Friday, October 31, 2008

McCain in Mentor

Meanwhile, John McCain was in Mentor last night. Here's a video of the rally from the Washington Post.

His opening act was "Joe the Plumber," the working-class conservative from suburban Toledo who famously argued with Obama about taxes earlier this month.

It looks like the McCain-Palin camp's strategy depends on winning Ohio and Pennsylvania. Check out this post on Real Clear Politics, especially the maps that show where they've held rallies lately.

Obama, Springsteen downtown on Sunday

Barack and Michelle Obama are appearing on the downtown Mall on Sunday. The rally starts at 3:45 p.m., with gates opening at 2 p.m. Bruce Springsteen is opening for Obama with a solo acoustic set.

This could be a huge rally, even bigger than John Kerry's election eve rally at the same place in 2004, especially because, as The Professor points out, Obama's campaign is probably timing this with the Browns game in mind. The game starts at 1, so a stadium full of people will be emptying out around 4:15. Let's hope the tailgaters who stop by the rally aren't too rowdy.

Update: If you're going to the rally, take the Rapid. The Browns crowd and Obama crowd will completely fill downtown. "There won't be parking," the Cleveland police spokesman warns in the Plain Dealer today.

(Photo by Alex Hempton-Smith, from Flickr)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Stokes kills county executive-council plan

Big news today: the commission studying Cuayhoga County reform will not endorse a new government structure with a county executive and council, because one member, former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, is against the idea.

The Plain Dealer reports that Stokes is against it because he thinks Cuyahoga County voters would never elect a black county executive.

This fulfills the fear that our columnist Michael D. Roberts expressed last year: that racial mistrust in our county would hurt efforts at reforming our government. I can understand what Stokes is thinking: would black officials advance as far in an executive-council system as, say, Peter Lawson Jones has by serving on the county commission?

But Stokes' focus on racial politics may have foreclosed a good option for Cuyahoga County. A county executive and a council elected from districts would provide more checks and balances. Right now the county commission is the executive and legislature, with no check on its power. An executive could also hold everyone in county government accountable, making it harder to set up patronage fiefdoms. And a county council with districts would likely include some Republicans, bringing two-party government back.

Stokes' most ridiculous suggestion makes it clear that he is thinking about race so much, he's not thinking about efficiency. He wants to keep the elected county recorder's office, just because Lillian Greene, who is black, now holds the office! The recorder is the first position that every reformer wants to combine with others and make appointed. Fortunately, the rest of the reform commission, which deferred to Stokes on the executive-council issue, ignored him on this one.

The reform commission will send a recommendation to the state legislature Nov. 7. Looks like we know what we'll get: a reform that keeps the three-person county commission and makes some elected offices (recorder, auditor, coroner, etc.) appointed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jones vs. Sutherland debate

Well, it sure is exciting to live in a two-party town again!

I figured the Peter Lawson Jones vs. Debbie Sutherland debate at the City Club today would be interesting, but wow.

Sutherland, the Republican candidate for county commission, started and finished with a sharp challenge to Jones on the county corruption scandal. Jones, the Democratic incumbent, began with an incumbent's friendly confidence, but by the end he was furious and fighting.

"We have a total lack of leadership at the county level," Sutherland charged. She cited the FBI and IRS raid on the county building in July, "patronage, corruption, and bloat," and added, "Let's not forget the chauffeur and strip club manager." She said nothing would change unless she was elected, and she challenged Jones, "What actions have you taken to address the patronage and corruption and fix our county government?"

Jones never directly answered. His opening statement was friendly and easy-going. He listed accomplishments in office: starting a county economic development fund, advocating public funding for arts and culture, spearheading a fatherhood initiative and a summer jobs program for kids.

Later, during the Q&A, Jones said his integrity had never been questioned in 20 years in public office -- a reminder that the FBI isn't looking at him. Questioners nudged him -- why didn't he call for Jimmy Dimora to resign, or stop voting on contracts? (Contracts are almost all that the commissioners vote on.) Dimora hasn't been indicted, and investigations don't always end in charges, Jones said. But if Dimora is indicted, Jones added, he'll likely ask him to resign. Sutherland said she'd have called on Dimora to not vote on contracts the investigation might touch on.

The candidates argued about the Ameritrust Tower. Jones mentioned his vote against demolishing it as an example of his independence from Dimora and Tim Hagan. "He voted to buy the tower initially," Sutherland replied. "We should never have purchased that property in the first place." She pointed to K&D's struggle to buy the tower off the county.

The sales tax to pay for the Medical Mart and convention center came up too. Jones mentioned his dissenting vote against raising the tax. Sutherland, who supported the tax then, said that knowing what she knows now, she would have submitted it to the voters. Jones pounced on that as second-guessing.

They fought over Jones' use of a driver to get to meetings around town, and his habit of conducting county business from his law office. I think these are pretty cheap arguments, but much of the crowd liked them. "I don't understand how you can manage from an office down the street," Sutherland said to applause. Jones fought back about the driver. "It enables me to work in back [of the car]," he says, instead of having down time between 10 to 12 meetings per day. "I'm not smoking stogies, drinking mint juleps... I'm reading, writing, making phone calls."

The most tense moment came when a questioner asked Sutherland how she, as mayor of an "upscale city," would relate to "people of limited means." Maybe Sutherland thought she was a plant. (A lot of audience questioners did seem to support one candidate or another.) "We are all suffering" in Cuyahoga County, she said, then added: "What my opponent would love ... is to continue to drag this down [and make it] about race and class, and it's not. It's about the viability of this county."

Jones' face lit up with rage. I've never seen him so angry. "Mayor Sutherland, how dare you!" he seethed. "I have done nothing in this race to play on race and class. When people have suggested that you ran against me because you thought it might be easier to beat somebody who was African-American, I stood up for you and said that would never play into your calculations."

They also fought about county reform. Sutherland said she'd support whatever recommendation comes from the commission studying a new government structure from the county. Jones said he'd support whatever the legislature recommends after the commission's report. Sutherland accused him of doing nothing to reform the county; Jones, who'd already mentioned a 2004 City Club speech he gave about possible reforms, glared at the ceiling in anger. Sutherland said county government was badly run; Jones cited its high bond rating.

"I believe hard work and honesty is rewarded, not negative campaigning that misleads, distorts, and in some cases outright prevaricates," Jones said in his closing argument.

"I have asked Peter to let us all know what he has done about the corruption and about the patronage, and he has not answered," Sutherland said at the end. "I'm going to fix it."

Fraudulent "fraud" ad

Yesterday the Ohio GOP debuted a deeply misleading web site and a radio ad that asks "Could Ohio's election be stolen?" They directly accuse Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner of concealing voter fraud. They claim that in Cleveland, ACORN paid for "illegal registrations in exchange for cash and cigarettes." The web site asks for people to vote early, contribute to a legal fund, and volunteer to be poll observers.

Let's sort through the claims:

-There is no evidence that anyone is trying to steal the election.

-The Cleveland example sounds scary, but won't lead to anyone voting illegally. Freddie Johnson, the 19-year-old who filled out 70 to 80 identical registrations in exchange for cigarettes and dollar bills, will only vote once. He filled out the same address every time. No one actually trying to stuff a ballot box would do this. They would almost certainly get caught. Even if their multiple registrations slipped past the data-entry clerks, poll workers would either recognize the same person coming to the voting table twice, or they'd notice the duplicate listings next to each other in the poll book.

-ACORN is not scamming elections officials. Lazy ACORN employees scammed ACORN. Their system is vulnerable to hourly workers who'd rather convince registered people to fill out a duplicate card than do their jobs right.

-Brunner is not concealing voter fraud. This is about the GOP's lost lawsuit trying to force her to compile lists of mismatches between the state's voting and driver's license databases. But Brunner is providing the mismatch information to counties in another format. The mismatch info is one tool for verifying registrations, but on its own it's several times more likely to accidentally flag valid voters because of typos and other clerical errors.

Republicans are not only trying to make ACORN and Brunner a campaign issue -- they're getting ready to try to force overtime if Obama wins Ohio.

Here are some questions to ask when you hear scary claims about voting scandals from the right or the left:
-How many votes is the problem affecting? Do you have solid numbers, or just scary anecdotes?
-If you say votes are "at risk," or that there's a "risk" of fraud, how likely is the risk?
-What's the cause of the problem? Are there other possible explanations besides the most sinister theory?

Just like the left-wing conspiracy theories about Ohio in 2004, this right-wing conspiracy theory falls apart when you ask these questions.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ameritrust Tower: "We cannot commit $1,000,000 to a project which may never happen"

Last week, developer K&D asked for eight more months to try to purchase the Ameritrust Tower from Cuyahoga County. CEO Doug Price's letter to the county, which I've posted online, reveals that its plans for the tower are increasingly fragile.

That makes the county commissioners' controversial 2005 decision to buy the tower -- described in my June article "Tower Play" -- look even more questionable and risky.

K&D asked the county to waive the $500,000 fee to extend the closing date past Oct. 31. The developer has already paid a $500,000 deposit on the potential $35 million sale.

"We cannot commit $1,000,000 to a project that may never happen," Price wrote in the Oct. 16 letter. County commissioners were expected to waive the fee at their meeting this morning.

Price says banks won't lend because of the economic crisis. But the letter's attachment shows another problem. Five banks decided K&D's ambitious plan to remake the Ameritrust Tower into a mixed-use apartment and hotel complex was too risky. Three financial institutions showed interest, but couldn't proceed because the national credit market has seized up.

Let's hope a bank takes on the K&D project once credit starts flowing again. It'd be exciting and good for Cleveland, bringing life to a key corner of downtown. And it'd be good for county taxpayers.

The county has already lost $6 million on the tower. If the K&D deal fell through, the county's options would be costlier than ever: 1) Selling the tower to someone else, quite possibly for a bigger loss; 2) Getting stuck with an empty building it's spent $42 million on; or 3) reviving plans for a new county administration building at the site -- which my article showed would add millions of dollars a year to the cost of government.

Monday, October 27, 2008

McCain and Obama in Northeast Ohio

John McCain stopped by the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel downtown today for a private meeting and comments (read them here) before a small audience. The Plain Dealer has a quick story and a sharp-looking slideshow online about his visit.

Barack Obama was in Canton giving a new speech his campaign billed as a "closing argument." Here's the PD's video of parts of the speech, and a transcript of what he said.

Early voting lines

You might have heard about early voting -- how you can walk into the county Board of Elections and vote on any day before Election Day. But this photo, from, shows why voting by mail is a smarter choice at this point.

The picture, taken Sunday outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, shows the line for early voting stretching around the block at E. 30th and Euclid. Church buses were streaming in, dropping off voters.

The scene was different last Thursday when I stopped by the Board of Elections. One of the two rooms for early voting was doing a brisk business, while the other was almost empty. But a staffer correctly predicted it would get super-crowded over the weekend -- and stay that way up through the 3rd.

If you'll be downtown in the next couple of days and want to vote early, you might call the Board of Elections (216-443-3200 in Cuyahoga County) and ask what the wait time is like. But after Friday, you're better off going to your polling place on Election Day.

Vote by mail

If you won't have time to stand in line to vote on Election Day, you should vote by mail, and send in an application right away. Elections officials say we should expect very high turnout and be prepared to wait in line next Tuesday.

Here are the vote by mail rules, straight from a Cuyahoga County Board of Elections release:

-Vote by Mail applications must arrive by mail, or be hand delivered to the Board of Elections by Saturday, November 1, 2008 at noon.
-Voters who already have their ballots but have not returned them are encouraged to mail their voted ballots to the Board of Elections as soon as possible, and not take the chance of missing the deadline.
-Voted ballots mailed in the United States must be postmarked by November 3, 2008.
-Voted ballots may be delivered in person to the Board of Elections by 7:30 P.M. on November 4, 2008.

I'd add one more thing: be very sure you fill out your application and ballot envelope correctly, to be sure your vote counts.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ohio envy

Gail Collins, one of the funniest political writers around, reminds us how good we've got it this election:

"If I still lived in Ohio, I would go all the way and embark on a career as an undecided voter. Nothing could force me to make up my mind. Every day, cable TV shows would call me up to take my political temperature. If I had a cranky, anti-Obama day, it would make the CNN map turn pinker. Wolf Blitzer would have my phone number on auto-dial."

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to win Ohio

Two good articles on the race for president in Ohio. George Packer's New Yorker article about working-class Ohio voters is titled "The Hardest Vote." He talks to a lot of voters in Columbus and southeast Ohio, and he tries to explain why the Democrats have lost working-class support since the '70s. It has a gray, sad tone to it. You can tell Packer wants these voters to support Obama, but fears they won't. You can also tell it was reported in September, when Obama's campaign was struggling.

David Broder, the Washington Post columnist, regularly visits swing regions of the country to find out which way an election is going. In yesterday's column, "Blue Sparks in Red Ohio," Broder visits normally Republican Wooster, and he finds Obama's campaign office filled with volunteers and humming with excitement. It sounds like Broder thinks Obama will win the state.

Which vision is more likely? Take a look at's chart of Ohio polls.

That blue line shows Obama pulling out to a four-point average lead. Those blue dots on the top right show that a couple of recent polls show him 10 to 12 points ahead.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Giant squirrel attacks ACORN

A man in a squirrel suit crashed Gov. Ted Strickland's press conference in Columbus this week to protest ACORN's voter-registration drives.

Strickland, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, standing on the Statehouse steps, denounced Republican attacks on Barack Obama. As Strickland complained that the GOP was scaring Ohio voters by threatening their right to vote, the squirrel chipped in the other side of the story with a sign: "Don't let ACORN + Obama steal Ohio."

I think the right's stolen-election charge is exaggerated and unfair, but this video is really funny.

"They even resort to things like sending squirrels to news conferences because they have nothing else to talk about," Coleman ad-libbed. "Well, I say to Sen. McCain and those who are backing Sen. McCain in the way they are doing now, is to stop being squirrelly and start being straight with the voters."

Some reporters chased the squirrel through the streets of Columbus. This reporter played it straight. Here's the squirrel's blog.

More on Mason

If you're trying to decide who to vote for in the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's race, I recommend Scene's cover story on Bill Mason.

I also recommend skimming the parts about issues you don't care about. It's nine or so stories crammed into one exhaustive one.

In the story's most heated moment, Mason refuses to talk with Scene, saying he knows it'll be a "hit piece." He chastises lawyers in town who he thinks are talking to the reporters.

Actually, the article is critical but fair, a comprehensive guide to all the major controversies around Mason's office, from questions about racial disparities in drug cases to his friendship with Pat O'Malley. The only elements with a "hit piece" feel are the title, "Bill Mason's Mean Machine" (named after a kids' football team he sponsors) and the scorching sidebar about Mason campaign donors caught in scandal and controversy.

Mason's critics will like the story, but other readers may decide they agree with the prosecutor on the death penalty, drugs, and discovery.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What did Fannie Lewis want?

The Plain Dealer has finally reported that a lot of people who were close to the late Fannie Lewis don't believe the grand dame of Hough really chose Stephanie Howse to succeed her on Cleveland City Council. They think council president Martin Sweeney and other lawmakers were lying when they named Howse to the seat.

I can't believe it took the paper so long to cover this story. Mansfield Frazier wrote about the controversy over Lewis' succession in Cool Cleveland on Aug. 20 and Sept. 3. I mentioned the dispute in my Sept. 5 blog post about Lewis, and when I talked about Frazier's work on WCPN's Aug. 28 reporters' roundtable, Frazier called in to the show. (If you download it, listen starting at 33:20 and 37:57.)

This ward meeting agenda, from three days before Lewis' Aug. 11 death, seems to prove that Lewis told some people she wouldn't name a successor. (But it could be interpreted as referring to the 2009 election, not her death.)

The controversy probably won't knock Howse off council. She won 46 percent of the vote in a special primary last week, compared to 12 percent for top challenger T.J. Dow, so she's the heavy favorite to win the Nov. 18 runoff. Still, The Professor of Political Science 216 has an idea for figuring out what the mercurial Ms. Lewis really wanted: holding a seance.

Update: Turns out the PD briefly acknowledged the doubts in the ward in this Aug. 19 story about Howse. Phillip Morris wondered why Lewis didn't endorse Howse publicly in his column that day.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Annette Butler debates Bill Mason

Annette Butler, the Republican candidate for prosecutor, debated Bill Mason today, trying to convince a City Club audience that the Democratic incumbent ought to go. The debate put Mason under the sort of cross-examination you don't see often in our one-party town.

Butler held up the Sunday and Monday Plain Dealer and read the headlines from the paper's exposé of racial disparities in drug case sentences. The paper found statistics and damning anecdotes that showed black drug defendants in Cuyahoga County getting felony convictions while white drug defendants -- including the sheriff's son -- were convicted of the same or worse offenses but got drug treatment or plea deals and no felony record. (See the stories here and here.)

Mason called the reports "troubling" and "disconcerting" and said he'd find funding to study the issue. The articles placed much of the responsibility on his office, but he said several parts of the justice system influence sentences, including police, the courts, and the probation department. Butler said she'd create standard practices and policies to make sure prosecutors treat defendants equally.

Butler also criticized Mason for his partial resistance to open discovery -- allowing defense attorneys open access to prosecutors' files. She said she'd guarantee open discovery for all defendants. A worker for Cleveland's rape crisis center gave Mason a big assist on this issue, saying she was concerned open discovery wouldn't protect victims and witnesses enough. Mason agreed, while saying he was open to some changes in the rules.

Mason also got grilled about the FBI's county corruption investigation. An audience member asked why the FBI hadn't informed him in advance about the July raid of county offices, and she asked where citizens could go to report corruption in the county, clearly implying she felt they couldn't go to Mason. He said his office has prosecuted 140 "public officials," including policemen and teachers. He said the feds don't always include local law enforcement in raids, and that they understand Mason has an inherent conflict of interest because the prosecutor's office represents county government in civil cases.

The audience also found a few weak spots in Butler's case for herself. A policeman asked Butler if she was going to go easier on defendants charged with possessing crack pipes. She said yes: "It's costing a fortune to prosecute them as felonies," she said. "I'll spend a lot of energy on the bad guys, not a whole lot of it on crack pipe cases." Mason replied he wouldn't choose which laws to prosecute.

Another questioner asked Butler how she would make up for a near-lack of criminal-case experience. She spent 24 years with the U.S. Attorney's office, handling civil matters. Butler said she would draw on her management, trial, and appellate experience and her three years of teaching criminal law. Mason, who suggested last week that Butler wasn't worthy of debating him, avoided criticizing her today, except to say: "I think experience in this office matters a lot."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Plain Dealer endorses Obama

The Plain Dealer endorsed Barack Obama for president today, calling him "a risk worth taking" who has "demonstrated uncommon grace, confidence and intelligence."

The endorsement fulfills publisher Terry Egger's promise not to repeat the PD's embarassing cop-out of 2004, when it endorsed no one for president. Back then, Alex Machaskee, Egger's predecessor, refused to endorse John Kerry, while the editorial board refused to endorse Bush. (See my Jan. 2007 story "The New Dealer" for more.)

“We will endorse,” Egger told a City Club audience in August 2006. “Whose decision that will be will be the editorial board’s. And I mean that.” He meant it. Today's editorial carries a very unusual tagline disclosing, "Members of The Plain Dealer's editorial board voted on this endorsement," and naming them.

The Obama endorsement completes the PD editorial page's journey from center-right to center-left. That shift is mostly a reaction to the Bush Administration. The paper endorsed Bush in 2000, but today's editorial starts with a passionate denunciation of his record:

"[America] needs a president who understands that, yes, the world can be dangerous, but it is also complex. That the United States cannot defend its freedom by abandoning its principles. That it cannot ignore its allies one day and demand their help the next. It needs a president who knows that optimism, not fear, defines America."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Supreme Court strikes down voting order

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the federal judge's order that would have thrown 200,000 Ohio voters' registrations into limbo. See this Columbus Dispatch story.

It's a huge victory for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, and it appears to stop cold the Ohio Republican Party's sweeping effort to question new voter registrations. The unanimous, unsigned opinion suggests the Republicans didn't have standing to sue over the issue.

Get ready for stolen election theories from the right if Obama wins Ohio by anything less than a landslide. Ohio Republicans are charging that Brunner is "actively working to conceal fraudulent activity in this election." They're blowing the ACORN controversy way out of proportion. They're arguing that registration fraud involving 50 to 60 voters -- and corrected by election officials -- justified making it harder for 200,000 people to vote.

Republicans are understandably upset that federal law is vague about what to do when the state's voter database and driver's license database don't match. But critics -- such as Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate today -- argue that the Republicans' cries of "voter fraud" are really meant to build support for disenfranchising voters.

Update, Sat. 10/18: A Republican activist has taken the legal battle over new registrations to the Ohio Supreme Court. See the Columbus Dispatch story here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Massive voting fight appealed to Supreme Court

Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step into a high-stakes fight over 200,000 Ohio voters' registrations, the AP and the New York Times report.

This battle, building for the past week, has become the ominous sequel to Ohio's 2004 voting controversies. Brunner says thousands of people could lose their votes. Republicans say she hasn't done her part to test the registrations for fraud. (See Brunner's press release on the case and the GOP's statement.)

Here's the problem. A 2002 federal law says states have to match new voter registrations and changes of address with state driver's license records. But what happens when there's no match? The law doesn't say. Neither has Brunner or her predecessor. Some Ohio counties double-check registrations that do not match up, some don't.

Republicans sued, and got the federal courts to order Brunner to give the counties an easier-to-use list of mismatches. They point to small numbers of duplicate registrations filed by ACORN to say the 200,000 mismatches need serious vetting. But they concede there are lots of reasons the records might not match, such as voters or data-entry workers messing up one digit in a license number.

What happens next, we don't know. Brunner says she doesn't want these voters to have to use provisional ballots -- which get scrutinized after Election Day and fought over if the election is close. (About one in five provisional votes are usually rejected.) A top Republican suggests that having all 200,000 people vote provisionally isn't a bad idea. But that's a number so big, it could throw any half-way close election result into the courts. (Bush won Ohio by 120,000 votes in 2004; 150,000 provisional ballots were cast then.)

Brunner will issue a directive soon, and the Republicans may well take that to court too. The Republicans will shout "voter fraud," the Democrats "vote suppression," and we're in for a battle as intense as 2004's over who gets to have their vote counted.

That year, Republicans filed mass challenges to voters' eligibility in several counties (they were struck down by a judge). But this year's deadline for filing direct challenges passed yesterday. Instead, we have this lawsuit, which makes the county boards' jobs much more complicated less than three weeks before Election Day.

This may make voting harder for many people who've either registered to vote or changed their registration this year. If it does, I'll write about what you can to do protect your vote.

Update, Fri. 10/17: Dahlia Lithwick of Slate argues that the Republican attacks on ACORN are intended to build support for efforts to disenfranchise voters.

(Caption: Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner at the City Club of Cleveland on Oct. 8.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New FBI raids

The FBI is raiding the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority offices this morning, NewsNet5 reports.

The federal probe of suspected corruption in county government continues to expand.

Update, Thu.: This is a new phase of the probe, looking at CMHA, MetroHealth Medical Center, and some of their contractors. Today's Plain Dealer story lays it out.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jane Campbell slams Sarah Palin

Jane Campbell slams Sarah Palin and makes a feminist case for supporting Barack Obama in this opinion piece on today.

It's a sign of how much the Plain Dealer is shrinking that a former mayor's op-ed gets relegated to the Web instead of the print edition.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The ACORN hearing

Christopher Barkley walks to the microphone, wearing a Domino's Pizza uniform and a doo-rag. He's sworn in, and tells the board of elections why he registered to vote 12 times.

"I'd be sitting down in Public Square, reading my book," says Barkley, who was homeless this summer. "People asked me, 'Can you sign these papers?' I said, 'No, I'm already registered.'" They asked him to sign anyway: "I'm trying to hold onto a job," they said. Being a "kind-hearted person," Barkley says, he signed.

Freddie Johnson leaves his black Indians cap on his chair and goes to the mike. He's 19, tiny in a huge sweatshirt. He sells cell phones from a kiosk in Tower City. When he'd wait for the bus in Public Square after work this summer, he says, ACORN workers would approach him. When he said he was registered, they'd "come up with a sob story" and say "it's cool to sign again, because I need a signature, because they get paid by signature." He filled out 48 cards with the same address. Sometimes the workers gave him a cigarette or a dollar.

Luren Dickinson of Shaker Heights, a bespecatcled guy in a suit, testifies he keeps getting board of elections mailings at his house, sent to people who don't live at his address. They're using his house number for false registrations. One guy, Darnell Nash, registered at Dickinson's address and had his registration cancelled when Dickinson complained. But then, Nash came into the elections office, registered again at Dickinson's address, and cast an early ballot. The board votes to void his new registration and ballot. The sheriff will be looking for Nash soon. {*See update below.}

The board of elections votes to ask the county sheriff and prosecutor to investigate the duplicate registration cases. It's going to be a national story. Fox News is covering the meeting. Republicans, including the McCain campaign, are portraying ACORN as a criminal organization.

Let's hope the national reporters keep the story in perspective.

"It's not voter fraud -- people are not multiply voting," said Jane Platten, Cuyahoga County's elections director. "We have safety nets in place that do not allow a person to vote multiple times." Her staff flagged Barkley and Johnson's names during their weekly searches for duplicate registrations.

This year, the elections staff has found 50 to 60 duplicate names out of 71,000 cards submitted by ACORN. Also, they send a mailing to every newly registered (or registration-changing) voter. Of those 71,000 registrations, 3,550 people couldn't be located. They'll have to vote on provisional ballots, which get scrutinized after Election Day to see if the voter is eligible. That's a 5 percent bad-card rate. I asked Platten how that compares to the rate of bad cards among non-ACORN registrations. She said she'd find out and get back to me.

After the meeting, ACORN staffers passed out a folder full of defenses, but their argument that they have a good quality control system was laughably weak. They said they called Freddie Johnson multiple times to verify his information was accurate. Sure, they called him a lot -- because they had 48 cards from him to verify!

The Republican caricatures of ACORN are unfair -- the group has registered hundreds of thousands to vote, and they sounded alarms about the foreclosure crisis long before it wounded the entire economy. But they've got to figure out how to motivate their low-income workers without accidentally giving them reason to cheat, and they've got to check their cards better for problems. They could learn from groups like the Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition, which kept such a thorough database of who they registered in 2004, they used it to prove the county's voter rolls were flawed.

The real effect of ACORN's mistakes on the voting rolls will probably be small. But if Obama wins Ohio in anything less than a landslide, I'm afraid these stories will lead to lots of right-wing stolen-election conspiracy theories -- reverse images of the left's allegations about 2004. I could also see the Republican Party using ACORN mistakes to justify mass challenges to new voters' eligibility. The deadline for challenges is this week.

(Caption: Christopher Barkley testifies at the board of elections meeting.)

Update, Tue. 10/14:
An ACORN staffer defends the group's system here, saying they don't pay by the signature. Fox News ran this extremely misleading report claiming there are 4,700 "phony" registrations in Greater Cleveland. For a better sense of proportion, see the Plain Dealer report and editorial.

*Update, Thu., 6/4/09: Darnell Nash was indicted on voting fraud charges. See this new post.

(The original version of this post said Nash's case apparently didn't involve ACORN -- but the prosecutor's office now says it did.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

McCain by 2 in Ohio? Really?

Is McCain really ahead in Ohio? The Plain Dealer and the state's other big dailies are out with their Ohio Newspaper Poll today, saying McCain is leading Obama, 48 to 46 percent. You've got to dig deep into the paper to see that most other polls have Obama ahead here.

Take a look at Real Clear Politics' average of the eight most recent Ohio polls. It shows Obama ahead with six of them, and an average lead of 2.7 percentage points. Each poll has a margin of error of about 3 percent, so it's still a close race. In fact, the PD, bowing to the margin of error, calls it a dead heat.

This is the second time that the newspapers' poll showed more McCain support than other surveys -- their September poll had him up by 6.

Averaging the polls together tends to give a better picture than any one poll. Take a look at 2004, when the poll average predicted the final result in Ohio almost exactly.

You can find links to more poll averages on the right column of my blog.

Friday, October 10, 2008

ACORN investigated in Cleveland

Republicans' allegations about voter fraud by the group ACORN are spreading fast, and Cleveland is going to become ground zero in the controversy next week.

Authorities in Las Vegas raided ACORN's office there on Tuesday. They alleged that ACORN, a community organizing group that registers voters nationwide, was filing false registration cards. In Cleveland, the board of elections is looking into problems with some registrations ACORN collected: see the Plain Dealer's stories from Wednesday and from August.

The New York Post ran this story today about Freddie Johnson, a cell-phone kiosk vendor in downtown Cleveland who filled out 72 identical registration cards in exchange for cigarettes and dollar bills.

I just got two e-mails about ACORN within two minutes. Jim Trakas, Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, sent out a press release calling for federal funds for ACORN to be cut off and asking why Kucinich hasn't spoken out on the issue. And the John McCain campaign just released a Web-only ad attacking Barack Obama for having allied himself with ACORN, "a group now accused of widespread voter fraud across the country." The ad is a sequel to the Web ad about former Weatherman Bill Ayers -- part of a strategy of painting Obama as radical. Meanwhile, in Columbus yesterday, a federal judge, siding with the Republican Party in its suit against the Secretary of State, cited the Las Vegas raid and Plain Dealer article as examples of why registrations have to be checked.

Before Cleveland becomes infamous again for voting troubles, let's ask a couple of questions.

When I debunked left-wing claims that Republicans stole the 2004 election in Ohio, and wrote my own articles about what really went wrong with Cleveland's elections, I decided any careful, skeptical look at voting controversies has to ask a few key questions:

-How many votes is the problem affecting? Do you have solid numbers, or just scary anecdotes?
-If you say votes are "at risk" because of the problem, how big is the risk?
-What's the cause of the problem? Are there other possible explanations besides the most sinister theory?

Voting problems scare people, for good reason. But these stories also excite partisans, feeding into their worst suspicions: The other side is evil. They will stop at nothing. They can't possibly win an election fairly, so they must cheat.

The allegations against ACORN are serious, and it's obvious they need to be investigated. From what I've read so far, though, they look a tad less ominous when you ask the questions I suggest. Wednesday's PD says elections officials have flagged "about 50 names on suspicious cards" out of 65,000 cards ACORN has submitted in Cuyahoga County. The problem seems to lie with paid canvassers, who are expected to register a certain number of people. Some of them would rather register the same person more than once or make up bum cards than do their jobs right. "Supervisors sometimes fail to prevent different canvassers from attempting to register the same person," the PD story says.

If this could lead to people voting more than once, it's very serious. If it just means the board of elections has to throw out a bunch of cards because its database catches the names as already registered, it's more of a nuisance.

I'll be writing about this again. Johnson and two other people whose names appear on multiple cards have been subpoenaed to appear at the board of elections meeting on Monday. The questions are, how many bad cards are there, why was this happening, and how big was the risk that the problem would lead to fraudulent voting?

Update, Sat. a.m.: Good skeptical story in the Plain Dealer today. The print edition headline is, "Registration fraud won't affect vote, officials say."

City Club debates coming soon

The City Club of Cleveland has announced its debate schedule for October. I'm going to report on a few for the blog.

Can't wait to see Dennis Kucinich debate Jim Trakas next Friday. The Peter Lawson Jones-Debbie Sutherland debate, Oct. 29, is a can't-miss -- that might be the most interesting race in town this year, what with the county scandals and all.

And I actually want to see Annette Butler, the Republican candidate for prosecutor, debate an empty chair. Bill Mason isn't going to show. Obviously, he thinks we're a one-party town, and he's calculating that debating Butler would give her legitimacy and publicity. But, as with the Jones-Sutherland race, the Republicans have created a serious contest for prosecutor by nominating a qualified candidate with some tough questions for the incumbent.

Here's the complete list of debates.

Friday, October 17: 10th Congressional District: Dennis Kucinich, James P. Trakas, Paul Conroy.

Monday, October 20: Cuyahoga County Prosecutor: Annette G. Butler. (William Mason has not responded.)

Tuesday, October 21: 11th Congressional District: Marcia Fudge vs. Thomas Pekarek

Wednesday, October 22: Ohio Attorney General: Richard Cordray vs. Michael Crites

Thursday, October 23: Ohio Supreme Court: Maureen O’Connor vs. Joseph D. Russo

Monday, October 27: Ohio Supreme Court: Peter M. Sikora vs. Evelyn L. Stratton

Tuesday, October 28: 13th Congressional District: David S. Potter vs. Betty Sutton

Wednesday, October 29: Cuyahoga County Commissioner: Peter Lawson Jones vs. Deborah L. Sutherland

Thursday, October 30: 14th Congressional District: Steve LaTourette, David Macko, Judge William O’Neill

All debates start at noon. Tickets are $15 for members and $25 for nonmembers ($18 and $30 for the Kucinich-Trakas-Conroy debate) -- call (216) 621-0082. Most City Club talks are available online as podcasts afterward.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fight brewing over voter registration

Don't get too alarmed about this New York Times story today ("States' Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal"). For news about voter rolls in Ohio, read this Columbus Dispatch piece instead ("GOP, Brunner spar over voter data").

The Times story sounds scary, but is very confusing. The story tries to cover two very different concerns about voting rolls: how to verify brand-new registrations, and when to delete really old, inactive registrations. In Ohio, the fight is about the new voters.

Republicans have sued Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, claiming she isn't matching new registrations with the state driver's license database or, if that info doesn't match, social security info. Brunner says she is doing it.

In fact, the Social Security Administration, nudged by the New York Times, is concerned that Ohio and other states are checking registrations against social security info too often. The NYT suggests this could mean the states aren't looking their records first and using only social security info, which could incorrectly identify some registrations as suspect. Not so, Brunner says: the state's voting and driving databases are hooked up electronically.

Brunner says she's worried the Republicans are really suing to use mismatched registrations to challenge voters' eligibility. This could become a big issue, or a non-issue, in the next week.

Update, Fri. 10/10: The judge ruled that Brunner has to turn over lists of the new registrations that don't match state and federal records to county election officials. See the Dispatch story here and the Plain Dealer story here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Secretary of State Brunner speaks at City Club

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner spoke at the City Club of Cleveland today, telling the audience what she's done to improve the state's voting system and make sure Ohio isn't a "pariah" among states after the election is over.

She's banned "sleepovers," some poll workers' old habit of taking voting machines home with them the weekend before the election. She'd learned 23 Ohio counties were still allowing it, as a way to help transport the machines to the polls. "Yeah. You can close your jaws now," Brunner told the shocked audience. Sleepovers earned Ohio a lot of mockery this year, including a mention on the NPR comedy game show "Whad'Ya Know?"

She rolled out the sleepover ban as part of the state's new "best practices" for voting security, from ways to keep vote-counting computer servers secure to how to safely transport ballots, voting machines, poll books and memory cards.

Brunner, an opponent of touchscreen voting systems, still has to help 53 Ohio counties use them in November. She promised rigorous testing of the systems.

(Hopefully it will be enough to relieve fans of The Simpsons, who'll be treated to a voting joke in an upcoming episode: Homer tries to vote for Obama, then makes a crack about Ohio as the voting machine eats him. Tragically, this clip is no longer on YouTube.)

In December, Brunner cast the tie-breaking vote to replace Cuyahoga County's touchscreens with paper ballots. "I'm sorry to say I was not able to fight hard enough or long enough to pay for your change in Cuyahoga County," she said (meaning she couldn't get the Republican legislature to fund it). She thanked the county commissioners for footing the $13.4 million bill.

Brunner did a Sarah Palin imitation as part of a joke about her successful fight to preserve a week, Sept. 30 to Oct. 6, when Ohioans could register to vote and cast an early ballot at the same time. Can Ohioans do that? she asked rhetorically. "I can answer it two ways: 'You betcha!'" -- and she winked, like Palin in last week's debate -- "and 'Yes We Can!'" -- imitating Obama and his favorite slogan.

After the talk, I asked if she's seen any early signs of whether there will be mass voter challenges in Ohio, as there were in 2004. She mentioned a new lawsuit by the state Republican Party over people registered with incorrect driver's license numbers or social security numbers. She suggested it might be a prelude to challenges, which can be filed up until Oct. 16.

Obama leads in revealing Ohio poll

Obama is beating McCain by 6 percentage points in Ohio, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,000 Ohio voters.

Obama is winning, 51 to 45 percent, because voters here, like those nationwide, prefer his leadership on the economy. Asked who they trusted more to handle the issue, 52 percent said Obama, 39 percent McCain. Fifty-two percent said jobs and the economy were their top concern, compared to only 6 percent who said Iraq and 3 percent for terrorism and national security.

That's a huge change from four years ago, when 33 percent of Ohioans said the economy was their biggest concern, 18 percent said terrorism, and 17 percent said Iraq -- just enough for George W. Bush to beat John Kerry by running on national-security issues. That strategy won't work this time.

Obama's weak spot is still the fact that he's only been in the U.S. Senate for four years, compared to McCain's 22. While 52 percent of Ohioans surveyed said Obama has the experience to be an effective president, 46 percent say he does not. Expect McCain to talk a lot about inexperience for the next four weeks.

I keep hearing how well-organized the Obama campaign is, and the poll confirms it: 37 percent of those surveyed said they'd been personally contacted by the Obama organization; 27 percent said they'd heard from McCain's.

The Cleveland area is Obama's strongest base: 71 percent of Cuyahoga County voters said they support him, higher than the 67 percent Kerry got here in 2004.

Voting problems from 2004 and 2006 are still on Ohioans' minds. One in five said they were "not very" confident or "not at all" confident that votes in Ohio would be counted accurately. Not surprisingly, the fear was much more prevalent in Cuyahoga County.

The Obama-by-6 finding fits a trend.'s comparison of all Ohio polls has Obama leading here by 4.6 percentage points.

Monday, October 6, 2008

O'Malley likely not connected to FBI probe

One more thought about the Pat O'Malley case. All summer, people asked whether O'Malley might have cooperated with the FBI's investigation of Cuyahoga County government. Based on what we learned last week, I think he probably did not.

In my feature on O'Malley, published two weeks ago, I wrote: "O'Malley's plea came two months before the FBI's July raid on the offices of two political rivals, county commissioner Jimmy Dimora and auditor Frank Russo. That timing, plus the delay in charging O'Malley and the plea deal, led people in political and media circles to ask: Could O'Malley have cooperated with the Dimora-Russo investigation?"

Since then, I've seen three reasons to think O'Malley didn't help the feds.

First, the prosecutors said in a court filing that the FBI and Justice Department spent three years conducting "exhaustive forensic examinations" of the computers and discs containing the porn. They decided to focus on the obscenity charge instead of a child porn charge because it was more "readily provable." O'Malley's ex-wife had turned over the alleged child porn, while the FBI had seized some of the obscene materials directly from O'Malley's house. (See my previous post.) In other words, the case was more complicated than people thought, so the feds took their time to investigate, then accepted a plea to avoid a messy trial.

Second, O'Malley's lawyer wrote in his sentencing memo, "Local media has even wrongfully accused [O'Malley] of providing information to federal law enforcement officials regarding the recent probe into Cuyahoga County officials Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo." The judge is the audience here. If O'Malley were informing on Dimora or Russo in exchange for a lighter sentence, O'Malley's lawyer would want the sentencing judge to know!

Third, when defendants cooperate with the FBI, there is usually a hint about it at their sentencing. There was no such hint at O'Malley's hearing. The two investigations may simply be unrelated.

Friday, October 3, 2008

15 months for O'Malley

Pat O'Malley was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison today on an obscenity charge. U.S. District Court Judge David Dowd ordered O'Malley taken into custody immediately after his sentencing -- an unusual move in federal court -- explaining he didn't want to risk O'Malley getting into any physical confrontations.

O'Malley cried several times during his half-hour statement to the court. He admitted to looking at porn on his computer, but denied looking at child porn. He also dwelled on his feud with his ex-wife, Vicki O'Malley, who provided the FBI with some of its evidence against him. O'Malley claimed he began looking at Internet porn after he started dating her, and that they sometimes looked at it together. After the hearing, Vicki O'Malley said she had never viewed porn with him. "I'm not sure that Mr. O'Malley really took full responsibility for what he did," said acting U.S. Attorney Bill Edwards. "He still seems to be trying to lay it off on her."

You can read the Plain Dealer story here and see WKYC's report here.

It's been O'Malley's worst week ever, WCPN host Dan Moulthrop declared when we were talking about the case on the radio yesterday. The prosecutors, arguing for a five-year sentence, described the "depravity and deviance" of O'Malley's huge porn collection, which they said included bestiality and stories about child abuse, in gory detail. (See this previous post.)

When the defense argued O'Malley had suffered a loss to his reputation because of the case, the prosecutors replied that "it appears that this criminal conviction may have done more to confirm defendant’s reputation than to do it harm." Imagine my surprise yesterday when I read their final brief. I've seen my work in court files before, but never as Exhibit A!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

me on WCPN

I was on WCPN's reporter's roundtable this morning, talking about the Pat O'Malley case, early voting, and the latest polls in the presidential race.

You can listen here. We start talking about voting at the 06:00 mark, McCain and Obama at 23:00, and O'Malley at 34:00.

(My story on O'Malley is here, and an online update is here.)

Protect your vote: check your registration

Here is the best way you can protect your vote between now and Monday: check your voter registration with your county Board of Elections and correct any errors. Here's the web page where Cuyahoga County voters can check their info.

Definitely check if you didn't get a mailing from the Board of Elections in September, if you've moved recently, or if you haven't voted in several years.

If you see a mistake or an outdated address, download a registration form here and mail it today or drive it down to the Board of Elections by Monday. (Registration cards must be received by Monday, so if you fill one out this weekend or Monday, I suggest delivering it rather than mailing it.) Cuyahoga's elections office, at E. 30th and Euclid, is open this weekend. Hours and parking info are here.

Doing this protects you from having to vote on a provisional ballot on Election Day and from the possibility that someone could challenge your eligibility to vote before the election.

Early voting has started. Between now and Nov. 4, you can vote on an absentee ballot by mail or at your county Board of Elections. Until Monday, you can register and vote at the same time. Local elections officials are recommending people vote by mail, to avoid possible lines on Election Day -- just be sure to fill out the forms exactly, so your mail-in ballot can't be challenged.