Published on Wednesday, December 15, 2004 by MSNBC
Several Factors Contributed to 'Lost' Voters in Ohio
by Michael Powell and Peter Slevin
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Tanya Thivener's is a tale of two voting precincts in Franklin County. In her city neighborhood, which is vastly Democratic and majority black, the 38-year-old mortgage broker found a line snaking out of the precinct door.
She stood in line for four hours -- one hour in the rain -- and watched dozens of potential voters mutter in disgust and walk away without casting a ballot. Afterward, Thivener hopped in her car and drove to her mother's house, in the vastly Republican and majority white suburb of Harrisburg. How long, she asked, did it take her to vote?
Fifteen minutes, her mother replied.
"It was . . . poor planning," Thivener said. "County officials knew they had this huge increase in registrations, and yet there weren't enough machines in the city. You really hope this wasn't intentional."
Electoral problems prevented many thousands of Ohioans from voting on Nov. 2. In Columbus, bipartisan estimates say that 5,000 to 15,000 frustrated voters turned away without casting ballots. It is unlikely that such "lost" voters would have changed the election result -- Ohio tipped to President Bush by a 118,000-vote margin and cemented his electoral college majority.
But similar problems occurred across the state and fueled protest marches and demands for a recount. The foul-ups appeared particularly acute in Democratic-leaning districts, according to interviews with voters, poll workers, election observers and election board and party officials, as well as an examination of precinct voting patterns in several cities.
In Cleveland, poorly trained poll workers apparently gave faulty instructions to voters that led to the disqualification of thousands of provisional ballots and misdirected several hundred votes to third-party candidates. In Youngstown, 25 electronic machines transferred an unknown number of votes for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to the Bush column.
In Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo, and on college campuses, election officials allocated far too few voting machines to busy precincts, with the result that voters stood on line as long as 10 hours -- many leaving without voting. Some longtime voters discovered their registrations had been purged.
"There isn't enough to prove fraud, but there have been very significant problems in running elections in Ohio this year that demand reform," said Edward B. Foley, who is director of the election law program at the Ohio State University law school and a former Ohio state solicitor. "We clearly ended up disenfranchising people, and I don't want to minimize that."
Franklin County election officials -- evenly split between Republicans and Democrats -- say they allocated machines based on past voting patterns and their best estimate of where more were needed. But they acknowledge having too few machines to cope with an additional 102,000 registered voters.
Ohio is not particularly unusual. After the 2000 election debacle, which ended with a 36-day partisan standoff in Florida and an election decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The intent was to help states upgrade aging voting machines and ensure that eligible voters are not turned away. To a point, it has had the desired effect.
"Viewed dispassionately, the national elections ran much more smoothly than in 2000," said Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a specialist in voting behavior and methodology. Because of improved technology "nationwide, we counted perhaps 1 million votes that we would have lost four years ago."
But much work remains. Congress imposed only the minimal national standards and included too few dollars. Tens of thousands of machines -- including 70 percent of Ohio's machines -- still use punch-card ballots, which have a high error rate. A patchwork quilt of state rules governs voter registration and provisional ballots. (Provisional ballots are given to voters whose names do not appear on registration rolls -- studies show that minorities and poor voters cast a disproportionate number of such ballots.) Ohio recorded 153,000 provisional ballots. But in Georgia, one-third of the election districts did not record a single provisional ballot in 2004.
In Florida, ground zero for 2000's election meltdown, professors and graduate students from the University of California at Berkeley studied this year's voting results, contrasting counties that had electronic voting machines with those that used traditional voting methods. They concluded, based on voting and population trends and other indicators, that irregularities associated with machines in three traditionally Democratic counties in southern Florida may have delivered at least 130,000 excess votes for Bush in a state the president won by about 381,000 votes. The study prompted heated critiques from some polling experts.
Stewart of MIT was skeptical, too. But he ran the numbers and came up with the same result. "You can't break it; I've tried," Stewart said. "There's something funky in the results from the electronic-machine Democratic counties."
Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout, who directed the study, said the problem in Florida probably lies with the technology. (Florida's touch-screen machines lack paper records.) "I've always viewed this as a software problem, not a corruption problem," he said. "We'd never tolerate this level of errors with an ATM. The problem is that we continue to do democracy on the cheap."
A Heated Run-Up
By October, the Bush and Kerry campaigns knew that this midwestern state was a crucial battleground. Each side assembled armies of 3,000 lawyers and paralegals, and unaffiliated organizations poured in thousands more volunteers. Both parties filed lawsuits challenging rules and registrations.
Two decisions proved pivotal.
Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Ohio, decided to strictly interpret a state law governing provisional ballots. He ruled that voters must cast provisional ballots not merely in the county but in the precise precinct where they reside. For cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, where officials long accepted provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct, the ruling promised to disqualify many voters. "It is a headache to take those ballots, but the alternative is disenfranchisement," said Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which includes Cleveland.
Earlier this year, state officials also decided to delay the purchase of touch-screen machines, citing worries about the security of the vote. That left many Ohio counties with too few machines. County boards are split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and control the type of machines and their distribution. In Cuyahoga County, officials decided to quickly rent hundreds of additional voting machines.
Other counties decided to muddle through. At Kenyon College, a surge of late registrations promised a record vote -- but Knox County officials allocated two machines, just as in past elections. In voter-rich Franklin County, which encompasses the state capital of Columbus, election officials decided to make do with 2,866 machines, even though their analysis showed that the county needed 5,000 machines.
"Does it make any sense to purchase more machines just for one election?" asked Michael R. Hackett, deputy director of the Board of Elections. "I'll give you the answer: no."
On Election Day, more than 5.7 million Ohioans voted, 900,000 more voters than in 2000.
In Toledo, Dayton, Columbus and Akron, and on the campuses at Ohio State and Kenyon, long lines formed on Election Day, and hundreds of voters stood in the rain for hours. In Columbus, Sarah Locke, 54, drove to vote with her daughter and her parents at a church in the predominantly black southeast. It was jammed. Old women leaned heavily on walkers, and some people walked out, complaining that bosses would not excuse their lateness.
"It was really demeaning," Locke said. "I never remembered it being this bad."
Some regular voters filed affidavits stating that their registrations had been expunged. "I'm 52, and I've voted in every single election," Kathy Janoski of Columbus said. "They kept telling me, 'You must be mistaken about your precinct.' I told them this is where I've always voted. I felt like I'd been scrubbed off the rolls."
Aftermath of Nov. 2
After the election, local political activists seeking a recount analyzed how Franklin County officials distributed voting machines. They found that 27 of the 30 wards with the most machines per registered voter showed majorities for Bush. At the other end of the spectrum, six of the seven wards with the fewest machines delivered large margins for Kerry.
Voters in most Democratic wards experienced five-hour waits, and turnout was lower than expected. "I don't know if it's by accident or design, but I counted a dozen people walking away from the line in my precinct in Columbus," said Robert Fitrakis, a professor at Columbus State Community College and a lawyer involved in a legal challenge to certifying the vote.
Franklin County officials say they allocated machines according to instinct and science. But Hackett, the deputy director, acknowledged the need to examine the issue more carefully. "When the dust settles, we'll have to look more closely at this," he said.
In Knox County, some Kenyon College students waited 10 hours to vote. "They had to skip classes and skip work," said Matthew Segal, a 19-year-old student.
In northeastern Ohio, in the fading industrial city of Youngstown, Jeanne White, a veteran voter and manager at the Buckeye Review, an African American newspaper, stepped into the booth, pushed the button for Kerry -- and watched her vote jump to the Bush column. "I saw what happened; I started screaming: 'They're cheating again and they're starting early!' "
It was not her imagination. Twenty-five machines in Youngstown experienced what election officials called "calibration problems." "It happens every election," said Thomas McCabe, deputy director of elections for Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown. "It's something we have to live with, and we can fix it."
As expected, there were more provisional ballots, and officials disqualified about 23 percent. In Hamilton County, which encompasses Cincinnati and its Ohio suburbs, 1,110 provisional ballots got tossed out because people voted in the wrong precinct. In about 40 percent of those cases, voters found the right polling place -- which contained multiple precincts -- but workers directed them to the wrong table.
In Cleveland, officials disqualified about one-third of the provisional ballots. Vu, the election board chief, said that some poll workers may have also mixed up their punch-card styluses -- that would account for why a few overwhelmingly Democratic precincts recorded large numbers of votes for conservative third-party candidates.
Still, state officials saw little to apologize for, particularly in the case of provisional ballots. A recent count of provisional ballots sliced 18,000 votes off Bush's margin in Ohio. "In Washington, D.C., a voter who casts a ballot in the wrong precinct cannot have that ballot counted," said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Blackwell. "Yet in Ohio, it was 'voter suppression' and 'voter disenfranchisement.' "
In the days after the election, as voters swapped stories, anger and talk of Republican conspiracies mounted. "A lot of folks who, having put an enormous amount of energy into this campaign and having believed in the righteousness of their cause, can't believe that we lost," said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County election board.
Most senior state officials, Republican and Democratic alike, tend to play down the anger. National Democrats -- including the chief counsel for Kerry's campaign in Ohio -- say they expect the recount to confirm Bush's victory.
But that official view contrasts sharply with the bubbling anger heard among rank-and-file Democrats. While some promote conspiratorial theories, most have a straightforward bottom line. "A lot of people left in the four hours I waited," recalled Thivener, the mortgage broker from Columbus. "A lot of them were young black men who were saying over and over: 'We knew this would happen.'
"How," she asked, "is that good for democracy?"
Slevin reported from Cincinnati. Special correspondents Michelle Garcia in New York and Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington P ost Company