Teresa James is Project Vote Counsel
Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner was right to call Monday March 19th for the resignations of all four members of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections this week. The board, consisting of two Republicans and two Democrats by statute, was dominated for too long by the overbearing personality of the Chairman, Bob Bennett, to the detriment of Cuyahoga County voters. As head of the Republican party, Bennett is a powerful political figure in this Republican-dominated state. Other board members—who served at the pleasure of then Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell -- rarely challenged Bennett’s position on any issue at public board meetings. The Secretary’s decision opens the door for a new board with a more even balance of power among the members.
The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections has performed poorly, as the recent 2006 primary debacle shows. A panel of election experts appointed by the board to look into the primary election issued the “Cuyahoga Election Review Report,” July 20, 2006, in which it documented serious problems in almost every phase of the election. The unofficial count was delayed by five days because of horribly botched absentee ballot counting. There were problems with poorly trained and under-staffed poll workers, too few operational voting machines at inner city locations, and problems with the Diebold machines that Bennett vigorously championed. The 2006 primary was even more poorly conducted than the 2004 general election, which was marred by many of the same issues.
Despite the two badly managed federal elections, it was the convictions of two board employees for manipulating the 2004 recount that triggered newly-elected Secretary Brunner to call for the board’s resignations. Two mid-level managers at the county board were recently convicted of 'rigging' the recount and sentenced to 18 months in jail. Many election activists in Cuyahoga County are outraged that the two mid-level employees face prison while the board members, who knew about the method used in the recount, remain unscathed. The director, Michael Vu, also has escaped serious repercussions for permitting his staff to conduct the highly sensitive 2004 recount using questionable methods. He tendered his resignation, but is still at the board in a consultant status while the search for a replacement continues.
The board bungled the highly-charged 2004 recount. They agreed to permit a two-step process… a recount behind closed doors and an ostensibly identical recount in front of public witnesses. Unbeknownst to the witnesses, the staff cherry picked precincts where the tally matched the official vote. More than one hundred witnesses from four political parties, including this writer, gave two full days of their time to oversee a recount that was essentially a sham. Ohio law calls for recounts to be done in public to prevent just this sort of manipulation. While there is no evidence that the board directed employees to cull precincts that didn’t match the official count, it’s difficult to see why the board would agree to conducting a time-consuming recount twice, unless they wanted to ensure that the public recount matched the official result. If a recount of three percent of randomly selected precincts does not match the official count, election workers have to manually recount every precinct in the county. They did not want a county-wide manual recount.
Nothing points to a blatant conspiracy to violate the law on the part of the board, however. The procedure had been used in Cuyahoga County recounts before. There was a legal argument in support of using the county's "established procedures" in lieu of state law. But in the face of intense public concern about election integrity, particularly in 2004, competent managers would not have chosen to rehearse the recount before they admitted witnesses.