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Questioning Ohio (continued)

MANY OF THOSE who did get to the polls had to wait ages to get to a booth. There were reports of waiting times of two-and-a-half-hours in Cleveland, five in Columbus, and six in the college town of Gambier.

This was all officially blamed on extraordinarily high turnout, but many disagree. After all, turnout was actually lower than predicted by the Secretary of State’s office, and the increase from 2000 worked out to just 64 additional voters per Ohio precinct. "Everybody saw it coming — the huge lines, the huge voter turnout," says Britton. "We’re very concerned that county officials did not adequately prepare."

"It was poor planning, and I think you lay that on the head of the governor and secretary of state," Trevas says.

But Republican governor Bob Taft and Blackwell did prepare: they reduced the number of polling places, ensuring long lines.

As noted above, the state had been anticipating the purchase of DRE machines, which are both more expensive and — at least in theory — quicker. That meant, according to Blackwell, that counties could make do with fewer machines without affecting the lines, and fewer faster machines meant that counties could merge small precincts together to share them. The Republican-led legislature helped encourage precinct consolidation by raising the maximum allowable number of registered voters per precinct. So, some counties merged their polling places, cutting as many as 48 percent in some cases.

When the state suddenly nixed the new machines, those counties were left with fewer polling places for more voters, with the old slow machines, and about the same number of poll workers. Erie County consolidated 101 precincts in 2000 into just 62 this year. As a result, the average number of voters per precinct in Erie nearly doubled, from 355 to 640.

"Our county was in a budget crunch," says Ruth Leuthold — Republican — director of the Crawford County Board of Elections, which went from 67 precincts to 46. "We did it due to budgetary reasons, and to go to electronic voting."

The long lines were greatly exacerbated by the poll workers, whose average age was 78 statewide, according to Bryan Williams, director of the Summit County Board of Education.

And in case the octogenarians were too nimble, Williams — Republican — encouraged them to take their time. "At their training, I emphasized accuracy over speed," Williams says.

At one Columbus site, the head poll worker was a half-hour late to open up, "and things went downhill from there," reported the Columbus Dispatch. Several other poll workers in the county overslept, according to the paper. And oddly enough, the same thing happened in Cuyahoga County, where four polling places opened late, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Another poll worker was fired for showing up drunk.

Nobody in Columbus’s Franklin County, including poll workers, could reach the elections-board office by phone — even when machines broke, which was frequent. For a 45-minute stretch at one site, all three voting machines were inoperative, according to the Dispatch, which added that half of the 100 people in line left without voting.

Almost certainly, long lines disproportionately disenfranchise poorer, working-class voters, who tend to live in high-density city precincts, and have less flexibility in their schedules. "We heard of folks who were told by their bosses they have to get back to work instead of stay and vote," says Britton.

LoParo of the Secretary of State’s office dismisses the concern, saying that "we have heard anecdotally" that only a few people showed up but didn’t vote. But Ohio newspapers were filled with anecdotes to the contrary. And many people probably didn’t bother to show up, as word about the long waits spread. "People were in line on their cell phones telling their friends not to try to take one hour to vote — everybody was in line doing that when I went," Trevas says.

HERE’S THE rub: a Phoenix analysis shows that the precinct reductions disproportionately hurt Ohio’s Democratic turnout.

Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 20 suffered a significant reduction — shutting at least 20 percent (or at least 30) of their precincts. Most of those counties have Republicans serving as Board of Elections director, including the four biggest: Cuyahoga, Montgomery, Summit, and Lucas.

Those 20 counties went heavily to Gore in 2000, 53 to 42 percent. The other 68 counties, which underwent little-to-no precinct consolidation, went exactly the opposite way in 2000: 53 to 42 percent to Bush.

In the 68 counties that kept their precinct count at or near 2000 levels, Kerry benefited more than Bush from the high turnout, getting 24 percent more votes than Gore did in 2000, while Bush increased his vote total by only 17 percent.

But in the 20 squeezed counties, the opposite happened. Bush increased his vote total by 22 percent, and Kerry won just 19 percent more than Gore in 2000.

If the reduced number of precincts in those counties accounts for the difference, it cost Kerry about 45,000 votes. And who knows what might have happened had the state increased polling places in anticipation of the high turnout it knew was coming? And if the state had encouraged voting rather than threatened to challenge credentials? And if there had been no dirty tricks and intimidation? And if all had received their absentee ballots?

Would we be preparing for a Kerry presidency? We’ll probably never know.

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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