The Coming Ballot Meltdown

Jan Hudec, a member of Canada's national alpine ski team, does a wind test in the world's largest wind tunnel at the the General Motors aerodynamics laboratory in Warren, Mich., during a media availability on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)
AP Photo/Nathan Denette
This column was written by Andrew Gumbel.
Anyone wondering where America's next electoral meltdown will take place — and it can only be a matter of time — might do well to turn back to the scene of the last one.

Ohio was, of course, ground zero of the 2004 presidential election, and now it's the battleground of one of the most hotly contested governor's races in the country. The Republican candidate this November is none other than Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State, a man vilified by voting rights activists for a string of baffling and, to all appearances, nakedly partisan rulings in the 2004 presidential race, when he also doubled as co-chair of George Bush's state re-election campaign. Now he's at it again — issuing draconian guidelines on voter registration that carry the threat of felony prosecutions against grassroots get-out-the-vote groups, especially in Democratic-leaning urban areas, for even the slightest procedural irregularity. Despite denials from Blackwell's office of any malicious political intent, the guidelines have had an immediate chilling effect on groups like the activist community organization ACORN, which has suspended registration efforts pending urgent consultations with its lawyers. Several leading Democrats have urged Blackwell to step aside from all election-supervising responsibilities, a proposal his staff has greeted with near-derision.

It would be bad enough if Blackwell were acting merely to benefit his party, as he did in 2004. But in this case he's taking advantage of his office to act on behalf of his own ambitions. Unless something changes between now and November, he will remain in charge of counting the votes — his own and everyone else's. In a pivotal election in a pivotal state, this is far from reassuring. As Peg Rosenfield, an elections specialist with the League of Women Voters of Ohio who spent twelve years working in the secretary of state's office in the pre-Blackwell era, put it, "If you think '04 was a mess, just wait. I anticipate a debacle."

Blackwell and his Democratic challenger, Ted Strickland, are locked in a tough fight over the succession to Bob Taft, the scandal-tainted, widely reviled incumbent governor, whose approval ratings are lower even than Dick Cheney's. Early polls have put Strickland modestly ahead, but Blackwell has several built-in advantages, particularly his ability to lean on an entrenched Republican establishment and tap into its broad fundraising powers. Blackwell has largely escaped the stench of corruption dragging down the rest of the state party, thanks to his reputation as a maverick and a lone operator. As a social conservative, he appeals to much the same exurban demographic that turned out for George W. Bush to express their disapproval of abortion rights and gay marriage. And, as an African-American, he is bound to peel away at least a percentage of the urban black vote that Strickland might otherwise regard as his for the taking. So it's not inconceivable, as the nation awakes on November 8, that the Ohio governor's race will be too close to call. And if that happens, all hell will break loose.

"If we have a recount, I see no way anyone is going to have any faith in it. It's a poisonous atmosphere," Rosenfield said. Never, she added, has she seen the elections process subject to as much politicization as now. Previous secretaries of state, conscious of their status as partisan elected officials, would have gone out of their way to keep their names off election-related directives that risked being interpreted as attempts to help one party over the other. Blackwell, by contrast, has if anything gone out of his way to be identified with his office's most controversial rules. (In 2004 he happily put his name on a now-notorious directive that late voter-registration applications — the kind encouraged by Democratic grassroots groups — be submitted on specially weighted, unwaxed paper, which disqualified applications printed in Ohio newspapers. He also made it unusually hard for voters casting provisional ballots — again, more likely to be Democrats — to have their votes accepted and counted.)

On top of that, Rosenfield added, Blackwell's office has shown a wanton disregard for the needs of Ohio's eighty-eight counties as they make the Congressionally mandated transition from punch-card and lever machines to new-generation electronic voting systems. Rather than answer technical questions posed by the counties — which is how Rosenfield spent much of her time when she worked for the secretary of state's office in the 1980s — Blackwell's staff has a habit of referring county boards of elections to other local officials not remotely qualified to help.