I was in Washington last week, covering a story in Congress, when a friend invited me to a panel discussion in the basement of the Capitol building. I agreed before he told me what the subject was. Boy was I bummed when I saw the title on the e-circular:
What went wrong in Ohio ? A Harper's Magazine Forum on Voting Irregularities in the 2004 Election.
Oh, Christ, not that, I thought. Like a lot of people in this country (and like most all of my colleagues in the journalism world), my instinctual reaction to the Ohio electoral-mess story has always been one of revulsion and irritation. Almost on principle I had refused even to look at any of the news stories surrounding the Ohio vote; there is a part of me that did not want to be associated with any sore-loser hysteria of the political margins, and in particular with this story, the great conspiratorial Snuffleupagus of the defeated left.
It had always seemed to me that I understood the psychology of the Ohio story without having to examine the facts involved. I thought the story appealed most directly to a group of people who were still reeling after 2000, an election which George W. Bush not only lost according to the popular vote, but plainly stole in the electoral college. The evidence for this theft has been there for everyone to see for five years now; few serious thinkers even dispute the matter anymore, just as few Democrats would even bother denying now that John Kennedy stole the 1960 election.
Yet, Bush remains president. And not only has he remained president, he hasn't even had the decency to act embarrassed about it. He's remained president right out in the open, in front of our faces, like he's proud of that shit.
For a certain segment of the population, this state of affairs must have been psychologically unacceptable. Somewhere deep inside, they must have been clinging to the absurd notion that if the president is caught stealing an election, he is to be automatically removed from office, and perhaps even jailed. And so they nursed this notion in their breasts through 2000, and then—just like that, like the hansom magically appearing at Cinderella's door—the Ohio story fell in their laps. Ohio , it always seemed to me, was a wish their hearts made.
That in itself didn't make the Ohio story illegitimate. It did, however, make it something I wanted to avoid precisely because I disliked George Bush. On some level I suspected that the more publicity the Ohio mess got, the more discredited Bush's political opponents would be in the end. The media, I knew, would dismiss the Ohio story in exactly the casually vicious manner described above—as hysteria, as the delusional work of professional conspiracy theorists, as the behavior of sore losers unable to accept George Bush's clear popular victory.
That last part, incidentally, was the formulation most journalists used when picking their official excuse for ignoring the '04 Ohio story. Because Bush really did win the popular vote, they argued, there was no point in investigating a possible electoral fraud in Ohio , because no one had really been cheated out of office.
That idea allowed the media simply sidestep the entire issue, and escape having to make a pronouncement about the legitimacy of the Ohio elections—something they seemed hell bent on avoiding.
Even when they had a completely plausible excuse to at least investigate the Ohio charges on their own—after Michigan congressman John Conyers issued a lengthy report detailing the Ohio indiscretions—the big dailies still blew off the case. The New York Times mentioned the Conyers report only in the context of a 381-word page A16 item in January about John Kerry endorsing the election results ("Election Results to Be Certified, With Little Fuss From Kerry," 1/16/05). That piece ended with a quote by Dennis Hastert, who dismissed the Conyers report as the work of the "loony left."
I can only speak for myself, but I think that as a result of all of this, I was inclined to dismiss as a waste of time any discussion of what happened in Ohio . The story wasn't going anywhere. Even if there was evidence of wrongdoing, how could it possibly be more incontrovertible than the evidence in Florida ? And given that nothing happened when Bush stole the election in front of the entire world in Florida , why bother making a fuss now in Ohio —especially since John Kerry was clearly many millions of votes less of a victim than Al Gore?
Well, I don't think that way anymore. After attending this panel, and speaking to the congressmen involved in the preparation of the Conyers report (in particular Sherrod Brown of Ohio , a former Ohio secretary of state) I'm convinced that Ohio was a far more brazen and frightening subversion of democracy than Florida .
Here's the thing about Ohio . Until you really look at it, you won't understand its significance, which is this: the techniques used in this particular theft have the capacity to alter elections not by dozens or hundreds or even thousands of votes, but by tens of thousands.
And if we ignore this now, we're putting proven methods for easily ripping off major elections in the hands of the same party that had no qualms whatsoever about lying its way into a war in Iraq . In the hands of a merely corrupt political party, a bad election or two would be no big deal. But these clowns we have in power now imagine themselves to be revolutionaries, and their psychology is a lot like that of the leadership of Enron, pre-meltdown—with each passing day that they get away with it, they become more convinced by a delusion of righteousness.
Obviously people who have followed this story before know the basic facts already, but for those who ignored Ohio until now, here's a very brief greatest hits of Ohio irregularities:
• As was the case in Florida , the secretary of state (Kenneth Blackwell, in Ohio ), who is in charge of elections, was also the co-chair of the state's Bush-Cheney campaign.
• In a technique reminiscent of the semantic gymnastics of pre-Civil Rights Act election officials, Blackwell replaced the word "jurisdiction" with "precinct" in an electoral directive that would ultimately result in perhaps tens of thousands of provisional ballots—votes cast mainly by low-income residents—being disallowed.
• Blackwell initially rejected thousands of voter registrations because they were printed on paper that was, according to him, the wrong weight.
• In conservative, Bush-friendly Miami County , voter turnout was an Uzbekistan-esque 98.55 percent.
• In Warren county, election officials locked down the administration building and prevented reporters from observing the ballot counting, citing a "terrorist threat" (described as being a "10" on a scale of 1 to 10) that had been reported to them by the FBI. The FBI made no such report. Recounts conducted during this lockdown resulted in increased votes for Bush.
• In Franklin County , 4,258 votes were cast for Bush in a precinct where there were only 800 registered voters.
And so on. There are dozens more such glitches, which taken together suggest that the exit polls in Ohio , showing Kerry the victor, were probably accurate. But this is just a primer. More facts next week, plus an interview with Sherrod Brown—and a guide to what to do next.