This Rolling Stone article by Robert Kennedy Jr. – arguing that if it weren’t for Republican dirty tricks (mostly aimed at preventing Black voters from voting) and other forms of cheating, John Kerry would have won Ohio in 2004 and thus, won the Presidential election – is sure refresh the rage a lot of lefites (not just Democrats) have for the Republican party. The article is very long (and, refreshingly, well-footnoted), but if you want there’s a “highlights” version posted on Daily Kos.
But you should also read this Mother Jones artcle by Marc Hertsgaard from November 2005, which examines much of the same material from a more skeptical view. Although Hersgaard is convinced that the Republicans tried to suppress the vote in many instances, it’s not clear that anti-Democratic acts by the Republicans added up to enough votes to have turned the election. It’s possible that the Republicans cheated, and that Bush legitimately won the 2004 election.
For instance, the Rolling Stone article makes much of an incident in which a non-existent terrorist threat caused ballots to be counted in secret:
The most transparently crooked incident took place in Warren County. In the leadup to the election, Blackwell had illegally sought to keep reporters and election observers at least 100 feet away from the polls. (190) The Sixth Circuit, ruling that the decree represented an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, noted ominously that ”democracies die behind closed doors.” But the decision didn’t stop officials in Warren County from devising a way to count the vote in secret. Immediately after the polls closed on Election Day, GOP officials — citing the FBI — declared that the county was facing a terrorist threat that ranked ten on a scale of one to ten. The county administration building was hastily locked down, allowing election officials to tabulate the results without any reporters present.
In fact, there was no terrorist threat. The FBI declared that it had issued no such warning, and an investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer unearthed e-mails showing that the Republican plan to declare a terrorist alert had been in the works for eight days prior to the election. Officials had even refined the plot down to the language they used on signs notifying the public of a lockdown.
That seems damning. But here’s what Rolling Stone isn’t telling us (from the Mother Jones article):
Now to Warren County, where a non-existent terrorist threat allegedly covered up secret counting of ballots. The skeptics are right that the FBI denied issuing any 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 elections board members (two Democrats, two Republicans) and an additional observer from each party. “What brought this to a head,” said Johnson, “was a complaint by a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer, who wrote that she wasn’t allowed to observe the vote. But reporters have never been allowed into our counting room before.”
Fitrakis responds that the goal of the lockdown was not to prevent Democrats from observing the count, “it was to divert ballots to an unauthorized warehouse where [Republicans] could manipulate the vote.” He claims to have witnesses who, if subpoenaed, will reveal where that warehouse is. But what exactly would that prove?
Since the Rolling Stone report was published many months after the Mother Jones article, I would expect the Rolling Stone article to rebut, or at least acknowledge, these points. That there were apparently five Democratic Party officials present is too important a fact to be left out of this story, and it was dishonest of Rolling Stone to not mention this aspect of the story.
On the other hand, many of the complaints seem legitimate (as the Mother Jones piece acknowledges) – especially complaints about Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who used his position to try and prevent Democratic voters from voting. Here’s an example cited in both articles (the quote is from the MJ article):
Even prominent Ohio Republicans distanced themselves from other manifestly unfair 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 re-organized precincts throughout the state, leaving many voters confused (intentionally?) 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 elections board and the Ohio Republican Party. Blackwell threatened to remove Bennett from the board and his directive stood. In the end, an estimated 16,000 provisional ballots went uncounted.
Blackwell also served as the chair of Bush’s re-election committee in Ohio. That’s a conflict of interest too huge to be defensible.
Another big question is the polls. It’s well-known that exit polls showed a likely win for Kerry. There is virtually no chance that the discrepancy between the polls and the vote count occurred by chance; either the polls were bad, or the vote count was. The most popular explanation, repeated by the MJ article, is that Republican voters are systematically less likely to talk to pollsters:
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?
But the RS article writes:
In fact it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were more disinclined to answer pollsters’ questions on Election Day. In Bush strongholds, Freeman and the other researchers found that fifty-six percent of voters completed the exit survey — compared to only fifty-three percent in Kerry strongholds.(38) ”The data presented to support the claim not only fails to substantiate it,” observes Freeman, ”but actually contradicts it.”
What’s more, Freeman found, the greatest disparities between exit polls and the official vote count came in Republican strongholds. In precincts where Bush received at least eighty percent of the vote, the exit polls were off by an average of ten percent. By contrast, in precincts where Kerry dominated by eighty percent or more, the exit polls were accurate to within three tenths of one percent — a pattern that suggests Republican election officials stuffed the ballot box in Bush country.
(This is a question that would be easy to settle empirically this November; just hire a polling firm to do exit polling while dressing some of the pollsters in uniforms with a CBS logo, others in uniforms with a Foxnews logo, and still others in uniforms labeled “Jones polling corporation” or something like that. The results should show if a systematic bias caused by “CNN” logos on pollsters actually exists.)
I don’t know if Bush really won Ohio in 2004. It seems clear that Blackwell and the Republicans did everything they could to prevent heavily-Democratic areas – which in practice usually means Black areas – from having a fair and equal chance to vote and to have their votes counted. But whether or not Bush “lost” – which probably can never be proved well enough to convince the mainstream media – isn’t relaly important.
The system clearly needs reforming. It shouldn’t take proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Kerry won Ohio in 2004 to justify a major overhauling. The mere fact that there is room for reasonable doubt – and that so much of what’s going on is obviously dirty, whether or not it led to a difference in who won – strikes a significant blow to the legitimacy of the US electoral system.
Additionally, the extent to which vote-blocking in the USA remains racist should be emphasized, not covered up. The Democrats need to realize that they are the black party, by which I mean they are the party that would never, ever win elections if not for the Black vote. It’s time for Democrats to step up and begin screaming in fury every time Republicans attempt dirty tricks – and to point out the racist nature of many of those dirty tricks.
The much-talked about reforms to election machinery should happen, but that won’t be enough. What’s needed is elected officials in charge of all aspects of voting who are not permitted to be affiliated with any political party, let along in charge of a particular candidate’s campaign, in which election monitors (including those from abroad) are legally allowed to watch and document every step of the election process; in which open access laws call for every email, piece of paper and meeting by election officials to be open-access; and in which systematic tampering with access to voting is punishable with serious prison terms. We are not a democratic nation as long as the odds of your vote being counted are correlated with the color of your skin.
Finally, I worry that leftists have focused on the machinery more than they should, and not enough on process issues. As I wrote in January, referring to this interview with a Florida professor, “DeHaven-Smith argues, persuasively, that the real problem in Florida wasn’t just bad technology; it was a system in which partisans with a strong stake in the outcome of elections, are in charge of administrating elections, and also in charge of investigating problems afterwards. This creates a strong bias against both fair elections, and very little motive for anyone to strive for absolute honesty in vote-counting.”
Also worth reading: Transcript of a Democracy Now! interview with two lefties who have taken different sides of the “did Kerry win Ohio?” debate.
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