Bungling the vote

An eye-opening new report reveals what went wrong in Ohio on Election Day.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published June 24, 2005 12:04AM (EDT)

About 5 million Ohio citizens went to the polls on Election Day in 2004 and 28 percent of them -- more than a million voters, many of them African-Americans -- experienced some kind of difficulty casting a ballot. This statistic, perhaps not surprising to people who have been poring over irregularities in November's presidential vote, was highlighted in a comprehensive new report on Ohio's election, commissioned by the Democratic National Committee.

The report, the product of a six-month investigation by a team of pollsters, political scientists, computer scientists and other elections experts, paints the most detailed picture so far of all that went wrong in the important swing state on Nov. 2, 2004. It's not a pretty picture.

According to the study, half of the state's African-American voters reported some problems at the polls on Election Day. On average, black voters waited in longer lines than white voters; they were asked to provide identification more often than white voters; they were required to vote on "provisional ballots" more often (and their provisional ballots were counted less often); and they were intimidated at the polls more often than white voters. The DNC found that 16 percent of African-American voters felt intimidated at the polls; some reported hearing that "police would be at the polls to arrest people who had outstanding child support or car payments." Overall, the problems African-Americans saw caused them to question the integrity of the election. While 77 percent of white voters were "very confident" that their votes had been counted, only 19 percent of black voters felt the same way.

"The results show that our election system failed the citizens of Ohio in 2004, and in particular failed African-Americans, new registrants, younger voters and voters in places using touch-screen machines," Howard Dean, the DNC chairman, said at a press conference unveiling the report. Democrats were careful to add that their report did not suggest that John Kerry actually won the race. There was a similarity, the report said, in the pattern of votes cast for Kerry in 2004 and the votes cast for losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy Hagan in 2002. The pattern, the report declared, provided "strong evidence against the claim that widespread fraud systematically misallocated votes from Kerry to Bush."

Kerry himself said in a statement that he sees the report as a sign that the country needs to reform its voting practices. "We must insist on reform at every level to stop voter suppression, strengthen voting rights and secure funding for election officials to purchase reliable and verifiable voting machines so that the discrepancies the voting rights team found in Ohio do not occur again," Kerry said.

Ohio's elections officials, though, dismissed the report as inaccurate and politically motivated. Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's Republican secretary of state, criticized several specific findings in the report, and he insisted that many voters, including many African-American voters, voted without any difficulty last year. LoParo suggested that the report's only aim was to embarrass his boss, who is running for governor in 2006. "I think it's a partisan assault on an elected political leader who is the likely 2006 gubernatorial standard bearer in this state," LoParo said of the report.

According to the DNC report, the most pernicious problem Ohioans faced on Election Day was long lines at the polls. Nearly a quarter of the voters in the state waited at least 20 minutes to vote, and 8 percent waited in line for more than an hour. The numbers varied greatly by race. African-Americans waited an average of 52 minutes to vote; the average for white voters was less than 20 minutes.

Many factors contributed to the long lines, including the number of machines available to voters at each precinct, and the specific type of voting technology used in those precincts. Areas that used electronic touch-screen machines -- which have long been criticized because they don't produce an auditable paper trail -- saw the longest wait times. In Franklin County, which includes the city of Columbus and which used touch-screen machines, 74 percent of voters reported waiting more than 20 minutes to vote.

Walter Mebane, a Cornell political scientist who contributed to the report, found that precincts that experienced long lines also saw a reduction in expected voter turnout, as some voters looked at the long lines and decided not to vote. Mebane calculated that the scarcity of machines caused "roughly a 2 to 3 percent reduction" in turnout.

The DNC did not find evidence of a systematic effort to limit the number of voting machines in African-American areas, a charge that many critics of Ohio's procedures have leveled at officials in the state. Mebane said that across the state, the number of machines per registered voter didn't vary greatly by race -- except in one place, Franklin County. There, Mebane explained, "as the proportion of African-Americans in the precinct increased, the expected number of voting machines per registered voter decreased."

When asked about this finding, LoParo of the secretary of state's office pointed out that voting machine distribution plans were drawn up by county elections officials, not by the secretary of state. He noted that the chairman of Franklin County's Board of Elections is an African-American Democrat, William Anthony. Anthony has denied intentionally allocating voting machines in his county in a way that disenfranchised black voters. "I am a black man. Why would I sit there and disenfranchise voters in my own community?" Anthony told the Columbus Dispatch in November. "I've fought my whole life for people's right to vote."

LoParo also disagreed with the DNC's conclusion that procedures in the state reduced voter turnout among African-Americans. He noted that a report by the U.S. Census Bureau released in March found that 67 percent of all blacks eligible to vote in Ohio cast a ballot in 2004, compared with only 55 percent in 2000.

But as the report stressed, many minority voters in the nation's pivotal swing state felt their votes were ignored. And that, Kerry said, amounts to surefire cause for reform. "Our democracy is only as strong as the people's faith that their voice counts and their votes will be counted," he said.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2004 Elections