18 October 2014

Amidst the chaos and confusion of Ohio’s 2004 presidential election, with so many irregularities, that for the first time in the United States history an entire electoral slate was challenged by the U.S. Congress, an Ohio election reform movement was born.

Last April, a centrist coalition of election reform forces announced a bold plan to amend Ohio’s Constitution in the November 2005 election. Three key figures supporting the election reform amendments are Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University; Andy Douglas, former Republican Ohio Supreme Court justice; and Paul Tipps, former Ohio Democratic Party Chair and now a high-powered lobbyist in the state capital.

Asher is one of the nation’s leading authorities on polling and his text is used widely in college political science classes. Last November, with exit polls showing Kerry winning, Bush pulled off a statistically impossible victory, as an estimated 3% of the vote went uncounted due to election foul-ups.

With Ohio’s election system being ridiculed at home and abroad, the Republicans control every state office as well as the Ohio State House 60-39 and the State Senate 22-11. Moreover, in response to the corrupt election and illegal corporate money being laundered into Ohio politics, the legislature voted to make the illegal money legal, by allowing corporate funds to be directly donated to political parties for the first time in more than a century.

In the 2004 election cycle, the average Ohio state senator won by 38% and the average house member by 32%, underscoring inherently noncompetitive electoral districts throughout the state. In February, the Columbus Dispatch, which hasn’t endorsed a Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson, denounced the Ohio Republican gerrymandered legislative districts: “At best, Ohio’s system is anti-democratic. At worst, it is corrupt, protects politicians and is indefensible against charges that it deprives voters of choice.”

At the center of Ohio’s election controversy stands Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a former liberal Democrat turned far right evangelical Bush-Cheney Re-election Committee Co-Chair. Blackwell ran perhaps the most partisan campaign in Ohio history, and later took credit in a letter, which solicited illegal corporate contributions, for delivering the Buckeye State to Bush and Cheney. Blackwell also came up with the idea of introducing Issue One, constitutional amendment to ban all gay marriages and domestic partnerships in Ohio. Blackwell chaired the Issue One Committee too, and was reprimanded for making calls in support of the amendment from his state office.

Taking a page from Blackwell’s playbook, the reform movement began circulating their own petitions to rein in Blackwell’s antics. Despite massive obstacles and Republican Party opposition, the coalition managed to place four constitutional amendments on the ballot:

Issue Two allows all Ohioans to vote by mail.

Issue Three greatly reduces campaign contributions to political candidates.

Issue Four creates an independent election commission and mandates it to draw competitive legislative districts.

Issue Five creates a bipartisan board of supervisors to administer Ohio’s elections, taking the responsibility away from the Secretary of State.

While the amendments fail to remove private partisan corporations, that make, own or lease the voting machines and tabulators, from counting Ohio’s ballots, they do go a long way toward solving many of the problems encountered in the state’s 2004 election. According to U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ Report, “What Went Wrong in Ohio?” which documented the irregularities in Ohio’s election, hundreds of thousands of voters were kept from voting. The Democratic National Committee estimates that 3% of all Ohioans who voted failed to have their ballots counted. Reform advocates argue that Issue Two, voting by mail, would boost voter turnout by preventing the now infamous long lines and the delay caused by the cumbersome provisional balloting process on Election Day. Backers point to Oregon where 82% of the voters cast ballots by mail, compared to Ohio’s 72%. Also, it would eliminate the lack of sufficient voting machines in inner-city areas that caused 3-7-hour waits in Franklin County in 2004.

Issue Three would reduce campaign contributions from the current $10,000 per person to $2000 for candidates running statewide and $1000 for legislative candidates. Currently under Ohio law, a wealthy family of four with two kids 7 years old or older, can each donate $10,000 in the primary and another $10,000 in the general election for a whopping $80,000 worth of campaign contributions. These staggering donations from the wealthy are the heart of Ohio’s “pay to play” system. Reformers hope to make Ohio politicians less beholden to major donors who expect favorable legislation or favors in the form of government contracts.

Another clear goal of the reforms is embodied in Issue Four: competitive, open and nonpartisan election administration. In a July assessment of the four ballot proposals, the Dayton Daily News stated, “But the big one, the historic one, is about redistricting. The proposal is unlike anything in the country today. It would not have districts drawn by elected officials or a nonpartisan commission. It would invite outsiders to submit maps in a competition. The winning entries, for both congressional and state legislative districts, would be the one that creates the most ‘swing’ districts. Those are districts that, based on past voting records, can be expected to have close competition between the parties.”

The Dayton Daily News went on to suggest that, “The current system gives Republican politicians districts where they can be rigidly conservative (because a Republican can’t lose the district) . . .” Blackwell is the reason Issue Five is on the ballot. His heavy-handed partisan tactics in the 2004 election – rejecting registrations that weren’t on 80-bond unwaxed white paper and declaring that all provisional ballots would go uncounted for president unless the individual was in the right precinct, which Blackwell was busy moving the location and failing to update on his own website, to name a few. Issue Five would create a bipartisan board of supervisors with authority over Ohio’s elections, The appointed board would be an equal number of Democrats and Republicans with one independent. Third party activists have been critical of this reform.

A counter group calling itself Ohio First filed a lawsuit attempting to stop the constitutional amendments from making it to the ballot. Ohio First is a front group of the Ohio Republican Party. Akron Beacon Journal editorial writer Steve Hoffman pointed out that, “More competitive districts would also force a rethinking of Republican strategies based on the Bush win in Ohio by weakening the party’s fixation with winning races with appeals to its base, especially the Christian Right.”

On Thursday, August 4, far right Christian activists met at an invitation-only gathering at the Kings Island Resort and Conference Center to mobilize against election reform and listen to Blackwell call them forth into the “cultural battle.” The lead in the Dayton Daily News read as follows: “Christian conservatives rallied Thursday against four proposed state constitutional amendments that would change how Ohio residents vote and how elections are supervised statewide.”

By mid-September, a broad coalition of Columbus-area clergy endorsed the four constitutional amendments and openly questioned the opposition of the far-right evangelicals. Senior Pastor Trent Hayes of the New Antioch Bible Fellowship in Reynoldsburg said that his ministry teaches “the necessity of integrity and accountability in leadership” and that’s why he’s supporting the constitutional amendments. Pastor Kelly Spence of the Master’s Commission New Covenant Church in Columbus stated, “I believe these anti-corruption reforms will lay the groundwork for fairness.”

As the reform movement picked up steam, Republican Senate President Bill Harris introduced a bill to allow “no-fault” absentee voting, an issue addressed by Issue Two. Reform backers argued it was a blatant attempt to undercut the constitutional initiatives in a classic case of “too little, too late.” Ohio Senate Democrat C.J. Prentiss said the bill was designed “to confuse voters in the voting booth next month.”

The next day, October 13, the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus endorsed Issue Four, despite most having safe black seats, and a campaign charge that the anti-gerry-mandering issue would result in fewer black representatives.

The antics of Bush, Blackwell and Rove in the 2004 presidential election may result in modest, but real reform, and a potential Democratic majority in the Statehouse if the issues pass. Whatever the results, the voters of Ohio will be once again picking the candidates as opposed to the politicians picking the voters by rigging the districts.

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Bob Fitrakis is the author of The Fitrakis Files: Spooks, Nukes and Nazis. He is editor of the Free Press and freepress.org. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and a J.D. The story of the 2004 stolen election in Ohio he co-authored with Harvey Wasserman is listed as number three in Project Censored's most censored stories of the year.