Swing State Ohio – a documentary by Jed Wolfington
Joan Brunwasser, Voting Integrity Editor, OpEdNews April 15, 2006
Some things just don't get better with time, despite its purported power to heal all wounds. Every time I watch a recap of 2004, I find it quite painful. I don't just remember what happened, but I actually relive the feelings I experienced at the time – intense, emotionally draining grief that penetrates deep in my bones. But my real sorrow stretches beyond Kerry's loss to what we as Americans have lost.
On that fateful day when pundits and consultants convinced Kerry that the numbers weren't there, he walked away from his promise. He left forever in limbo hundreds of thousands of uncounted votes, not to mention the multitude that it later came out were kept from being cast in the first place. Simply put, he betrayed our trust. The 2004 election was not just about him; it was bigger than him. It was about unprecedented numbers of people going out and trying to make our voices heard.
When Kerry abandoned his promise that every vote would get counted, he left the American people in the lurch. He also enabled a giant spin machine to work its magic, incessantly reframing and neutralizing every complaint or new revelation as nothing more than conspiracy theory or sour grapes. As the reasoning went, if there were grounds for contesting, the candidate himself would be the one leading the charge. Since he was not contesting, there was nothing to talk about. This refrain was taken up by the Republicans in Congress during the challenge to the counting of Ohio's electoral votes in January 2005. And it was echoed by the press which shrilly, almost gleefully, bashed anyone curious, skeptical, or offering evidence that votes were suppressed, voters were disenfranchised, and democracy was not served.
Swing State Ohio is a professionally done piece, and it's quite apparent that the team did its homework. The music, camerawork, and editing are all executed neatly and effectively. The storyline is crisp, and the pace lively but not rushed. While the content is painful, the finished product is a pleasure to watch. But most importantly, the subject is an important one. Ohio as swing state – the quintessential swing state in the 2004 presidential election.
Ohio, with its 11 million voters and 20 electoral votes, is the third largest swing state after Florida and Pennsylvania. For that reason, it was the focus of both candidates and their parties, engendering more visits than any other state. It seemed like one or both of the candidates were in Ohio on any given day. The filmmakers came to Ohio before the election in order to evaluate how it reflected the larger election landscape. What was at stake was, simply, the whole enchilada. No Republican had ever won the presidency without taking Ohio. It was a natural for the leading role in this electoral drama. As one Ohio voter proclaims, "Now the Midwest matters. For better or worse, Ohio's going to matter for the next 20 years."
As Tim Hagan, an Ohio Democrat who was running for reelection as Cuyahoga County commissioner in 2004, says, 16 years of one-party (Republican) rule leads to intellectual and political corruption. This was also a big factor in the election, although it is understated in the film.
In the film, the election is divided into four parts – issues, candidates, parties and their strategies, and the system that runs the election. The major issues that affected voters were the war in Iraq, terrorism, jobs and the economy, and moral values. The breakdown, by most important issue (MII), looks like this:
• 13% of the voters polled chose the war in Iraq as MII, and 72% voted for Kerry;
• 17% of the voters chose terrorism as MII, and 90% voted for Bush;
• 24% of the voters chose jobs and the economy as MII, and 85% voted for Kerry;
• 23% of the voters chose moral values as MII, and 85% voted for Bush.
The public was clearly very polarized about the candidates. Many liked Kerry's positions but found his style stiff and ponderous. People tended to love Bush's self-deprecating humor and his success at relating to the crowds. One young woman, seemingly a Kerry supporter, observes that while Kerry is right on target with his positions, she predicts that he'll be "steamrolled by Bush." She goes on to say that Bush is "charming, witty, funny. Give him a talk-show; don't let him run the country!" For many Ohio voters who claim that they will be voting for Kerry, their impetus seems as much a vote against Bush as a vote for Kerry. On the other hand, Bush voters interviewed share a big enthusiasm for their candidate. Republicans crafted an amazingly well-organized get-out-the-vote machine that proved very effective.
That the Bush camp was able to paint a real war hero as practically a traitor when their own candidate's war experience was spotty at best was another mark of an effectively waged public relations campaign. Bush has the audacity to say to crowds in a state that had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs that outsourcing serves their interests. This ability to get away with illogical positions and proposals proved the power of personality over reality. People liked Bush, believed him, and said they'd like to meet him for a beer. The 24/7 spin machine was able to take every event and turn it to their advantage, despite facts to the contrary. Only two short years later, the glossy sheen that cloaked Bush has been torn away, exposing a tawdry underside. How many would like to meet Bush for a beer today remains to be seen.
In my opinion, the portion of the film dealing with Election Day and its aftermath got short shrift. I understand that the film's goal was to be balanced, but what exactly does that mean? The facts have shown that while there was a legitimate Republican get-out-the-vote effort going on, there was also a sophisticated, underground effort to subvert the Democratic vote. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell willingly took on the mantle as Ohio's Katherine Harris (Florida's Secretary of State in 2000, whose machinations helped Bush take the presidency that year). He countermanded HAVA to prohibit the counting of votes cast in the wrong precinct. He knowingly posted incorrect polling place information at the secretary of state's website, insuring that many either couldn't vote at all because they couldn't find the correct polling place and ran out of time, or voted on a provisional ballot that was then thrown out.
According to Harvey Wasserman, senior editor of The Columbus Free Press and co-author of many articles and several books on Ohio 2004, Blackwell had already purged over 300,000 legal voters from the voting lists prior to the election, including 105,000 from Cincinnati, 28,000 from Toledo, and 170,000 from Cleveland. That the margin of victory was a slim 120,000 shows the sheer power of Blackwell's interference in the democratic process. Apparently, the 90,000 voters illegally purged from Florida's voting lists in 2000 were seen as insufficient, so the effort was ramped up, more than tripled in fact. It is important to keep this in mind when watching Blackwell duplicitously state on camera, "The President wouldn't expect me to cheat...I am dedicated to upholding the laws of Ohio." Although he appears to be an upstanding public servant, the truth is something quite different.
Blackwell states that his goal for the election is that "at the end of the day, [there should be] full confidence that the result is an accurate reflection of the voting public's will." And yet Congressman John Conyers, author of What Went Wrong in Ohio, states that of the tens of thousands of complaints nationwide that flooded in on Election Day, by far, the most came from a single state: Ohio.
Blackwell did his job with a vengeance. Not satisfied to stop with the purging of 303,000 legal voters before 2004, according to Wasserman, he went on to disenfranchise an additional 170,000 Columbus voters after the election. This total of almost half a million illegally purged citizens was still an insufficient cushion to prevent his own huge defeat in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Blackwell, understandably, is not a popular figure in Ohio, or elsewhere for that matter. Not even 473,000 votes in his pocket could help him overcome the antipathy of his constituents. In the movie, this is hinted at, but not focused upon.
The voice-over narrator of Swing State Ohio questions whether the demonizing engaged in by both parties was useful in getting the voting public more involved in the elections. She states that when the "pendulum of power swings" between the two parties, this keeps us from one-party rule. But, the pendulum cannot swing if there are other factors that hamper its path, like illegal and massive voter disenfranchisement, and the use of insecure, inaccurate, and poorly constructed electronic voting machines manufactured by large Republican donors (one of whom vowed to deliver Ohio for Bush in 2004).
Footage shows Democrats speaking civilly and passionately about the need to examine what happened and learn from it. No one ever proposed anything as radical as overthrowing the election results. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) poignantly points out that this is not an issue of Republican or Democrat, but rather "a red, white and blue issue." For their pains, anyone who spoke out in Congress was ridiculed and shut down. Without Senator Barbara Boxer's courage, there would have been no protest at all. She said, apologetically, that even though Al Gore asked her not to join the challenge posed by the members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2000, she was always sorry that she hadn't. It wasn't about Al Gore, it was about the democratic process. And so here she was in 2004, belatedly playing a role denied her the last time around. Things were only a little different, with the same result of people being ridiculed, vilified, and shut out of the process.
I certainly wouldn't say that Swing State Ohio misstates the facts. But I would say that it doesn't give all of the facts necessary to present a clear picture. Because of the special nature of recent elections, more emphasis should have been put on the parties' election strategies and the election system. In retrospect, it is those aspects that seem to have been most responsible for determining victory or defeat more than the issues and the candidates.
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