Unprecedented, My Foot

The Morning Call looks at the charge that Congressional Republicans are taking unheard of actions

As you may have heard, several Republican elected officials are planning to object tomorrow to the certification of the presidential electoral vote in Congress.  Roughly a dozen Republican Senators – led by presumptive 2024 frontrunners Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX) – will object, as will somewhere in the neighborhood of 140+ GOP Members of the House.

We’ll admit that we have absolutely no idea why they are planning to do so.  Maybe they know something we don’t.  Maybe they’re ALL crassly partisan and looking to get a leg up on the competition in what will, apparently, be a 150+ candidate Republican primary four years three years from now.  Maybe they’re all crazy.  Maybe it’s all part of an elaborate plot to undermine the American people’s confidence in Congress.  (LOL.  Sorry about that last one.  There’s no way to undermine the people’s confidence in an institution that already has approval ratings lower than the bat/pangolin/lab tech who loosed COVID upon the world.)

Whatever it is, it’s sedition.  Or treason.  Or something.  Seriously.  That’s the argument being offered – yet AGAIN! – that the exercise of constitutional prerogatives is unconstitutional.  Because of course.   

We suspect that what’s going on here is, in fact, partisan and political.  But then, as we say, we don’t really have any idea.  It strikes us as strange that two very smart Senators, Hawley and Cruz, either of whom could be the next Republican presidential nominee, would risk lighting their careers on fire just to win the affection of dedicated Trump fans.  But that’s precisely what they’ll be doing if their objections are backed up by nothing more than what we know already.  And that suggests to us that there HAS TO BE something more to it.

Of course, the last time we wrote something like that, it was about Sidney Powell, the formerly respected lawyer who blew up her own career chasing down allegations of voter fraud and, as a result, is now thought of as a lunatic by, among others, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump.

So…there’s that.

In addition to the word “sedition,” the other word tossed about quite a bit on this matter is “unprecedented,” – as in, “even though the Democrats in Congress have objected the electoral vote certification in each of the last three successful Republican presidential campaigns, the GOP’s objection today is unprecedented!  Because, shut up.”  As had been the case across every moment of the Trump presidency, that which the press and the Democrats have called “unprecedented” is, in truth, perfectly precedented.    

You don’t have to scour the interwebs very long or very hard to find conservative (and even centrist) writers pointing out this inconvenient fact.  It has become a ubiquitous talking point.  And it has become ubiquitous mostly because it’s valid.  Whatever you think of the Republicans’ objection, they didn’t come up with the idea on their own.  This is how the game is played in the twenty-first century: if you lose, it’s because the other side cheated.  THAT’S the precedent the Democrats set, and now they’re just grumpy that the Republicans are using it more effectively than they did.  Not to beat a dead horse, but life in the total state is defined by total political war.  And, well, c’est la guerre.

Again, to be clear, we don’t know what the Republicans are up to.  We don’t generally think of federal politicians as especially strategic, but there are exceptions.  And those who are strategically the most effective are the ones who can convince the political world that they are doing one thing, when they are actually doing another; that is to say, those who are willing to take the heat for a relatively minor breach of etiquette, so that they can, surreptitiously, accomplish a far more significant goal that appears un- or merely tangentially related to the breach.

We thought about this the other day, as we were reading some of the more aggressive objections to the Republicans’ plans for tomorrow.  Specifically, the University of New Hampshire communications professor and writer Seth Abramson had a particularly awful but useful take.  He tweeted:

What happened in 2005 has been twisted out of all recognition by the GOP. 2 months after Kerry conceded, 1 senator and the Congressional Black Caucus protested systemic voter suppression in Ohio—which few dispute occurred—for 2 hours. That's it….

In 2005, there was no claim Kerry had actually won; Kerry didn't claim that he'd won; the protest was brief, and merely symbolic; and the evidence of voter suppression in Ohio was not only uncontested but had been seen by every American on TV in 14-hour voting lines in Cleveland.

Why is this an awful take, you ask?  Because it’s flatly untrue.  The “suppression” angle was a post hoc rationalization for what appeared – rightly – to be utter lunacy embraced by the mainstream media and Democrats alike.  The basic conspiracy angle started, more or less, with Howard Dean, the imbalanced former governor of Vermont.  In late January 2004, just days after he had finished a disappointing third in the Iowa caucuses and had, as a result, just showed the American people how imbalanced he was, Dean began preaching about how the election that November would be stolen.  For a variety of reasons, Dean’s fellow Democrats and the mainstream media took his rant as gospel, rather than what it actually was: the incoherent rambling of a spittle-flecked madman.  On January 22, 2004, just three days after the vote in Iowa the New York Post noted:

Howard Dean unleashed a new line of attack yesterday by hinting at Republican corporate conspiracies to steal elections.

Discarding his old stump speech, slipping-in-the-polls Dean took an Oliver Stone-ish shot at the GOP hierarchy, telling New Hampshire voters about his fear that new high-tech voting machines will be programmed to steal ballots from Democrats.

The former Vermont governor warned the head of Diebold, which makes electronic voting machines, may rig his equipment so that ballots from Democratic voters are not counted.

“Whether you can program a chip or not is up for debate. I think you probably can and have a vote for Al Gore count as a vote for Pat Buchanan,” said Dean, who says he’d like every electronic vote counter to leave a paper trail.

Some Democrats have charged that Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell is not to be trusted because he’s been a Republican financial supporter.

Dean flew home to Vermont yesterday feeling sick and exhausted.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Bush won Ohio in November, despite being projected as the loser by exit polls, and the conspiracy was revived!  And contra Abramson, the mongering of this conspiracy went on for a LONG time and involved a significant number of Democrats in Ohio and on Capitol Hill, as Politico reiterated just last month.  In an article with a subhead that read: “The 2004 vote-fraud conspiracy movement never really died,” Politico noted:

The 2004 election was supposed to prove that America had learned its lessons from 2000, when the Bush-Gore race came down to a disastrously convoluted vote count in Florida, followed by weeks of uncertainty and a final Supreme Court ruling. With a political will fueled by images of hanging chads and squinting Florida poll workers, Congress in 2002 passed the bipartisan Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. The act required states to set up voter registration databases, voter identification procedures and provisional ballots for people whose names didn’t show up on the rolls at their home precincts. It also helped local districts purchase the latest in voting technology: optical scan ballot-readers and touch-screen machines that would, in theory, eliminate the human error and potential fraud inherent in paper counting. Even so, the Kerry campaign was prepared for a fight: It had assembled a nationwide network of lawyers to fight post-election battles, if necessary.

Even after Kerry conceded the race, accusations about shenanigans in Ohio emerged on several fronts. The first is what might be called garden-variety voter suppression….

But people like [University of Pennsylvania researcher scholar Steven] Freeman, who dug into the exit poll numbers, also circulated a darker theory, centered on fraud that occurred after the vote—via those high-tech voting machines, whose results couldn’t be verified against an independent paper trail. Questions about why the exit polls were so inaccurate—which the mainstream media and even the pollsters attributed to flawed polling methodology—led others to spin out theories about who might have been driven to change the votes themselves. Depending on whom in the movement you talk to, it might have been Karl Rove, working with the private companies that manufactured the machines; it might have been the military-industrial complex; it might have been a shady “they” of extra-governmental elites. It was all impossible to disprove, because it was impossible to prove: If the numbers defied explanation, then any idea, however uncomfortable or wild, could theoretically be true.

For a short time, the breakdown in Ohio gained some purchase in official channels. On December 8, [Michigan Congressman John] Conyers convened a hearing of an ad hoc committee on voting irregularities in Ohio. It was a toothless event, without a single Republican in attendance, but Democrats made passionate statements in favor of election reform. “The system of voting broke down Nov. 2, 2004,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who called for an independent audit of discarded ballots; a national Election Day holiday; and a rule that barred officials who oversaw elections from working for a partisan campaign. When the hearing turned to questions from the audience, people made suggestions that would sound familiar to anyone who has listened to Trump this year: encouraging electors to change their votes; urging Congress not to certify the election.

Many in the audience seemed open to the deeper, darker theories. When [Jonathan] Simon [“a onetime pollster-turned-lawyer-turned-chiropractor”] stood up at the citizens’ portion of the hearing and said, “They won’t count our votes as long as they own the machines,” the room broke out in applause. But the politicians would only go so far….

In August, 2005, Conyers issued a report about Ohio’s voting discrepancies—you can still buy it on Amazon—but it didn’t lead to any change.

To summarize: Seth Abramson is wrong.  We’re not sure if he’s lying or if he just doesn’t know any better, but either way, it’s he, not the GOP, who has twisted the 2004 election conspiracy theories “out of all recognition.”

So, why, then, is his take also useful?  Because the one detail he gets right explains the WHOLE thing.  Note that Abramson very casually glides past the fact that the primary Congressional objectors to the certification of George W. Bush’s win IN OHIO were the members of the Congressional Black Caucus.  Abramson tries to explain the CBC’s interest as a product of “voter suppression,” but as we’ve already seen, that’s false.  CBC members like John Conyers – one of the most corrupt politicians in contemporary America and the then-ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee – pursued and embraced ALL of the conspiracies, not just the “voter suppression” story.  They threw everything they had at the Ohio results, hoping that something would stick.  It just so happens that the suppression angle stuck best, for reasons that will be obvious in a moment.

As it turns out, what happened with Ohio in 2004 and 2005 had very little to do with George W. Bush.  We know that sounds crazy but bear with us a minute.  Bush’s re-election, the screwy exit polls, and Howard Dean’s “Diebold” fantasies provided the pretexts for challenging the election results in Ohio, but they were merely that, pretexts.  Bush was never the real target.  Rather, their target was someone whom the CBC hated and rightly feared.

The voter suppression claims made about Ohio in 2004 are almost entirely related to the ruling that provisional ballots were to be counted only if they were submitted in the precincts where the voters actually lived.

That’s it.  Seriously.  That’s the heart of the claim. 

And the best part of it all is that the determination to validate provisional ballots thusly was made in accordance with state law and was upheld by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The charge of suppression was, in other words, entirely specious.

But it was not accidental.  It was fabricated SPECIFICALLY and INTENTIONALLY to undermine the credibility of Ohio’s state election laws and the person who was charged with enforcing those laws, Ohio’s Secretary of State.

You see, in 2004, Ohio’s Secretary of State was an interesting and impressive man.  He had attended Xavier University on a football scholarship, earning three varsity letters, a bachelor's degree, and, a year later, a master's degree.  He was the president of the Black Student Union at Xavier and signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys.  When the Cowboys wanted him to switch positions, he decided to retire from the sport and returned to Ohio and to his alma mater, where he would serve as the Associate Vice President for Community Relations, a faculty member, and a Trustee.  In 1992, he received the University’s distinguished alumni award, and in 2015 was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame.  In 1978, he was elected Mayor of Cincinnati.  In 1989, he was appointed an undersecretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development by President George H.W. Bush, and in 1992 was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.  He returned to Ohio in 1993 and the next year, was appointed by Governor George Voinovich to serve out the remaining two years of the term of the Ohio State Treasurer (the office having been vacated by Mary Ellen Winthrow, who had been appointed U.S. treasurer by Bill Clinton).  In 1994, he won election to his own full, four-year term as state treasurer, and in 1998 won the first of his two terms as Ohio Secretary of State.

And oh yeah: when he won the Treasurer’s office in 1994, this outstanding Republican public servant became the first African-American elected to statewide executive office in the history of Ohio.  All of which is to say that by 2004, it was clear that Ken Blackwell had plans.  He intended to run for governor of the state in 2006, and after that…who knows?

In turn, it was also clear by 2004 to many in the Democratic Party – and in the Congressional Black Caucus, especially – that Ken Blackwell was a threat to their political vision.  And they dealt with this threat as they deal with all such threats, by defaming it.  In 2006, City Journal’s Steven Malanga called Blackwell "Ronald Reagan’s Unlikely Heir.”  The Democrats in Ohio and Washington weren’t quite as kind in the names they called him, all of which were some version or another of “race traitor.”  Not only did they insist that Blackwell betrayed his race through his personal actions, but they also accused him of actively working to undermine and disenfranchise black voters.  The following, from a PRE-election piece published by The Lantern, the student newspaper of the Ohio State University, gives just a taste of the strategy (emphasis added):

Earlier this month, the Ohio Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell in an attempt to change a law that allows voters to cast provisional ballots only when they vote in their correct precincts. A federal appeals court sided with Blackwell this weekend, ruling that provisional ballots cannot be cast outside the voter’s precinct. 

“It is not only a victory for Secretary of State Blackwell and the Secretary of State’s office, but for all Ohio voters,” said James Lee, spokesman for Blackwell. “It is unfortunate that so many people in this state have attempted to undermine us by making outrageous allegations that this office is attempting to sway the vote when every vote in Ohio will now be cast lawfully.”

The Ohio controversy over provisional ballots has company in other states. State officials in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Florida are facing lawsuits over provisional ballots.

“It is not as if Ohio is unique in its law,” Lee said. “Twenty-six other states and the District of Columbia share this law, including Massachusetts, the home of Sen. John Kerry.”

A federal judge in Florida ruled all provisional ballots cast in the wrong precincts will be thrown out, according to The Associated Press….

Citizens who have registered to vote but who do not show up on polling lists can also use provisional ballots.

“Say they have registered to vote but their application doesn’t go through. They would then be given a provisional ballot,” said Senator Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo. 

Fedor was among leading Democrats who filed the lawsuit against Blackwell. 

“We clearly have a Secretary of State who is trying to steal this election,” she said….

“These are definitely tactics to suppress the vote, and how shameful is that. We want to protect eligible voters and have their vote count,” Fedor said.

What we learn here is that the provisional ballot issue was not unique to Ken Blackwell’s Ohio, that the Democrats filed suit anyway, and that the reason they filed suit anyway was so that they could accuse Ken Blackwell of stealing the election and suppressing the vote.  In the fake report he drafted after his fake committee held fake hearings and took fake testimony, Congressman Conyers followed up Senator Fedor’s comments perfectly, writing (again, emphasis added):

With regards to our factual finding, in brief, we find that there were massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio. In many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State Kenneth J. Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.

We don’t mean to be pedantic, but you’ll forgive us if we don’t trust the “factual findings” of a man and his colleagues who can’t even get the factual name of their target right.

As for George W. Bush, he won Ohio by just over 118,000 votes, which is to say that he won Ohio by roughly the same number of votes as Joe Biden won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia COMBINED.  Or to put it more bluntly: Ohio really wasn’t all that close in 2004.  And the suppression issue was clearly fabricated.  And the Diebold story was entirely deranged.  And yet the CBC fought and fought and fought.  Because the stakes were much higher than George W. Bush.

In 2006, Blackwell did, indeed, run for governor, winning the GOP nomination but losing the general election to Ted Strickland.  And while there are certainly many explanations for why elections turn out as they do, the fact that Blackwell, an outstanding native son, only won 20% of Ohio’s black vote is evidence that the Democrats’ strategy paid serious dividends and irreparably damaged the Republican’s reputation among voters who should, by all rights, have been the base of his support.

Moreover, by destroying Ken Blackwell’s reputation among black voters, by denying him the governorship, and thereby effectively ending his electoral career, the Democrats and the CBC achieved precisely what they set out to achieve in the first place.  They eliminated the one politician whose very presence in politics posed a risk to their narrative about the political predilections of the black community.

What’s our point?  Well…it’s just that American politics has become a truly ugly and destructive war.  Part of us thinks that what the Republicans in Congress are set to do tomorrow is deeply unsettling.  Another part of us thinks that we ought, at least, to allow Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to show us if they can play this game better than Rudy Giuliani and Lin Wood.

A third and by far the biggest part of us, though, thinks that what the Republicans are doing is fighting the war the way the Democrats have done in the past and would now in the same circumstances.

For the record, that doesn’t make us feel especially good about the state of American politics.  Indeed, it makes us pretty depressed.  We hate and resent what was done to Ken Blackwell, a good man, in the name of politics.  More than anything, though, we hate and resent that they will all do it again, over and over and over, to other good men, in the name of politics.

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