Way to Go, Ohio!
By Dan Hamburg
On Monday, December 6, my wife Carrie and I, accompanied by a local ABC cameraman and a local radio talk show host, attempted to deliver a letter to the Secretary of State of Ohio, J. Kenneth Blackwell. Mr. Blackwell is housed on two floors of the Borden Building (yes, that’s the Elsie the Cow Borden Building) in downtown Columbus. The letter contained four demands that had been raised at a well-attended rally outside the Ohio Statehouse on the previous Saturday.
We requested that Secretary Blackwell commence the recount of votes in Ohio (as he had said he would do based on payment for same by the Green and Libertarian parties), that he refrain from certifying Republican electors until the recount was completed, that he respond to questions posed to him by twelve House Judiciary Committee members led by Rep. John Conyers regarding the election, and that he formally recuse himself from the recount.
These issues have consumed quite a few bytes on the Internet over the past weeks, although mainstream media coverage has been scant. Since the day after the election, close observers have noted that Mr. Blackwell has been engaged in a tactic known in basketball jargon as “running out the clock.” In other words, he has taken as much time as possible with each step of the certification process, rather than speed that process along. In so doing, Mr. Blackwell makes it increasingly difficult for a meaningful recount that meets state and federal deadlines.
I was surprised that few Ohioans I spoke with over my week there knew that the Secretary of State, in addition to being the constitutional officer in charge of the election, also served as co-chair of the Ohio campaign to elect Bush/Cheney, and as the spokesman for the state ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. This is the second time in two elections that the Secretary of State in the crucial battleground state has also served as Bush/Cheney campaign chair. In 2000, it was Katherine Harris, who now represents Florida’s 13th district in the US Congress. Word in Ohio is that Blackwell’s sights are even higher. He intends to run for governor of Ohio in two years, no doubt with significant help from the Bush machine.
From the moment we presented identification (God forbid anyone should try to pass go anywhere in post-9/11 America without picture identification!), there was trouble. Private security officers, having noted that there was a thoroughly peaceful picket on the sidewalk in front of the building, moved in to discourage us to pass through the now-omnipresent metal detectors and on to the elevators. However, we breezed past them, found an elevator and whom should we find on the same elevator that we were taking but J. Kenneth Blackwell himself.
“Hello, Mr. Secretary.” I said. “I’m former congressman Dan Hamburg from California. We have a letter for you, requesting that you recuse yourself from the upcoming recount of Ohio’s presidential vote. We have also raised several other issues that need your attention immediately.” Blackwell quickly launched into a blustering monologue about how we didn’t understand Ohio law because if we did, we’d know that he had nothing to do with counting the votes. With the floors whizzing by, my wife Carrie asked Blackwell whether he thought there might be at least the appearance of a conflict of interest in his serving as both final arbiter of the vote and as co-chair of Ohio Bush/Cheney. Blackwell frowned, the elevator door opened, he made a beeline for his private office and disappeared behind glass and steel.
However, we were far from alone. There to meet us as we stepped out was a phalanx of law enforcement and security officers—Columbus Police, Ohio Highway Patrol, Borden Building security, and several husky plainclothesmen. All seemed to feel the same way about any further attempts at interaction with Mr. Blackwell or his staff. As they were explaining to us our choices—leave immediately or be arrested--who should pop back out of his office but the Secretary of State?
“Here,” he said to me, “read this. It should take care of your concerns.” He handed me a two-page copy of an article that had appeared in Sunday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer titled “Conspiracy theories on Ohio vote refuse to die.” I asked the Secretary if it would be all right if I sat in his foyer and read the article. He quickly did an about face and returned to his private digs. We were left alone again with the officers. (Later, I read the article and found that while it addressed a few of the issues that have been raised regarding the Ohio vote, it left out many others.) One plainclothesman, nattily attired in a black trench coat over a gray suit, a conspicuous wire running up the side of his neck ending in an earpiece, let us know, in the famous words of Al Gore, that it was “time for us to go.”
So we left, tails between our legs. But at least we’d been able to confront the man himself and perhaps made him feel a few moments of discomfort for all the hours of discomfort he helped put the citizens of Ohio through on voting day, not to mention the four years of discomfort ahead for the country and the world under W.
Monday was also the day that Secretary of State Blackwell was finally going to announce the certified vote for the Ohio presidential election. Obviously, he hadn’t been in much of a hurry. It had taken his office five full weeks to certify, making Ohio the last state to accomplish this task. Blackwell had run the clock as far as he could without actually being charged with “delay of game.”
After quite a bit of confusion about the time and venue of the certification announcement, we learned at about 3 pm that the Secretary would announce the certification at a media-only press conference to begin in a half hour at the Borden Building. Fortunately, we had brought press credentials from a small newspaper based in our hometown of Ukiah, California. But lo and behold, when we approached the front desk with our credentials in hand, we were again rebuffed.
Many of the same officers we’d gotten to know in the morning quickly converged to prevent us from boarding the elevator to the floor where the press conference would take place. I remember thinking that Columbus must be a really safe town since they had the capacity to assign so many officers to a couple of 50 year-olds who hadn’t even let off a loud chant. Finally, a “representative” from Mr. Blackwell’s office emerged with the official word “from the Secretary” that I could go on up to the press conference but Carrie could not. Rebuffing their rebuff, we brushed past the security entourage at which point Mr. Black Trench Coat looked over at the Blackwell aide with imploring eyes. “It’s all right, let her come,” the woman sighed.
Victory! We were going to be able to attend the press conference! We might even be able to ask a question in a press forum where it would be difficult for the power-talking Mr. Blackwell to hide. But our win was ephemeral. Just as we arrived at the conference room, the Secretary of State was leaving the podium. He gave us a toothy grin as he passed us by. We hung out in the room for a few minutes asking what had happened. A brief statement of the “results” had been given, a few softball questions tossed, and that was that. Ten minutes! These guys definitely knew how to use the clock. We learned from people who had been privileged to attend the quickie conference that Blackwell had referred to stories of irregularities in the vote as “hiccups.” As we left to go back downstairs, our “escorts” stood in a lineup outside the room, looking like the proverbial cats that ate the canaries. “Very slick,” was the only comment I could manage.
Wednesday at 10 am was the scheduled time for the forum in Washington called by Rep. John Conyers and the Judiciary Committee members. We knew that Blackwell had received a fourteen-page letter dated December 2 with thirty-four specific questions under two main categories: counting irregularities and procedural irregularities. Counting irregularities referred to everything from the “security lockdown” on election night in Warren County (supposedly due to a “Level 10” alert from Homeland Security, about which the agency later denied any knowledge) to the situation in one Franklin County precinct where the president was initially awarded 3900 votes in a precinct that boasted fewer than 700 registered voters! Procedural irregularities included issues like machine shortages in heavily African-American and college precincts, interminably long lines, invalidated provisional ballots, and directives issued by Mr. Blackwell regarding acceptable paperweight for registration applications.
We also knew that Mr. Blackwell had received an invitation to come to Washington in order to address the committee members. It’s a $39 ticket from Columbus to the nation’s capital so we thought the Secretary of State could dip into his budget and come up with the bucks. However, if financial considerations or the affairs of state weighed too heavy to allow his on-site presence, the committee had indicated its willingness to allow telephonic testimony.
So at around 10 am, Carrie and I went to the front desk with a copy of the Conyers letter and presented our driver's licenses. We were told to wait while the receptionist called the Secretary of State's office, which told her "someone will come down and get the letter."
At that point, we retreated to Zuppa's, a very untrendy cafe located on the north side of the lobby. We ordered orange juice and sat down at a table. Within minutes, security was all over us.
"You must leave this building now,” said an exasperated Borden security cop, his hands shaking quite visibly.
“What’s the charge?” I asked. “Are we trespassing or do you just ‘reserve the right to refuse service to anyone?’”
“You must leave this building now,” he repeated.
"Sorry, we're not going. We don’t believe we’re trespassing by sitting here drinking our orange juice. We’re not interfering with other patrons of the building. We’re not blocking or obstructing anything. But we understand that you're just doing your job. Please try to understand that we also need to do ours.”
It took about fifteen minutes for several white-shirted Columbus police and heavily-velcroed Highway Patrol officers to appear on the scene. We were cuffed, and taken out behind the building to a waiting patrol car. That was the beginning of our experience as arrested misdemeanants under the authority of Franklin County. Over the next thirty hours, we were printed (not just fingers but hands) twice, photographed three times, cuffed and uncuffed more times than we could count, held in scantily heated and odor-challenged holding tanks for hours on end, served endless smashed baloney-on-white sandwiches, and subjected continuously to the sneers and snide tongues of our keepers.
We also had the opportunity to meet some of the people we had come to Ohio to see--poor, mostly African-American folks, the very people for whom voting on November 2 had been such a challenge. By this, I don't mean that the prison population at Franklin County Corrections Center (known affectionately as "The Workhouse") was necessarily a voter-rich environment (though I did hear several stories inside the jail from people who at least knew others who had waited many hours and braved lousy weather in order to cast a vote that might rid the country of the horror that is the Bush presidency).
What I mean is that within the walls of the FCCC were men and women who hadn't had a lot of breaks in life. They were the people who suffered the worst housing, the worst schools, and the worst public services. In Ohio in 2004, they also suffered, as had happened in Florida in 2000 and in countless other elections across this country since its birth, the worst (and least) voting equipment and overall ease of voting. It was not by chance that in Franklin County there were less voting machines available than in 2000, despite the fact that election officials, from Ken Blackwell on down, knew that Democratic registration was up nearly 25%. By contrast, strong GOP precincts were provided with more machines.
Katherine Harris rode her performance in the duel roles of Florida Secretary of State and co-chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign to the US congress. How far might Ken Blackwell go, having delivered Ohio in 2004?
Elected officials like Harris and Blackwell sow discord by taking on multiple, and conflicting roles, especially when the presidency is at stake. Blackwell has created another problem by housing himself in a private building, isolated from the public that pays his keep. A private corporation like Borden should not be running interference for elected officials. Nor should the police. It would have been more appropriate for Borden security, or Blackwell himself, to have made citizen’s arrests and then let the court decide whether those arrests were appropriate to the circumstances.
We met some wonderful people in Ohio. Unfortunately, by and large they weren’t the ones that we taxpayers are supporting. Over the next few weeks, the people of Ohio have a unique opportunity. A recount of the vote will begin on December 13, with the January 6 date on which Congress certifies the Electoral College coming up fast. Only the watchful eyes of Ohioans can force that recount to be full and fair, Blackwell or no Blackwell. Nothing less than the fate of the nation, and even the world, could be at stake.