The End of Democracy in Ohio?
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A law that will make democracy all but moot in Ohio is about to pass the state legislature and to be signed by its Republican governor. Despite massive corruption scandals besieging the Ohio GOP, any hope that the Democratic party could win this most crucial swing state in future presidential elections, or carry its pivotal U.S. Senate seat in 2006, are about to end.
House Bill 3 has already passed the Ohio House of Representatives and is about to be approved by the Republican-dominated Senate, probably before the holiday recess. Republicans dominate the Ohio legislature thanks to a heavily gerrymandered crazy quilt of rigged districts, and to a moribund Ohio Democratic party. The GOP-drafted HB3 is designed to all but obliterate any possible future Democratic revival. Opposition from the Ohio Democratic Party, where it exists at all, is diffuse and ineffectual.
HB3's most publicized provision will require positive identification before casting a vote. But it also opens voter registration activists to partisan prosecution, exempts electronic voting machines from public scrutiny, quintuples the cost of citizen-requested statewide recounts and makes it illegal to challenge a presidential vote count or, indeed, any federal election result in Ohio. When added to the recently passed HB1, which allows campaign financing to be dominated by the wealthy and by corporations, and along with a Rovian wish list of GOP attacks on the ballot box, democracy in Ohio could be all but over.
The GOP is ramming similar bills through state legislatures around the U.S., starting with Georgia and Indiana. The ID requirements in particular have provoked widespread opposition from newspapers such as the New York Times. The Times, among others, argues that the ID requirements and the costs associated with them, constitute an unconstitutional discriminatory poll tax.
But despite significant court challenges, the Republicans are forcing changes in long-standing election laws that have allowed citizens to vote based on their signature alone. Across the U.S., GOP Jim Crow laws will eliminate millions of Democratic voters from the registration rolls. In swing states like Ohio, such ballots are almost certain to be crucial.
The proposed Ohio law will demand a valid photo ID or a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck or a government document with a current address. Thousands of Ohio citizens who are elderly, homeless, unemployed or who do not drive will be effectively disenfranchised. Many citizens, for example, rent apartments where the utilities are paid by landlords. In such cases, the number of people living in utilities-included apartment rentals could actually determine an election.
During the 2004 presidential election, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State, J. Kenneth Blackwell, also issued statewide threats against ex-felons and people whose names resembled those of ex-felons. Thousands of such threats were delivered to registered voters who were never convicted of anything, or who were eligible to vote after being released from prison. In 2004 a "Mighty Texas Strike Force" came to Columbus with a specific mandate to threaten ex-felons with arrest if they dared to vote.
It is legal for ex-felons in Ohio to vote, even if they are in half-way houses or on parole. But HB3's identification requirement, combined with the confusion Blackwell has introduced into the process, will intimidate such Ohioans from voting in 2006 and beyond.
HB3 will also reduce voter rolls by ordering county boards of elections to send cards to registered voters every two years. If a card comes back as undelivered, the voter must rely on a provisional ballot. But tens of thousands of provisional ballots were arbitrarily discarded in 2004, and some 16,000 are known to remain uncounted to this day.
HB3 also imposes severe restrictions on voter registration drives. It allows the state attorney-general and local prosecutors wide powers to prosecute vaguely defined charges of fraud against those working to sign up voters. The restrictions are clearly meant to chill the kind of Democratic registration drives that brought hundreds of thousands of new voters to the polls in 2004 (even though many were turned away in Democratic wards due to a lack of voting machines).
Those electronic machines will also be exempted from recounts by random sampling, even in close, disputed elections like those of 2000 and 2004.
In 2004, scores of Ohio voters reported, under oath, that they had pressed John Kerry's name on touchscreen machines, only to see George W. Bush's name light up. A board of elections technician in Mahoning County (Youngstown) has admitted that at least 18 machines there suffered such problems. Sworn testimony in Columbus indicates that votes for Kerry faded off the screen on touchscreen machines there. Other charges of mis-programming, re-programming, recalibrating, mishandling and manipulation of electronic voting software, hardware and memory cards have since arisen throughout Ohio 2004.
For the 2005 election, some 41 additional Ohio counties (of 88) were switched to Diebold touchscreen machines. Despite polls showing overwhelming voter approval, two electoral reform issues went down improbable defeat. Issue Two, meant to make voting easier, and Issue Three, on campaign finance reform, were shown by highly reliable Columbus Dispatch polls to be passing handily.
The Dispatch was within 0.5% on Issue One, a bond issue, and has rarely been significantly wrong in its many decades of Ohio polling. Even opponents of Issues Two and Three conceded that they were highly likely to pass.
On the Sunday before the Tuesday 2005 election, the Dispatch predicted Issue Two would pass by a vote of 59% to 33%, with about 8% undecided. But Tuesday's official vote count showed Issue Two failing with just 36.5% in favor and 63.5% opposed. For that to have happened, the Dispatch had to have been wrong on Issue Two's support by more than 20 points. Nearly half those who said they would support Issue Two would have had to vote against it, along with all the undecideds.
The numbers on Issue Three are equally startling. The Dispatch showed it winning with 61%, to just 25% opposed and some 14% undecided. Instead just 33% of the votes were counted in its favor, with 67% opposed, an almost inconceivable weekend turnaround.
No other numbers were comparable on November 8, 2005, or elsewhere in the recent history of Dispatch polling. The startling outcome has thus raised even more suspicion and doubt about the use of electronic voting and tabulating machines in Ohio, which account for virtually 100% of the state's vote count.
The federal General Accountability Office (GAO) has recently issued a major report confirming that tampering with and manipulating such machines can be easily done by a very small number of people. Charges are widespread that this is precisely what gave George W. Bush Ohio's electoral votes, and thus the presidency, in 2004, not to mention the suspicious referenda outcomes in 2005.
HB3 will make it virtually impossible for any challenge to be mounted involving any votes cast or counted on electronic machines or tabulators -- meaning virtually every vote cast in Ohio.
Indeed, HB3 will raise the cost of mounting a recount from $10 per precinct to $50 per precinct. In 2004, Secretary of State Blackwell forced citizen groups to raise private funds for a recount, which he proceeded to sabotage. The process, which became a futile electronic charade, cost donors committed to democracy more than $100,000. Three partial, meaningless faux recounts resulted. To date more than 100,000 votes cast in Ohio remain uncounted, including some 93,000 easily-read machine-rejected ballots. .
During the 2004 election process Blackwell, manipulated the number of precincts in Ohio, and issued inaccurate information about their location and boundaries, making a meaningful precise number hard to come by. But with more than 10,000 precincts still in existence, HB3 would make funding an attempt at another recount in 2006 or 2008 cost more than $500,000.
Such an effort might also result in official retaliation. In 2004, Blackwell and Ohio Attorney-General Jim Petro -- both of whom are now Republican candidates for governor -- tried to impose stiff financial sanctions against attorneys who filed a legal challenge to the seating of the Ohio electors who gave George W. Bush the presidency. The Ohio Supreme Court disallowed the sanctions after the challenge was withdrawn. But HB3 would make such a federal election challenge illegal altogether.
With the electoral process in Ohio all but disemboweled, those hoping for a change of party in upcoming state and national elections are probably kidding themselves.
The 2004 election in the Buckeye state was riddled with deception, fraud, intimidation, manipulation and outright theft, all of which were essential to the triumph of George W. Bush. In 2005, four electoral reform ballot initiatives were allegedly defeated despite huge poll margins showing the almost certain passage of two of them. The most credible explanation for their defeat lies in electronic manipulation of voting machines, tabulators and memory cards which the GAO confirms have no credible security safeguards.
With campaign finance, voter registration, electronic voting, public recounts, district gerrymandering and overall electoral administration now firmly in the pocket of the GOP, and with Democratic opposition that is virtually non-existent on the issue of vote fraud and election manipulation, there is little reason to believe the Republican grip on Ohio will be loosened at any point in the near future.
In traditional terms, the scandal-ridden Ohio GOP would appear to be more vulnerable than ever. Governor Robert Taft has become the only Ohio governor to be convicted of a crime while in office. With an astonishing 7% approval rating, he has been compared to Homer Simpson by the state's leading Republican newspaper. Republican US Senator Mike DeWine appears highly vulnerable. The GOP has never won the White House without winning the Buckeye State.
But HB3 will solidify the GOP's iron grip on the electronic voting process and all that surrounds it. Unless they break that grip, Democrats who believe they can carry any part of Ohio in 2006 or 2008 are kidding themselves.
When it comes to 2008, can you say "Jeb Bush"?