18 October 2014

The Republican Party is on the brink of seizing another seat in the U.S. Congress. The key race is the central Ohio 15th District Congressional House seat held by Deborah Pryce, the fourth most powerful Republican in Congress. 

On election night the preliminary vote count showed Pryce beating Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy by 3717 votes out of more than 200,000 cast. Nearly 20,000 votes remained uncounted after Election Day. Kilroy refused to concede and demanded a full accounting of provisional, absentee and uncounted machine votes.

On Monday, November 27, the final tally was announced. Kilroy officially picked up 2482 votes, leaving Pryce ahead by 1054. The Franklin County Board of Elections could have certified the results earlier, but chose instead to wait until after the Big Ten championship football game between Ohio State and the University of Michigan.

Because the margin is within 1/2% of the votes cast, Franklin County Board of Elections Director Matt Damschroder says this will trigger an automatic recount within ten days.

By all rights, Kilroy would seem to be an obvious winner, except for a number of suspect statistics. For example, an analysis by the Columbus Dispatch shows that wards with more than 90% African-American voters in Franklin County had just a 24% turnout in the Columbus area. But in Cleveland and Cincinnati, similar wards had a 34% and 33% turnout respectively.    

The low voter turnout in Franklin County may be the lingering effect of the 4-7 hour waits that the black community suffered in the 2004 presidential election due to the lack of voting machines. The average voter turnout in the Columbus area overall was slightly over 50%.

BUT THERE MAY ALSO BE THEFT INVOLVED.  

The Franklin County Board of Elections rejected 2600 provisional ballots, many of them from registered voters who voted in the wrong precinct. A 2004 directive from Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell for the first time disallowed the votes of registered voters in the county if they voted out of their precinct. Historically, all voters registered in the county had their votes counted from the county races up to the statewide and federal races.

In another new development introduced in the 2006 election as a result of House Bill 3, voters were flagged with a stop sign symbol by their name in the pollbook. Free Press reporters saw some flagged voters turned away from the polls in violation of laws and others being allowed to vote in the wrong precinct, which would nullify their vote.

Both Pryce and Kilroy anticipate a recount, but voting rights activists question whether an actual “random” recount will occur. While Ohio law requires a random recount, with every ballot having an equal chance of inclusion, Blackwell has, in the past, allowed local Boards of Elections to determine their own methods for selection of ballots to be recounted. A sample by the Free Press and reports from recount observers in the 2004 presidential election, found non-random methods of selection predominated.

If the 3% recount of the paper ballots matches the official certified tally, the results will stand. If they don’t, then all of the ballots will have to be recounted by hand. This would mean counting the paper trail from the ES&S electronic voting machines in Franklin County.

When Election Science Institute recounted the ballots in Cuyahoga County following the 2006 spring primary meltdown, they found a 5% discrepancy between the electronic votes recorded on the Diebold personal electronic ballots (PEBs) and hard drives and the actual paper trails.

An audit sponsored by the Free Press in Miami County of Opti-scan machines found a similar discrepancy of 5% between the paper ballots and the results as scanned and centrally tabulated by a computer. The Free Press found that the Miami County results were not discovered during the 2004 presidential election recount because of flawed recounting methodology. Miami County officials unsealed the Opti-scan ballots, ran them through the counting machine, got a total, and then recounted by hand. The problem was that the results were not compared back to the officially certified results, but only to the machine counted results.

Numerous irregularities occurred, not just in the Kilroy-Pryce district that includes the western portion of Franklin County and parts of Union and Madison counties, but throughout Franklin County, which is the heart of Kilroy's support in the district.
    •    A total of 17,766 absentee ballots that were delivered to the Franklin County Board of Elections during the last two days of voting were included in the November 27 official count. A whistleblower contacted the Free Press and stated he saw tens of thousands of ballots stored in a post office warehouse in Columbus the weekend prior to the election. The ballots only had one stamp on them instead of the two required. This information was passed along to national Democratic Party officials. This may explain why there was a massive infusion of absentees uncounted in the 15th district. By tradition, virtually all of them are counted and posted first on Election night.

    •    The Free Press witnessed voters being unlawfully sent home for identification and unable to vote – in violation of a federal court order that entitled them to vote a provisional ballot with the last four digits of their Social Security number. In a race this close, this widespread practice may have resulted in the narrow margin of victory.

    •    An estimated 1,800 votes from more than 13 electronic machines that weren’t shut down properly by poll workers were also added in to the November 27 total. The problem remains as to the chain of custody regarding these machines and why so many failed to be handled correctly on Election Day.

    •    The Dispatch reported that nine Franklin County pollworkers "accidentally" took cartridges home that had to be later retrieved by deputy sheriffs.

    •    Charles R. Morrison II, a conservative Republican, was stopped by Secretary of State Blackwell’s office from running as an independent in the race. Had he remained in the race, his presence would have aided Kilroy. He later lost in his attempt to be placed on the ballot in federal court. Morrison had denounced the Pryce-Kilroy contest as the choice between “the lesser of two liberals.”
In a related case, Franklin County Judge Carol Squire also asked for a recount of 35 precincts where there was documented incidents where pollworkers incorrectly downloaded vote totals or shut down machines improperly. The Dispatch reported 26 different precincts suffered “mechanical” errors during the election and that “there were pollworker errors in nine precincts, including five in which results were downloaded onto two removable cartridges instead of one.”

The 2006 mid-term election problems are a continuation of the 2004 presidential election debacle in Franklin County. Election Protection activists repeatedly warned that problems were endemic to the electronic voting machines and that House Bill 3 was a “voter suppression” bill. Franklin Democratic Party officials have frequently denounced the Election Protection movement since 2004.

Ironically, Kilroy, who initially supported the election protection movement after the 2004 presidential election, reversed her position early on. After first calling for an independent investigation of the Franklin County Board of Elections, she allowed the Franklin County Board of Elections to conduct and direct its own investigation. Kilroy, currently a Franklin County Commissioner, is responsible for funding and overseeing the operations of the Franklin County Board of Elections (BOE). An investigative report by Mother Jones magazine designated Franklin County, Ohio one of the worst places to vote in the country.

Franklin County BOE Deputy Director Democrat Michael Hackett ended up resigning in 2006 after a contract-steering scandal involving storage carts for the new DRE machines. Former Ohio Democratic Party Chair Denny White was selected to replace Hackett after White resigned from state leadership following the 2004 Ohio election fiasco. Election Protection activists have charged that the Democratic Party treats the BOEs as patronage positions to reward Party insiders rather than as the key positions to preserve voting rights for the people. Franklin County BOE Director was suspended without pay for a month after he received a $10,000 check from a Diebold lobbyist made out to the Republican Party. His job was saved by William Anthony, who serves simultaneously as the Franklin County Democratic Party Chair and the BOE Chair. 

Pressure from local activists forced the BOE to adopt a more visible and larger paper trail for its ES&S DRE machines. Under Ohio law, the paper trail is the actual ballot of record for an electronic voting machine, which will make the impending recount in the Pryce-Kilroy race easier.

Also, under House Bill 3, Kilroy, as a federal candidate, has no right to legally challenge her loss in Ohio state courts. After the 2004 Moss v. Bush case that challenged the results of that presidential election, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed the draconian House Bill 3 including a provision barring federal candidates from legally challenging election results in state court.

There is still indication that a truly random recount along with other revelations uncovered by the Free Press team could result in a Kilroy victory. To her credit, Kilroy has refused to concede. There is ample indication that she was, in fact, the rightful winner. Let’s hope she searches out every possible avenue and makes absolutely certain every vote is properly counted before a final verdict is reached in this crucial race.

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Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are co-authors, with Steve Rosenfeld, of WHAT HAPPENED IN OHIO, just published by the New Press and editors of the Free Press and http://freepress.org. Fitrakis was an independent candidate, endorsed by the Green Party for Governor of Ohio in 2006.