The decision by 2004 Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik to play a leading role in the Ohio presidential recount is causing a bubbling controversy within the Libertarian Party itself as many members ask why Badnarik embarked on a venture that will cost taxpayers money without changing the outcome of the election.
The recount, which started this week and will last for several days, was formally requested on Dec. 7 by Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb. On Dec. 6, the state officially certified President George Bush as the winner over Democrat John Kerry by a margin of 118,775 votes. Badnarik received 14,695 votes in Ohio and Cobb received 186.
Ohio's 20 electoral votes put Bush over the top, and Kerry conceded the state on Nov. 4, saying he thought there was no chance a recount would result in his victory.
The national Libertarian Party played no role in the decision to seek a recount, which was made by Badnarik himself and his campaign staff.
"The national Libertarian Party was unaware of this lawsuit until after it was filed, and no party funds have been spent in the effort," said the party's national chair, Michael Dixon. "Mr. Badnarik is making a well-intentioned effort to protect the integrity of the voting process. However, because no one anticipates that a recount will change the outcome in Ohio, the Libertarian Party prefers not to see taxpayer resources expended in this effort."
Badnarik's decision to join the lawsuit was made shortly after the Nov. 2 election, when Cobb contacted the Badnarik for President campaign. Because Cobb's name was not on the ballot in Ohio, he lacked legal standing, and needed Badnarik as a co-plaintiff. The campaign team also considered challenging the outcome in New Mexico and Nevada, but Badnarik said those plans have been put on hold.
"On Election Day we received e-mails from dozens of people on our list saying something funny was going on in Ohio -- that votes weren't being counted correctly," said Fred Collins, Badnarik's campaign chair. "We felt that joining the lawsuit was something we could do at no cost to us, and said we'd be willing to participate. I don't believe the vote count will change dramatically. But this will go a long way toward making sure that votes will be counted accurately in the future."
Collins said the driving forces behind the recount are nonpartisan watchdog groups and the Greens, who raised more than 90 percent of the funds -- not the Libertarians.
Badnarik pointed out that he and Cobb are being represented by attorney John Bonifaz, founder of the nonpartisan National Voting Rights Institute, who is doing the case pro bono.
"He contacted us and offered his services, and said the only way he was willing to do the case was if it was for both of us, to ensure that it would be nonpartisan," Badnarik said. "He wouldn't have taken the case if it was only for one of us."
Under Ohio law, the parties seeking the recount are required to pay $10 per precinct, or $113,600 statewide. Badnarik and Cobb raised the required money.
However, the Ohio secretary of state's office claims that the actual cost of the recount is closer to $1.5 million, because 3 percent of the ballots in each county have to be counted by hand; many counties lack central counting equipment; and poll workers have to return and count many of the ballots.
In mid-November, the two candidates announced their plan to file for a recount, citing "widespread reports of irregularities in the Ohio voting process."
The announcement triggered a wave of national publicity and became the topic of discussion on cable TV news shows such as CNBC's "Hardball" and MSNBC's "Countdown."
Most of the print coverage focused on the cost of the recount, and press reports were especially critical in Ohio.
In a Dec. 9 interview with the Findlay Courier, Allen County Board of Elections Director Keith Cunningham denounced the recount effort as "an outrage" and a "theft."
He said the recount will cost $6,000 to $12,000, even though he received only $1,390 from Badnarik and Cobb.
A Dec. 9 article in the Chillicothe Gazette, headlined "Local board disgusted by last-ditch efforts," quoted recount director Nancy Bell as predicting that the $10-per-precinct fee "won't even cover one day" of the estimated three-day process.
And an article on the same day in the Toledo Blade began, "The Green Party and Libertarian Party have triggered a recount of the Nov. 2 presidential election in Lucas County, a recount that will cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars."
As a result of the news coverage, phone calls and e-mails streamed into the Ohio LP, according to State Chair Jason Hallmark.
"As you can imagine, Republicans hate us, Democrats and Greens like us, but not enough to actually support us financially or join our party," said Hallmark, who added that the Ohio LP was not informed about the lawsuit in advance. "It is unfortunate that the media keeps labeling this as an action initiated by the Libertarian Party. We cannot stress enough that the recount is not in any way an action by the Libertarian Party of Ohio. No party funds have been spent to aid this action in any way."
Hallmark said the state's estimate of the recount costs are overblown, because it is counting the hours that election boards would have been paying their employees in any case.
The publicity also sparked criticism from within the LP, as many members complained that the Greens and Democrats were using Badnarik as a tool with which to challenge the legitimacy of Bush's victory.
Longtime California LP member Manny Klausner said, "I'm puzzled by the Badnarik campaign joining the legal actions to obtain a recount in Ohio and other states where Bush won -- but apparently not in states where Kerry won by narrow margins. It seems to me that for the Badnarik campaign to seek to impose massive costs on taxpayers for an ill-considered recount makes no sense for anyone who is a principled Libertarian."
Party founder David Nolan said the recount makes Badnarik "look like a tool of the Kerry campaign. Also, this effort appears to be part of an ill-considered effort to build an alliance with the Cobb wing of the Green Party, who have nothing to offer us."
Added Richard Rider, a leader in the San Diego LP: "Perception is everything. Too many will interpret our effort as pro-Kerry. At this point, if we can, we should back out of this mess. Let the Greens run with it. Clearly, it's their show anyway."
Badnarik responded to the criticism by saying, "At first I was a bit surprised. I never thought about a recount until I received about two dozen passionate requests to do so from Libertarians in various states.
"I asked several people if they could think of any reasons not to participate in the recount -- then I made the best decision I could with the information available to me at the time. Of course, you will always find Libertarians who have the opposite opinion on any issue, so I'm not surprised that support is not unanimous throughout the party."
As far as backing out of the lawsuit, Badnarik said: "The recount is going to continue with or without Libertarian support, so changing course isn't an option at this time. The purpose of the recount has always been to uncover voting irregularities (which certainly exist) and to attempt to determine the extent to which they took place. A recount may not be the most efficient way to put an end to vote fraud, but doing so should be high on everyone's list of priorities."
Other Libertarians voiced support for Badnarik. According to Sean Haugh, a former Libertarian National Committee representative: "This has advanced cooperation between us and the Greens and others of the left. And I'm not terribly concerned about the cost. The purpose of the recount is to uncover corruption and errors in the vote counting process. I know it's taxpayer money, but beyond that I really don't have a problem making government pay for uncovering their own corruption and incompetence."
Trevor M. Southerland, chair of the National Libertarian Party Youth Caucus, agrees.
"This has generated a lot of publicity for the Libertarian Party," he says. "It has also given us a better relationship with Greens, and helped us appeal to some Democrats who are upset at what they consider the too-soon concession of Senator Kerry."
Both supporters and opponents of the suit agree that Libertarians have good reason to be suspicious of Ohio election officials. In November 2003, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell used a technicality to throw out more than 60,000 ballot access petition signatures collected by the Ohio LP, a ruling that left Libertarians stunned and angry.
Specifically, Blackwell said the petition forms were illegal because a space had been added for signers to put their last names, and because a sentence about the legal penalty for falsification was slightly different from the state's mandatory language.
Ohio Libertarians point out that Republican Party officials have made a concerted effort to keep Libertarians off the ballot to protect GOP candidates, and note that Blackwell also chaired the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.
The state LP had spent two years and about $50,000 collecting the signatures, which would have let all candidates appear on the ballot with a partisan label, including Badnarik. As a result, Badnarik had to appear on the Ohio ballot as an "other party" candidate.
At the time, Ballot Access News publisher Richard Winger said the decision proves that Ohio officials are "hostile" to third parties.
"Ohio's action in disqualifying a petition with over 60,000 names, just because the format and wording are slightly different from the approved form is unheard of in other states," he said.
Barbara Goushaw-Collins, co-director of the Badnarik campaign, says the track record of Ohio elections officials, combined with the voting irregularities reported after the election, is sufficient to justify a recount.
"The major complaint is that we're doing this because we don't like Republicans -- which is flat-out silly," she said. "Our job as Libertarians is to challenge government power. This is a state where they arbitrarily pitched tens of thousands of our petitions, and we're the only ones trying to keep the system honest.
"This recount action is perfectly consistent with who we are and what we do. If not us, who? If not now, when?"