Ohio fight isn't over

December 10, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- You may think the presidential election is over, but a host of Democratic die-hards from Ohio and elsewhere will give you an argument about it.

When Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, convened a hearing Wednesday to inquire into various allegations of fraud in the Ohio vote, the Capitol Hill room was jammed to overflowing.

The audience came to hear two panels of witnesses allege a host of incompetent and fraudulent practices by Ohio state and county elections officials that they insist wrongfully resulted in President Bush's re-election. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, not surprisingly, was the most visible and vocal among them.

Protesters handed out bright orange ribbons with a printed request to "join the people of the Ukraine and the growing number of people in the U.S. wearing orange as a symbol of our stand on just and fair elections." They didn't mean in the Ukraine.

Mr. Jackson charged that the John Kerry campaign had "surrendered much too early" in conceding the election on the night of Nov. 2. In the Ohio recount granted under state law by candidates for the Green and Libertarian parties, Mr. Jackson demanded that "those in charge recuse themselves" -- a call voiced by several others.

The specific target is Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the state's chief elections official. He also happened to be honorary co-chairman of the Ohio Bush-Cheney re-election committee and had the key role in overseeing the conduct of the election in the 88 counties that will conduct the recount.

It is, as Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra put it, "dM-ijM-` vu all over again." Mr. Blackwell is the Ohio political clone of Florida's secretary of state in 2000, Katherine Harris. She was state co-chairwoman of the Bush campaign who ruled on voter certification deadlines that greased the path to the Bush election.

Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, unruffled by the public outcry over Ms. Harris's role in 2000, replaced her as secretary of state when she was subsequently elected to Congress with another Republican, Glenda E. Hood, who made provisional balloting rulings favorable to President Bush in November's election.

The Ohio 2004 and Florida 2000 experiences are not precisely parallel, inasmuch as Mr. Bush's winning margin in Ohio has been certified by Mr. Blackwell to be about 119,000 votes, compared with the paltry 537-vote margin in Florida. Also, Mr. Bush won the popular vote by about 3.5 million this year; in 2000, Al Gore had a half-million more votes.

Many of the same charges leveled against Florida in 2000, including suppression of minority votes and malfunctioning voting machines, were heard at the Conyers hearing (which no Republicans attended). In addition, Mr. Blackwell was accused of putting too few voting machines in minority and other strongly Democratic precincts, where witnesses reported lines of four hours or more.

Although the chances of an election reversal are bleak to nonexistent, the recount is to go forward against a seemingly impossible deadline. John Bonifaz, head of the National Voting Rights Institute representing the third-party candidates, charges that Mr. Blackwell stalled in taking 34 days after the election to certify the result and start the recount.

The secretary has now sent certificates to the Bush electors for casting Ohio's 20 electoral votes when the Electoral College meets in the various states Monday. If the recount isn't completed by that date, Mr. Bonifaz says, it will continue. And if it shows Mr. Kerry to have won Ohio, two slates of electors will be sent to Congress when it convenes Jan. 5 to confirm the election. Acceptance of the Kerry electors would swing the election to him.

All of this can be dismissed as an academic exercise, inasmuch as the Republicans control both houses of Congress. Still, Democratic Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois is considering calling for a House "trial" on the charges, and is recruiting a senator to do the same on his side of the Capitol. Even if it were to happen, barring fraud so scandalous as to create a bipartisan public outcry, party loyalty almost certainly would return Mr. Bush to the White House.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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