Ohio’s Bob “Ballots for Bush” Bennett, an essential player in putting George
W. Bush back in the White House in 2004, is no longer chair of the Cuyahoga
County Board of Elections (BOE). His milestone resignation leaves a legacy
of scandal, recrimination, massive voter purges, felony convictions, and
a pivotal role in a stolen presidential election.
Bennett quit in a signature cloud of graceless accusations and cheap shots
at Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s newly elected secretary of state, who asked
him to resign along with the rest of the Cleveland election authority.
His forced departure marks the biggest landmark yet in the unraveling theft
of the presidential elections in Ohio 2004 (Bennett remains chair of the
Ohio Republican Party).
In 2004 Bennett was apparently asked by White House consigliere Karl Rove
to stay on at the Cuya- hoga BOE to help guarantee Bush’s second term.
Cleveland is Ohio’s biggest and most Democratic urban center. A massive
sweep there by John Kerry was expected to have given him the White House.
It was Bennett’s job to mute that margin and apparently that’s exactly
what he did.
Leading up to the 2004 vote, Bennett oversaw the purge of some 168,000
registered voters from the Cuyahoga rolls, including 24.93 percent of the
city of Cleveland, which voted 83 percent for Kerry. In one inner city
majority African American ward, 51 percent of the voters were purged. Centered
on precincts that voted more than 80 percent for John Kerry, this purge
may well have meant a net loss to the Democrats of tens of thousands of
votes in an election that was officially decided statewide by less than
In a report issued December 7, 2004, the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration
Coalition (GCVRC) reported that, in addition to the purge of registered
voters, some 3.5 percent of those applying for new registrations were never
even entered on the rolls by Bennett’s BOE or were entered incorrectly,
which would result in disenfranchisement of those who had tried to become
new voters. Additionally, the GCVRC estimated that “over 10,000 voters
in Cuyahoga County would be compromised because of these clerical errors.”
Bennett refused to respond to the report’s initial conclusions. When the
study became public, BOE Executive Director Michael Vu accused the study
coordinator of “inciting panic.” Vu did not respond to GCVRC’s request
for the reinstatement of 303 voter registrations when there was direct
evidence that they had been wrongly cancelled.
The GCVRC also documented that the Cuyahoga County BOE incorrectly classified
463 properly registered voters as not registered. This included 201 voters
who were registered on BOE computers on August 17, but for some unexplained
reason, were removed from the rolls by October 22. They then were forced
to vote provisionally and their votes were rejected as not registered.
In Brunner’s formal complaint against Bennett, she cited the fact that
Bennett’s BOE did nothing when an estimated 10,000 voters were thrown off
the voting rolls by a Diebold voter registration computer glitch.
Also, Bennett’s BOE rejected 262 properly registered voters included on
its own list as of October 22. They incorrectly listed 183 as not registered
and 79 as no signatures. “The Board did not contest our data,” said the
GCVRC, “but said again it was just a small percentage due to human error
and then proceeded to certify the entire Cuyahoga County vote even though
they thereby knowingly possibly disenfranchised 463 individuals.”
Parallel purges were conducted by Republican-controlled boards of election
in Hamilton County (Cin- cinnati) where some 105,000 voters were purged
from the rolls and in Lucas County (Toledo), where some 28,000 were purged
in an unprecedented move in late August 2004. These remain the only three
counties in the state known to have conducted massive registration purges
prior to the 2004 election. The three mass urban purges decimated the rolls
in heavily Democratic areas. Since then, another 170,000 voters have been
purged from the rolls in Franklin County, primarily in the heavily Democratic
Columbus precincts. Many rural Republican counties, like Miami, practice
a “no-purge” policy.
From his post at the helm of both the Ohio GOP and the Cuyahoga BOE, Bennett
was at the center of the purges. Many of the 300,000-plus purged voters
reported that they never received notice that their voting rights had been
cancelled. Should the general 80 percent pro-Democratic inner city margins
have prevailed for all three purged lists, the net loss to the Kerry camp
could have been in the range of 100,000 votes. In addition to the purges,
Bennett was also at the center of the election challenges to college students
in Democratic enclaves.
Bennett is infamous for far more than massive voter purges. Under his supervision,
a legally mandated recount of the 2004 presidential vote was illegally
manipulated. Ohio law says precincts must be chosen at random for hand
counting as part of the recount process. But two Cuyahoga BOE employees
have since been convicted of a felony and a misdemeanor and have each been
sentenced to 18 months in prison for what prosecutors have called “rigging”
Bennett was also instrumental in the purchase of some $20 million in Diebold
voting machines for 2006 statewide elections. Election protection activists
vehemently opposed the purchase, as seen in a nationally televised HBO
special, “Hacking Democracy.” Under Bennett and Vu, the machines malfunctioned
in Ohio’s 2006 primary, with vote count reporting delayed for five days.
Long-time election activist Adele Eisner characterizes Bennett’s reign
at the Cuyahoga BOE as a “culture with fear.” Among other things, Bennett
chose to disregard longstanding laws requiring that election results be
posted at the precinct level, a decision backed by Ohio’s former Secretary
of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.
In a recent audit of the general 2006 elections Dr. Richard Hayes Phillips
found that in the initial vote count, “Cuyahoga County alone accounted
for 148,928 undervotes or 42.47 percent of the statewide total.” The undervotes
occurred in the race for U.S. Senate where voters apparently opted not
to vote for either incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine or Democrat Sherrod Brown—the
eventual winner. The undervotes represented 26.48 percent of the county’s
voters. But, says Phillips, “Once the official results were posted, Cuyahoga’s
undervote total fell to 3.25 percent,” leaving him to wonder “how the unofficial
results could have been so erroneous in the first place.”
Hayes also found that Cuyahoga County reported 30,791 uncounted absentee
and provisional ballots. After these ballots were counted, they reported
39,262 votes, an outcome Phillips terms mathematically “impossible.” Bennett
and Vu were also responsible for more than $12,900,000 in BOE cost overruns,
more than doubling the agency’s original budget of $11,000,000.
Vu resigned earlier this year and has since been hired as an Assistant
Registrar of Voters in San Diego County, the number two spot, with a $10,000
salary increase to $130,000 a year. The San Diego Union-Tribune noted,
“Vu’s resignation followed a tumultuous 3 1/2- year tenure as election
chief, including a disastrous May 2006 primary when the county began using
new electronic voting machines.”
In response to the chaos and recrimination, Brunner requested the resignations
of the Cuyahoga board’s two Democrats and two Republicans. Only Bennett
vowed to fight his removal. But he has now become the highest election
board official to resign here amid the deepening scandals surrounding the
Brunner has taken custody of the 2004 ballots and other vote count materials,
which are currently protected by a federal court decision. She is expected
to bring them from Ohio’s 88 county boards to a central repository in Columbus.
Meanwhile, new evidence is emerging that Karl Rove and the GOP had real-time
computer access to both the actual vote numbers in Ohio, as well as the
exit polling data, that would have allowed them to direct how many votes
they needed from the suspect Ohio southwestern Republican counties that
gave Bush his official margin of victory in the 2004 election. Stay tuned.
Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman’s books include How The GOP Stole America’s
2004 Election (www.free press.org) and What Happened In Ohio, with Steve
Rosenfeld (New Press).