The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Voter Suppression Challenged by Ohioans, Allies

by Ariella Cohen

After two days of public hearings in Columbus, voters’ rights activists are compiling information for legal action against election officials and working for electoral reform.

Columbus, OH; Nov. 20, 2004 – Two separate voter advocacy coalitions are putting together federal lawsuits against election officials in Franklin County, Ohio, alleging unfair allocation of polling materials, staff and equipment that disenfranchised thousands of voters in the county’s low-income and African-American precincts.

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Drawing from testimonies gathered at public hearings concluding Monday at the Columbus courthouse, a coalition of voter advocacy groups including People for the American Way, Common Cause Ohio, Citizens Alliance for a Fair Election (CASE Ohio) and The League of Pissed-Off Voters contend that state election practices suppressed voters in lower-income precincts and violated constitutional law guaranteeing all US citizens the right to vote.

Common Cause Ohio, a democracy advocacy organization, rests its federal complaint against the Franklin County Board of Elections on the 14th amendment guarantee to equal protection and the 1965 Voting Rights Act declaring federal protection against racially discriminatory electoral practices. Grounding their suit in the public testimonies as well as county records of Election Day procedures, Common Cause intends to challenge this election and push forward more astringent electoral legislation.

Current Ohio code is fraught with advisories and guidelines, but many decisions remain up to the discretion of local officials. For instance, in 1992, when e-voting replaced paper ballots in Franklin county, guidelines advising that polling locations provide one voting machine per 100 registered precinct resident were issued. Yet, no laws regulate or enforce this advisory and witnesses at the public hearings said that at some polling places 160 to 200 voters used each machine.

According to legal observers, problems resulting from inadequately prepared county employees at inner-city polls ranged from unfairly towed and ticketed cars to illegally discouraged voters.

Bob Fitrakis, who moderated both hearings, said that a group he is working with came up with a list of polling places that would have benefited significantly from more voting machines. "Election Protection specifically cited 58 precincts in African-American, urban, Democratic precincts where just one machine could have really quickened the process and given more people a chance to vote," said Fritakis, who is a Columbus State Community College political scientist, as well as a legal advisor for Election Protection, a coalition of civil rights and civic organizations working on voting rights issues.

New Faith Baptist Church in East Columbus had never sat a court reporter before Saturday, when a stenographer contracted by The League of Pissed-Off Voters took to a front pew and began transcribing sworn testimonies of voter experiences with malfunctioning electronic voting equipment and under-staffed, under-equipped polls where the wait for the five-minutes of allotted voting time was up to four hours in some of Franklin County’s lower-income precincts.

"I saw a man wait for over an hour and then get turned away from the polls because he was not at the correct precinct," Columbus resident Victoria Lovegren recounted during the hearing. "The clerk told him she couldn’t find his correct poll in the database. My son stayed home from school that day and came with me to the polls. He found that gentleman’s location in the computer easily."

According to legal observers, problems resulting from inadequately prepared county employees at inner-city polls ranged from unfairly towed and ticketed cars to illegally discouraged voters.

"My neighbor waited on line for two hours and then he got to the front of the line and he told him he couldn’t vote because he is an ex-felon," Jeanne Smith said at the hearing. In the state of Ohio, there are no restrictions on ex-felons’ voting rights. Smith ended her testimony with a plea that no other young people leave the polls without voting because of a misinformed poll worker.

Eliza Schneider, a New Yorker who had monitored Columbus polls as a volunteer with MoveOn, said she saw the polls at Columbus Alternative High School, an urban precinct, turn away a line of voters at 8:30 a.m. because of broken machines.

Even among those potential voters who could afford to leave work, school or family commitments long enough to wait out snaking Election Day lines -- described as "Ohio’s first poll tax" by one witness -- widespread confusion over new precinct borders meant more people showed up at the school or church where they voted in 2000 only to be told that they were at the wrong place. While federal law allows such voters to cast provisional ballots, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell had earlier ruled that all provisional ballots must be cast at the correct polling location in order to count.

Schneider’s November 2 afternoon was spent with Franklin County voter Samuel Doughty, shuttling between county polling locations and the masonry where he works, in an effort to see that Doughty’s vote counted.

"First we went to Worthington Elementary where he always voted in the past. There, he was told that he was at the wrong location but he could fill out a provisional ballot, which he did," Schneider said, explaining how subsequently she and Doughty learned from another observer that the provisional ballot wouldn’t count since it was cast in the wrong precinct.

"After that," explained Schneider, "we tried to go to his correct polling place to vote, but then, we were told that if he did go there and vote it would be considered voter fraud since he already filled out a provisional [ballot]" -- one that was guaranteed by state ruling not to count. The hearing ran overtime with similar reports of misinformed poll workers, long lines and misbehaving machines.

According to People for The American Way attorney Leslie Huffy, who served as a hearing panelist, the first-hand experiences documented Saturday and Monday could prove useful as in legal proceedings concerning the 2004 elections as well as any electoral reform legislation that may come up in the next months.

According to Fitrakis of Election Protection, following Saturday’s hearing, the court reporter offered to reduce her rate by one dollar a page and deliver transcripts sooner than originally agreed so as to allow the community advocates to move forward with their cases. "After she heard what was going on, she wanted to help," Fitrakis said Sunday.

Like any public conversation, the hearings were studded with hearsay and the stray misnomer. One person who spoke at Saturday’s hearing opened her account of a dodgy voting machine by relaying an erroneous report of falsified Bush votes in Cuyahoga County. In fact, the source of the discrepancy, news of which was circulated widely on the internet in the days after the election, was an error in the way votes were displayed on the county’s website and was not reflected in the final count. Other witnesses spoke about independent findings of voter large-scale fraud that may or may not be revealed as simple, easily spread misunderstanding of bureaucratic record, as was the case with the Cuyahoga County hypothesis.

League of Pissed Off Voters Cleveland Organizer Mexie Wilson holds Blackwell personally responsible for many of the doubts surrounding election results. Already the Secretary of State has spoken publicly of intentions to run on the Republican ticket in the 2006 Governor’s race.

"I feel like Kenneth Blackwell delivered Ohio to the Republicans," Wilson said, offering clues into the Ohio League’s next campaign. "The governor’s race is in two years. We --the young people who started voting this election -- need to keep voting, and fix things so Blackwell can’t make any more messes," Wilson said.

On Monday morning, at the Franklin Board of Elections office, three temporary employees sat at a long, computer-clad desk sorting provisional ballots by precinct, assigning each legal-size envelope a new barcode as part of a 14,446-ballot count that remains incomplete as of Friday.

Matthew Damschroder, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said he had long anticipated trouble on Election Day. "We’ve been warning people about the changed precincts and telling people since June to expect long lines," he said in an interview with The NewStandard.

While this was Damschroder’s first presidential election with the BOE, he believes the proceedings were routine. "The difference this year was the increase in voter turnout. We deploy machines on the basis of voting trends and the site’s turnout in previous years, so this year, all over the country, there were lines. Even my brother waited in line an hour," he said.

A Columbus native, Damschroder served as Executive Director of the Franklin County Republican Party until moving downtown, to the Board of Elections.

This year the Board of Elections in Franklin County received between five and ten million dollars in Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds. Yet, Damschroder and voter advocates agree: the money was not enough. Further reform may be necessary, legal observers, citizens and county officials say.

Damschroder proposes offering early voting at pre-Election Day polls and the option of "no-excuse" absentee voting. Current Ohio law requires residents apply for an absentee ballot with a request that gives specific, state-approved pleads. Damschroder says anyone should have the right to vote by mail, whether out on business, feeling under the weather, or just plain busy on Tuesdays.

No Board of Elections administrators attended the hearings. After direct invitation from The NewStandard, Damschroder expressed interest in reviewing the transcripts promised on local television and radio coverage of the events. "I want to make sure that every one is given the right to vote if they want to. I hope that the report from the public hearings will be a key part of reviewing our process," he said.

Referring to provisional ballots cast by voters at the wrong precinct, Damschroder said, "I would count those provisional ballots in a heartbeat if a federal judge told me I could."

Back at the Columbus County Courthouse, Monday’s lawyerly proceedings broke up after three hours of evenly-moderated, sworn testimony -- the one witness to cry stifled sobs until after all follow-up questions were answered. There were a few wild calls for immediate action and spontaneous chants against tyranny. Then there was the announcement that David Cobb and Michael Badnarik, the 2004 presidential candidates for the Green and Libertarian parties, intended to use funds raised through the internet to file a formal demand for a recount of the presidential ballots cast in Ohio.

While voter advocacy organizations involved in the hearings plan to pursue separate lawsuits, interest in electoral reform unites them. "Most likely, a lawsuit will not overturn this election. Our goal is to take prophylactic measures so [as] to make sure that every voter is heard at the polls next time," CASE Ohio attorney Susan Truitt said.

Public voter hearings succeeded once before in Ohio. After the 2000 election, Ohio state Senator Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) brought in citizens from around country to testify on voting accuracy. The Joint Committee on Ballot Security hearings ended up as the groundwork for her introduction of a ballot security bill that mandates voter verified paper trail audits on all e-voter machines by the 2006 election. Such a success provides hope to some of the reformers who participated in hearings and have committed themselves to long-term change in the Midwestern state that may well dominate national attention again in 2008.

Correction: This article previously contained a quote from a poll worker about numbers of machines in previous elections. We have removed that information because it was improperly sourced.
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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Ariella Cohen is a contributing journalist.

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