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The decision of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), to sign on to the objection raised Thursday by U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. and other House Democrats to the counting of Ohio's electoral votes from the 2004 presidential election sent a powerful signal that at least some – though certainly not most – Washington Democrats are listening to the grassroots of the party.
The challenge to the Ohio count, while it was based on legitimate concerns about voter disenfranchisement before, during and after the Nov. 2 election, never had a chance to block the ultimate assignment of that state's electoral votes to President Bush. After a short debate, Republican majorities in the House and Senate were always expected to dismiss any objections and assure that President Bush would have a second term. And they moved quickly on Thursday to do precisely that – with the support of most Democrats. The vote in the House was 267 to 31 to reject the challenge; in the Senate only Boxer voted in favor, with 74 other Senators voting against.
But the lodging of a formal objection, and the debates in the House and Senate that followed it, focused attention on the mess that Ohio officials made of the presidential election in that state – and on the lingering questions about the extent to which the problems were intentionally created in order to make it harder for supporters of Democrat John Kerry, particularly those in predominantly minority, urban and low-income precincts, to cast their ballots on Nov. 2.
It also gave activist Democrats and their allies on the left a measure of the extent to which the party that relies so heavily on the votes of African Americans and Latinos will take seriously questions about minority-voter disenfranchisement, flawed voting systems and the partisan mess that local and state election officials frequently make of vote counting and recounting in states across this country.
After two months of work by Greens, Libertarians and groups such as Progressive Democrats of America – which highlighted flaws in the practices and procedures of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell – there was little question that a legitimate case had been made for challenging Ohio's electoral votes during what is usually a perfunctory post-election review by Congress. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, did precisely that with his remarkably detailed and well-reasoned report, "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio."
That report, which was circulated to members of Congress on Wednesday in anticipation of Thursday's formal review of the Electoral College results, bluntly stated that, "We have found numerous, serious irregularities in the Ohio presidential election, which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters. Cumulatively, these irregularities, which affected hundreds of thousands of votes and voters in Ohio, raise grave doubts regarding whether it can be said that Ohio electors selected on December 13, 2004, were chosen in a manner that conforms to Ohio law, let alone federal requirements and constitutional standards."
Conyers and a number of House Democrats were convinced by the evidence of irregularities and disenfranchisement that a formal objection needed to be lodged on Thursday when a joint session of Congress met to review the results. But that objection could only go forward with the signature of at least one senator. As late as Wednesday night, there were serious doubts about whether a senator would sign on – and real fears of a repeat of the scene, portrayed in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11," when members of the Congressional Black Caucus were ruled out of order when they tried to object in 2001 to the certification of electoral votes from the disputed state of Florida.
"A lot of people were asking whether the Democrats in the Senate would ever stand up and be counted in a fight that is really about minority voter disenfranchisement," said Steve Cobble, a veteran aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson who attended hearings in Ohio, where evidence regarding long lines at polling places in minority neighborhoods, inadequate equipment and some instances of intimidation were gathered.
Jackson put that question to senators directly, when he personally lobbied them early in the week, and Michael Moore declared in an open letter to senators that progressives would be watching for them to show more backbone in 2005 than they did in 2001. Most – including Kerry – refused.
But Boxer came through, arguing that she was objecting "to cast the light of truth on a flawed system which must be fixed now."
Ultimately, however, it was Conyers' letters to senators, and the report, that did the convincing – along with thousands of grassroots activists across the country who took the news that the senior Democrat would object to the certification of the Ohio results as a call to action to pressure senators such as Boxer and U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
So there has been progress from 2001 to 2005. But, at this point, it is only symbolic progress – and it is certainly not enough. The real work begins now. The brief debate over certification of the Ohio results cannot be the end of the process. Democrats and, yes, responsible Republicans need to continue to feel the heat if election reform is to be a reality. After the Florida debacle of 2000, a lot of grassroots Democrats said "never again." That sentiment changed the dynamic when Congress was called upon this year to certify electoral votes from a state where serious questions about voter disenfranchisement had yet to be resolved.
Now, the "never again" sentiment needs to be carried forward in a proactive manner that forces not just a debate but action on the fundamental reforms that are needed to repair the erratic, unequal and easily abused voting systems of what is supposed to be the greatest democracy.
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.