American elections never play out perfectly. But the dramatic imperfections in the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, as detailed in a series of letters and reports circulated by Representative John Conyers (www.house.gov/conyers), deserved a far more serious response than they received from most Congressional Democrats. Conyers got his information the old-fashioned way: by listening. When Ohioans began to raise concerns about irregularities in the approach of Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell–a Bush campaign apparatchik–to conducting the election and counting the votes in the contest that ultimately decided the race between Bush and John Kerry, they initially got more encouragement from Greens and Libertarians than from national Democrats. But Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, took the complaints seriously enough to go to Ohio. There, he and minority staffers for the Judiciary Committee conducted hearings and investigations that reached two basic conclusions: First, voting and vote-counting procedures in Ohio were so flawed that citizens were disenfranchised; second, legitimate questions about the problems with the Ohio vote have yet to be fully resolved. Accordingly, Conyers announced that he would object to the certification of the results from Ohio when Congress met to review and approve Electoral College votes on January 6.
Conyers found a handful of allies among House Democrats, mostly from the Congressional Black Caucus, but he had less luck in the Senate, where at press time only one senator–California’s Barbara Boxer–was considering signing on. At least one backer is required to sustain a formal objection. If sustained, the objection would force a full debate in both House and Senate on whether to count Ohio’s votes for George W. Bush, although in the end those Republican-controlled chambers would have defended Bush’s claim.)
The events surrounding the certification question offered an eerie echo of 2001, when members of the Congressional Black Caucus tried to object to the certification of electoral votes from Florida, only to be ruled out of order because no senator backed their complaint. The scene of African-American members being gaveled into silence was one of the most powerful moments in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and it was impossible to imagine that it would ever be repeated. Yet this year Conyers, the senior African-American in Congress, pled for a chance “to debate and highlight the problems in Ohio which disenfranchised innumerable voters.”
It is important to note the language Conyers used. He was not calling for overturning the election of George W. Bush. Rather, he was suggesting that, based on the evidence of voter disenfranchisement, flawed or corrupted voting machinery and improper procedures for counting and recounting votes in Ohio, it was inappropriate for Congress simply to rubber-stamp the decisions of Blackwell and other Ohio officials. Ultimately, that objection never had a chance to get beyond the debating stage. But Conyers was right to argue that a formal objection needed to be made, and that the objection should be broadly supported by Democrats–and honest Republicans–in both the House and Senate. That it was not is a sad statement about the seriousness with which most Democrats took their party’s pledge to “count all the votes this time”–and about the prospects for reform of erratic and unequal voting systems that, as Conyers and his aides have ably illustrated, are prone to abuses that undermine confidence in America’s democratic experiment.