Last month I sat with several hundred journalism colleagues as former President Bill Clinton addressed the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' annual conference in Little Rock, Ark. He took questions from the audience, and one concerned the June 1 Rolling Stone article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?"
"I thought Robert Kennedy made a very persuasive case," Clinton replied, saying that before he read the article he was convinced that President Bush had won Ohio in 2004. "And what was clear is that the Secretary of State (Ken Blackwell), now (the Republicans') candidate for governor, was a world class expert in voter suppression and that he was doing everything he could to keep voters that he thought were Democrats from voting, in every way that he could.
"And I think that is wrong. And I hope that the voters of Ohio will repudiate it. I mean, you know, we ought to be in the business of getting more people to vote, not fewer."
After his remarks, while shaking hands and signing autographs, Clinton was asked by a woman from the alt weekly in Athens if he'd be coming to Ohio this fall to campaign for Democrats Ted Strickland (running against Blackwell for governor) and Sherrod Brown (running against Senate incumbent Mike DeWine). Saying he certainly would, Clinton moved along to sign another autograph, paused and turned back to the woman.
"Do Ohio voters really know how bad Ken Blackwell is?" he asked her.
I was standing behind her, and I sort of shrugged. Clinton moved on, and I've been trying to figure out the answer to his question ever since.
As Clinton said, Kennedy makes a persuasive case that Blackwell conjured up a perfect storm of dirty tricks, partisan politics and incompetence that casts doubt on the real outcome of the 2004 presidential race in Ohio. And, as we all know, Ohio's electoral votes sealed Bush's victory over Sen. John Kerry.
Kennedy's final conclusion is that at least 357,000 Ohio voters, the vast majority of them Democrats, were prevented from casting ballots or didn't have their votes counted in 2004 -- enough to have changed an election in which Bush carried the state by 118,600 votes.
I can't do the article justice with a brief summary -- the online version featured 208 footnotes -- but here are Kennedy's major points:
· Final vote tallies differed widely from what exit polls had predicted, leading statisticians and pollsters to conclude that vote fraud was the only explanation.
Based on exit polls, CNN had predicted Kerry would win Ohio by 4.2 percent.
· Blackwell's dual role as Secretary of State, the person in charge of running fair elections, and co-chair of Bush's re-election committee in Ohio gave him the opportunity and the means to influence the election.
· The Republican Party organized a strike force in Ohio to surpress turnout, from purging urban voter lists to intimidating voters in person on Election Day.
· Voter registration efforts were thwarted by Blackwell and local Republican officials. Particularly troublesome were actions in Toledo, where Democratic registrations went unprocessed under the supervision of Stark County Board of Elections Chair Bernadette Noe, whose husband, Tom Noe, later was indicted for money laundering schemes with both the Taft and Bush administrations.
· Blackwell issued such conflicting and confusing orders about provisional ballots -- a key aspect of federal legislation resulting from the 2000 Florida debacle -- that tens of thousands of provisional ballots (cast mostly by African Americans) were rejected.
· Allocation of voting machines per precinct caused long waits in many polling places, ultimately resulting in 3 percent of all Ohio voters who showed up on Election Day leaving without voting. Statewide, blacks waited an average of 52 minutes to vote while whites waited an average of 18 minutes.
· A recount of all 88 Ohio counties -- initiated by the Green and Libertarian parties after Kerry conceded the election -- was compromised in several counties, calling into question the entire process.
The article makes your toes curl and your face flush as you read it, shredding your faith in the one holy truth remaining in our aggressively polarized and dysfunctional political system -- your vote counts. We're already cynical about why we fight wars, what politicians do in office, why laws are passed, who the tax code benefits and just about everything else; do we now give up trusting that elections themselves are fair and square?
The story has generated tons of response, from liberals still angry that Kerry conceded too quickly in Ohio to conservatives who think Kennedy and his ilk are sore-loser conspiracy theorists to others who debate and question Kennedy's conclusions to Democratic bigwigs who think they have a Republican scandal to flog in this fall's elections. (If you haven't read it yet, find the story at www.rollingstone.com under the Politics Archive section.)
Blackwell is the easy target of everyone's rage, and justifiably so. In a perfect world, he'd be dragged out of his Columbus office and made to answer for his crimes.
The real world is a bit more nuanced, of course, and no one understands that better than Dan Hoffheimer, the one person in Cincinnati who probably knows everything about the 2004 election (other than Blackwell). A partner in the downtown law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, Hoffheimer was legal counsel to Kerry/Edwards in Ohio, representing the campaign in post-election litigation surrounding the recount.
"The election smelled bad and had a lot of problems, but we couldn't prove there was fraud," he says. "The laws in Ohio are set up to give the Secretary of State leeway to carry out the election administrative process as he sees fit. The bottom line is that all the bad things Blackwell did in 2004 were done within our legal system."
State law, for instance, allows the Secretary of State to serve as chair of a candidate's election campaign -- "conflict of interest in the highest degree," Hoffheimer calls it. But those are the rules, and Blackwell is an ambitious partisan politician who learned from Katherine Harris, Florida's Secretary of State in 2000, how to use the rules to his and his party's advantage.
Still, just because something's legal doesn't make it right. Some would say that about the death penalty, others would say it about abortion.
Hoffheimer says it about the man who was responsible for ensuring that all of our votes counted and who failed: "Ohio voters should hold Blackwell accountable for what he did in 2004."
Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com