We’ve been doing elections for a long, long time. Ohio became a state in 1803. You’d think that after a couple hundred years of elections, we’d be able to get it right. You’d think.
— Dennis Kucinich
We want citizens to have faith that Ohio elections are free, fair, open and honest to encourage the highest level of participation in our democracy.
— Jennifer Brunner, Ohio Secretary of State, “Four Goals for the Agency”
A perennial battleground state, Ohio recently added to the potential drama of Election 2008 with a controversy over early voting. After a court ruling in favor of a rule supported by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, the process allows new voters to register and cast absentee ballots on the same day during a weeklong period that ends Monday, 6 October.
This happens to be the same day the Documentary Channel is premiering How Ohio Pulled It Off, Charla Barker, Matthew Kraus, and Mariana Quiroga’s documentary on the state’s controversial vote in 2004. Notorious now as the second coming of Florida 2000, the election results were contested in Congress in 2005, with an objection raised by the late Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones California Senator Barbara Boxer, and supported by 30 of 535 members of Congress. At which time Dick Cheney uttered this wholly Darth-Vaderian query of Tubbs Jones: “For what purpose does the gentlewoman from Ohio rise?” How Ohio Pulled It Off explains why she rose.
Like other recent documentaries on U.S. elections (Hacking Democracy, Stealing America Vote by Vote) or even the HBO drama Recount, How Ohio Pulled It Off considers practices and occurrences on, before, or after election day, that led Ohioans to doubt their votes had been counted, including apparent vote flipping, faulty machines, provisional balloting, and discrepancies between election results and exit polls (the discrepancy in Ohio in 2004 was 11.7%, which the film compares to the 12% discrepancy in Ukraine in 2004, a number “cited by the U.S. government as evidence of election fraud” (the figures making this charge, in archival news footage, include George Bush and Colin Powell).
The style of argument in How Ohio Pulled It Off is methodical (categories of concern are plainly titled, from “Voting Machine Allocation” to “Flip Voting”) and dramatically shaped through a focus on then Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. The film opens and closes with the 2006 Ohio gubernatorial race, in which Blackwell lost his bid for elected office to Democrat Ted Strickland. Still, the film submits, Blackwell’s role in the 2004 elections still rankles citizens who encountered difficulties voting in 2004. These ranged from long lines in precincts serving underclass or minority voters, efforts to challenge votes at polling by Republican party volunteers, and daunting or suspicious particular registration or absentee ballot procedures. Following the election, voters gathered to report their experiences during a Voting Rights Movement Revival Conference; the film draws from these testimonies to provide a kind of scaffolding for its argument that efforts to repress or alter voting in Ohio were often intentional and, at some level, organized.
Blackwell’s affiliations were never a secret and his apparent function as “the Katherine Harris of 2004” (Wolf Blitzer’s phrase) troubled some observers in 2004 (an image of Blackwell with Karl Rove leaves you to draw your own conclusions). Blackwell’s efforts to get out the vote included appearances in church (footage shows him exhorting his audience, “In a democracy, your vote is your voice. If you don’t vote, you are not fulfilling your obligation to be a voice for good in God’s world”). Ray Miller, Ohio State Senator, says that registration itself became a difficult process, with some applications rejected because they were on the wrong weight of paper (this even though, according to Miller, these applications were submitted on forms provided by the Secretary of State’s office).
Long lines were also daunting in some precincts. In a press conference after election day, Blackwell said these “showed a tremendous amount of determination, patience, and civility, having to stand in long lines which were a sign of the robustness of the campaign and the vitality of democracy in Ohio.” Waits ranged from 45 minutes to 10 hours, according to some testimonies, and were sometimes followed by obstacles inside polling places, including broken machines, questions concerning their registrations, and machines that appeared to change citizens’ votes, sometimes as they watched. The film notes multiple examples of apparent efforts to suppress votes, including a group of young white men termed “challengers,” party workers who intimidate prospective voters with questions about their legitimacy or criminal records. A brief clip of Jesse Jackson is effective, but also not directly connected with an event in the film: “Suppose,” he says, “Five hundred blacks went into a white neighborhood to challenge their votes. It would be totally unacceptable. This challenging is raced targeting.” The general concept is underscored in the film by testimony by voters as well as Cliff Arnebeck, an attorney for Common Cause Ohio, who asserts he is no “conspiracy theorist. Rather, he says, “The suppression of black voters was no theory.”
The film’s most effective examination concerns exit polling, which indicated in 2008 that John Kerry was headed for a win in several states he did not take, including Ohio. The narrator intones, “There has not yet been a plausible statistical explanation for the Ohio exit poll discrepancy. The pattern is consistent with vote shifting, that is, altering the vote count to favor George Bush.” Kerry’s close loss led to a recount that featured, according to Bob Fitrakis, an Election Protection attorney, “even more corrupt than the original vote,” with Blackwell allowing counties to preselect precincts for recounts.
How Ohio Pulled It Off is a cautionary tale, a collection of testimonies and doubts. Just so, its final moments begin with a sequence crosscutting between George Bush’s inauguration (the oath includes the pledge to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America”) and protestors in Washington DC. The film ends, appropriately, with a question, “What does the future hold for American democracy?” At least one part of this future is upon us.