The Case of the Ohio Recount


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.

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.

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.”

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.

There is a way, though it will take some heavy lifting—a lot of heavy lifting. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. has pointed out that Congress doesn’t even have the power to establish a nationally uniform system of voting—everything in the Constitution concerning presidential elections is mediated through the states, which is why every state (and within every state, every county) runs elections its own way. He’s proposed a constitutional amendment to right the wrong. Passing it is a daunting prospect, no doubt. But as strategy, it also has the makings of brilliance. Let the Republicans try to fight it. Put them on record as against the right to vote. Let them defend the process as it exists—where a figure like Blackwell can simultaneously be the captain of one of the teams and the game’s chief referee.

Then Americans will know where the Republicans stand.

Standing behind Jackson’s constitutional amendment would be a better application of progressive energies than the frenzied attempt every fourth December to chase down the horses after the barn door is closed. We should be working on political campaigns also—working on winning the next time around by wide enough margins to put the need for any kind of recount out of play. The Republicans lost a presidential election in 1992, remember. They didn’t waste their time trying to take it back. They took back Congress, instead. We’ve got 22 more months to try to do that ourselves. It’s December of 2004. Do you know who your congressional candidate for ’06 is?