27 April 2014

Ohio's Bob "Ballots for Bush" Bennett, an essential player in putting George W. Bush back in the White House in 2004, is no long chair of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. His milestone resignation leaves a legacy of scandal, recrimination, massive voter purges, felony convictions and a pivotal role in a stolen presidential election.


Bennett has quit in a signature cloud of graceless accusations and cheap shots at Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's newly elected Secretary of State, who asked him to resign along with the rest of the Cleveland election authority. His forced departure marks the biggest landmark yet in the unraveling theft of the presidential elections in Ohio 2004.


Bennett remains chair of the Ohio Republican Party. In 2004 he was apparently asked by White House consigliere Karl Rove to stay on at the Cuyahoga BOE to help guarantee Bush's second term. Cleveland is Ohio's biggest and most Democratic urban center. A massive sweep there by John Kerry was widely expected to have given him the White House. It was Bennett's job to mute that margin, and apparently that's exactly what he did.


Leading up to the 2004 vote, Bennett oversaw the quiet purge of some 168,000 registered voters from the Cuyahoga rolls, including 24.93% of the entire city of Cleveland, which voted 83% for Kerry. In one inner city majority African American ward, 51% of the voters were purged. Centered on precincts that voted more than 80% for John Kerry, this purge may well have meant a net loss to the Democrats of tens of thousands of votes in an election that was officially decided statewide by less than 119,000.


In a report issued December 7, 2004, the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition (GCVRC) reported that in addition to the purge of registered voters, some 3.5% of those applying for new registrations were never even entered on the rolls by Bennett's BOE, or were entered incorrectly, which would result in disenfranchisement of those who had just tried to become new voters. Additionally, the GCVRC estimated that "over 10,000 voters in Cuyahoga County would be compromised because of these clerical errors."


Bennett refused to respond to the report's initial conclusions. When the study became public, BOE Executive Director Michael Vu accused the study coordinator of "inciting panic." Vu did not respond to GCVRC's request for the reinstatement of 303 voter registrations where there was direct evidence that they had been wrongly cancelled.


The GCVRC also documented that the Cuyahoga County BOE incorrectly classified 463 properly registered voters as not registered. This included 201 voters who were registered on BOE computers on August 17, but for some unexplained reason, were removed from the rolls by October 22. They then were forced to vote provisionally and their votes were rejected as not registered.


In Brunner's formal complaint against Bennett she cited the fact that Bennett's BOE did nothing when an estimated 10,000 voters were thrown off the voting roll by a Diebold voter registration computer glitch.


Also, Bennett's BOE rejected 262 properly registered voters included on its own list as of October 22. They incorrectly listed 183 as not registered and 79 as no signatures. "The Board did not contest our data," said the GCVRC, "but said again it was just a small percentage due to human error, and then proceeded to certify the entire Cuyahoga County vote even though they thereby knowingly possibly disenfranchised 463 individuals."


Parallel purges were conducted by Republican-controlled boards of election in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) where some 105,000 voters were purged from the rolls, and in Lucas County (Toledo), where some 28,000 were purged in an unprecedented move in late August 2004. These remain the only three counties in the state known to have conducted massive registration purges prior to the 2004 election. The three mass urban purges decimated the rolls in heavily Democratic areas. Since then, another 170,000 voters have been purged from the rolls in Franklin County, primarily in the heavily Democratic Columbus precincts. Many rural Republican counties, like Miami, practice a "no-purge" policy.


From his post at the helm of both the Ohio GOP and the Cuyahoga BOE, Bennett was at the center of the purges. Many of the 300,000-plus purged voters reported that they never received notice that their voting rights had been cancelled. Should the general 80% pro-Democratic inner city margins have prevailed for all three purged lists, the net loss to the Kerry camp could have been in the range of 100,000 votes.


In addition to the purges, Bennett was also at the center of the election challenges to college students in Democratic enclaves.


Bennett is infamous for far more than massive voter purges. Under his supervision, a legally mandated recount of the 2004 presidential vote was illegally manipulated. Ohio law says precincts must be chosen at random for hand counting as part of the recount process. But two Cuyahoga BOE employees have been convicted of a felony and a misdemeanor each, and have each been sentenced to eighteen months in prison for what prosecutors have called "rigging" the recount.


Bennett was also instrumental in the purchase of some $20 million in Diebold voting machines for 2006 statewide elections. Election protection activists vehemently opposed the purchase, as seen in a nationally televised HBO special, "Hacking Democracy." Under Bennett and Cuyahoga BOE Executive Director Michael Vu, the machines malfunctioned in Ohio's 2006 primary, with vote count reporting delayed for five days.


Long-time election activist Adele Eisner characterizes Bennett's reign at the Cuyahoga BOE as a "culture with fear." Among other things, Bennett chose to disregard long-standing laws requiring that election results be posted at the precinct level, a decision backed by Ohio's former Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.


In a recent audit of the general 2006 elections, Dr. Richard Hayes Phillips found that in the initial vote count, "Cuyahoga County alone accounted for 148,928 undervotes, or 42.47% of the statewide total." The undervotes occurred in the race for U.S. Senate, where voters apparently opted to not vote for either incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine or Democrat Sherrod Brown, the eventual winner. The undervotes represented 26.48% of the county's voters.


But, says Philips, "Once the official results were posted, Cuyahoga's undervote total fell
to 3.25%," leaving him to wonder "how the unofficial results could have been so erroneous in the first place."


Hayes also found that Cuyahoga County reported 30,791 uncounted absentee and provisional ballots. After these ballots were counted, they reported 39,262 votes, an outcome Phillips terms mathematically "impossible."


Bennett and Vu were also responsible for more than $12,900,000 in BOE cost overruns, more than doubling the agency's original budget of $11,000,000.


Vu resigned earlier this year, and has since been hired as an Assistant Registrar of Voters in San Diego County, the number two spot, with a $10,000 salary increase to $130,000 a year. The San Diego Union-Tribune noted that, "Vu's resignation followed a tumultuous 3 1/2-year tenure as election chief, including a disastrous May 2006 primary when the county began using new electronic voting machines."


In response to the chaos and recrimination, Brunner requested the resignations of the Cuyahoga board's two Democrats and two Republicans. Only Bennett vowed to fight his removal.


But he has now become the highest election board official to resign here amidst the deepening scandals surrounding the 2004 election. He has joined the growing Republican chorus echoing Rove's line that the Democrats are preparing to steal the 2008 election.


But Brunner has taken custody of the 2004 ballots and other vote count materials, which are currently protected by a federal court decision. She is expected to bring them from Ohio's 88 county boards to a central repository in Columbus.


Meanwhile, new evidence is emerging that Karl Rove and the GOP had real-time computer access to both the actual vote numbers in Ohio as well as the exit polling data that would have allowed them to direct how many votes they needed from the suspect Ohio southwestern Republican counties that gave Bush his official margin of victory in the 2004 election. Stay tuned.

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Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman's books include HOW THE GOP STOLE AMERICA'S 2004 ELECTION (www.freepress.org) and WHAT HAPPENED IN OHIO from the New Press (with Steve Rosenfeld).