Dems Divided Over Reports of Stolen 2004 Election

By Jennifer Siegel

Published June 16, 2006, issue of June 16, 2006.
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An article by a scion of the Kennedy family charging that Republicans stole the 2004 election is dividing Democrats over the merits of turning the issue into a political rallying cry.

Since Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s piece, “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” appeared in Rolling Stone magazine June 1, liberals have disagreed not only about the merits of his conclusion — that Bush’s election in 2004 was accomplished through an illegal “cloud of dirty tricks” that amounted to theft of the presidency — but also about the political payoff of questioning the result.

During the past two weeks, the issue has played out across the liberal blogosphere and forced the online magazine Salon, itself a liberal publication, to go on the defensive after one of its own staff writers criticized Kennedy’s analysis.

The fight reveals the fault lines on the left as liberals are gearing up for the midterm elections in November and the presidential race of 2008. While investigating the conduct of the 2004 elections in Ohio — the critical battleground state that clinched Bush’s victory by a margin of 118,601 votes — Democratic Party leaders generally have avoided making the race a marquee issue. For many grass-roots activists, however, the silence is deafening.

“It’s clear… that a divide has opened on the left between those who want to label the 2004 election intentionally ‘stolen’ by the GOP, and those who think unproven charges of theft… undermine efforts to work on the very real, documented problems in our voting system,” wrote Joan Walsh, Salon’s editor in chief, in a June 6 column in response to Salon’s critics.

Kennedy’s nearly 11,000-word article elaborates many of the charges raised by several studies conducted over the past 18 months, including charges of voter intimidation, improper purges of voters from the election rolls and the misallocation of voting machines. He also stressed the discrepancies between exit polls and the final election returns, almost all of which ended up in Bush’s favor.

“I’ve become convinced that the president’s party mounted a massive, coordinated campaign to subvert the will of the people in 2004,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy’s article echoes a piece published by Harper’s Magazine last summer, and draws heavily on an investigative study released by the Democratic National Committee in June of last year. In addition, Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have conducted their own hearings in Ohio and issued a report in January 2005 charging the state with having experienced “massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies”; the Democratic lawmakers also asserted that Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican now mounting a run for governor, was involved in “intentional misconduct and illegal behavior.”

Days after Kennedy’s article was published, Salon staff writer Farhad Manjoo, who has reported on problems with electronic voting, published an article questioning Kennedy’s analysis and use of data. In the ensuing days, Salon received hundreds of letters, mostly critical, according to Walsh’s defense of the Web publication.

Glenn Hurowitz, former deputy field director for the left-leaning Public Interest Research Group, told the Forward that many of his friends and colleagues have discussed Kennedy’s article in recent days, and he believes that Democratic leaders should be more public and vocal about the issue.

“I think it would be incredibly useful for the Democrats to talk about these allegations over and over and over again, and by doing so, undermine the legitimacy of Bush’s presidency even more,” said Hurowitz, who is working on a book about the history of fear and courage in the Democratic Party. “I’m definitely disappointed” in the Democratic leadership.

Several Democratic leaders did not return calls from the Forward.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, said that revisiting 2004 for the sake of questioning the outcome of the election was not a party priority.

“I haven’t even read the article, for God’s sake,” Manley told the Forward. We have “five or six months to go before the November elections; we’ve got an important debate about Iraq coming up.” He added, “We’re looking forward, not looking back.”

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told the Forward that he was concerned about the allegations regarding the 2004 election in Ohio, given his own experience working for the Carter campaign there in 1976. Forman said he believed that tens of thousands of votes were stolen by Republicans in Ohio during the 1976 elections, based on what he said was his own observation of tampering with voting machines. But he said he believes it is unlikely that enough votes were stolen to have altered the outcome of the 2004 election.

“I’ve seen Republicans steal votes in Ohio on a large scale,” Forman said, “but 120,000 votes is a lot of votes to steal and not get caught immediately.”

But one Democratic insider who spoke with the Forward said he believes that the alleged gap between activists and party insiders over the issue is “not as big as people want to make it out to be,” because both camps understand that different audiences require different messages.

The Democrats now have “a very pragmatic approach to winning elections,” the insider said. “And no matter how liberal, conservative, whatever you are, you understand that, and the party activists understand that.”

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