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William Raspberry

What Happened in Ohio

By William Raspberry
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page A17

I don't usually let other people do my thinking for me, but I confess I'd been waiting for Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to tell me what to think about the voting irregularities that marred the November elections in Ohio.

Bloggers have been burning up the Internet with tales of manipulation and fraud. A representative of the company that supplied some of the voting machines (and whose corporate chief had promised to deliver the state for President Bush) supposedly was caught fiddling with some of the machines. Heavily Democratic -- but not heavily Republican -- precincts were plagued by a shortage of voting machines. Votes cast for challenger John Kerry showed up on the screen as votes for Bush. Black and poor voters -- likely Democratic voters -- were harassed and otherwise discouraged. And there were scores of similar allegations.

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Stories in the mainstream media weren't much help. They pretty much agreed that, while there were irregularities in Ohio and elsewhere, there always are irregularities. Nothing particularly unusual -- or outcome-changing -- happened in Ohio.

Political reporters, mainstream editors and most of Congress seemed utterly unalarmed. Were they asleep at the switch? Were they afraid of discovering a truth that the country couldn't handle? Or was there simply not much of a story?

But then I learned that Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was holding hearings on the matter. And if there were an alarm that needed to be sounded, Conyers would sound it.

Well, he sounded it Wednesday, in a 100-page report, "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio" -- and I still don't know whether to run for the hills or just be a bit more careful next time.

"I've had hearings with all sorts of witnesses, many of whom were convinced of fraud and conspiracy," Conyers told me the day before his report was made public. Yes, but did he believe what the witnesses told him?

"I'm not seeking to match my opinion with theirs," he said. "My objective is to uncover out of this mass of complaints, sworn affidavits and eyewitness accounts whether or not there were significant irregularities. It does seem that there were more in Ohio than elsewhere."

So the Republicans stole the election?

"Please understand, this is not an attempt to change the outcome. Many of the complaints were from people who couldn't be sure what they saw, or who were able to vote anyway, despite the difficulty. And there's no way we could count the number of people who left those cold, rainy lines after the second or third hour of waiting.

"So, no, we're not trying to overturn this election. But if, as it appears, a significant number of people believe they were disenfranchised -- and this is the second straight presidential election there has been that feeling -- then it's incumbent on Congress to try to do something so that it won't happen yet again."

So what am I to think about all the allegations I've been reading in the noncertified press since November? That the left-wing bloggers are blowing things out of proportion? That the mainstream press is being properly circumspect? That nothing much happened in Ohio?

But "Preserving Democracy" belies such a benign conclusion. Listen:

"We have found numerous, serious election irregularities . . . which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters. . . .

"In many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio."

Presumably Conyers is being careful not to draw conclusions because he wants Congress to have a look. But we're talking about a Congress whose members often pass important legislation without bothering to read it. What makes him think anyone is going to read his report unless he waves it about like a smoking gun?

Instead, he and a few other Democrats offered a formal challenge to Thursday's ceremonial counting of the electoral votes from November, forcing a brief delay in the official certification of President Bush. The point, he said, was to "maximize the seriousness of the issue," not to overturn the election results.

Well, I don't want to overturn the election, either. But I would like to know if public officials and private citizens engaged in a significant and concerted effort to steal the election in the event the wrong person seemed to be winning it. And if so, I'd like to know who the miscreants were, what they did and what heads are going to roll.

Because if all we get are a few hearings and empty promises, it's a safe bet it'll happen again.

willrasp@washpost.com


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