Saturday, November 20, 2004

Questioning Ohio -- No controversy this time? Think again.

The Boston Phoenix

Questioning Ohio -- No controversy this time? Think again.


FOR AMERICANS, it's bad enough that the 2000 election was such a fiasco that our government felt compelled to bring in international election monitors from Vienna, as though we were some Third World banana republic rather than the world's oldest democracy. Worse, the monitoring group -- the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) -- left unimpressed. The OSCE won't issue a final report for another six weeks, but its preliminary findings (available at
are a litany of "questions of possible conflict of interest," "widespread ... allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression," "significant delays ...[that] may restrict the right to vote," "considerable confusion ... regarding the use of provisional ballots," "occasional faults and breakdowns of DRE [direct-recording equipment] machines," "concerns ...regarding the secrecy of the vote." Not only that, but "it was not clear that poll workers had generally received sufficient training to perform their functions."

On the plus side, the election "proceeded in an orderly and peaceful manner," the OSCE says. And according to many news reports, America was awfully glad, above all else, that there was no untidiness with this election. Once John Kerry conceded, it seemed, concerns about voter suppression, intimidation, and fraud could be safely ignored. The mainstream media refocused their attention on the Scott Peterson trial, while Internet bloggers chased phantom conspiracy theories into the void.

But there are at least two valid reasons why we should keep our eyes trained on November 2. First, a Phoenix analysis suggests that more Ohioans may have tried to vote for Kerry than for Bush, and couldn't -- in which case by rights W. should be packing his bags and shredding his files, rather than plotting his second-term agenda.

And besides -- isn't this kind of thing horrible even if it didn't happen to tip the election this time?

BUSH HAS, at the moment, won Ohio by 136,483 votes, but a number of considerations throw that lead into serious doubt. For one thing, that number will likely diminish when the state's approximately 155,000 provisional ballots are processed. Most of those who had to use provisional ballots probably were first-time voters whose names had not made it onto their precinct lists, observers say, and first-timers went 54-46 for Kerry in Ohio, according to exit polls.

Another 92,672 votes were discarded, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, mostly due to now-familiar problems with punch-card ballots. Those punch-card machines are -- surprise, surprise -- predominantly used in urban areas that tend to vote Democratic. In Cuyahoga County -- two-to-one Kerry country -- a voter reported misaligned holes and out-of-order pages on the punch ballots to Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations led by People for the American Way Foundation, which was monitoring elections in select states, including Ohio.

Punch cards also probably slowed down the voting process, suggests Carlo LoParo, spokesperson for the Ohio secretary of state, as voters with memories of Florida made super-extra-sure to remove the chads they produce completely. "People were a little more methodical, making sure they didn't leave any hanging chads," agrees Dan Trevas, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party.

But wait -- wasn't the Help America Vote Act of 2002 supposed to help rid states of these machines? Why, yes -- in fact, Ohio received $133 million from the federal government specifically to replace those old clunkers with new DRE and optical-scan machines. The state even contracted with venders. But then Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell -- a Republican -- had a change of heart. The technology was not sufficiently proven secure, he said. Nothing has been purchased.
The $133 million stayed in the bank. "We weren't going to spend it on more punch-card machines," says LoParo.
Or on more poll workers, or training, or any of that nonsense.

"There should have been a lot of effort [put into], instead of talking about challengers, talking about getting enough machines and getting ready to handle the large turnout," Trevas says.

THE CHALLENGERS Trevas has in mind were, of course, the Republicans deployed to polling places to make voters prove they weren't committing fraud. At the last minute, the state Republican Party finally won the right to carry out the plan from the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, after a lower-court judge had ruled that it would be too intimidating.

As it turns out, the Republican challengers were not especially disruptive, observers report. But they were one element in a broad pattern of alleged intimidation and deception. In Cuyahoga County, according to one Election Protection caller, black voters were asked to show ID, but white voters were not. In another area some African-Americans reportedly were redirected to incorrect polling places across town, says Scott Britton, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. According to multiple reports, in the days leading up to the election, phone calls and leaflets directed low-income and minority voters to incorrect polling locations. (Although some might not have been dirty tricks -- a Democratic get-out-the-vote group in Marion County was giving out a wrong address by mistake, Trevas says.)

There were cruder attempts at dissuasion as well, including leaflets seen in several parts of the state, including Columbus, informing voters that, due to high expected turnout, Republicans would vote Tuesday and Democrats would vote Wednesday. "I saw one of those leaflets," Trevas says. "There were a lot of dirty tricks."

Serious questions have also been raised about absentee ballots, which may have been withheld from those who requested them -- a problem in the Bay State as well.
The single biggest election complaint in Massachusetts came from college students who sent for, but never received, absentee ballots from their home states, says David Harris, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, in Boston. He received at least 50 such complaints from Harvard alone. The same problem reared its head at Boston University, says BU psychology professor Deborah Belle: more than a half-dozen of her students told her similar stories.

We don't know yet how many of those students were trying to vote in Ohio, but we do know that the Republican-led Ohio legislature prevented the elections department from implementing expedited absentee balloting and early voting, says Trevas. Then, Blackwell barred those who never received their absentee ballots from casting provisional ballots in person -- that is, until Election Day, when a Toledo woman filed and won a lawsuit against him in US District Court.

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.

Article originally published Nov. 17, 2004