The Coming Ballot Meltdown
Granted, there are those who have insisted since election day that John Kerry was robbed of Ohio's twenty Electoral College votes, and with them the presidency. That argument, though, is almost certainly a stretch, since Bush's official margin of victory of 120,000-odd votes is just too big to be explained away with any confidence. Certainly, most seasoned election observers in Ohio, as well as veterans of the earnest but disorganized Kerry field campaign, tend to dismiss it. (A 30,000 vote margin, given the multiplicity of the reported problems, might have been a very different story.) The problem, in the end, with many of the stolen-election theories is not that they are wrong to assume that Ohio is corrupt; it is that they have misunderstood the nature of that corruption. Many--including Robert Kennedy Jr. writing in the June 1 Rolling Stone--imagine Ken Blackwell as the mastermind of some coordinated Republican Party conspiracy to re-elect Bush, in which the counties fell magically in line with his or the party's directives. The reality, though, is that Blackwell's influence only went so far, and the counties--partly because of the lack of support from the secretary of state's office--acted largely on their own. The county boards of elections were, in turn, stuffed with political appointees from both parties who engaged in struggles of varying degrees of intensity. (The stereotypical image of boards of elections, which may not be that far from the truth, is one where the Democrats are sweet, well-meaning old ladies, and the Republicans are razor-sharp lawyers.) The autonomy and complexity of the counties cannot be overstressed. As Catherine Turcer, legislative director of the anticorruption group Ohio Citizen Action, put it sardonically: "Every county has its own party structure, so you can launder money eighty-eight ways."
In Cuyahoga County--which has been an election management nightmare for decades--one of the two Republican members of the board of elections is Bob Bennett, who also happens to be the state party chair. In Lucas County, in and around Toledo, the chair of the board of elections until early 2005 was Bernadette Noe, the head of the county Republican Party and the wife of Tom Noe, the man who invested $50 million of the state workers' comp fund in a rare coin fund with which he was affiliated, and lost $13 million of it. Noe has also pleaded guilty to laundering $45,000 in Bush re-election funds. Bernadette Noe, meanwhile, behaved so egregiously in the November 2004 election that Blackwell's office launched a rare investigation. It charged her with a panoply of offenses involving Republican Party volunteers under her direction who, before the election, were caught tampering with voter confirmation postcards and, on election night itself, tried to barge into the vote-counting area without authorization. Bernadette Noe was forced to resign shortly afterward, one more in a succession of prominent Ohio Republicans to be disgraced, indicted or hounded from office.
The echo of so many recent scandals makes this a fascinating, pivotal moment in Ohio politics. The Republicans risk losing just about every statewide office this November, from the governorship to Mike DeWine's Senate seat. Some reform-minded members of both parties have seen this moment of transition as a unique opportunity to try to talk their colleagues into thinking beyond short-term party interest and considering some key voting rights issues from a more broadly public point of view. The biggest push has been toward redistricting reform: taking the process of drawing legislative and Congressional boundaries out of the hands of the politicians and handing it to a more independent, or at least bipartisan, panel so elections can become more competitive and more reflective of public opinion. Sadly, the vicious logic of the two-party system has made the prospects for such reform well-nigh impossible.
A year ago it was the Democrats, on the thin end of a 60-to-39 party balance in the Ohio house, who were pushing for a fairer way of carving up districts. Then it was the turn of a citizens' group called Reform Ohio Now, which made the redistricting question the centerpiece of a quartet of campaign-related initiatives it sponsored on last November's ballot. Those initiatives went down in flames, largely because of a concerted effort by Republicans to depict them as partisan Democratic maneuvers in disguise. Most recently it has been a handful of Republicans, notably House Speaker Jon Husted and State Representative Kevin DeWine (Mike's second cousin), who have been pushing their own version of redistricting reform. They argue that they are acting from only the noblest motives. (As DeWine told me, "If you're going to make changes, you do it when you don't know who the players might be.")
The Democrats, however, smell a rat. They reckon they will be able to win a majority of the seats on the state apportionment board--which includes the governor, the secretary of state and the state auditor--ahead of the next round of redistricting, in 2011, and suspect the initiative to be a Republican attempt to salvage something before the tables are turned against them. The Republican proposal was voted down at the end of May, and now appears to be dead. In the end, partisan rancor is prevailing over any kind of rationality. Ed Jerse, campaign manager of the Reform Ohio Now initiatives and a former Democratic state legislator, summarized the prevailing mood among Ohio Democrats this way: "You stuck it to us for twelve years and now that you are about to lose, you invite us into the room and want to be buddy-buddy? Screw that."
The losers in this whole process are, of course, the voters. Where they don't have reason to fear out-and-out political interference in the electoral vote, they can expect incompetence and chaos. Toledo, for example, may have rid itself of Bernadette Noe, but it still had a major meltdown in last November's off-season elections, which it subsequently blamed on the incompetence, lousy software and missed deadlines of its vendor, Diebold. Across the country, alarm bells have been sounded about major security flaws in electronic voting software--one such, in Diebold's TSX system, was described by Pennsylvania's leading voting-machine inspector as "the most severe security flaw ever discovered"--but Ohio appears blissfully unaware of them because of the inattention, bordering on negligence, of its secretary of state's office. Peg Rosenfield, for one, sees things as worse now than at any time in her memory. "It's not that anyone will be out to steal the election necessarily," she remarked. "They don't need to--we can screw it up all by ourselves."