Skip to comments.Voting Problems in Ohio Spur Call for Overhaul
Posted on 12/24/2004 6:38:29 PM PST by neverdem
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Dec. 22 - William Shambora, 53, is the kind of diligent voter who once assumed that his ballot always counted. He got a rude awakening this year.
Mr. Shambora, an economics professor at Ohio University, moved during the summer but failed to notify the Athens County Board of Elections until the day before the presidential election. An official told him to use a provisional ballot.
But under Ohio law, provisional ballots are valid only when cast from a voter's correct precinct. Mr. Shambora was given a ballot for the wrong precinct, a fact he did not learn until after the election. Two weeks later, the board discarded his vote, adding him to a list of more than 300 provisional ballots that were rejected in that heavily Democratic county.
"It seems like such a confused system," said Mr. Shambora, a John Kerry supporter who blames himself for the mistake. "Maybe if enough people's votes had counted, the election might have turned out differently."
From seven-hour lines that drove voters away to malfunctioning machines to poorly trained poll workers who directed people to the wrong polling places to uneven policies about the use of provisional ballots, Ohio has become this year's example for every ailment in the United States' electoral process.
With a state recount expected to be completed next week, few experts think the problems were enough to overturn President Bush's victory here. And many of the shortcomings have plagued elections for decades.
But with the 36-day Florida recount of 2000 proving that every vote counts and with the two major parties near parity, the electoral system is being scrutinized more closely than ever. Election lawyers and academics say Ohio is providing a roadmap to a second generation of issues about the way the nation votes.
Congressional passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 - which mandated the provisional ballot as a failsafe and provided states money to update voting technology - was considered a landmark overhaul that would help prevent another Florida.
But an array of voting rights groups contend that Ohio has underscored shortcomings in the law, including one of its centerpieces, the provisional ballot. Now those groups are pushing for a re-examination not only of the law, but also of other voting issues, including the role of partisan secretaries of state in overseeing elections, electronic voting and the elimination of the Electoral College.
"We're in an environment where people believe that even the tiniest number of votes can have a huge impact," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for voting information.
Ohio is emblematic of that attitude.
In the two weeks since Mr. Bush was certified the winner here by 118,000 votes out of 5.7 million cast, watchdog groups have filed lawsuits contesting the outcome and questioning the counting of provisional ballots. The state has nearly completed a recount, at the request of the Green and Independent Parties. Liberal Democrats have demanded investigations into whether there was voter fraud, tampering and intimidation in urban districts.
"This has fundamentally shocked people's sense of whether any election can be accurately counted," said Daniel Hoffheimer, counsel to Mr. Kerry's Ohio campaign.
It is far from clear that Republicans in Congress will have any appetite to revisit voting issues, and many Republicans here argue that the system suffered only minor glitches, even with high voter turnout. "There are no error-free elections," said Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican whom Democrats have accused of worsening the state's voting problems in the way he interpreted state law.
But Mr. Blackwell acknowledged that the election spotlighted the state's outdated voting system, with 68 of 88 counties still relying on punch cards. In an interview, he called for updating voting machines, and also for early voting, multiple-day voting and other changes that he said would shorten lines and encourage people to vote.
"I don't think it's wrong to have high expectations," he said.
Certainly there were problems on Election Day.
In Franklin County, a computing error initially awarded nearly 4,000 extra votes to President Bush. In Mahoning County, improperly calibrated touch screens resulted in an unknown number of votes incorrectly going to President Bush before the problem was caught.
And most recently, election challengers in various Ohio counties have said that the tabulators used to count punch cards may have been tampered with before the recount.
But experts in election law say little clear evidence of fraud has emerged. Democratic officials have joined Republicans in arguing that any conspiracy to deny Mr. Kerry votes would have required Democratic complicity, because each of Ohio's 88 county election boards has two Democrats and two Republicans.
Yet there were widespread problems, many of which point to defects in the election rules, experts say.
"I think the problems weren't sufficient to cast doubt on the results," said Edward B. Foley, director of the Election Law Program at Ohio State University's law school. "But I do think there were more problems than usual in Ohio."
Provisional ballots are a prime example. In 2002, Congress authorized using the ballots in federal elections for voters whose names do not appear on registration rolls. The ballots are sealed and held until after an election, so a voter's eligibility can be checked. Valid ballots are then counted, others discarded.
But Congress largely left it to the states to promulgate rules for provisional ballots, resulting in a hodgepodge of policies. In Ohio, Mr. Blackwell, who was co-chairman of Mr. Bush's state campaign, ruled that provisional ballots would be counted only when cast from a voter's proper precinct. (At least 26 other states followed the same practice.) Democrats challenged the ruling, but a federal court upheld Mr. Blackwell.
Rules for reviewing provisional ballots also vary widely within the state. Some counties checked voter registration records dating back several years to validate ballots; others searched only recent records. Cuyahoga County, a Democratic bastion that includes Cleveland, did not check older records, and its rejection rate for provisional ballots was about 35 percent. The state average was 23 percent.
Mr. Blackwell says that despite the complaints, Ohio had one of the country's highest acceptance rates for provisional ballots: 77 percent of its 155,000 provisional ballots were counted, the highest in a 16-state survey by Electionline.org. Illinois and Pennsylvania, which went for Mr. Kerry, accepted only about half of their provisional ballots.
Perhaps the most visible of Ohio's problems were its long lines. Christopher McQuoid reached his polling place in Columbus at 4:30 p.m., congratulating himself for beating the after-work rush. By 7:30, he was getting impatient. And when he finally voted at 9:30, there were 150 people in line behind him.
"I was lucky," said Mr. McQuoid, a radio announcer. "I had the day off."
But how many people decided not to vote because of long lines, and was it enough to make a difference? No one has been able to say with authority. Much attention has focused on whether elections officials served one constituency better than another.
Among the 464 complaints about long lines in Ohio collected by the Election Protection Coalition, a loose alliance of voting rights advocates and legal organizations, nearly 400 came from Columbus and Cleveland, where a huge proportion of the state's Democratic voters live.
"It's possible that it made a difference in the outcome but unlikely," said Dan Tokaji, an assistant professor of law at Ohio State, where academics plan a voter survey to test whether large numbers were discouraged.
In Columbus, Franklin County election officials reduced the number of electronic voting machines assigned to downtown precincts and added them in the suburbs. They used a formula based not on the number of registered voters, but on past turnout in each precinct and on the number of so-called active voters - a smaller universe.
By contrast, the state's most populous county, Cuyahoga, allocated machines based on the total number of voters, a move that the county's election director, Michael Vu, said helped stave off even bigger lines.
In the Columbus area, the result was that suburban precincts that supported Mr. Bush tended to have more machines per registered voter than center-city precincts that supported Mr. Kerry - 4.6 machines per 1,000 voters in Mr. Bush's 50 strongest precincts, compared with 3.9 in Mr. Kerry's 50 best. Mr. McQuoid's precinct, a Kerry stronghold, lost one of the four machines it had in 2000, despite an increase in registration.
"Somebody came up with a very sophisticated plan for machine distribution which, either by accident or design, greatly enhanced the president," said Robert Fitrakis of Columbus, who is part of a group that has contested the election results in court.
Matthew Damschroder, a Republican who is the director of elections in Franklin County, said the urban precincts lost machines because many of their voters had not voted recently and because those precincts historically had had low turnout.
Indeed, election results show that a much higher suburban turnout on Nov. 2 meant that machines in Bush areas were more heavily used on average, although whether that was because their voters were less easily discouraged by long lines or simply more efficient in voting is unclear.
"Most of the precincts that stayed open late because of long lines were in the suburbs," said William Anthony Jr., a Democrat who is chairman of the Franklin County election board.
Another area of contention is the large number of ballots - 96,000 by recent counts - that registered no vote for president. Known as "residual" or "lost" votes, they involve cases where no candidate for president appeared to have been selected or where multiple candidates were chosen, rendering the ballot invalid for that race.
The problem was pronounced in minority areas, typically Kerry strongholds. In Cleveland ZIP codes where at least 85 percent of the population is black, precinct results show that one in 31 ballots registered no vote for president, more than twice the rate of largely white ZIP codes, where one in 75 registered no vote for president.
Experts say punch cards contributed to the problem, because the ballots, which require voters to punch a hole through a heavy-stock paper, are prone to partial perforations, or the buildup of chads. Election officials say that nearly 77,000 of the 96,000 residual ballots in Ohio were punch cards.
But Mr. Foley, the election expert at Ohio State, noted that some people consciously withhold their votes for president and that 77,000 residual punch cards is in keeping with failure rates for punch cards nationwide.
Mr. Blackwell said Ohio's residual votes actually declined this year from 2000. Of the 4.8 million votes cast in 2000, about 90,000 - 1.9 percent - registered no vote for president. This year, 96,000 of 5.7 million votes cast - 1.7 percent - did so.
Mr. Blackwell favors changing to a system that uses an optical scanner to read a paper ballot, which, he said, meets federal requirements, is less expensive than other machines and can handle more voters. But he said groups who say that just about every electronic voting system can be hacked are not helping things.
"There is still evidence out there that we need to transform the machinery," he said. "But it will be harder to do now."
When the recount is completed next week, no one expects the questions about the election to die, with several groups poised to challenge the recount.
"I think the majority of Democrats feel that the election was more or less accurate," said Dan Trevas, the spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. "But others are suspicious. Irregularities that are normally overlooked have become the focal point of attention this year. I just can't see those people walking away satisfied."
James Dao reportedfrom Columbus for this article, Ford Fessenden from New York and Tom Zeller Jr. from Cleveland.
Strange there are no stories of voting problems elsewhere in the 50 states. Only in Ohio. Hmmmm.
I bet he thought it was important enough to tell almost everyone else on earth that he had moved, but he takes no personal responsibility for not notifying the election board in time?
Strange also how the last Great East Coast Power Blackout got it's start just 15 miles outside Shaker Heights where HILLARY had blasted BUSH over his Energy Policies at her booksinging the night before..?
Well! One person screwed up and couldn't vote right! That's all the proof I need! Kerry won!
I only have one word for this type of article and the people who write and publish it:
Only in Red states, Elections with far slimmer margins went perfectly it would seem (as long as they went to the Dems).
One thing is clear: Provisional ballots are the source of all kinds of problems and should be outlawed.
Absentee is bad enough, they all have to be hand checked, but this idea that you can wander in just anywhere and vote has got to stop. If even 10% of the voters decided to vote via provisional ballot the entire system would grind to a halt due to the manual effort required.
The rule should be (as it was for 200 years): You vote at your designated polling place or have the presence of mind to vote absentee EARLY, or you don't vote at all.
There is a blip, which U.S. Air Force jet fighters believe, is some kind of sleigh in shape, yet they cannot catch it.
Meanwhile, here, there are just over 200,000 people who do not have electrical power. Area hotels and motels are full.
Electrical generators have been shipped into the area by the thousands, but in the outlying areas to the east and northeast, the situation is very bad.
The many streets that the city of Columbus has not plowed, are large chunks or near-ice bergs, while some roads and highway stretches have been well-plowed by the State and counties around here.
One of the problems, is also that the power went out to numerous food stores, and several hundred tons of food were in marginal shape, could be cooked, if done yesterday or today.
From the air, utter darkness prevails in areas, where tens of thousands of people are trying to tough it out.
The hospitals are averaging approx. 1 case of carbon monoxide poisoning per hour.
People in the rural areas, who had thought they could rely on cell phones, in time of trouble, have no power generation with which to make them function. Much venturing for batteries, today.
Voting, again, is not on anybody's mind.
Another liberal absent-minded professor thinks all the rules
shouldn't apply to him.
First law of economics: ''Actions have consequences.""
Economics professor and he is too stupid to vote. Sounds like he just might be a democrat.
I find it very odd that they had no complaints about votes not being counted when they were winning.
I guess the states Kerry won had no problems whatsoever!!
Hey a$$holes, how about coming to my State and turning some attention to a genuinely corrupt election where - instead of a few hundred mis-cast ballots in an election where the loss was over 100,000, there are all sorts of magically appearing ballots where the loss has fluctuated between 2 votes and 130?
He was pointing out what I just pointed out.
My thoughts EXACTLY. The presidential election has dominated the news for the past year, year and a half, and this erudite academic doesn't have the sense to register to vote in his new precinct? If he's that stupid, he doesn't deserve to vote in a presidential election.
In case you just emerged from a month or so living in a deep cave, they seem to be having some sort of minor difficulty in Washington state. On this topic, we had a local race problem here, county office.
First the loser called for a recount, now has filed a lawsuit. I was personally involved in the recount, and bless us, our county uses optical scan ballots. The ballot is its own paper trail, and even most idiot voters come close enough a bipartisan counting team could nearly always agree on "intent of the voter". The handful of ballots this was not true of were not nearly enough to change the result. Loser's suit is based on other allegations, in my opinion, most unlikely to succeed. I cannot tell you how glad I am we had the simple, strightforward op-scan ballot, saved us a host of problems.
One thing I will point out as a long time poll worker: multiply 3,500+ counties nationwide by number of precincts by number of clerks in each and I'm guessing maybe 300,000 election workers nationwide, mostly benefitting from perhaps 4 hours of clerk training. Then throw in this bastard son of HAVA known as the conditional vote, something most of us are seeing for the first time and apply it to a bunch of different ballot styles not to mention machines I don't trust as far as I can throw them...well, I'm astonished things went as well as they seem to have.