strategist who thinks so far in advance that he wins new wars before the other side even wakes up to discover there's been a fight—setting up an election reform movement might be the first thing he would do. It just wouldn't look anything like the reform movement we have—so uncoordinated, strategically unsound, and prone to going off half-cocked that it may end up hurting the crucial cause it seeks to help.

The national elections may—we can't prove it yet, but there's every indication —be completely crooked," says Wayne Tack, an activist in Chicago. "And the consequence of that is, in the next election cycle, the Republicans have a filibuster-proof majority. The election cycle after that, a two-thirds majority in both houses, and the possibility of a two-thirds majority in two-thirds of the states. Then you can amend the Constitution every week." He adds, "Based on the lockdown thing, I would leave the country right now."

By "lockdown thing," he's referring to one of the vote fraud community's bêtes noires, and a useful index of its culture. On December 10, two California volunteers took upon themselves independent investigation of suspiciously low voter turnout in three precincts abutting a black college in rural Greene County, Ohio. When they asked to copy those precincts' signature books—ordinarily public records open to anyone who asks—the clerk called the Secretary of State's office. She was told that these records, for the time being, were "locked down."


Vote fraud activists tore through the statute books and alighted upon Ohio Revised Code Title XXXV, section 3503.26, which makes knowingly preventing or prohibiting the inspection of public records filed at a board of elections "a prima facie case of election fraud within the purview of such Title." Motive was surmised: What could be an easier way to hold down Kerry's totals in Ohio than to suppress the votes of one black island in an overwhelming sea of white?

Now, generally speaking, it is true that Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell is a cad. His decisions in the runup to the election seemed tailor-made to smooth the way for Republican vote-suppression teams. But his office's answer to the "lockdown" charge just happens to make sense. During an official election count, says his spokesman Carlo LoParo, Ohio law sensibly allows for a period of heightened security in which such materials can be touched only in the presence of a bipartisan group of election officials. "What would these people be saying if officials from the Bush campaign were able to look at these documents?" LoParo asks in exasperation.

That hardly satisfied the volunteers. They returned to the same office the next morning and found it untended and unlocked. The Internet erupted in rumors that the documents were being surreptitiously doctored; the more elegant explanation, that some Barney Fife forgot to lock the door, wasn't even broached.

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