11/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Electoral Process Under Siege in Ohio

It's easy to recall the Rove-instigated hooliganism that generated tactically-advantageous chaos in the wake of Florida's flawed 2000 presidential election. What may be harder to grasp is that this year the hooliganism appears to have been advanced to the pre-election period, right here in Ohio.

Yesterday the official web site of the Ohio Secretary of State was partially shut down for much of the day. In the afternoon an official statement confirmed that the site was subject to possible security breach (i.e., it had been hacked):

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner announced on Monday afternoon that the state website has been set in a static mode with limited functionality as a precaution. The Ohio State Highway Patrol will assist with an investigation of one or more security breaches detected by the Secretary of State.

"Due to security concerns experienced by the Secretary of State's website, full functionality of the website has been suspended to protect the integrity of state records and data. Full functionality will be restored when we are assured that all data has been protected to acceptable levels of security," said Secretary of State Brunner.

"Our focus is and has always been to protect the vote of every eligible Ohio voter from any kind of fraud, be it voter registration fraud, illegal voting or vote suppression. This action has been taken to detect and prosecute any illegal breach of our voting infrastructure to maintain voter confidence," said Secretary Brunner.

In isolation the incident might not be a big concern, but it is not isolated. The statement also disclosed a pattern of harassment and threats against the office:

Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of direct assault on the operations of the Secretary of State's office. In recent weeks, phone lines and e-mail channels have been barraged, even in the business filings section of the office, with menacing messages and even threats of harm or death. Last week, a suspicious package covered with threatening messages and containing an unidentified powder was mailed to the Secretary of State's office via the previous location of the Client Services Center. These incidents are also under investigation.

This diplomatically-worded statement fails to convey the full scope and partisan character of the assaults. The suspicious package had the words "Death to Obama Supporters" scrawled across it. Secretary of State spokesman Patrick Gallaway indicates that a receptionist filed a police report alleging telephone harassment, which he described as "getting kind of scary." Unofficially I am told that the telephone and email threats are explicitly political.

There is no mystery why these assaults are taking place. The Ohio Republican Party has engaged in a systematic and aggressive campaign to challenge Secretary Brunner's handling of the election and spread fear of widespread voter fraud, even of election rigging. They have filed a string of eleventh-hour lawsuits against Brunner, sent fundraising emails accusing Brunner of trying to "destroy the integrity of our elections process," targeted "values voters" with an email urging them to jam up election officials' telephone lines with complaints, and generated a robocall claiming Democrats will "rig the election". Three Republican county prosecutors have publicly revealed ongoing investigations of early voters, ignoring the secrecy normally incumbent on grand jury proceedings. Prosecutor Joe Deters, who is co-chair for the McCain campaign in the southwestern part of Ohio, called for all 610 ballots cast by early voters who registered and voted on the same day in Hamilton county to be "set aside" until "proved to have been cast by legal Hamilton County residents." A right-wing think tank has even orchestrated a RICO lawsuit against ACORN by two voters in a conservative southwestern county, citing no specific incidents in that county to support their claim. And this is not a complete list by any means.

The traditional media so far appears to be soft-peddling the story. Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) held a press conference yesterday at the Ohio Statehouse to condemn the Republicans' "despicable tactics" to "instill fear in Ohio voters about whether their registrations to vote will be challenged and whether they will be able to cast a ballot." However, the event received little coverage, with reporters tending to fixate on the antics of a Republican operative who disrupted the event by appearing in an orange squirrel outfit. Notably, the story in today's Plain Dealer about the web site hacking and harassment of the Secretary of State refers to the incidents as "oddities" and minimizes the Republicans' aggressive campaign of allegations and disinformation as "expressing concerns about voter fraud."

The goals of the Republican Party in this assault on the election process are easy to discern. By generating confusion and chaos, and by publicizing the intervention by law enforcement officials into registration and voting, they hope to chill the enthusiasm of new voters and deter them from casting ballots. To the extent that these voters do attempt to participate in the election, they hope that confusion and long lines at polling places will cause voters to leave before voting (as occurred in 2004). As to votes actually cast, they want as many ballots as possible to be diverted into the dubious realm of provisional voting, where the validity of individual ballots can be challenged and litigated until the deadline for certifying the election passes. Even if these effects are not enough to tip the election in their favor, they may be enough to challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory in the public mind, and whatever turmoil they generate on Election Day will certainly be fodder for them to challenge the re-election of Secretary Brunner in 2010, a contest that may determine control of legislative redistricting.