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Election Day criticisms may yield changes

Voters' stories triggering probe by Democrats could spur fixes

By Kymberli Hagelberg, Carl Chancellor and David Knox

Akron Beacon Journal    11 December 2004

Bill R. Harris, 74, is an old hand at voting. He has cast his ballot at Hatton Elementary School since moving to Akron's Ellet area in 1955. In fact, his wife, Jackie, was a Democratic precinct committee member there for several years. But when Harris showed up at Hatton to vote on Nov. 2 just as he had for nearly half a century he was told he couldn't.

``They said my name wasn't in the book. Jackie's name was there, but I wasn't,'' said Harris, who described himself as ``fighting mad.''

After much, and sometimes loud, discussion he was allowed to vote by provisional ballot.

Six weeks after the election, Harris' mood hasn't changed.

``I told them (poll workers) my name not being in the book was a bunch of crap,'' Harris said, noting that he still believes ``something tricky was going on.''

Harris wasn't alone in believing that Ohio's election was fraught with serious problems.

Even before the polls closed on Election Day some much later than others complaints began streaming in about long lines, too few voting machines, inflation of the absentee vote, provisional ballots and poorly trained poll workers.

Democrats' probe

On Monday, the Democratic National Committee announced it would launch an exhaustive investigation of Ohio's election. The impetus for that comes in part from people such as Harris one of hundreds of Ohioans who have testified in public hearings held around the state to vent about Election Day problems.

Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, said the secretary isn't concerned about that investigation.

``If they want to know about the election, all they need to do is talk to the 88 Democratic county chairmen who voted to certify the election,'' said LoParo, underscoring the point that Ohio's elections are run by members of both major parties.

4 ? hours of frustration

But assurances by Blackwell that he succeeded in ``managing and administering a fair and effective election'' hold little significance for Janice Williams, who had an extraordinarily difficult time voting in Precinct 6-C in the Cleveland suburb of Solon.

She said she arrived at 7:45 a.m. with her husband, daughter and 18-year-old son so they could cast their first vote together as a family before getting the children back on the road for college.

Four-and-a-half contentious hours later, Williams and her family voted ever so reluctantly by provisional ballot.

First, Williams said, she was told that her family was not on the list, although three of the four had voted in the primary.

``I've voted all my life,'' Williams said. ``I have not missed since I became of age, and I'm 53.

``All of a sudden, it was like my entire family had disappeared since March,'' she said.

Williams produced utility bills and other information to prove her family had moved from South Euclid in November 2003.

She said calls were made to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections by the voter and precinct officials.

After a lengthy debate with poll workers, Williams said, a precinct judge asked her: ``Why don't you just go back to South Euclid to vote?''

Had the family done so, their votes would have been illegal.

Finally, around noon, Williams said, she and her family cast provisional votes twice, as it turned out after being told the first ballots had been improperly processed.

Yet Williams said she still has no idea whether their votes were counted, and her calls to the automated board of elections voter hot line were of no use in finding out.

``I felt thoroughly disenfranchised,'' she said. ``I am angry, and I don't believe we were the only family this happened to.''

Suppression feared

While it is true that other voters around the state endured long waits and frustrations as the Williamses did, the impact of those incidents may not have been the same across the board.

``A two-hour wait to vote can operate as a kind of poll tax for people who have to vote before work,'' said Edward B. Foley, an Ohio State University professor who specializes in election law.

``On the other hand, if you take your work home in a briefcase, or you have the freedom to come back to vote in the middle of the day, the lines have less effect.''

Because blue-collar andlower-income workers tend to vote Democratic, the long lines in Akron and other urban areas fueled suspicion of a deliberate tactic to hold down the turnout especially in largely African-American precincts for presidential challenger John Kerry.

Alex Arshinkoff, leader of the Summit County Republican Party and a member of the board of elections, scoffed at that notion. ``There was no grand conspiracy to lessen the vote in the inner city,'' Arshinkoff said.

But that's not the way Gail McWilliams, presiding Democratic judge for Precinct 4-B at Buchtel High School, sees it. ``It was about depressing the Democratic base,'' she said.

McWilliams estimated the wait at her precinct was 2 ? hours for those arriving between the 6:30 a.m. opening and 1:30 p.m.

``At 5:45 a.m., people were already in line,'' McWilliams said. ``Challengers were there, too.''

The challengers, combined with the long lines, hasty poll-worker training and many first-time voters, created a ``cornucopia of chaos'' that McWilliams said aggravated the delays.

She saw it as ``no accident'' that Republican challengers were deployed in Wards 3, 4, and 5 and in one precinct each in Wards 1, 7 and 9. ``Each one of those precincts and wards were largely populated by persons of color,'' she said.

McWilliams said the four poll workers in her precinct were so busy that they didn't take bathroom breaks until help from the Summit County Board of Elections showed up around 2 p.m.

Outside poll monitors

Susan Vogelsang of Akron, an Election Protection Project volunteer stationed at Erie Island Elementary School, said the polling site opened late, and that was only the start of problems. In addition to the long lines, she said, the precinct had incomplete voting lists and poll workers who were overwhelmed by the heavy turnout.

``We estimated somewhere between 35 and 50 voters left without voting because they had to get to work,'' said Vogelsang.

Randall Vehar of the Ohio Voter Protection Coalition said his group had more than 1,100 volunteers posted outside predominantly African-American and Hispanic precincts in the seven largest Ohio counties. He said many of the Akron polling places monitored had waits of two hours or longer. ``It was particularly a problem,'' Vehar said, ``where you had multiple precincts in one polling place.''

Jocelyn Travis, Ohio director of election protection for the liberal group People for the American Way, said her group received complaints about long lines in 15 of the 44 precincts that make up Wards 3, 4 and 5. Blacks make up the majority of residents in each of the three wards, census data show.

People for the American Way was one of several groups to sponsor hearings in Akron, Columbus and Cleveland that drew more than 500 people complaining of long waits and other election problems.

Travis said the longest line was in Knox County, where some Kenyon College students waited 10 hours and finished voting at 4 a.m.

More typical were long waits in the state's large urban counties. Delays stretched lines in Columbus to four to seven hours, she said. In both Cleveland and Cincinnati, the wait was three to five hours in some polling places.

Impact of a probe

Critics of the Election Day confusion in Ohio concede there is little likelihood that the DNC investigation, recount efforts, or pending lawsuits will change the outcome of the election, yet they insist the efforts are likely to play an important role.

``If nothing else, it dispels the myth that everything went smoothly,'' said Vicky Beasley of People for the American Way. ``The hearings gave people the opportunity to get their stories out there.''

John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the 2000 presidential election, which the U.S. Supreme Court was called upon to resolve, was much more problematic than the 2004 outcome. In fact, had it not been for the residue from the 2000 election, Green said, he doubted there would be any concern about the 2004 vote.

Rather than changing the election's outcome, Green said, ``most people see the investigation of the 2004 vote in Ohio as an opportunity to correct problems and to continue to improve the quality of voting in general.''

Green said he expects a number of recommendations to result from the investigation, including ones that address Ohio voter concerns about electronic voting and the debate about providing a paper trail.

In the long run, Green said the results of the various investigations are likely to expand voting ``in one way or another.'' He cited examples such as Texas, which begins its voting two weeks before Election Day, and Oregon, which allows voting by mail.

``At least on the surface, everybody I talk to wants as many people as possible voting,'' Green said. ``More people voting gives government more legitimacy.''

Yet it is clear from the outcry since Nov. 2 that there is a confidence gap about the legitimacy of the 2004 vote.

In a People for the American Way public hearing in Cleveland, one of the conveners asked the audience of more than 50 to indicate, by a show of hands, who was sure that their vote had counted.

Not one hand was raised.

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