The Case of the Ohio Recount

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

This clash of cultures, between bright-eyed defenders of democracy (an ingathering one of the Greene County volunteers breathlessly calls "divinely guided") and harried county clerks can make for epic misunderstandings. An entire county is only recounted if a preliminary sample of 3 percent shows anomalies. In little Hocking County, a visiting computer repairman from Triad Government Systems suggested dodging that tedious eventuality by hiding the original totals on a bulletin board. Word of the repairman's suggestion leaked out. Online forums exploded with conspiracy theories, though everyone actually present at the time insists the guy was joking. It wasn't funny to Representative Conyers, who called it "likely illegal election tampering" and demanded an FBI investigation.

That kind of overreaching may lead to embarrassments. Cliff Arnebeck is an Ohio-based lawyer convinced that it was John Kerry who won 51 percent there—only to be robbed, he says, by "a movement of some 65,000 votes or so that were cast for Kerry into the Bush column." His evidence relies on comparing the number of votes Kerry received in four conservative counties in southwest Ohio to the total won by an African American Supreme Court candidate, C. Ellen Connally. "It's a fix," says Arnebeck—after all, he reasons, who could have intended a vote for both George Bush and a liberal black woman?

You wonder if Arnebeck did his due diligence before making the claim. "Connally and I have talked about it. It's such a stretch," says Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. He reeled off three reasons southwestern Ohio turned against Connally's opponent, Thomas J. Moyer—most prominently the way the area had been ravaged by one of Moyer's most prominent decisions, on school-funding formulas. Arnebeck's response? "He's blowing smoke. Those three things are bullshit." He blames the Democrats' culture of timidity for their inability to get behind his suit. "If you get screwed this way, this is the last thing you want to admit: that you've let them get away with this stuff."

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

What's wrong with this picture? These people should be working together, not fighting each other. None seems to know what a coordinated, disciplined, long-term progressive strategy on election infrastructure would look like; certainly, no one seems to be working toward one.

Which is exactly what Karl Rove would be doing, if he were a progressive.

If the Ohio situation shows anything, it is how lazy, harried, dilettantish, variable, confusing, and sometimes even arbitrary election administration can be in the United States of America. "I don't think people understand how elections get reported on election night," says Jonathan Rosen, director of the New York Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I mean, it's literally old blue-haired ladies who work once a year for a hundred bucks . . . yelling out the number to their husband with a hearing aid who's going to change the eight to a zero." The confusion advantages the more ruthless party, the Republicans: They are willing, as in Florida in 2000, to proclaim victory before all the votes have been counted—taking advantage of the American need for the election to be done with on election night—and to make those who protest sound like whiners, wreckers, or extremists.

Democrats in Westchester County have pointed toward a better way. They knew that the state senate race between Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Nick Spano was going to be close. Explains Rosen, "So we went to court for an impoundment order in this recount the day before the election, mainly in an effort to create a public psychological perception that, whatever unofficial results were reported on election night, we wanted to reserve the presumption that there was still a recount to be had." Thus their post-election strategy proved disciplined and tough. They've got a good chance to win.

But in Ohio, where Kerry is down by 119,000 votes, no one is talking about winning. Nationally, the progressive side is left with a clash of agendas and conspiracy theories and an emotionally draining recount thrown together, ad hoc, after Election Day, dazedly negotiating the confusion of a radically decentralized system in which every county courthouse seems to cherish its own confounded traditions.

As a strategy for election reform, a recount can only work if it produces a convincing record of abuse. That hasn't happened, and so neither has the necessary work of educating the public. "Nobody can say that there weren't long lines in Ohio. And nobody can say that there weren't more machines in the suburbs than there were in the inner city. There was not equal protection under the law," observes Frank Watkins, a longtime progressive activist and campaign manager for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. But the recount has achieved naught in publicizing these problems.

Republicans rely on such failures. If everyone in the country voted under the same rules of residency and eligibility, their votes counted the same way, using the same equipment, it would be a lot harder to hide needles in haystacks. Getting rid of the current flawed system, ultimately, has to be the long-term strategy—but it is hard to get good answers from recounters, lawsuit-filers, and hearing-holders about how that long-term strategy could come together.

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