BY JON CRAIG | JCRAIG@ENQUIRER.OM
It's one of the lingering mysteries of the 2004 presidential election.
In a key county in Southwest Ohio - amid vague references to "homeland security" - officials locked everyone else out of the board of elections as they counted punch-card ballots. President Bush emerged with more than 72 percent of the votes in Warren County, helping him narrowly win Ohio - and a second term.
Secrecy surrounding the count galvanized bloggers, anti-Bush activists and conspiracy theorists from around the globe. To this day, the lockdown is cited as evidence of an election stolen from Sen. John Kerry and the Democrats.
Now with another presidential election coming, The Enquirer, through public-records requests and interviews, can unravel the story of what happened on the night of Nov. 2, 2004 - and how officials tried to spin the event afterwards.
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The Enquirer has learned:
Warren County's Administration Building - which houses the Board of Elections offices - was shuttered to the public shortly after the polls closed. The lockdown came on top of government warnings issued to elections officials nationwide, stating al-Qaida might attempt terrorist attacks on polling places.
- In the weeks after the election, county officials were bombarded with hundreds of angry e-mails and hit with intensifying media scrutiny from across the country.
"Stop destroying our democracy!" wrote a North Myrtle Beach, S.C. woman.
One e-mail came from an angry overseas voter living in the United Kingdom.
- As national criticism mounted in the following weeks, a county commissioner was persuaded to gut a press release, while trying to align conflicting versions of what happened.
The county sheriff suggested the official leave out references to the FBI, warning,
"This is inviting the hornets out of the nest.''
No conclusive evidence has ever emerged showing the lockdown affected the vote count, which was monitored by Democratic and Republican observers.
"You can Google it and get 10,000 versions" of what happened, says Pat South, then and now president of the Warren County Board of Commissioners. She acknowledged this month that the county made a mistake in locking the building and miscommunicating as to when, how and who recommended it.
"2004? Hindsight? Wrong move," she says.
Federal officials blanketed the nation with terrorism warnings in September and October, prompting 18 Ohio counties to activate their Emergency Operations Centers on Nov. 2, 2004. Forty-eight other Ohio county emergency centers were on standby Election Day in case of an emergency, according to state records.
Among the warnings to county officials was a four-page Oct. 4 memo from the Ohio Army National Guard that stated: "Homeland Security Department has indicated al-Qaida is plotting to disrupt US elections. Potential exists that disruptions could occur at campaign stops and/or polling places in the upcoming elections. Many polling places are located in churches, schools, community centers, local and state government facilities."
While no terror incidents occurred anywhere in the United States on Election Day 2004, Ohio Emergency Management Agency incident reports, obtained last month by The Enquirer, show a "terrorism threat rumor'' in Tuscarawas County and complaints about people of "Middle Eastern descent'' in Allen and Lorain counties.
The Lorain County incident turned out to be an international monitoring group photographing a polling place in Grafton. The Allen County incident was reported to the Defense Department as suspicious people in a gold minivan with California plates. It turned out to be four Latino males doing a film project, according to state EMA records.
In Warren County, Lebanon police, two county pick-up trucks and a bomb-sniffing dog helped guard the Administration Building on Election Day.
Board of elections officials compiled a list of people approved for after-hours access to the Administration Building. The list didn't include reporters or other approved ballot-counting observers.
Among those locked out were an Enquirer reporter, a TV reporter, and a stringer from the Associated Press. The AP had stringers at all 88 boards of elections, and only in Warren County were they not allowed in. James Lee, spokesman for then Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, told the Enquirer then that no other county had similar restrictions Election Night.
"We weren't trying to hide anything from them,'' said then-Warren County Board of Elections Director Susan Johnson, who now works at the Clinton County Board of Elections. "It had never ever been the practice (for the media) to be in the room with the counting anyway.''
The building's front doors were locked shortly after polls closed at 7:30 p.m.
Even Jeff Ruppert, Warren County counsel for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, was initially denied admission before presenting credentials. Ruppert told reporters he observed nothing inappropriate at the board of elections.
The Ohio Republican Party's election night rally in Columbus exploded in cheers at 12:41 a.m. Wednesday as Fox News Channel became the first to called Ohio for Bush. NBC later called the state as well.
But Kerry spokeswoman Mary Beth Cahill issued this statement at 1:30 a.m.: "The vote count in Ohio has not been completed. There are more than 250,000 remaining votes."
He said it was inspired, in part, by a conversation he had with an FBI agent in October, while planning security for an unrelated public event. That conversation took place in the parking lot of the Hamilton Township Administration Building.
Young asked the FBI agent how seriously to take the threats. The agent - whom Young would not identify - told him: "We take it very seriously. There are factions in this country that want to go after - and see disruption of whatever it is - whether it's an election or whatever.''
Young said the conversation "was not necessarily what prompted the actionsŠ We just wanted to have some extra protection around the building, because you never know what kind of a nut is out there.''
But Warren County Sheriff Tom Ariss has a different recollection of decisions leading to the lockdown: "My understanding is the FBI was never contacted. They never talked to anybody."
The FBI looked into whether anyone had told Warren County authorities about a threat to the board of elections, FBI spokesman Michael Brooks said last week.
In a Nov. 15, 2004, e-mail to South, county Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel and others, Ariss wrote: "This is inviting the hornets out of the nest. I still like the press release that was made up on Friday.''
South complied, cutting more than half the detail from her draft press release including this line: "While there was never any specific terrorist threat or warning directed against the County Administration Building or any venue in Warren County, we were adequately convinced that if any attempts were going to be made to interfere with the election process, Warren County was one of three counties ranked at highest risk.''
"I'm pretty sure that that was a ranking from emergency management,'' South said Thursday. She thought it came from Young via the FBI.
In an interview last week, Ariss insisted that Young "would never talk to anybody (from the FBI) in a parking lot, because they wouldn't know who the hell he was. But I better keep my mouth shut," he said with a laugh. "I won't even touch it. Just knowing the FBI, they would have no reason to be up here. . . Had there been any concern, it should have been addressed to us because we are the provider of security on the county buildings.''
"Well, he wasn't there,'' Young said of the sheriff.
"It's terribly disconcerting,'' Daniel J. Hoffheimer, a Cincinnati attorney, said of the discrepancies about whether the FBI was involved or not.
Hoffheimer, who was Kerry's legal counsel in Ohio, said, "Here you've got two people Š who have two different recollections, or two different stories about what happened, and at least, for now, no way of resolving which is the truth.''
Bush won Ohio by 50.8 to 48.7 percent and Warren County by 72.3 to 27.7 percent.
In a federal lawsuit and subsequent books, Richard Hayes Phillips, a scientist from Canton, N.Y., and Columbus attorneys Cliff Arnebeck and Robert J. Fitrakis, among others, documented what they described as abnormalities in the county's punch-card ballot counts, including high numbers of Republicans who voted in favor of gay marriage in Southwest Ohio - contrary to elsewhere in the state - and supporting a Democratic candidate for chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. They contend the anomalies indicate ballots were mishandled, miscounted or tampered with, and that the Warren County "lockdown'' allowed this to happen undetected. Their lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in Columbus.
Hoffheimer said no one may ever know the full story of what happened in Warren County, or Ohio that night.
Changes recommended by South and others are now in place: A window for media and other observers was installed overlooking the boardroom where vote tabulations take place, according to current Board of Elections Director Michael E. Moore. And three polling precincts that had been in the county administration building in 2004 have been removed.
Warren County will never lock down its administration building during an election again "unless there was well-documented, unquestionable'' cause, South promised.
"Could things have gone smoother here? Yup, we learned some lessons,'' Young said. "It's just like any fire, flood or tornado that you would have. Sometimes you sit back and you say, 'What could we have done better to approach that situation?' I learned to stay the hell away from itŠ. The only time (since 2004) I had anything to do with the polling place is when I walked in to vote. That was it.''