Since the 2004 election, charges have swirled about that Ohio election officials somehow rigged the process to re-elect President Bush. These charges have been heavily promoted by liberal activist and author Bob Fitrakis, writing for the Free Press in Columbus. This only makes sense if you buy into the media hype that any one state really determines the outcome of a national election. Ohio has 20 electoral votes out of 538. That Ohio “decided” the outcome of the election is only indicative of the deep division that the United States as a whole experienced in that election.
This is not to say that we did not have some flaws in 2004, but to charge, as J. Arthur Loose did in Vermont Commons, that Ohio’s election procedures resembled those of a “banana republic” are also off-base. First, let me grant that we had our problems. We had an unusually partisan Secretary of State in J. Kenneth Blackwell. While he appears to have served the position well in his first term (1999-2003), he had pent-up ambition for the Governor’s office going back to 1990; which motivated him to seek political alliances through his support for the President’s re-election in 2004. Mr. Fitrakis also notes several anomalies (which I cannot explain away) between the usually accurate Ohio Poll and the voting results for statewide issues in the 2005 election.
I will not defend Mr. Blackwell’s conduct as Secretary of State in either election, but will note that, prior to 2004, there were few complaints about Ohio’s election process. In fact, in 2000, Ohio was generally compared favorably to Florida, even though most counties in both states were using punch-card ballots at the time. Our procedures, while not perfect, were usually effective in protecting the vote from fraud. For example, there was no stage in the elections process, from signing the poll book, to loading the computers at the Board of Elections and the Secretary of State’s office, that was not attended to and approved by at least one Republican and one Democrat, each with a veto power over the other.
What changed was the introduction of advanced electronic voting devices, which were approved in haste to meet Federal deadlines under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The deadlines did not permit States to adequately test the accuracy and ballot security of the devices being promoted. The combination of short deadlines, Federal funding, and new technology created a perfect breeding ground for corruption.
Our current Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, has proposed a series of reforms for consideration by the General Assembly, some of which appear to follow a list of 50 reforms proposed by Mr. Fitrakis. While I question the value of some of the proposals relative to their cost, I generally support both sets of reforms. However, neither mentioned one that, in light of Mr. Blackwell’s tenure, should be raised to the top of the list. Ohio law needs to be amended to extend to the Secretary of State and her employees the “Little Hatch Act” (Section 124.57 of the Ohio Revised Code), which prohibits partisan political activity by the classified (civil service) State employees. An exception should, of course, be made for her own re-election campaign, since it will (and should) be a referendum on her handling of the elections process.