Ayushman Jamwal works on the foreign desk at CNN-IBN.
The mainstream media is geared for the biggest political spectacle of the year. Newsrooms are abuzz as the final lap of the US Presidential race is upon them. Trying to outdo each other, they are hungry for poll numbers, locked and loaded with their analysis, anecdotes and predictions to put on a great show for the American public. Their eyes are set on the Democrats and the Republicans in the battlefield of Ohio, where the parties are blitzing citizens with campaign ads and rallies.
Yet, in all the rush and media frenzy lies a rising concern among Ohio citizens that has unfortunately failed to make the front pages or the prime time news bulletins. The whispers of alleged vote rigging have re-emerged in the state, which has gone unnoticed in the din and drama of the elections.
In the 2004 presidential elections, George Bush won Ohio by a slender margin of around 2% over Democrat John Kerry. On Election Day, a group of Democrats delayed Bush's victory alleging irregularities in the counting of votes. The challenge was defeated 267-31 in the House of Representatives and was crushed in the Senate by 74-1. In the Moss vs Bush case of 2004, 37 Ohio voters even moved the state Supreme Court challenging the vote count, but the case was dismissed after the ruling in the House and the Senate.
The same controversy has reared its head once again, but with some startling evidence. On Monday, Robert Fitrakis, the Editor-in-Chief of the Ohio based The Free Press, filed a lawsuit to seek an immediate injunction against the Republican Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted and the voting machine manufacturer ES&S to stop the use of experimental software in voting machines. The publication reported last week of obtaining memos of senior staff at the Ohio Secretary of State office, indicating that experimental software patches were being made to ES&S voting machines in over 39 state counties. One memo states the patches are for official polling result updates to "format results that have already been uploaded by the county into a format that can be read by the Secretary of State's election night reporting system." Ohio's Revised Code 3506.05 requires all election hardware and software systems to be analysed and cleared by a state board before being put into use. However, the memos state that as the software update is not involved in the tabulation or casting of ballots, and is neither a modification of the certified system, it can bypass the legally mandated review of the Board of Voting Machine Examiners.
The Free Press alleges that this technicality has allowed Jon Husted to tamper with voting machines across Ohio. However, on Tuesday, an Ohio District Court refused to grant a temporary injunction even as an expert for the plaintiff claimed that the software patch would create a digital 'back door' that could be exploited to alter vote totals. Judge Gregory Frost said the case failed to show any "actual and imminent harm" from the software. Robert Fitrakis' attorney Cliff Arneback, who also represented the Ohio voters in the Moss vs. Bush case, called the software patch a "flagrant violation of the law", and has referred the case to the Cincinnati Federal Bureau of Investigation for a criminal investigation. However, no investigation has been initiated so far.
The state of Ohio has other dubious elements involved in the presidential elections. Recently, red flags have been raised over links between Hart InterCivic, an EVM company in Ohio and Mitt Romney. The Washington Post recently reported, albeit their blog, that the five corporate board members at Hart InterCivic are also executives at HIG Capital, three of whom worked for Mitt Romney's Bain Capital. HIG Capital as a whole has also donated more than $300,000 to the Romney campaign, while one of the investors in HIG is Solamare, a private equity firm run by Tagg Romney, Mitt Romney's son.
Suspicions surrounding the Ohio numbers in the 2004 Presidential polls can be understood considering the close race between Bush and Kerry. But the memos released by The Free Press have shown a deliberate attempt to alter voting machine operations with untested software, which warrants an investigation. It may or may not corrupt the system, but for the Presidential elections, is it right to take a chance with software untested by the State? Such concerns have been raised in the past by Ohio authorities. In 2007, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner sanctioned a study to evaluate the effectiveness of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). The study titled Project Everest found that the machines could be easily tampered with, where any single change to the software or hardware could corrupt the entire voting process.
Fitrakis' case anyways couldn't achieve anything significant so close to the polls. Yet, it is surprising that the mainstream media is ignoring this allegation, ignoring the links between Mitt Romney and Hart InterCivic given that the result of the most important election in the country is hours away. Is it due to their complete disdain for allegations raised by a local Ohio publication? Are they too preoccupied preparing for the media event of announcing the new American President? Are the Democrats once again just content with waiting for an unfavourable result to raise fraud allegations like in 2004? Or, do the media think the story will be more newsworthy after a President is elected?
The Presidential elections are important for Americans reeling under the fallout of the economic recession. With Ohio taking centre stage in the polls, placing ratings in front of public interest, and politics in front of electoral integrity is an indictment of the ethos of the American media and political fraternity. Moreover, examining the allegations post the results will be even more irresponsible. It's too late for the case to emerge before the winner is announced, but only time will tell when or even if the allegations are investigated after the elections.