Presidential Election at Risk: Ohio's electoral system riddled with flaws
September 20, 2004
Whether Kerry or Bush wins in Ohio may well depend on how many voters are disenfranchised in the state’s three largest counties: Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton. Respectively these three counties contain the Democratically rich big three-C cities Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. The voter rolls are under unprecedented scrutiny and irregularities abound.
In Hamilton County, home of the Republican Taft family dynasty, the Board of Elections moved some 105,000 voters from active to inactive status within the last four years. By contrast, Franklin County has not moved any voters to inactive status, and doesn’t intend to until 2006 because a computer transfer glitch wiped out federal election voting histories. Matthew Damschroder, Director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, told the Free Press that under law a county “may” cancel a person’s voter registration if that person hasn’t voted in the last two federal elections. But, the counties are not required to do so.
“It’s a ‘may’ not a ‘shall.’ It’s up to the discretion of the county Board of Elections. We have chosen not to participate in widespread cancellations during this presidential election,” Damschroder said. He concedes that many Cincinnati voters may be unaware that their voting status had been canceled, a surprising admission from a conservative Republican. Unless these Hamilton County voters re-register by October 4, many in Cincinnati’s urban center, they will show up at the polls and be barred from voting.
The Prison Reform Advocacy Center in Cincinnati issued an August report entitled, “The Disenfranchisement of the Re-Enfranchised” documenting in detail widespread confusion over the voting rights of former felons. Hamilton County again stands out as the key county for eliminating eligible voters. The study found that the Hamilton County Board of Elections erroneously “requires felons who attempt to register by mail to attach ‘documentation restoring voting rights.’” Hamilton County practices are at odds with Ohio law, which allows felons to vote as long they are not incarcerated or in prison, even if they are on parole or in a halfway house. There are more than 34,000 ex-offenders in Ohio who are currently under some form of corrections supervision who are eligible to vote, and many don’t know it. Political science studies indicate that the vast majority of former felons tend to vote Democratic.
Hamilton was one of twenty counties where Board of Elections officials incorrectly stated the law in the survey. The Prison Reform Advocacy Center report found that only 44% of formerly incarcerated individuals in the Cincinnati Adult Parole Authority Office knew they had the right to vote. In Cleveland the rate was 77% and in Columbus 71% knew they could register to vote.
Following the survey, Damschroder sent out 3500 letters to former felons in the Franklin County stating, “The purpose of this letter is to notify you that your voter registration status has been canceled due to your conviction and incarceration, …” He included people charged with felonies dating back to the year 1998. Damschroder told the Free Press that he normally only sends out between 2-300 such letters a year, but he was following directives from Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell. Why Blackwell would issue such directives remains a mystery.
Damschroder admitted that there were some problems with the wording of the letter, and he never intended to cancel re-registered or confused former felons. He claims the letter was merely to advise the felons that the voter registration deadline is October 4, 2004.
One registered voter who received Damschroder’s letter was Mark A. Woodford, who has never been convicted of a felony. Woodford was convicted of a misdemeanor in 1998. He voted Republican that November. In 2003, while living in the conservative haven of Westerville, Ohio, home of former Republican Congressman John Kasich, Woodford cast his ballot for Republican candidates. This year for the first time, Woodford voted in the Democratic primary. He told the Free Press, “I thought at the time, I wonder if they’ll cancel my registration because I’m a Democrat now.”
Damschroder offers another explanation: “Back in the late nineties when Virginia Barney was Clerk of the Common Pleas Court, she forwarded felony arrest records instead of just the convictions. So if somebody plead to a misdemeanor often they were incorrectly entered as a felon.”
Damschroder told the Free Press that Woodford, now legally registered at a new Columbus address and no longer residing at his parent’s address where he was canceled, was “incorrectly sent a letter because computers at the Board of Elections didn’t merge two files.”
In Ohio’s dead even presidential election, something as small as computer glitches at the major metropolitan area’s Board of Elections could easily swing the vote. To solve bureaucratic error and computer mistakes, Ohio uses the provisional ballot. Provisional ballots allow voters who are improperly barred from voting due to a registration error, to cast their ballot on Election Day while the Board of Elections straightens out the problem.
On September 14, Project Vote announced that 150,555 new low-income and minority voters were registered in Ohio. Many of these likely Democratic voters are in the Cleveland area and an ongoing battle has developed between Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and the politically ambitious Blackwell, both African American. The same week Ohio newspapers headlined the fact that the Ohio economy was the worst in the nation, having lost nearly 12,000 jobs in August alone.
Following Project Vote’s announcement, Blackwell issued statewide directives severely restricting the use of provisional ballots and instructing precinct voting judges to give state or federal provisional ballots only to persons who appear to have a voting residence in that particular precinct. This narrow use of the provisional ballot with over 150,000 new minority and low-income voters, may well swing Ohio’s election results for Bush.
Rep. Tubbs Jones immediately attacked Blackwell’s orders as an attempt “to seek to disenfranchise the people of the state of Ohio.”
The Congresswoman points out that with the re-drawing of the Congressional districts following the 2000 census and the Republican Party’s elimination over the past few years of many inner city precincts, many voters will be showing up at the wrong precinct.
She said that “provisional ballot is a mechanism that was put in place to take individual discretion out of the voting process. Poll workers should not be put in the position to determine who votes and who does not vote.” Rep. Tubbs Jones argues that Blackwell’s directives are contrary to the spirit in which the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was enacted and contrary to the position that he previously took in the Ohio primary.
In the 2000 Florida election, investigative reporter Gregory Palast reported that an estimated 600,000 voters who registered by the deadline were not properly processed. An additional 58,000 non-felons were barred from voting incorrectly because they had a same or similar name as a felon or the same date of birth as a felon. Gore supporters point out that these registration errors disproportionately occur in heavily Democratic urban areas.
The nonpartisan Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections (CASE) posted a letter to its website addressed to Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell noting “with great concern” Blackwell’s recent actions “regarding the interpretation of provisional ballots.” The CASE letter cites a recent Cleveland study indicating “that up to 35,000 Ohio voters could be turned away from the polls on November 2 because of registration errors.” That same study found “that more than 1 in 20 registrations and changes of address were compromised because of either clerical or voter errors.” This 5% error factor could be lowered to less than 1% with proper training of election officials.
CASE is demanding that the Secretary of State send out new directives telling all newly registered voters and re-registers that: “If you recently registered, filed a name change or a change of address and you have NOT yet received a confirmation notice in the mail, you must act immediately. Call your County Board of Elections to check that you are registered. If not, you must re-register by October 4 at your local library or Board of Elections office.”
The CASE letter calls any attempt to disenfranchise Ohio voters “at the last minute … unethical and cruel.”
With numerous voter registration organizations canvassing Ohio and growing concern of voting irregularities, various plans for poll watching are emerging.
But Damschroder points out that Ohio’s law on poll watching is “archaic,” with all challenges over voter eligibility being decided on the spot at the local voting precinct by election officials hired for Election Day only. The only people allowed to challenge under Ohio law are those certified eleven days in advance by political parties or a slate of five candidates. The certified challengers must produce an ID and swear an oath, according to Damschroder. Add to this the fact that the HAVA bill allows for challenges to first-time voters to produce state photo IDs.
The Free Press has learned that Franklin County election officials are considering a wide contingent of actions including arrests if the certified election challengers attempt to challenge all new voters and hold up the voting process. The election may rest on how many Democratic election challengers show up to advocate for urban center new voters versus how many Republican election challengers show up to question new voters.
The former state President of League of Women’s Voters Sue Shidaker wrote the Secretary of State’s office concerned that many newly registered voters in Cuyahoga County have not as yet received their voter registration cards. “…They are re-registering and trying numerous phone calls to get help – taped messages and no live help in many instances. …They’re just beginning to learn how to be responsible, voting citizens and need our help, not our hindrance,” Shidaker said.
With Bush and Kerry in a virtual dead heat in Ohio, and no Republican candidate having won the presidency without winning Ohio’s electoral votes, the disenfranchisement of more than 177,500 new voters, ex-felons, canceled inactive voters and other victims of bureaucratic bungling and election irregularities may well decide who governs our nation, and the fate of the Earth.
Bob Fitrakis is the Editor of the Free Press (freepress.org), a political science professor, an attorney, and co-author with Harvey Wasserman of George W. Bush vs. the Superpower of Peace. He served as an international observer for the national elections in El Salvador.
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