Shortly after the 2004 election, I wondered whether faith in democracy was justified. Citizens of our country had just re-elected an incompetent president. Faith in democracy means you have faith in people to make sound decisions. The people – collectively – had just made an unsound decision. Democratic leaders from Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton have said, “If the people know the truth, they will make the right choice.” The outcome of the 2004 election challenged that article of faith, and the foundation of democratic politics seemed both shaky and questionable.
I didn’t want to entertain that thought. Some things just can’t be false. Alternate explanations for the election’s outcome did exist. “People are scared,” some said – a special circumstance that resonated after 9/11. Our leaders lied, and voters fell victim to the distortions of propaganda. That explanation is not so convincing. Part of the democratic faith is that people can distinguish between lies and truth when they carry out the responsibilities of citizenship. A third possibility was quite practical: voters recognized Bush’s weaknesses and didn’t care for the job he was doing, but they regarded Kerry as weaker still. That’s another version of the old saw, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” The argument has some plausibility, but still doesn’t seem adequate in the face of Bush’s demonstrated incompetence.
The possibility I truly didn’t want to consider was that Kerry had won after all. If Kerry had won the election and Bush was in office, that meant the Republicans stole the election in Ohio. They might have stolen the election elsewhere, too, but Ohio was the state that mattered. If the Republicans had won by fraud, that was a challenge to our democracy even more troubling than the possibility of irresponsible, incapable voters. I don’t like conspiracy theories much, and this explanation seemed to lie in that general category. The conspiratorial outlook argues that some kind of underhandedness has to explain such a disastrous – and inexplicable – outcome. But conspiracy theories grow when people are credulous, and we want an explanation of the 2004 election that relies on evidence, not credulity.
So, what evidence do we have about the outcome of the presidential election in Ohio?