"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For those who believe that the 2004 election was stolen by George W. Bush, Karl Rove and an unholy alliance of party operatives and voting-machine impresarios, a 75-year-old Democratic congressman from Detroit has emerged as the last best hope for American democracy. Almost alone in official Washington, Rep. John Conyers has insisted that the nation understand — and then correct — the problems that plagued the 2004 vote.
With little attention from the media and little support even from members of his own party, Conyers has launched his own probe of the 2004 election. His early conclusion: There may not have been an active conspiracy to suppress the vote and steal the election, but all those problems in Ohio — the long lines in Democratic precincts, the voting machines that may have switched votes, the suspicious actions of a voting-machine company representative, the trumped-up concerns about terrorism in Warren County, the Republican-friendly rulings by the state election official who also happened to chair the Bush-Cheney campaign — well, those things didn’t all happen by accident, either.
“You know, orchestrated attempts don’t always require a conspiracy,” Conyers told Salon on Monday. Conyers said that Bush’s supporters in Ohio may have worked to suppress the vote based on cues rather than orders from party officials. “People get the drift from other elections and the way [campaign leaders] talk about how they’re going to win the election.”
Conyers isn’t looking to overturn the election, and he won’t say that the Republicans stole it; coming from a member of Congress, such an allegation would be “reckless,” he said. But neither is he willing to put the election of 2004 behind him yet. This is the second presidential election in a row in which Republicans have succeeded in suppressing the vote, Conyers said, and he wants to ensure that the system is changed so that it won’t happen again. He’ll continue his investigation, he’ll join the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a protest rally in Ohio on Jan. 3, and when the new Congress meets in January he’ll push for further investigation and reform.
Conyers spoke with Salon by phone from Detroit.
Your first public forum on the 2004 election was called “Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio?” Do you know the answer to that question yet?
Well, dozens and dozens of things went wrong. It depends on what part of the state we’re going to examine. In Hocking County, a private company accessed an election machine and altered and tampered with it in the absence of election observers. It disturbed a deputy chair of the election in the county so much that she has given a sworn affidavit that has been turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and we’re in the process of running that down. But what about in Cleveland, Ohio? There, thousands of people claimed that their vote for Kerry was turned into a vote for Bush. Poll workers made mistakes that might have cost thousands of votes in Cleveland. And in Youngstown, machines turned an undetermined number of Kerry votes into Bush votes as well. Provisional ballots were thrown out. There were several conflicting rules. There was mass confusion. In Warren County, they talked about [the possibility that] terrorism might close down the election. I mean, please.
What we’re doing, understand, is we’re collecting the complaints, the grievances, the outrages, the indignities that people suffered, and then we’ve got to process them to find out what is valid and what needs to be further examined and what needs to be tossed out. It’s not like every complaint is one that has to be counted. What we’re trying to do is make the system better.
Do you believe that there was an orchestrated attempt to steal the election?
Well, you know, orchestrated attempts don’t always require a conspiracy. People get the drift from other elections and the way [campaign leaders] talk about how they’re going to win the election. When you have the exit-polling information discrepancies that occurred in 2004, where the odds of all the swing states coming in so much stronger for Bush than the exit polls indicated — they say that that is, statistically, almost an improbability.
[People] are saying, “No, no, no, that doesn’t mean much.” But it means a lot. It feeds this growing, [but] not provable feeling among millions of Americans that this was another unfair election.
Do you have that feeling?
Sure, I have a feeling that whenever we can come across ways to make elections fairer or work better or improve the process or simplify the regulations or make voting more available to people who have language problems or disabilities, we have a responsibility to do it. We’re trying to improve the system. I’m not trying to attack the outcome. What we need is a system where there are only a few of the kinds of the tens of thousands of complaints that we already have.
Do you believe the outcome of the election would have been different if it had been conducted more fairly?
I have no way of saying that because this gets into conjecture. I make one conjecture and somebody else makes a counter conjecture, and where are we? We’re all, “This is what I think.” I’m not as concerned about what I think as I am about what people told me went wrong on Election Day that we in Congress, especially the Judiciary Committee, have the responsibility to correct.
But is there any real chance that anything will be corrected? The entire nation was focused on the problems with the electoral system in 2000, yet very little seems to have changed. If meaningful reform didn’t come then, how can anyone expect it to come now?
I thought that the Help America Vote Act would improve things dramatically. And although it helped in places, the provisional ballot [process] was misinterpreted. We couldn’t get all these private companies to come up with a paper trail on their machines. And with the precinct machines, there was quite a disparity in the conservative counties in Ohio as opposed to the Democratic areas where there were only a few machines.
Republican precincts had plenty of machines, and people could vote quickly.
Instantly, yeah. And we had people waiting for hours only miles away.
So what comes of all of this?
First, we’ve got to collect the complaints. Second, we’ve got to investigate them and bring forward the ones we’re willing to stand by. And then we have to examine how we correct them. There needs to be, generally stated, more federal regulation over presidential elections. There are just way too many differences, from not only state to state but also county to county.
So far, which complaints are you willing to “stand by”?
It’s not a matter of my claiming ownership over the complaints. I’m just doing my job. If all of them are valid, that’s what I’m going to present. If half of them are valid, that’s what I’m going to present. I’m not going forward with complaints that don’t reach the level of believability or credibility.
The complaints you’ve described in this interview — do they meet that level of believability and credibility?
Oh yes, and plenty more reach that level. So we’ve got a problem. Many people in the media are saying, “Look, the election’s over, and yes, we had problems.” It’s like many people are just taking this. Then we have the hundreds of thousands of people who are outraged and supportive of me for carrying on and trying to make sure we get to the bottom of all these grievances that have been brought forward.
We’ve received e-mails from hundreds of those people, and many of them seem certain that the election was stolen, or at least that the outcome would have been different if the election had been more fair.
But you’re not there yet.
Well, no, that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m not trying to get there. I’m trying to do the kind of job that people will say, “I think the congressman and those working with him are going about this in a fairly impartial, effective manner” — and not that they’re coming in as thieves trying to upset the election result. To me, that would not be what I’m in Congress to do. I mean, I would be doing this if it were just the reverse. A fair election process applies to everybody — Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals alike.
Four years ago, when it came time for Congress to certify the election results, a number of House members rose to protest the certification of the Bush electors from Florida. Not a single member of the Senate joined them. Do you expect the same thing to happen this time around?
No, I think the Senate is going to go along with an inquiry this time. I don’t think they would embarrass themselves to let this happen two times in a row.
Has any senator said to you that he or she will call for an inquiry?
No, I haven’t talked with a single one. I’m not citing somebody who I know is going to do it. I’m not aware of anyone. I just don’t think the Senate would get caught in that position.
You haven’t exactly enjoyed a groundswell of support from other members of Congress. Are there Democrats in Congress who support what you’re doing but won’t come forward and say so publicly?
Well, there are Republicans who support what I’m doing who haven’t been willing to come forward. Look, calling for fair elections is not the most radical thing in the world. We’re not positing some revolutionary theory here. We’re asking that the people who complained be given a fair hearing.
Have any Republicans actually told you that they support your efforts?
I’d rather not comment on that.
Are you surprised that none of them have said so publicly?
No, not really. If you had a majority leader like theirs, you’d probably think twice about it yourself.
What about the Democratic leadership? Harry Reid, the new Senate minority leader, says he’d rather dance with Bush than fight him. Should the problems in Ohio change the way Democrats in Congress think about accommodating Bush in his second term?
Well, I’m not sure how much accommodation is going to happen. I listen to Bush talking about “reaching out,” which he talked about the first time, and we had the most divided federal system in memory. And now those kinds of phrases are being tossed about during the Christmas holiday again. Please. I don’t put much stock in it.
Bush billed himself as a “uniter, not a divider.”
I keep reminding myself of what he said. He sure didn’t unite anybody I knew of.
And what about John Kerry? Have you spoken with him about your investigation?
His lawyer was in Columbus for our hearing there last week. And he has also, at the same time, asked for a full recount in Delaware County [Ohio].
Has the Kerry campaign done enough? A lot of Democrats think Kerry conceded too soon.
It’s easy to be in an armchair somewhere saying, “You’ve got to do this; you’ve got to do that.” He had more in his control. And besides, he’s the candidate. I wish he’d listened to me more, and everybody wishes that the guy they voted for would listen to them more. But he’s the master of his ship.
When you say that you wish Kerry had listened to you more, do you mean during the campaign or in the days after the election?
During the campaign and after.
What do you wish he were doing now?
I don’t want to go into all of this “shoulda, coulda, woulda.” I think it takes our focus off the fact that we had far too many grievances and misfires in this election that have to be corrected.
But you don’t believe that those problems were the result of a concerted effort by the Republican Party or the Bush-Cheney campaign? You think people who wanted to see the president reelected just got the message somehow that they were supposed to do the things they did?
People didn’t have to get a message. If you use questionable tactics and generally attempt to suppress the vote — that’s what the Republicans’ strategies were all about: “How do we limit the vote?” Because the more people who voted, the more imperiled they felt they would be. And from that kind of an assumption, you can get a whole lot of activities that might not meet the smell test.
Because people on the ground understand the overall strategy and then take it upon themselves to engage in whatever conduct they think will help?
That’s what frequently happens, and usually does.
Do you believe that Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell did that? Do you think he acted with the intent to suppress the vote?
I know that Kenneth Blackwell made some decisions that were blatant and outrageous for a secretary of state. How he felt that his head was big enough to be chairman of the “Re-elect Bush” committee and also head of the administration of the electoral vote for the president in that same state was beyond me.
Is that the sort of issue that you hope to address through legislative reform?
Oh, good night, yeah. There are very few people who did what he did.
Do you think you’ll ever be able to prove that there was a coordinated effort to steal the election?
We’re not trying to prove that. This is what we’re discussing: We’re trying to improve the situation wherever we can to make a better voting system in the states.
But a lot of the people who support your efforts desperately want you to prove that there was a conspiracy. If the e-mails we get are any indication, a lot of them believe that the existence of a conspiracy has already been proven.
Well, you know, a citizen’s point of view may be different from a federal lawmaker’s point of view. The citizens are entitled to form their own opinions. They can assert that easily. A member of Congress, the ranking member of Judiciary … I can’t make those assertions without proof. That would be reckless.
So you don’t make them.
No, I don’t.
What do you do?
We pass laws. We make laws and we try to correct the system through the legislative process.
And what conclusions have you reached about how the system can be fixed?
Everyone is beginning to reexamine the appropriateness of the Electoral College. We realize that provisional balloting needs to be streamlined and simplified. We know that there should be paper trails in computers. We’re beginning to wonder if we haven’t privatized the electoral system so that the computer tabulators can do more and know more than the electoral commissions of the counties themselves.
In the meantime, what do you say to all of the people who believe in their hearts that our democracy is broken and that the election was stolen?
I ask and invite everybody to turn in any evidence that they want that helps proves whatever position they believe, or even a position they don’t believe. But this isn’t a hunch and suspicion game. This is very serious business. Either there were defects so numerous and so plentiful that we had a faulty election, or we had an election that had these defects [but they didn't alter the outcome of the election]. And as we go forward with trying to improve the process, my whole objective is not to change the election result but to try to improve the process itself.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)