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"We Fail the Basic Test of Democracy"
An interview with Ohio election scrutinizers Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman
By Daniel Sturm, The Youngstown Walrus
Nov. 23, 2006

In this interview, journalist Daniel Sturm asks Ohio election scrutinizers Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis what they thought of the vote. Fitrakis is the executive director of the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism and has published the Columbus Free Press since 1992. As an independent candidate for Governor of Ohio endorsed by the Green Party in 2006, Fitrakis gained 1% of the Ohio vote. Wasserman is author of "Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030." Wasserman and Fitrakis co-wrote, "What happened in Ohio? A documentary record of theft and fraud in the 2004 election" in 2006, and "Imprison Bush" in 2004.
Wasserman and Fitrakis say they saw hope for improved election safety and less corruption, though the midterm elections were not without irregularities. If former Ohio Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, was truly involved in the Republican's theft of the Ohio vote in 2004, why did he lose by a landslide during his own campaign for governor? This time Republicans just couldn't "pull it off," say Fitrakis and Wasserman, because the media was less compliant and poll numbers in favor of Ohio Governor-elect Ted Strickland made it virtually impossible.

Sturm: Did your office, or you personally, observe any irregularities on Election Day? If so, what was the nature of these irregularities? Can you give a few examples?
Fitrakis: Yes, I personally observed voters being given the wrong information regarding showing their IDs at the polls. I saw several voters' names flagged with a stop sign at the pollbooth in Ward 55 as well at the Driving Park polling place, Ward 35. The voters' valid driver's licenses should have identified them and allowed them to vote a regular ballot, even if they changed their address. This law was ignored in many polling places. Also, I saw a man being allowed to vote provisionally in the wrong precinct. This action will cause his vote not to be counted.

Sturm: In Ian Inaba's recent film, "American Blackout," you voiced concerns that Republicans could attempt to "steal" the 2006 vote as they allegedly did in 2000 in Florida. Why did this not happen?
Wasserman: It did happen. There's a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence from around the state that indicates that people were denied their ballots. We think Republicans stole between 5-10% of the vote. This reflects itself in the auditor's race. The only reason that the Democrats won was because the Republicans were so hated. They just couldn't pull it off.
Fitrakis: I'm convinced that their tactics used to suppress voters, specifically a 6% provisional ballot vote in Franklin County vs. a 2.7% in 2004, may well have allowed them to steal the Kilroy/Pryce race. I also believe there's evidence to suggest from the final Dispatch poll that, had there been a fair election, Barbara Sykes would be the State Auditor. The repressive application of House Bill 3 and its illegal application during the morning voting, that was only corrected by an order from a federal judge in Columbus, may well have allowed the Republicans to steal a few close races. Now, why didn't they steal all of them? The media was less compliant this time and poll numbers made it virtually impossible. But, if you look at the Columbus Dispatch poll - normally the most accurate in the state - it does appear that the Republican Party had the ability, by whatever means, to win certain elections, as in the Sykes race. In that race Republicans were predicted to lose by over ten points, and yet they won.

Sturm: In a pre-election interview with Amy Goodman on "Democracy Now" you painted a dark picture of the Ohio electoral process. You pointed out that under former Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's supervision, Ohio's boards of elections eliminated some 500,000 voters from their registration rolls. Can you explain how this happened?
Fitrakis: Under a provision in the Help American Vote Act (HAVA) a county may purge voters who haven't voted in the last two federal election cycles. Generally, Boards of Elections purge voters in odd number years following a federal election. In Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) 160,000 or so voters were purged in 2001 and 2003. An additional 8-10,000 votes were "accidentally" glitched from the rolls by a Diebold electronic voter registration database. For whatever reason, 28,000 voters were purged in late August 2004, according to the Toledo Blade, in Lucas County, where Tom Noe's wife was chair of the board of elections. Another 105,000 voters were moved off the voting roster to inactive status between 2000-2004 elections in Hamilton County. In Franklin County, a reported 170,000 voters were removed following the 2004 election. Contrast this with Miami County where Board of Elections Director Steve Quillen, a Republican, repeatedly told me and other Free Press reporters that his is a "no-purge county." This is perfectly legal, since it is a "may" provision, not a "shall" provision, meaning counties can purge voluntarily or not. Miami County has an estimated 2% African American population, while Cleveland is a majority black city. The pattern we discovered is that there is a tendency for rural Republican counties not to purge, while there's a tendency for urban areas, where the poor and minorities live, to purge continuously. The most conservative estimate from the Civil Rights Commission is that at least 15% of those voters were still eligible to vote. The figure is probably higher, since under Ohio law, a person moving in the same county is eligible to vote at the new precinct even if registered at an old address. This is the pattern with the poor. Most of them move within the county because of lack of resources - not to other counties or states.

Sturm: You helped file a lawsuit against Kenneth Blackwell, claiming that minorities had been deprived of their vote in 2004. Two months ago U.S. District Judge Algernon Marbley issued an order to all 88 Ohio Board of Elections to protect the ballots as evidence. What's the significance of this ruling?
Fitrakis: The significance is that the essential evidence has been preserved and it allows the press, scholars and interested citizens to actually audit the 2004 election and count the 85% of the votes that were cast on paper, punch cards and optical scans. It also allows us to establish what is already clear from statistical analysis, namely that the disenfranchised voters were overwhelmingly blacks, the poor and students.
Wasserman: The right to vote was seriously impinged in 2004, and we're not done with the lawsuit. We want the new Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, to set up a central repository for all of the ballots from 2004. We would like to see that in Columbus, but wherever they do, we want them to do it. We want to have them counted.

Sturm: Shortly before the election, in an article for commondreams.org, you said that you expected "more tricks we've not yet seen." Have there been any new tricks?
Fitrakis: The new dirty trick was the Stop Sign icon at the polls, which made the pollworker question the voter's eligibility and, in many cases, force the person to vote a second-class ballot, known as a provisional ballot. Those still haven't been counted. In Franklin County alone, the amount of provisional ballots went from 2.7% in the 2004 election to 6% in the 2006 election. I observed untrained pollworkers violating the law. In fact, Cliff Arnebeck, who I practice law with, was stopped at the poll and pressure was put on him to vote provisionally. Had he not been the key litigator in the lawsuit against Blackwell, he would have voted provisionally and his vote would not have been counted. We also had numerous reports of voters who were not allowed to vote at all because of lack of ID. Under the law, they should have been allowed to vote giving the last four digits of their social security number, and then showing up within ten days to show an ID at their board of elections.

Sturm: You have dedicated much of your time and work toward scrutinizing Ohio elections and experts have credited you for having put Ohio in the limelight of public attention. How have election critics made a difference?
Fitrakis: As a former international election observer, I'm doing the same thing in Ohio that I did in El Salvador in 1994, when I co-wrote and edited the international observer's report and presented it to the United Nations and the world community. I believe I and my fellow grassroots election rights activists have helped make Ohio and U.S. elections a little more transparent, but I believe we have a long way to go. As long as we allow private partisan companies to secretly count our ballots with proprietary software, we fail the basic test of democracy.

Sturm: Looking ahead, what's going to happen in 2008, during the presidential election? What safeguards must be taken so that voters can rest assured that their votes will be counted?
Wasserman: I am much more optimistic. The Democrats would not have won the House of Representatives without the activities of the Election Protection Movement. I think the elections in Ohio are safer now. How long that holds, I don't know. I don't think there's any future for electronic voting machines in a democracy. They need to be gone.
Fitrakis: I am a strong advocate of hand-counted paper ballots, that are counted at the precinct level. I believe we need to embrace the fully transparent vote counting that many emerging democracies practice. That is, the ink on the finger, a transparent ballot box with votes cast secretly but counted publicly by all interested political parties, international observers, the press and the public. I also believe we need a nonpartisan election commission that does random exit polls. That is our only weapon to detect election tampering. I've recently written an article on freepress.org that outlines 50 recommendations for improving our elections. First and foremost, we should make voting a federally protected and eventually a constitutionally protected right.

Daniel Sturm is German journalist who covers under-reported social and political topics in Europe and in the United States. Some of his work can be seen on the Internet, at http://www.sturmstories.com