by Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman
March 20, 2007
In a bold move “to restore trust to elections in Ohio,” Ohio’s newly-elected Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, has requested the resignation of all four members of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. The two Democrats and two Republicans were formally asked to resign by the close of business on March 21. Cuyahoga County includes the heavily Democratic city of Cleveland. Brunner is a Democrat who was elected to be Ohio’s Secretary of State in November, 2006.
Felony convictions have also resulted in 18-month prison sentences for two employees of the Cuyahoga BOE as a result of what the county prosecutor in the case calls the “rigging” of the outcome in the recount following the 2004 presidential election. Further problems surfaced in the conduct of Cuyahoga County’s May, 2006 primary, in the wake of which Michel Vu, Executive Director of the county’s Board of Elections recently resigned.
In tandem, the shake-up in Ohio’s biggest county reflects a widening storm surrounding the outcome of the 2004 presidential election and the conduct of elections overall in the nation’s most pivotal state.
Among those Brunner has asked to resign is Cuyahoga County BOE Chair Robert Bennett, who chairs Ohio’s Republican Party. Voting rights attorney Cliff Arnebeck and others have long charged that Bennett worked closely with White House advisor Karl Rove and Ohio’s then-Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell to secure Bush’s 2004 victory in Ohio.
Bennett responded to Brunner by saying that he will refuse to resign. He has placed the blame for the May 2006 primary problems on private voting machine vendors, including Diebold. Bennett claims the rigging of the 2004 presidential recount was caused by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
If Bennett and other Board members refuse to resign by Wednesday, Brunner says they “will face a complaint and public hearing to be conducted in Cleveland…”
In the 2004 presidential election, Cuyahoga County suffered serious election irregularities that worked to the disadvantage of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Among them: the purging of 24.93% of all the voters in the city of Cleveland, where Kerry won 83% of the vote; mysterious and suspect vote totals for third party candidates in majority African American wards; unexplained “security” problems that caused the last-minute shift of voting locations in the inner city Cleveland Public School polling places; improbably low apparent turnouts in heavily Democratic inner city wards, and more.
Brunner’s request for the resignations comes a week after two Cuyahoga County election workers were each sentenced to 18 months in prison for rigging the recount of the 2004 election in Ohio’s biggest county. These are the first prison terms issued in the escalating scandal over the vote count that gave George W. Bush a second stay in the White House. The two women are out on bail pending appeal. But the substantial jail time demanded by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Peter Corrigan indicates there may be more trials and convictions yet to come, especially in light of new evidence unearthed by the Free Press in other counties around the state.
Jacqueline Maiden and Kathleen Dreamer were each convicted of a felony count of negligent misconduct by an election board employee. Maiden, 60, was the Cuyahoga Board of Elections’ third-highest ranking employee.
Dreamer, 40, was ballot manager. Maiden and Dreamer were also convicted of a separate misdemeanor. A third defendant in the case was acquitted of all charges.
The Free Press has unearthed evidence indicating possible criminal misconduct by a wide range of election officials throughout the state, including Blackwell. Under the law, election boards are required to do recounts by choosing 3% of a county’s voters at random for sampling. But throughout the state, apparently with the explicit knowledge and approval of Blackwell, precincts were hand-counted for recounting, a criminal act. This non-random sampling in essence voided the recount, for which backers of the Green and Libertarian Parties paid more than $100,000.
According to the prosecution in the case against Maiden and Dreamer, this method of action led to the recount being illegally “rigged.” When investigators working with the Free Press attempted to audit the Cuyahoga County ballots from the 2004 election last summer, BOE officials were unable to find the ballots for four full days. The investigation team, led by Richard Hayes Phillips, had to find the ballots on their own. Under Ohio law, the ballots were to be locked in a known location, and secured by two keys, one controlled by each major party.
Brunner says she acted in part because she is concerned that many of the problems from 2004 and 2006 might resurface in the upcoming 2008 election. “With maximum 18-month prison sentences being handed down to two Cuyahoga County election workers last week, for their role in the 2004 presidential recount, the tremendous problems that surfaced in the May 2006 primary that delayed even the unofficial vote count for five days, and the uncertain future of this board as another Presidential election looms on the near horizon, it is incumbent on me as Secretary of State to provide the direction needed to get this troubled board on track,” she says. “The voters of Cuyahoga county deserve it, the citizens of Ohio expect it and the rest of the nation will be watching.”
In the 2006 primary, Cuyahoga County used the controversial Diebold touchscreen voting machines. These machines suffered a well-publicized meltdown, in which many malfunctioned. A report from the Election Science Institute (ESI) documented significant differences between votes actually cast on the machines as opposed to those officially counted.
Immediately following the election, 562,498 votes were reported cast in Cuyahoga County, with 30,791 listed as absentee or provisional ballots. But the official results show just 468,056 counted. This means that 94,442 ballots cast in the unofficial total disappeared in the official tallies, representing a shocking 16.8% of all the votes cast in Cuyahoga.
Michael Vu, who was the Cuyahoga BOE executive director, came under intense criticism for the bitter controversies surrounding both the 2004 and 2006 elections. Last month, he resigned “to pursue future career growth,” according to a Cuyahoga County Board of Elections release.
In an interesting and perhaps telling statement coming from a Republican who was commenting on an appointee supported by the Democratic Party, Bennett said “Michael Vu has worked hard and accomplished a great deal on behalf of Cuyahoga County votes and will, I am sure, continue to have success in his career of public service.
“Michael oversaw a difficult transition period at the Board including the implementation of a new electronic voting system county-wide in the May (2006) primary followed by a near flawless general election,” Bennett concluded.
Brunner’s action underscores a growing sentiment that the unraveling of what happened during and after the 2004 election has only just begun.
The Free Press has learned that Brunner’s office is also investigating an unexplained undercount in the 2006 general election in six Ohio counties which all used the Diebold TSX DRE voting machines. In Montgomery County, where the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland beat Blackwell, the Republican nominee, by 107,593 to 76,189, there was an abnormally high 13.76% of the machines registering no vote for the state’s highest office. Problems are also under investigation in Adams, Darke, Highland, Mercer and Perry Counties.
With stiff prison terms, forced resignations and widespread investigations underway, there is a well-founded sense in Ohio that much more is yet to surface about the disputed presidential election of 2004 and what has come after it.
Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are authors, with Steve Rosenfeld, of WHAT HAPPENED IN OHIO? (New Press) and of HOW THE GOP STOLE AMERICA’S 2004 ELECTION & IS RIGGING 2008, available via www.freepress.org.