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Steve Weissman: Who Counts in Ohio?

Who Counts in Ohio?

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 11 November 2004

Is Team Bush stealing the presidential election in Ohio? And, if it is, can the rest of us do anything to save our embattled democracy?

For those watching American TV or reading the dailies, and nothing more, my questions probably sound loopy, straight from the conspiracy theorists I so often criticize. For those surfing the Internet or scanning this week's flood of round-robin emails, the questions point to one of history's great crimes. The truth, as far as I can see it, falls betwixt, between, and beyond.

Nearly three months ago, I predicted that the Bush campaigners would, in fact, try to steal the election. They would, I argued, do it the old-fashioned American way - with "a massive effort to keep as many as three million pro-Democratic Afro-Americans, Native Americans, and non-Cuban Hispanics from voting."

Nowhere did the GOP try harder to keep minorities from voting - or having their votes counted - than in Ohio, as I'll show in a moment. Just hold in mind that, barring unexpected defections, Ohio's 20 electoral votes will prove decisive on December 13 when the Electoral College meets in the various state capitols to cast their ballots. If the present tally holds, Kerry and Edwards will get 252 votes against 286 for Bush and Cheney. Were the Buckeye State to switch from red to blue, Kerry-Edwards would win 272 to 266. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.

Could Ohio still change its vote?

Yes, it could, but don't bet on it. The Kerry-Edwards campaign, the White House, and the major media have already awarded victory to Bush and Cheney, taking the public spotlight off Ohio election officials. But, as with so much else in our Rube Goldberg version of democracy, wiggle room remains. Concession speeches, no matter how moving, can be retracted, which - to quote a colleague - would be the mother of all flip-flops. Nor, unless I missed something, do claims of victory from Karl Rove or Peter Jennings have the force of law.

The news, then, is that Ohio is still counting. According to Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the chief election official, Bush presently leads Kerry by 136,483 votes. This includes domestic absentee ballots and those from civilians abroad, but not from overseas military, which will keep coming in until Friday, November 12.

Bush's lead will likely become smaller as Secretary Blackwell and bi-partisan County Election Boards sort out errors in the election night result. Most famously, Franklin County - which includes Columbus, the state capital - has reported a malfunction on a touch-screen voting system in one precinct. According to officials, the precinct gave Mr. Bush nearly 4,000 more votes than he actually received. All of Ohio's 88 counties have reportedly been asked to look for similar cock-ups.

Against Bush's 136,483-vote lead, officials have in hand nearly 250,000 uncounted ballots. Some 155,428 are provisional ballots, where voters were initially challenged or other problems came up. Another 93,000 are "spoiled ballots," which - according to officials - showed either no vote for president or votes for more than one candidate. These are paper punch cards like the ones with the hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads that in Election 2000 made my home state of Florida a national laughing stock.

Most pundits agree that Ohio's spoiled and provisional ballots came overwhelmingly from Democratic, heavily African-American precincts, while the far smaller number of overseas military ballots will likely break toward Bush.

The election boards are currently verifying the eligibility of voters throughout the state who cast provisional ballots. This Saturday, November 13, the boards should begin to count those from voters they deem legitimately registered. In past elections, officials have disqualified some 10% of provisional ballots, which would reduce the number to just under 140,000.

We should know by Saturday how many provisional ballots officials have accepted and how many overseas military ballots they have received.

To trigger an automatic recount, which would reconsider the "spoiled ballots," Kerry needs to reduce Bush's lead to some 19,000 votes, according to Democratic Party officials. Given the current tally, this would require winning over 90% of 140,000 qualified provisional ballots, and half of the overseas military absentees, or a comparable mix. Not likely, even to a Red Sox fan.

Otherwise, the Kerry camp would have to request a recount, which they will not do unless the provisional votes reduce Bush's lead sufficiently to make the "spoiled ballots" look irresistible.

To make Kerry's odds even tougher, the man running the game - Secretary of State Ken Blackwell -also co-chairs the Ohio committee to re-elect George Bush. A former mayor of Cincinnati, Undersecretary of HUD, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Blackwell is one of the national GOP's most prominent African-American officials and a leading candidate to replace Bob Taft as Governor of Ohio. More to the point, he publicly spearheaded Republican efforts in the state to reduce the number of his fellow African-Americans whose votes would go to the Democrats

In some cases, the courts over-ruled him, and - much to their credit - most black voters stood up to his harassing tactics. But Blackwell never stopped trying.

As chief election officer, he decreed that voters, if challenged, could cast provisional ballots only at their correct precinct. Previously, they could vote anywhere in the county in which they were registered. When a lower court over-ruled him, he appealed the decision and got his restriction reinstated. This might, in part, explain why Ohio now has some 100,000 fewer provisional ballots than many Democrats expected.

Less successfully, Blackwell tried to enforce an outdated rule that polling stations could recognize voter registrations only if printed on heavy bond paper, even though local election boards had officially approved lighter-weigh forms. Had the courts not stopped him, this would have kept thousands of newly registered Democrats from voting.

Similarly, Blackwell refused a request from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to inform former felons that, according to Ohio law, they had every right to vote.

He presided over efforts to send massive numbers of poll-watchers into predominantly African-American precincts to challenge prospective voters. Again a Federal Court curtailed the effort, which looked calculated to slow down the process so much that prospective voters would turn away in frustration.

He failed to provide African-American precincts with sufficient voting machines, which added to the incredibly long lines waiting to voting. Many people stood for hours, and no one knows how many walked away.

Finally, he made the decision to keep the punch card voting, which everyone in America knew deprived people - most often minorities - of their right to vote.

Now the fox guarding the hen house, Ken Blackwell presides over his own sordid success.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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