Published on Wednesday, December 27, 2000 in the Washington Post
A Racial Gap in Voided Votes
Precinct Analysis Finds Stark Inequity in Polling Problems
by John Mintz and Dan Keating
The chads just weren't budging at Georgia Walters's polling place in a Southside Chicago grammar school on Election Day. The tiny cardboard rectangles wouldn't yield when the retired insurance saleswoman tried to poke them with the metal stylus. "I got those poll workers to yell out to the voters, 'Punch hard!' " she said.
"A lot of people don't vote as often as I do, and don't know you have to listen for that little 'katoop' sound to know you've punched through," said Walters, 56, who is black. "A lot of their votes were missed."
Her observation may be the enduring legacy of the Nov. 7 election -- the nation now knows that many ballots that are cast don't count as votes. In Florida, where the election hung in the balance, many African Americans discovered that their ballots were nullified at a much higher rate than those of whites.
That problem extended well beyond Florida. For example, in Atlanta's Fulton County, which also uses the old punch-card voting machines, one of every 16 of its ballots for president was invalidated, while two largely white and Republican-leaning neighbors using more modern equipment, Cobb and Gwinnett counties, had a rate of 1 in 200, The Washington Post found.
But in no state was the pattern as pronounced as in Illinois. A Post analysis found that in many black precincts in Chicago, one of every six ballots in the presidential election was thrown out, while almost every vote was counted in some of the city's outer suburbs.
Voters in Chicago's Cook County confronted an array of balloting complications that may have led them to either accidentally "overvote" (punch for two candidates) or "undervote" (fail to make a proper punch). The November ballot was extraordinarily long and confusing. Voters used rickety punch-card machines that are hard to operate at the best of times. The machines get so out of alignment that voters sometimes can't line up the holes to be pressed, and the plastic backing under the ballot can become so brittle or filled with discarded chads that it gets hard to punch the holes properly.
This also was the first presidential election in Illinois since the elimination of the "straight party" vote, which let people punch for an entire slate. Moreover, the GOP-led state Senate prevented Cook County from using a device on its machines that notifies voters of some mistakes and gives them a second chance to cast valid ballots.
Election experts say new and infrequent voters are the most likely to be affected by these kinds of balloting problems. On Election Day, the NAACP organized a massive get-out-the-vote drive for Vice President Gore, and NAACP officials say many of these new voters accidentally invalidated their ballots.
Ballots are thrown out, or "spoiled," for a number of reasons, including mistakes in voting, and the possibility that some people choose not to vote because they don't like the candidates. But voting experts say they doubt this explains why more black voters' ballots went uncounted than those of whites.
For generations Cook County has been a punchline for cynics saying that Democrats steal elections. But The Post's precinct-by-precinct analysis suggests Democrats have actually lost votes there for years -- and perhaps lost elections -- because large numbers of ballots of African Americans were not counted. This year, Gore won the state.
Cook County provides a case study of how the nation's patchwork system of voting machines, operated by often poorly funded local election bureaucracies, can play a role in these ballot discrepancies. The fact is dawning on black leaders that the greater the concentration of black voters, the higher the rate of votes that don't count -- which is generating anger across the black community.
"It's disturbing and unfair," Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist, said of the high nullification rate among blacks. "As a community, we place such emphasis on getting people to vote, we don't pay attention to what happens afterwards. . . . These disparities are apparently a tradition that goes back decades, through neglect or an eye blink."
Until last month's vote, few people in the political world grasped the scope of the country's problem with spoiled ballots. But in recent weeks, black leaders, among others, have moved the issue to the top of their agenda. Some contemplate voter education programs, lawsuits and lobbying to persuade state legislatures to fund improvements in voting machinery.
Thomas C. Adams, field director of the NAACP's National Voter Fund, said the higher rate of uncounted black votes recalls inequities that African Americans have confronted in the past. "This is an issue of voting rights and constitutional rights, which this country has struggled with for 200 years," he said. "The shame is that in the 21st century we thought we had gone beyond this, but we know now we're going to have to make it a priority."
Some election officials have had an inkling of this pattern, however vague, for years.
Cynthia Welch, elections chief in Atlanta's Fulton County, says she confronted the same problems this election as in the presidential election of 1992, when 108 of the county's 125 precincts with more than 5 percent ballot spoilage were in heavily black areas. "This system wouldn't make it through another election," Welch said of her 1964-vintage punch-card machines. She is seeking $3 million for the kind of new optical scan machinery used in her region's most prosperous neighboring counties.
Ohio State University voting specialist Herb Asher agreed that the discrepancies are not new. "Poor people are more likely to invalidate ballots because of their unfamiliarity with punch-card systems," said Asher, citing a study of his from 1978, when Ohio first used the equipment. Voters in well-to-do suburbs disqualified their ballots 2 percent of the time, he said, while voters in poor black areas did so as much as 20 percent of the time.
Cook County was among the jurisdictions using decades-old punch-card machines. While in past presidential elections, Cook County averaged a nullified vote rate of 2 percent, this time it was 5 percent.
JoAnn Robinson, Illinois director of the NAACP's National Voter Fund, thinks she knows why. This was the first presidential election since Republicans in the state Legislature pushed through a law in 1997 that ended voters' ability to vote a straight-party ticket, and she said many voters were confounded picking candidates individually for the first time. "In the past African Americans in particular knew all the pro-civil rights candidates were under the one-punch number," she said. "You just followed the directions to 'Punch 10.' "
The 40 telephone lines at Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition office in Chicago rang from morning till night on Election Day with callers flummoxed by the change. "People were so confused they didn't know what to do," said Alice Tregay, who helped run the phone bank. "They were saying, 'Where's the punch for the straight Democratic Party?' "
The Cook County ballot was the longest in memory -- 21 pages, with 400 candidates. The part on retaining 77 judges was spread over multiple pages, partially resembling the notorious "butterfly ballots" that confused voters in Florida. "The ballot was horrendous," Robinson said. "People got so confused. And the turnout was so huge, election [officials] got overwhelmed."
Even the board chairman of Rainbow/PUSH mistakenly punched for both George W. Bush and Gore before getting a new ballot, Tregay said.
"Most people were upset with those arrows that didn't square up with the names, and it was harder than ever to punch it to go through," said Carolyn White, 40, who says she votes in every election and is a trained poll worker.
The rate of disqualified ballots in Cook County ranged from one of every 20 ballots in precincts that are less than 30 percent African American to one of every 12 in precincts that are more than 70 percent African American, The Post found. In Chicago, there were 51 precincts where at least one of every six ballots lacked a valid presidential vote. Ninety percent of the residents in those precincts are black or Latino, and they voted 94 percent for Gore.
Cook County Clerk David Orr has launched a probe into the varying rates of nullified votes. "It's obvious class has something to do with it, and regularity of voting," he said. "We don't know how much of it was by choice."
The controversy has taken on a partisan cast. This election the Republican-dominated state Senate refused to let Cook County use equipment on its new $26 million ballot counting machines that catches many balloting errors. After filling out their ballots, voters feed them into counting machines in the precincts, which spit them out if certain types of mistakes are noted. Voters then get a second chance to cast valid ballots.
"We can dramatically decrease that number" of ruined votes by flipping on the second-chance devices, Orr said. Some 120,000 of Cook County's ballots didn't count -- 70,000 in Chicago and 50,000 in surrounding towns.
Some largely white, GOP-leaning counties nearby already are allowed to use this technology, which reduces their rate of nullified ballots to near zero.
Illinois GOP officials justify their stance by pointing out that some other nearby Republican-inclined counties near Chicago lack this second-chance technology, so Cook County should be banned from using it too.
"It sounds extremely political and partisan," said state Sen. Christine Radogno (R), who represents a district covering parts of mostly Democratic Cook County and Republican DuPage. "But if these [Democratic] voters were given an opportunity to correct their votes, it gives a partisan advantage to the area with that safety factor."
Some counties were allowed to use the second-chance equipment on their counting machines because they use a different kind of voting machinery. While Chicago and Cook County use punch-card machines, the heavily Republican and white DeKalb and McHenry counties nearby use optical scan equipment, on which voters mark ballots with a pen.
The Illinois legislature strictly regulates ballot machines, and while it has allowed the kinds of new optical scanners used by DeKalb and McHenry counties to employ the second-chance technology, it hasn't updated the law governing the approved operations of the type of older punch-card equipment Cook County uses.
Using the new equipment, DeKalb and McHenry reduced their ballot spoilage rates to 0.3 percent in this election -- a tiny fraction of Cook County's rate.
Patty Schuh, spokesman for the state Senate's GOP, said the chamber may take up the issue by spring but added, "It's no time to rush to fix it."
Ten years ago a candidate for Cook County clerk, Joanne Alter, released a detailed 48-page study showing how disproportionate numbers of votes cast by black voters were being discarded.
"The punch-card voting system used in Cook County has effectively disenfranchised poor voters by the tens of thousands," the study said.
It noted that in the 1988 presidential election, no vote was registered on 9 percent of the ballots in some of Chicago's black sections, while in the affluent suburb of Elk Grove the proportion was 1 percent. The report said high numbers of uncounted black votes helped defeat Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adlai E. Stevenson III in an extremely tight race in 1982.
"Nobody listened," Alter said in an interview last week. "I gave copies to the Cook County Board," and kept distributing it after her loss.
"People say it's a matter of money, but nothing could be more expensive to our democracy," she said. "My opponent hasn't done a thing."
Her opponent was Democrat David Orr, who has been county clerk ever since.
"We have actually done things like better training election judges and holding mock elections with high school students," said Orr's spokesman, Scott Burnham. "But we're still looking for solutions."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company