What part of "gross administrative failure" do Ohio legislators not understand? A 204-page report detailing November’s election debacle in the Buckeye State was released last month by the Voting Rights Institute of the Democratic National Committee. The report is scathing, citing evidence of voter suppression; negligent and incompetent election officials; mistakes with registration status, polling locations, and absentee and provisional ballots; unlawful identification requirements; long lines; and uncounted votes. And these problems disproportionately disenfranchised younger voters and minorities.
But as the report was being distributed, the Ohio General Assembly went home for the summer without acting on House Bill 3, the election-reform bill resulting from six months of work by legislators and activists.
And the rest of the country? In the New York Times and Washington Post, articles about the DNC’s scathing exposé of a malfunctioning democracy were buried deep within each paper. Most other media ignored the report completely.
Why? The Times’ and Post’s take is that, since the report didn’t demand anyone’s arrest or John Kerry’s inauguration, nobody cared. After all, as Scott Britton, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, sarcastically put it, "It’s just a broken election system."
Even before the election was over last November, three schools of thought had emerged concerning widespread reports of voting problems in Ohio and elsewhere. One camp smelled fraud and relentlessly pursued conspiracy theories, including a persistent one about machines switching Kerry votes to Bush. A second group, in reaction to these claims, set out to prove that this was not Florida 2000 redux.
A third contingent has had to struggle the hardest to be heard. It asserts substantive and systematic impediments — voter intimidation, improper use of provisional balloting, lack of sufficient voting machines and poll workers, malfunctioning machinery, illegal demands for identification — to people trying to participate in democracy.
If the sheer volume of complaints and documented problems had not already demonstrated the need for reform, any remaining skepticism should have wilted with the release of the exhaustive and frightening DNC report. And yet, 16 months before the 2006 election, electoral reform remains on Ohio’s — and the country’s — back burner.
Laundry list of problems
Ohio remained undetermined late into election night 2004, long after the networks had colored the other states in red and blue. And, while George W. Bush had clearly won the national popular vote, victory for either candidate depended on Ohio’s 20 electoral votes. The state was finally called for Bush at 1 am the next day, by a margin of less than two percent. Legal challenges and recount demands were lodged, and accusations targeted the man in charge of Ohio’s election: Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who also served as co-chair of the Ohio campaign to re-elect Bush.
Even before Election Day, Ohio Democrats and Republicans had been clawing at each other in high-profile fashion over ballot issues. First came lawsuits over where provisional ballots could be cast (when poll workers cannot verify a voter’s registration status, he or she can cast a provisional ballot, which will be counted if the voter’s registration is verified). Then came Republican attempts, ultimately successful, to win the right to challenge newly registered voters’ status at the polls.
So, inevitably, bitter Democrats were quick to see conspiracies and fraud in the Ohio results. The DNC study was meant to put those accusations to rest, and to bring clarity and attention to the very real electoral problems that, while not unique to Ohio, were exposed by the spotlight on that state. The team, led by Voting Rights Institute head and former Al Gore–campaign manager Donna Brazile, analyzed voting and voter-registration data; conducted both a statewide telephone survey of voters and a survey comparing provisional-ballot voters and regular-ballot voters; and studied findings from DNC Voter Protection teams. Some of the results:
• More than one-quarter of all Ohio voters experienced voting problems, including long lines, registration-status challenges, polling-location changes, difficulties obtaining absentee ballots, unclear rules for provisional ballots, and illegal requests for identification. Nearly a quarter of Ohio voters say their 2004 voting experience made them less confident about the reliability of elections in the state.
• Party affiliation and registration history had very little effect on the overall voting experience. Problems of some kind befell members of all parties, new and veteran voters alike.
• African-American voters waited in line to vote an average of 52 minutes, three times as long as white voters. They were also much more likely to have their registration status or identity challenged, or to feel intimidated. Just 19 percent of African-American voters feel very confident that their vote was counted correctly, compared with 71 percent of white voters and 93 percent of Republican voters.
• Three percent of voters who went to their polling places left and did not return because of the long lines. Another two percent had to go to more than one polling place to find the right one.
• Voters were less likely to have their presidential vote counted in precincts with punch-card machines, precincts with fewer machines per voter, and precincts where the proportion voting for Kerry was higher.
• Direct-recording electronic (DRE), or touch-screen, machines deterred voters, produced more invalid presidential votes, and, due to scarcity, caused longer waits. The study concludes that the great expense of procuring and maintaining DRE systems virtually assures scarcity problems like those experienced in Ohio.
• Ohio voters were three times more likely than those in Pennsylvania to have to cast provisional ballots, and nine times more likely than Florida voters. More than a quarter of all first-time-registered voters were made to cast a provisional ballot. Younger voters, home renters, and minorities were much more likely to vote on a provisional ballot. Only 78 percent of provisional votes in the state were counted, and in some counties far fewer.
• Although only a tiny fraction of voters (namely, first-time voters who did not show identification when registering) could legally be asked to show identification, more than a third were forced to do so. Two-thirds of voters under age 30 were made to show identification at the polls, illegally in almost all cases.
An ounce of prevention
None of this was unforeseen, and almost all of it was preventable. Most of the problems were caused by poor planning and inadequate training and misinformation coming from the state, particularly on the part of Blackwell’s office.
Indeed, Ohio’s problems might have been far worse if they had not been so predictable. Democratic Party organizations and the Kerry/Edwards campaign placed voting-rights-protection teams around the state, particularly in counties where, as Julie Andreeff Jensen writes in the report, "administrative incompetence or the type of voting machine in use made it inherently more difficult for people to vote." That effort protected thousands from losing their votes.
Democrats clearly cannot count on the states, or the Republican-led federal government, to clean up this electoral mess. (Last summer a US Government Accountability Office report warned that the Department of Justice was unprepared to ensure access to polls and to address allegations of voting irregularities across the country. The report was ignored.) The mainstream media and the general public apparently aren’t going to demand it. Some independent groups, like the League of Women Voters in Ohio, may try to effect change, but they are limited in their power and funding. If the right to vote is to be protected, sadly, it’s likely to take partisan efforts to make it happen.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]phx.com
Issue Date: July 15 - 21, 2005
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