mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Was Ohio Stolen in 2004 or Wasn’t It?

Book Reviews by Mark Hertsgaard

Did George W. Bush Steal Americas 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 Republican House Speaker
Dennis Hastert put it, only the “loony left” claims otherwise? Or is
it because, as some on the left argue, there is 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 to prevail
nationwide. For example, thousands of 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 Democrat John
Kerry—and increased the number of machines in white suburban
precincts, which tended to favor Bush. As a result, at least 15,000
voters in Franklin County left without casting ballots, the Post
estimated—a significant amount in an election Bush won by only
118,775 votes (out of 5.6 million cast). But except for one-day
stories in the 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broader investigations, or if they did, the results went unpublished.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 wasn’t going to do it for him.

Thus the job of raising questions was 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 co-authored two books: Did George W. Bush Steal
the 2004 Election?: Essential Documents
, self-published in 2005, and
How the GOP Stole the 2004 Election and Is Rigging 2008, due in 2006
from The New Press.

One prominent skeptic who relied on their work is John Conyers, the
veteran liberal from Detroit and ranking minority member of the House
Judiciary Committee. In December 2004, Conyers launched an
investigation whose findings were forwarded to all members of Congress
and published as a paperback, What Went Wrong In Ohio. Critic Mark
Crispin Miller draws heavily on the Conyers report in his new book,
Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They’ll
Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them).

If you take what the skeptics say at face value, it sure sounds like
Bush stole the election. One Ohio county cited a non-existent FBI
terrorist warning to justify counting votes in secret. Another added
19,000 votes to its tally after all precincts had reported while
claiming that 98.55 percent of the electorate had voted, “a Saddam
Hussein-like turnout,” hooted Vanity Fair columnist Christopher
Hitchens. As in Florida in 2000, the official in charge of Ohio’s
voting rules and tabulation, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, was
also a co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign. And he acted like it,
even barring international observers from polling places, a move that
would discredit any Third World election in the eyes of the world.

There is more—lots more—to the skeptics’ case. But how well does it
check out in the real world? To find out, I did some reporting of my
own, starting with one of their star witnesses.

The Tragic Tale of the Dead Computer

Sherole Eaton is a 65 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 9, 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 Eaton and her staff prepare for the
upcoming statewide recount of presidential ballots. According to
Eaton’s subsequent affidavit, 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, worked on both machines, and then pronounced the original
computer ready for the recount. He then instructed Eaton and the board
of elections director, Republican Lisa Schwartz, on how to construct a
“cheat sheet” so the hand-recount would match the official tally.
Barbian allegedly said he made similar service calls in five other
Ohio counties.

To skeptics, this episode highlights one of the main ways the election
was stolen: manipulation of the computers that recorded and tabulated
ballots. According to the Free Press, 15 percent of Ohio’s ballots—an
amount seven times greater than Bush’s victory margin—were cast on
electronic machines provided by companies with ties to the Republican
party, including Triad. True, a limited hand recount was held, but it
was a sham, skeptics say. They point to the indictment in September of
two Cuyahoga County election officials for offenses including a
failure to select the recount precincts randomly. Eaton made the same
accusation and, as if to clinch the argument, was later fired.

When Eaton’s 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 Eaton’s 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 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 says Schwartz had long wanted
to get rid of her “because I stood up to her.” Schwartz refused to
comment.

None of the skeptics hint at this more nuanced version of Eaton’s
story. What’s more, the Conyers report says the Triad company
“essentially admitted” to providing cheat sheets to Ohio counties.
That’s news to Triad. Barbian didn’t respond to my phone messages, but
Triad CEO Brett Rapp insists that “no tampering whatsoever took place”
and that Triad proved it to authorities by re-running the exercise for
them.

Skeptics note that Rapp is a contributor to the Republican party. But
figures listed in the Conyers report show his donations averaged about
$400 a year since 1998—hardly a high roller.

The Terrorist Threat That Never Was

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?

The Weirdness of the Wayward Votes

What about Miami County, site of the Hussein-like voter turnout and
19,000 mystery votes? Roger Kearney, a contract employee who manages
the Miami County website, says he understands what aroused the
skeptics suspicion. The problem is that Miami County considers a
precinct to be “reporting” as soon as a single vote is reported. Thus,
when Kearney was posting results on election night, both his
next-to-last and his last post of the night said that 100 percent of
precincts were reporting. “The reason the last report had 19,000 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,
by the way,” says Kearney, “and I told him I’d be glad to find fraud
here and turn the election around, but that didn’t happen.”

The county’s board of elections director Steve Quillen says he had a
similar experience with a Vanity Fair fact checker who called him
about the Hitchens article. Yes, Quillen acknowledges, 98.55 and 94.27
percent turnouts were reported, but only in two of the county’s 82
precincts. What’s more, Quillen caught the errors on Election Night
and corrected them before the official tally was announced a week
later. “I explained all that to a fact checker at Vanity Fair and was
ignored,” says Quillen, adding that Hitchens himself never called him.

Other dubious results also appear to have been caught and corrected,
including 4,258 votes cast in a precinct near Columbus that had only
638 registered voters and a negative 25 million votes initially
reported in Mahoning County. Mahoning County’s board of elections tech
specialist, Chris Rakocy, also offered 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 the 1,148 machines [used] on
Election Day,” says Rakocky, adding that the problems were quickly
corrected. He says that even on faulty machines, voters could check
their ballots and correct any mistaken entries, just like when
withdrawing money from an ATM.

The Pro-Gay Judge and Her Republican Fans

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 132,685 less votes
than Bush did. But Kerry also got 5,000 votes less than C. Ellen
Connolly, the Democratic candidate for Ohio chief justice. It is
“beyond plausible,” argues the Free Press, that Connolly, an
African-American supporter of gay rights, would do better than the top
of the Democratic ticket did, especially in three Bible Belt counties
that overwhelmingly rejected a gay rights proposition 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 Mike O’Grady, the general counsel to the Ohio
Democratic party. O’Grady, who helped run Connolly’s campaign, agrees
that her results in those counties do “stand out.” But he credits
instead the common eight to ten percentage boost that unknown female
candidates get from voters simply because they are female. And, he
adds, many Ohioans didn’t know that Connolly supported gay rights or
even that she was black—the campaign deliberately downplayed those
facts.

Exit Poll Enigmas

The discrepancy between exit polls and the official results is a key
pillar in the skeptics’ argument: Kerry was projected to win
nationwide by a close but comfortable three 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, 1992 and 2000 U.S. presidential elections.

Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski, the pollsters who oversaw the 2004
exit polls, concluded that the source of their error was an apparent
tendency for some pro-Bush voters to shun exit pollsters’ questions.
“Preposterous,” sneers Mark Crispin Miller, who also sees trickery in
the adjusting of exit polls after the election to match the official
tally, 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?

And how do skeptics explain New Hampshire? The state conducted a hand
recount of precincts that skeptics 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 re-located from neighboring Massachusetts to avoid paying
taxes—the kind of electoral anomaly that can confound even the most
persuasive sounding assumptions.

The Mysteriously Misallocated Machines

Other parts of the skeptics’ case are solid, starting with the long
lines that plagued voters in Franklin County (and elsewhere). As the
Washington Post reported, a shortage of voting machines was 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 Damschroeder, the 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.” 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. “It led to long lines that
caused people to give up on voting.”

Also indisputable is that Damschroeder accepted a $10,000 check for
the 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 for the Bush-Cheney
campaign, pledged in a 2003 fundraising letter “to deliver the state
of Ohio” for Bush. Damschroeder 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 a tiny fraction of Ohio counties.

Paper Weight, Purges and Purloined Votes

But Damschroeder’s transgressions pale beside those of his boss,
Secretary of State Blackwell. 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 anonymous state officials
alerted newspapers that Blackwell’s own office was supplying forms on
60-pound stock paper. The bad publicity forced him to back down.

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’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 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
[consecutive] 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. “Is it a big conspiracy if Republicans want to
eliminate the first two of those three records?” he asks.

Why Was Election 2004 Even Close?

In the end, reasonable people may differ about the strength of the
skeptics’ case. As for me, I come away persuaded that, at the very
least, Ohio 2004 was not a fair election. Whether by intent,
negligence, or both, Ohio authorities took actions that deprived 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. Thus the election deserves the scrutiny
skeptics brought to it. They shouldered a task that the mainstream
media and government agencies should have assumed—and still should,
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
procedures throughout the nation need fundamental reform. Second, even
if Kerry had won Ohio, the national vote went to Bush by three 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—correctly, in my view—the abolishment of the Electoral College.
Third, the skeptics’ position is weakened by the one-sidedness of
their arguments, TOO MANY ERRORS OF FACT and their frequently
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 theft distracts from other explanations for
the 2004 outcome and, more importantly, what Democrats need to do
differently in the future. Paul Hackett, the Iraq combat veteran, suggests
an answer. Hackett’s unrestrained criticisms of Bush and the war nearly won
him a district that in 2004 chose Bush over Kerry 64 to 36 percent. Lesson:
Democrats can do well, even in staunchly Republican districts, if they give
people a reason to vote for them—an unapologetic alternative.

Do that in 2008, and the vote won’t be close enough to steal.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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