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?

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Post and New York Times, these revelations triggered no broader investigations, or if they did, the results went unpublished.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."

Except it doesn't. Talk with Eaton and she is quick to volunteer that Barbian never used the phrase "cheat sheet"—those were her own words, dashed down in a rush after a lawyer advised her she had witnessed illegal activity and should testify at the Conyers hearings. Eaton says that no one took Barbian's cheat sheet advice seriously and adds that "I still don't know if there was fraud," though she does find his visit suspicious. And although Eaton is angry that she was fired—and has retained legal counsel in the matter—she does not believe her whistleblowing was the only cause. She claims Schwartze had long wanted to get rid of her "because I stood up to her." Schwartze declined to comment.

None of the skeptics hint at this more nuanced version of Eaton's story. What's more, the Conyers report says Triad "essentially admitted" to providing cheat sheets to Ohio counties. That's news to Triad. Barbian didn't respond to my phone messages, but Triad president Brett Rapp insists that "no tampering whatsoever took place." Skeptics note that Rapp is a contributor to the Republican Party. But figures listed in the Conyers report show that his donations have averaged less than $350 a year since 1998—hardly a high roller.

The Terrorist Threat That Never Was

Now to Warren County, where officials locked down the building used to count votes and told a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter that there'd been a terrorist threat. The skeptics are right that the FBI denied issuing any such warning. But it's not true that votes were counted in secret, say both Susan Johnson, the Republican Board of Elections director, and Sharon Fisher, the Democratic deputy director. Not only were Johnson and Fisher present, so were the four Board of Elections members (two Democrats, two Republicans) plus an observer from each party. The only person shut out, Johnson says, was the reporter, "but reporters have never been allowed into our counting room before."

Fitrakis responds that the goal of the lockdown was actually "to divert ballots to an unauthorized warehouse where [Republicans] could manipulate the vote." He claims to have maps that reveal where the warehouse is. But what, exactly, would that location prove?

Vote-Hopping and Other Oddities

What about Miami County, site of the 13,000 mystery votes? Roger Kearney, a contract employee who manages the Miami County website, says he understands what aroused the skeptics' suspicion. The problem, he says, is that Miami County considers a precinct to be "reporting" as soon as a single vote is reported. Thus, when election officials were distributing results on election night, their last two tallies of the night said that 100 percent of precincts were reporting. "The reason the last report had 13,000 more votes," he says, "is that those votes hadn't been counted yet, but they were there in the system."

Kearney adds that he tried, twice, to explain this error to Fitrakis, who had published the allegation in the Free Press. "I'm a Democrat," notes Kearney, "and I told him I'd be glad to find fraud here and turn the election around, but that didn't happen." As for the "Hussein-like" turnout, the county's Board of Elections director, Steve Quillen, acknowledges that 98.55 and 94.27 percent turnouts were in fact reported, but only in 2 of the county's 82 precincts. What's more, Quillen caught the errors and corrected them before the official tally was announced a week later—though, according to Vanity Fair's fact checkers, he never pointed that out to the magazine.

Other dubious results also appear to have been caught and corrected, including 4,258 votes reported in a precinct near Columbus that had only 800 registered voters and a negative 25 million votes initially reported in Mahoning County. Mahoning County's Board of Elections tech specialist, Chris Rakocy, also offers an innocent explanation for the problem of "vote hopping," in which electronic voting machines mistakenly registered a vote cast for Kerry as a vote for Bush. "We had that calibration problem on 18 of 1,148 machines on Election Day," says Rakocy, adding that the errors were quickly corrected. He says that even on faulty machines, voters could check their ballots and correct any mistaken entries, just as they would when withdrawing money from an ATM.

The GOP's Closet Gay-Rights Voters

If voting machines were hacked, skeptics argue, that could explain some improbable results in three Bush strongholds near Cincinnati. In Warren, Butler, and Clermont counties, Kerry got 132,684 fewer votes than Bush did. But Kerry also got 11,923 fewer votes than C. Ellen Connally, the Democratic candidate for Ohio chief justice. It is "beyond plausible," argues the Free Press, that Connally, an African American supporter of gay rights, would do better than the top of the Democratic ticket, especially in three Bible Belt counties that overwhelmingly approved a gay-marriage ban on the same ballot. Kerry's true count must have been suppressed. "Take Ohio without those three counties and Kerry would have carried the state," argues attorney Cliff Arnebeck, a Fitrakis ally.

Not so fast, replies Michael O'Grady, the legal counsel to the Ohio Democratic Party. O'Grady, who helped advise Connally's campaign, agrees that her results in those counties do "stand out." But he credits the 8 to 10 percentage boost that female candidates often get from voters simply because they are female. And, he adds, many Ohioans didn't know that Connally supported gay rights or even that she was black—her campaign deliberately downplayed those facts.

Exit-Poll Enigmas

The discrepancy between exit polls and the official results is a key part of the skeptics' argument: Kerry was projected to win nationwide by a close but comfortable 3 percent, and in Ohio by 6.5 percent. But the skeptics betray a poor grasp of exit polling, starting with their claim that exit polls are invariably accurate within tenths of a percentage point. In truth, the exit polls were wrong by much more than that in the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections.

Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski, the pollsters who oversaw the 2004 exit polls, concluded that one source of their incorrect forecast was an apparent tendency for some pro-Bush voters to shun exit pollsters' questions. "Preposterous," claims Mark Crispin Miller, who also sees trickery in the adjusting of exit polls after the election, though that is utterly routine. And is it really so strange to imagine that Bush supporters—who tend to distrust the supposedly liberal news media—might not answer questions from pollsters bearing the logos of CBS, CNN, and the other news organizations financing the polling operation?

Besides, how do skeptics explain New Hampshire? The state conducted a hand recount of precincts that critics found suspicious; the recount confirmed the official tally, as Ralph Nader's campaign, which paid for the exercise, admitted. Apparently one reason Bush did better than expected in those precincts was an influx of conservative Catholics who relocated from neighboring Massachusetts—the kind of anomaly that can confound even persuasive-sounding assumptions about voters.

Who Moved My Voting Machine?

But the skeptics have plenty of solid claims as well—starting with the long lines that plagued voters in Franklin County and elsewhere. As the Post reported, voting-machine shortages were the exception in strongly pro-Bush areas but the rule in strongly pro-Kerry districts. The Conyers report calls that an apparent violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution's equal protection safeguards.

Matt Damschroder, Franklin County's Republican elections director, admits he didn't have enough machines in the field; he says he told his staff to deploy more, "and I believed it had been done, but I heard [on election] night that it hadn't." The Free Press' Fitrakis doesn't buy that honest-mistake argument, and he points out that the law doesn't care either. "It doesn't matter if those machines were held back by design or not, the effect is the same," he says.

Also indisputable is the fact that Damschroder accepted a $10,000 check for the Ohio Republican Party from Diebold, one of the nation's largest voting-machine manufacturers. Skeptics have distrusted Diebold ever since Walden O'Dell, the company's CEO and a major donor to the Bush/Cheney campaign, pledged in a 2003 fundraising letter to help Ohio "deliver its electoral votes" to Bush. Damschroder admits the wrongdoing. "I did something unethical, and I'm paying an appropriate penance for it," he says, referring to the Board of Elections' ruling in July 2005 that he work without pay for a month. He says he has not recommended Diebold for any product purchased by Franklin County. Indeed, Diebold machines were used in only 2 of Ohio's 88 counties.

The Great Blackwell Purge

But Damschroder's transgressions pale beside those of his boss, Secretary of State Blackwell. Now a candidate for Ohio's governorship, Blackwell made national news before the election by trying to disqualify any voter registrations not written on 80-pound stock paper. It was a directive so ludicrous, and so obviously intended to lower turnout, that an anonymous state official alerted newspapers that Blackwell's own office was supplying forms on lighter paper stock. The bad publicity forced him to back down.

Even prominent Ohio Republicans distanced themselves from other manifestly unfair Blackwell directives. Take provisional ballots, which by law must be offered to any voter turned away at the polls (say, because the voter's name doesn't appear on registration rolls). Blackwell directed that a provisional ballot would count only if cast in the proper precinct—not just the proper county, as before. It was a recipe for chaos, given that some polling places included numerous different precincts, not to mention the fact that Blackwell had reorganized precincts throughout the state, leaving many voters confused about where to appear on Election Day. Some election officials made it clear they would disregard the ruling, including Robert Bennett, who chaired both the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and the Ohio Republican Party. Blackwell threatened to remove Bennett from the board and his directive stood. In the end, an estimated 46,000 provisional ballots went uncounted. (Blackwell did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.)

Blackwell's two most potent acts of disenfranchisement, skeptics say, were the purging of 133,000 mostly Democratic voters from the rolls and the non-counting of 92,000 ballots rejected by voting machines as unreadable. "It's clear to me that somebody thought long and hard back in 2001 about how to win this thing," says Fitrakis. "Somebody had the foresight to check an obscure statute that allows you to cancel people's voter registrations if they haven't voted in two presidential elections." Fitrakis notes that newspapers reported the purging of 105,000 voters in Cincinnati and another 28,000 in Toledo. But because the purging was conducted gradually between 2001 and 2004, no one saw the big picture until the Free Press connected the dots.

O'Grady, the Democrats' general counsel, agrees that Blackwell purged voter rolls, especially in large urban counties that figured to lean Democratic. But he points out that the purging was done legally, and he says it wasn't necessarily underhanded. The Democratic base, he says, is more transient, so a voter may accumulate three different addresses on state voting rolls—a perfectly sound reason for a purge. As for the larger argument that Ohio was stolen, O'Grady says, "That point of view relies on the assumption that the entire Republican Party is conspiratorial and the entire Democratic Party is as dumb as rocks. And I don't buy that."

Why Was It Even Close?

In the end, reasonable people may differ about the strength of the skeptics' case. Personally I came away persuaded there was indeed something rotten in the state of Ohio in 2004. Whether by intent or negligence, authorities took actions that prevented many thousands of citizens from casting votes and having them counted. The irregularities were sufficiently widespread to call into question Bush's margin of victory. This was not a fair election, and it deserves the scrutiny skeptics have brought to it. They shouldered a task that mainstream media and the government should have assumed—and still should take on, especially since some key questions can only be settled by invoking subpoena power.

Yet it remains far from clear that Bush stole the election, and I say that as someone who has written that Bush did steal Florida and the White House in 2000 (and who—full disclosure—is friendly with skeptics Miller and Wasserman). First, some of the most far-reaching acts of potential disenfranchisement, such as the purging of voter rolls, were legal—which is why one lesson of Ohio 2004 is that voting systems throughout the nation need fundamental reform. Second, even if Kerry had won Ohio, the national vote went to Bush by 3 million votes. Ohio would have given Kerry the presidency by the same unholy route that Bush traveled in 2000 and that led so many Democrats to urge, rightly, the abolishment of the Electoral College. Third, the skeptics' position is weakened by the one-sidedness of their arguments and their know-it-all tone. They have a plausible case to make, but they act like it's a slam dunk and imply that anyone who doesn't agree with them is either stupid, bought, or on the other side—not the best way to win people over.

Meanwhile, the focus on vote rigging distracts from other explanations for the 2004 outcome and, more importantly, from what Democrats need to do differently in the future. Paul Hackett, the Iraq combat veteran whose congressional bid is covered elsewhere in this issue, suggests an answer. Hackett, who made no bones about his disdain for Bush and the war, nearly won a district that in 2004 chose Bush over Kerry 64 to 36 percent. Lesson: Democrats can do well, even in staunchly Republican areas, if they give people a reason to vote for them—an unapologetic alternative. Do that in 2008, and the election won't be close enough to steal.