Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman examine continued problems with fair elections in Ohio. (Photo: current.com)
As the sun sets on Bush 2, it is clear that a very thin line of electoral protection preserved Barack Obama's victory in Ohio - and the nation.
And it's no accident the vote count battle for a Columbus-area Congressional seat still rages.
The GOP's 2008 electoral strategy again emphasized massive voter disenfranchisement and rigging the electronic vote count. The twin tactics very nearly gave Ohio to McCain/Palin, and threatened to set precedents capable of winning them the national election.
Prior to the 2004 vote, Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell stripped some 308,000 Ohio citizens from the registration rolls in heavily Democratic districts. This mass disenfranchisement alone may have accounted for the 118,000-plus official margin that gave George W. Bush a second term in the White House.
After the 2004 vote, Blackwell disenfranchised another 170,000 voters in heavily Democratic Franklin County (Columbus).
But in 2006, Democrat Jennifer Brunner was elected to replace Blackwell. Ironically, the King-Lincoln-Bronzeville federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Blackwell over 2004 election irregularities has carried over, making Brunner the defendant (we are plaintiff and defendant in that suit). As a result, negotiations between Brunner and election protection attorneys have been on-going since she took office.
In the lead-up to the 2008 elections, the GOP tried yet another massive voter purge. Through the "caging" technique of sending unsolicited "do not forward" junk mail, GOP operatives obtained by returned mail the names of some 600,000 registered Ohio voters. Some were serving in Iraq. Also, the GOP once again fought to purge voters for "inactivity" as they sought to eliminate voters who hadn't voted in four-years as opposed to eight, even if they voted in state and local elections....
The GOP demanded the right to disenfranchise these voters. But Brunner directed that each was entitled to notice and an individual in-person hearing.
As Greg Palast and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., have reported, the GOP used similar caging throughout the US, aimed at millions of likely Democratic voters.
The GOP also went after 200,000 new Ohio voters whose registrations showed minor discrepancies. Included were variations in social security and drivers' license numbers, or changes in middle names, nicknames and addresses.
But Brunner fought to protect these names from GOP challenge, and was upheld by the US Supreme Court, who refused to hear the GOP case prior to the election.
Based on projected demographic and voter turnout statistics, the elimination of these four-fifths of a million voters (some 5.4 million votes were counted in Ohio 2008) could have shifted a 200,000-vote victory for Obama to a 40,000-vote triumph for McCain. This projection is based on a conservative estimate that 80% of these targeted voters vote Democratic and 50% would have turned out to vote.
Partly in response to pressure from election protection activists, Brunner also facilitated early and absentee voting. Polling stations opened by September 30 throughout the state. Despite GOP efforts, a full week was available to those who wished to register and vote at the same time. As least 25% of Ohio's voters cast their ballots prior to Election Day. By most accounts these votes went overwhelmingly for Obama. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Democrats outvoted Republicans 12-1 in early voting.
Brunner also tried to make paper ballots available to all voters who wanted them. Under often dubious financial arrangements with a direct conflict of interest as a stockholder, Blackwell installed Diebold electronic voting machines designed to account for as many as half Ohio's 2008 votes.
But the GOP-controlled legislature manipulated the finances behind the push for paper ballots. Ohio's 88 counties eventually provided enough of them for at least 25% of the voters. But so many voted early that reports now indicate there were ultimately enough paper ballots at the Election Day polling stations for nearly all who wanted them.
Other GOP attempts at disenfranchisement also fell flat. When the Republican sheriff of Greene County attempted to prosecute 304 students (many of them African-American) for "voter fraud" he ignited a massive public outcry. At issue was the common confusion over whether a student will vote at home or at college. Under widespread attack, the sheriff backed off. But students at public universities and liberal arts colleges throughout the rest of the state reported GOP harassment.
Despite widespread attempts to avoid them, there were 186,000 provisional ballots cast in Ohio 2008, some 40,000 more than the 141,000 cast in 2004 (16,000 of which have never been counted). Independent observers reported on-going confusion about the use of provisional ballots, largely attributed to poor pollworker training.
A federal database used to check driver's license information went down for nearly three hours on Election Day due to what the Ohio Department of Public Safety said was "a large fiber-optic cable being cut in Texas."
Despite an increase of 319,000 registered Ohio voters in 2008 over 2004, the official turnout was actually lower. Barack Obama received 22,000 fewer votes than John Kerry. John McCain got 317,000 fewer than Bush. Election protection experts attribute this to a selective GOP padding of the 2004 vote count, especially in three heavily Republican southwestern counties where irregularities and improbabilities abounded.
An observer in Miami County reported that a Republican election director illegally forced recently-moved citizens to vote provisionally. In Franklin County, pollbooks wrongly identified 35,000 voters as provisional. Four black voters in Fairfield County reported being purged despite stable long-term residencies. The Republican-connected company Triad, infamous for its secretive work on central tabulators in 2004, emerged in the majority of Ohio counties as the keeper of electronic pollbooks for the boards of elections.
While these and other irregularities bruised the election, there were far fewer than reported in 2004. The presence of hundreds of well-trained and equipped election protection volunteers throughout the state seem to have staved off any GOP attempt to repeat the massive disenfranchisement that gave the 2004 Ohio vote count to George W. Bush. Key Ohio polling stations were graced with independent election observers appointed by the Green Party. Independent video-the-vote teams, nonpartisan election observers, and Obama supporters were placed outside the polls documenting all that happened. With an apparently workable distribution of voting machines and sufficient paper ballots as a backup (along with a clear sunny day) the horrors of long lines in Ohio's 2004 election were avoided in 2008.
The Ohio vote count also seems to have been successfully protected. In Licking County, a voter reported that his paper ballot was put in a bag without an envelope. In Youngstown, Joyce Stewart reports being given a paper ballot that had no place to choose a president.
E-voting machines in three Columbus precincts double-counted votes. In heavily Democratic Lucas County, four out of eight e-voting machines in precinct 20, recorded no votes for president, while recording far higher vote counts for such minor offices as county coroner.
The poll judge in Columbus precinct 25G tried to have legitimate exit pollers arrested. In Trumbull County, Warner Lange observed that "all of the votes cast using a paper ballot between the hours of 6:30am and 8:15 am are invalid because none of the voters were asked, as required, to sign the pollbook."
In Hamilton and Franklin Counties (Cincinnati and Columbus) early and absentee ballots were not counted on Election Night, as originally planned. It took three hours after the polls closed for Union County election officials to get their ballots scanned. Terry Grimm reported that "everything was wrong" coming from the Summit County town of Barberton, causing a delayed tabulation.
Kevin Egler in Portage County reported that after 2800 votes were scanned on election night, a "corrupted card signal" came out, forcing election officials to start the vote count over.
Ultimately, despite Brunner's attempts to get rid of them, hundreds of thousands of votes were again cast and counted on electronic voting machines with no paper trail and no way to do a reliable recount.
But missing this time was an electronic theft apparatus under the control of Blackwell and Karl Rove.
On Election Night 2004, Blackwell e-mailed Ohio's electronic vote count to a basement in Chattanooga, Tennessee that also housed the servers for the Republican National Committee. The tally "miraculously" shifted from Kerry to Bush between 12:30 and 2 am, ultimately giving Bush a second term.
The data was handled under a state contract funneled by Blackwell to Michael Connell, a shadowy Bush family IT specialist who programmed the official Bush-Cheney website in 2000 and 2004.
On the day before the 2008 election, Connell was forced to testify under oath under cross-examination by King-Lincoln-Bronzeville attorneys Cliff Arnebeck and Bob Fitrakis. Among the questions at issue was whether Connell left any "Trojan Horse" programs in place in the Ohio electronic vote count structure through which he could have hacked the 2008 outcome.
There has yet to be a definitive answer to that question, or to what he actually may have done to the 2004 vote count. But, for what it's worth, Karl Rove did shift his predictions from a McCain victory to one for Obama shortly after the federal court agreed to force Connell to testify.
There may be much to celebrate in the apparent legitimacy of the Ohio 2008 vote count.
But half the state's ballots are still slated to be cast on electronic voting machines whose source codes remain under private lock and key. There is no guarantee Ohio voters will have universal access to paper ballots in future elections. In direct violation of federal law, no fewer than 56 of Ohio's 88 counties destroyed all or most of their federal election records after the 2004 election, making a definitive recount impossible. There have been no state or federal prosecutions.
The "minor" irregularities and attempted voter disenfranchisements observed in Ohio 2008 were repeated throughout the US, and could easily resurface in future elections if they are not again thoroughly observed.
And in Columbus, the Republicans are right now suing Brunner to throw out thousands of provisional ballots cast in a Congressional race still in hot dispute. Incredibly, the GOP is operating on inside information fed it by Franklin County assistant BOE director Matt Damshroder.
Damshroder accepted a $10,000 check in his BOE office from a Diebold representative. The check was made out to the Republican Party. Damshroder was given a one-month paid suspension for this in 2005. With Democratic assent, he remains a key player in the vote count that will determine whether heavily Democratic Franklin County could be stopped from sending its first Democrat to Congress since 1980.
Nationwide the GOP successfully disenfranchised millions of likely voters in Election 2008. Easily hacked, un-monitorable e-voting machines are still spread throughout the United States. The opportunities to steal future elections that are certain to be far tighter than 2008 remain readily available.
Much has been learned in the Bush era of the Unelected President. There is simply no doubt that the thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly to protect the election of 2008 in Ohio and throughout the nation in fact prevented the GOP from stealing yet another one.
But unless this administration implements automatic voter registration, universal hand counted paper ballots, the total elimination of electronic voting machines, expanded windows for voting and a far more secure system of impartial citizen observation, the specter of still more stolen elections will haunt our democracy.
Indeed, we will still have to wonder if that's what we really have here.
Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman's four co-authored books on election protection include "How the GOP Stole America's 2004 Election & Is Rigging 2008," and "As Goes Ohio," both available at www.freepress.org, where this article first appeared. Their next and final book and movie on the topic are in the works. Their radio shows are broadcast at WVKO 1580AM, central Ohio's Air America affiliate.