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Recounting Ohio

Was Ohio stolen? You might not like the answer.

Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election?: Essential Documents By Bob Fitrakis, Harvey Wasserman, and Steve Rosenfeld. CICJ Books. 767 pages. $40.
What Went Wrong in Ohio: The Conyers Report on the 2004 Presidential Election Academy Chicago Publishers. 142 pages. $10.95.
Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They'll Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them) By Mark Crispin Miller. Basic Books. 224 pages. $24.95.

In the year that has passed since the 2004 election, not a single major American news outlet has published a serious investigation of whether the victory was properly awarded to George W. Bush. Is that because Bush won fair and square and, as a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert put it, only the "loony left" claims otherwise? Or is it because, as some on the left argue, there is too much proof that Bush stole the election and the U.S. media are afraid to say so?

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Certainly the election had its share of irregularities, especially in Ohio, the battleground state each side had to win. In the days after the election, newspapers nationwide carried accounts of how voters in and around Columbus, the state capital, had to stand in line for hours before casting ballots. It turns out the Franklin County Board of Elections had reduced the number of voting machines in urban precincts—which held more African American voters and were likely to favor John Kerry—and increased the number of machines in white suburban precincts, which tended to favor the president. As a result, as many as 15,000 voters in Franklin County left without casting ballots, the Washington Post estimated—a significant amount in an election that Bush won by only 118,775 votes (out of 5.6 million cast). But except for one-day stories in the Washington Post and New York Times, these revelations triggered no broader investigations, or if they did, the results went unpublished.

It didn't help that Kerry conceded immediately, despite questions about Ohio. The American press is less an independent truth seeker than a transmission belt for the opinions of movers and shakers in Washington. If the Democratic candidate wasn't going to cry foul, the press certainly wasn't going to do it for him. Thus the job of raising questions was largely left to mavericks—most of them from the left wing of the Democratic Party and beyond. For a year now, they have been probing, analyzing, and agitating on the Internet, and several books based on their research are being published in time for the election's first anniversary this November.

The source for much of the skeptics' case is the Free Press, an online news service based in Columbus. Unabashedly left-wing and happy to meld journalism with activism, the Free Press was the first to expose the voting-machine scandal later reported in the Post and Times. Its editors, Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, along with journalist Steve Rosenfeld, have coauthored two books: Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election?, self-published in 2005, and What Happened in Ohio, due next year from the New Press.

One prominent skeptic who relied on the Free Press' work is John Conyers, the veteran liberal from Detroit and ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee. In November 2004, Conyers launched an investigation whose findings were sent to all members of Congress and published as a paperback, What Went Wrong in Ohio. Media critic Mark Crispin Miller draws heavily on the Conyers report in Fooled Again.

If you take what the skeptics say at face value, it sure sounds like Bush stole the election. As in Florida in 2000, the official in charge of Ohio's voting rules and tabulation, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, was also a cochair of the Bush/Cheney campaign. And he acted like it, even going so far as to bar international observers from polling places, a move that would discredit any Third World election. One Ohio county cited a nonexistent terrorist warning to justify counting votes in secret. Another added 13,000 votes to its tally after all precincts had reported while claiming that 98.55 percent of the electorate in one precinct had voted, "a Saddam Hussein-like turnout," hooted Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens.

There are more—many more—specifics to the skeptics' case. But how well do their allegations check out in the real world? To find out, I did some reporting of my own—starting with one of their star witnesses.

The Case of the Dead Computer

Sherole Eaton is a 66-year-old mother of five and a lifelong Democrat. In 2004, she was serving as the deputy director of the Board of Elections in Ohio's Hocking County. Her path to controversy began on December 10, when a technician from Triad, a company that supplied electronic voting machines used in Hocking and 40 other Ohio counties, arrived at her office to help the staff prepare for the upcoming statewide recount of presidential ballots. According to an affidavit Eaton would later file, the tech, Michael Barbian, found that the computer the county used to store and count votes wouldn't boot up. So he took it apart, connected it to a spare computer in the office, called Triad, worked on both machines some more, and then pronounced the original computer ready for the recount. He then instructed Eaton and the Board of Elections director, Republican Lisa Schwartze, on how to construct a "cheat sheet" so the hand recount would match the official tally. Barbian allegedly said he'd made similar service calls in five other Ohio counties.

To skeptics, this episode highlights one of the main ways the election was stolen: by manipulating the computers that recorded and tabulated ballots. According to the Free Press, 15 percent of Ohio's ballots—a number seven times greater than Bush's victory margin—were cast on electronic machines provided or programmed by companies with ties to the Republican Party, including Triad. True, a limited hand recount was held afterward, but it was a sham, the skeptics argue. They point to the indictment this past September of two Cuyahoga County election officials for offenses that include failing to randomly select the recount precincts. Eaton made a similar accusation in her county—and, as if to clinch the case, was later fired. When her affidavit was posted at one of the websites claiming that Bush stole Ohio, one blogger commented, "This speaks for itself."

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