Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Ohio Recount: Xenia-phobia

Keith Olbermann

December 13, 2004

SECAUCUS - If the subject weren’t so serious, the clunky maneuverings of John Kerry and Kenneth Blackwell would make for a nice modernized version of the Keystone Kops, or maybe Gilbert & Sullivan.

It’s hard to tell which of them is doing the worse job convincing anybody that there’s nothing to see here — keep moving — pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Here is Kerry, insisting he is not invested in the outcome of an Ohio recount, asking through his lawyers to inspect the 92,000 ballots that contain no vote for president. And, through his interactions with Jesse Jackson and John Conyers, connecting into the Alliance for Democracy lawsuit to overturn or freeze the Ohio Electoral count, and into the assessment that Blackwell’s behavior “appears to violate Ohio law.”

And here is Blackwell, having insisted on 'Countdown' that there would be a re-count and his office would take no steps to prevent it, stepping on his own feet in Xenia, Ohio. Last Friday, Greene County election officials there tossed out two Green Party observers who had been given access to the examine the voting records there, attributing their actions to Blackwell’s directives that the so-called ‘canvassing period’ which follows every election be extended from ten days to more than a month because of the fact of the recount. Those county records, Blackwell’s people reasoned, needed to be sealed and handled with the “utmost care” until the recount was completed.

Just to round out the absurdity, those same two Greens returned to the Election Board building in Greene County (and what script editor would’ve permitted that coincidence?) on Saturday morning to find, they say, the facility unlocked, and all those ‘sealed’ voting machines and records out in the open where any passing vandal or political memorabilia junkie could’ve walked off with them (heck, I own two Broward County 2000 Voting Machines, if anybody would like to do a private recount). Greene County responded by insisting that while it was true that someone appears to have left the building unlocked, overnight, on Friday, and that nobody locked it up until Saturday afternoon, the other stuff — about the machines and records being unprotected — wasn’t true; they were inside locked rooms.

Well, that’s all right, then.

My MSNBC colleague and Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman shares my amazement at the Inspector Clouseaus of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. If there’s nothing wrong in Ohio, it sure won’t be because Secretary Blackwell didn’t try to make it look like there was.

“I think that Ken Blackwell and his people have behaved in a duck-and-cover mode a la Florida, even before Election Day,” Howard said in a conversation before his appearance on tonight’s edition of 'Countdown'. “By extending the ‘canvassing period’ until now, they make it look as though they have something to hide. They’re supposedly doing it in the name of security, but you can’t do that if you’re leaving the doors unlocked.”

Fineman suggests Blackwell’s personal pique at having had his reputation sullied in the last month — and the month before it — is also a factor. “The Secretary of State’s office hasn’t been doing such a great job because he’s been testy and impatient about the whole affair.”

It took us several phone calls today to get any explanation out of Secretary Blackwell’s office as to the events in Xenia. Carlo LoParo, the Secretary’s Press Secretary, finally came through just before dinner time. “When a county board of elections receives a formal request for a recount,” he said on Blackwell’s behalf, “all ballots, poll books and lists must be sealed to protect the record. Those documents can only be accessed in the presence of all parties involved in the recount through bi-partisan election officials — at least one Democrat and one Republican.”

In other words, the Greens’ observers were kicked out because they were neither Democrat nor Republican, even though the recount is being sponsored by, and funded by, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans.

The answer was a far cry from the seemingly genial exchange I had with Secretary Blackwell on November 29th’s Countdown:

KO: “As it plays into the recount, though, sir, are you saying that your office does not anticipate taking any steps to try to prevent a recount in Ohio?”

KB: “No, we haven‘t. We‘ve told the two officials candidates that have-the candidates that have asked for a recount that, once we certify on December 6, they have five days to certify, I mean, to ask for a recount. Once they ask for a recount, we will provide them with a recount. And that‘s what I‘ve said from the very first indication that they were interested in a recount. Once it was established that they were statewide candidates withstanding, our law says that they can ask for a recount. We will regard this as yet another audit of the voting process.”

Smoke — plenty of it. And little obvious means of telling whether it’s the smoke of a flawed election, or the stuff set ablaze by Ohio officials falling into the fireplace during their desperate, petulant, failing struggle to make themselves look good.

The problem, of course, is that those positing an Electoral College freeze, or a formal Congressional Challenge to Ohio’s Electors on January 6, are generating nearly as much smoke. Kerry’s attorney’s letter to the 88 County boards not only asks to see the 92,000 “undervotes,” but also, to permit independent examination of “the programming and calibration of the tabulating system, scanners, and electronic voting machines verified by independent experts.”

The problem — as Howard Fineman puts it — is that even acknowledging the delicate position Kerry finds himself in, and the easy target he would make himself by openly investing in an Ohio recount/investigation/protest, this all still smacks of “I didn’t care about the recount before I started caring about it.” Howard continues: “If Kerry and his lawyer really thought there was real mischief going on, they should have had all their guns out there investigating what happened in Ohio and they should have been strong and vocal.”

Fineman also reminds us that it is noteworthy that, with the voting machine disparities and the potential disenfranchisement in urban communities so superbly documented over the weekend by The Columbus Dispatch, this is a minority voting rights issue, and Kerry needs to play it perfectly. “It’s not insignificant,” Howard said, “that the Ohio Secretary of State, Representative Conyers, and Jesse Jackson are all black politicians who are caught in this power struggle.”

The irony of all this smoke is that the day’s only practical election news came not from Columbus, but from St. Paul. There, one of Minnesota’s ten electors presumably messed up big time and voted not for John Kerry, but for John Edwards. So — the Electoral College vote will change — now it’ll be Bush 286, Kerry 251, Edwards 1.