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A Prosecutor's Moment of Truth

By Kevin Osborne · October 22nd, 2008 · Porkopolis

As Republicans become increasingly desperate about John McCain’s prospects on Election Day, reasonable people are asking whether Joe Deters’ position as McCain’s Southwest Ohio campaign chairman is influencing his actions in his day job as Hamilton County prosecutor.

Deters, a loyal Republican who’s served on many GOP campaigns, recently launched an investigation into county residents who registered to vote and cast a ballot at the same time during the period that was allowed, Sept. 30-Oct. 6.

The so-called “early voting window” was created when the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a sloppily written law in 2005 that enabled all Ohio residents to vote absentee. In their haste, lawmakers inadvertently allowed a week-long period when voters could register and vote all at once.

Ohio is a hotly contested battleground state that proved crucial in the 2004 presidential election and could be the deciding factor again this year. If even a few hundred ballots are ruled ineligible here and cast out, Ohio’s 20 electoral votes could go to a different candidate and swing the race.

With most polls showing McCain trailing Democrat Barack Obama, Republicans are once again dusting off overblown allegations about voter registration fraud in an attempt to suppress turnout at the polls.

Anti-Bush sentiment and Obama’s historic candidacy have caused a huge surge in new Democratic voter registrations this year, and an anxious Ohio Republican Party recently tried to lessen its impact by asking the courts to block the early voting window. But a federal appeals court judge rejected the GOP’s request, as did the Ohio Supreme Court, which is led by a Republican majority.

About the same time, the Ohio Republican Party asked the U.S. Supreme Court to force Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to double-check the identities of hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters.

Supposedly worried about fraud, the GOP wanted Brunner to cross-check the names of people who registered to vote or updated registrations since Jan. 1 against a state driver’s license database. She would then have to tell Ohio’s 88 boards of election how to deal with people whose data doesn’t match up. The U.S. Supreme Court refused.

Deters then stepped into the fray.

Under his authority as county prosecutor, he issued a subpoena to get the complete registration records for about 40 percent of the 610 Hamilton County voters who registered and cast a ballot on the same day. The records include personal information such as driver’s license numbers or the last four digits of Social Security numbers.

The state GOP earlier had sought the same information for all Ohio voters who used the early voting window. Because the party’s request doesn’t have the same power as a subpoena, however, it wouldn’t necessarily get the personal data.

Deters cited unspecified “numerous credible complaints of voter irregularity” to justify the probe. Meanwhile, local election officials say they didn’t file a complaint.

Sensing a backlash to his partisan shenanigans, Deters announced two days later he would hand control of the probe over to special prosecutor Mike O’Neill, a registered Republican who used to work for Deters. This is independent oversight?

Detectives often look at patterns of behavior when investigating misconduct and determining motivation. With that in mind, let’s consider some facts about how Deters has handled allegations of voter fraud in the past.

In March 2007 he indicted two petition circulators and charged them with election fraud but didn’t seek to indict the backers of the petition campaign, who were Republicans. The case involved a failed attempt a year earlier to overturn a Cincinnati law that prohibits discrimination against gay people.

The two circulators, both women, were blamed for falsifying some signatures on petitions in an attempt to get the referendum on the ballot. But Deters decided not to prosecute the alteration of more than 1,000 addresses of voters so they would match registration data while the petitions were in the custody of State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mount Lookout). Brinkman was paid $40,000 to gather the signatures.

Deters also decided last spring not to investigate when numerous local Republican voters clearly violated Ohio elections law to vote in the contested Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton and keep their race unresolved for as long as possible. Taking their cue from radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos,” almost 13,000 Republican voters in Hamilton County switched their party affiliation so they could vote the Democratic ticket.

Under Ohio law, the ballot that a person casts in a primary election determines his or her party affiliation. Voters must also fill out and sign Form 10W, which says the person supports the principles of that particular party. The designation remains in place until the next partisan primary in 2010.

But numerous Republicans defaced the forms by writing things like, “For Today Only” and “I am voting for whom I wish regardless of party affiliation.” Party-hopping for such dubious reasons is illegal, but it prompted nary a peep from Deters.

Meanwhile, Progress Ohio, a Democrat-leaning group, called on the Franklin County Board of Elections to investigate and refer to its prosecutor evidence that out-of-state McCain/Palin campaign workers have registered to vote in Ohio with no intent to stay in-state afterward, as is required by law. What a mess. The Cincinnati Enquirer detailed yet another opportunity for Deters to show he’s serious about cracking down on voter fraud. An analysis of voter rolls by reporter Greg Korte found four police officers registered to vote by listing their addresses as Cincinnati Police District 1 headquarters, and some have apparently done so since the early 1990s. Some deputies in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office have done likewise, but it’s illegal to use a work address on voter registration forms.

Some quirks and glitches are common in every election, but here’s a telling difference between the two major political parties: Democrats generally try to expand the voter base, trying to empower more citizens, and make some mistakes along the way. Republicans often use systemic efforts to suppress the vote and keep certain demographic groups — like minorities and the poor — from participating.

Which is worse?


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