Election workers' case goes to jury
The three are accused of various violations in a vote recount in November 2004.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- A jury started to decide Tuesday whether three election workers in the state's most populous county illegally rigged what was supposed to be a random sample recount in the 2004 presidential election to avoid a time-consuming hand count of all votes.
"This was not done for political reasons," the case's special prosecutor, Kevin Baxter, said in his closing argument. "It was so you didn't have to do a full hand recount. Politics didn't matter."
Defense lawyer Roger Synenberg, representing one of the three women on trial, said in his closing that the 2004 presidential election, when Ohio clinched a second term for President Bush, was the most publicly observed ever in Cuyahoga County.
"To claim that these three would knowingly do something wrong under this much scrutiny is an absurdity," he said.
The Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office is the legal adviser for the elections board, and an assistant prosecutor who monitored the recount could have stopped it but found no reason to do so, Synenberg said. Defense attorneys sought a mistrial by arguing they did not receive notes of that assistant prosecutor soon enough, but the request was denied.
The defense said the three employees did nothing wrong and simply were following procedures as they understood them.
The case comes as elections have fallen under greater scrutiny since the 2000 presidential election. That's when recounts of paper ballots in Florida dragged on for weeks and the U.S. Supreme Court became involved. Cuyahoga also has been under the microscope after numerous problems with elections in bellwether Ohio.
Charged with various counts each of election misconduct or interference are Jacqueline Maiden, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections' coordinator, who was the board's third-highest ranking employee when she was indicted last March; Rosie Grier, assistant manager of the board's ballot department; and Kathleen Dreamer, ballot manager. The most serious charge faced by each is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison, Baxter said.
Ohio gave Bush the electoral votes he needed to defeat Democratic Sen. John Kerry and hold on to the White House in 2004.
Baxter, who was brought in from another county to prosecute the case, has made no claim about whether mishandling the recount could have affected the presidential election.
In Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold where about 600,000 ballots were cast, the recount did not have much effect on the results. Kerry gained 17 votes and Bush lost six.
Statewide, Bush won by about 118,000 votes out of 5.5 million cast. Green Party candidate David Cobb and Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik sought the recount and complained about its procedure.
Baxter told jurors during his closing that prosecution witnesses painted a picture that the recount was done behind closed doors, starting three days ahead of its public date, Dec. 16, 2004, and that ballots were preselected rather than chosen randomly as required by state law.
"The intent was that everything would be pristine and everything run smoothly," Baxter said.
But the plan fell apart, he said, when some of the stacks of ballots that had previously been counted were not shuffled, resulting in streams of constant votes for either President Bush or his challenger, John Kerry, drawing questions from observers at the official recount.
He said the three defendants sought to conceal the prior selection and count of ballots.
"They knew they were breaching their duties," Baxter said.
During the trial, which began Thursday, Patricia Wolfe, election administrator in the Ohio Secretary of State's office, testified that election boards are expected to follow the law and can choose the way precincts are selected randomly for recounts.
Ohio law states that during a recount each county is supposed to randomly count at least 3 percent of its ballots by hand and by machine. If there are not discrepancies in those counts, the rest of the votes can be recounted by machine. A full hand-count is ordered if two random samples result in differences.