December 3, 2004

Voters and Parties Spur Ohio Recount / Fears of suppression, ‘irregularities’ at issue

By Savannah Blackwell

While monitoring the polls on election night in the poor, largely black section of Cincinnati’s Walnut Hill neighborhood, Tobi Beck says she saw enough potential disenfranchisement that she’s supporting a move by the Green, Libertarian and Ohio Democratic parties to force a recount of the state’s ballots.

Voters in one precinct were told they had to go to a different one to cast ballots, she said. They’d never have made it if she hadn’t been on hand to provide rides in the pouring rain.

“Here we are in the middle of the ghetto, and if you’re told to go to a different precinct that’s more than three blocks away, you’re not going to get there,” said Beck, an Election Protection Coalition poll watcher from Lebanon, Ohio. “People just weren’t interested in walking a mile in the rain. And also because of the circumstances of the neighborhood, it was prohibitive.”

A rash of similar complaints — including an election-night incident where almost 45,000 write-in votes for Green Party candidate David Cobb were allegedly erased from the Ohio Secretary of State’s Web site — has prompted Cobb and Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik to call for the recount.

The Ohio Democratic Party joined in on November 23.

Advocates of a recount say they do not expect the results of the election to change.

Instead, as local Democrats stated in a press release, “we believe it necessary to make sure everyone’s vote is counted fairly and accurately.”

The process is now moving through a series of countervailing legal actions and court filings.

There are also ongoing allegations of fraud, most prominently by two voter-advocate groups, the Alliance for Democracy and the Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections, which plan to contest the official vote tally to be announced by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell early next week.

Nationally, the Greens and Libertarians are also calling for recounts in New Mexico and Nevada, and independent candidate Ralph Nader sought and attained a recount in New Hampshire.

Partisan fears
Advocates of an Ohio recount say Blackwell, a Republican who ran George W. Bush’s campaign in the state, is stalling on the vote certification, potentially derailing their efforts before the Electoral College meets on December 13.

Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo steadfastly denies the accusation.

“We don’t have anything to do with the time schedule,” he said. “Right now, each county is conducting their canvassing. We’ve asked them to transmit the results by December 3. Once the counties decide on their results, they must give five days notice [of the recount] to the other candidates in the race. The Secretary of State has no role other than to certify statewide results.”

Regardless, the process faces some hurdles.

The Cobb campaign has already alerted every county in Ohio of its plans, but faces opposition in Delaware County, where a judge has issued a temporary restraining order against a recount.

Cobb asked a federal court to take jurisdiction and resolve the matter, with the Kerry-Edwards campaign also filing suit on Cobb’s behalf.

The Democratic Party also asked for a restraining order over the counting of provisional ballots, because of concern that county officials were throwing out ballots based on bureaucratic foul-ups.

That suit won on the federal district level, but was tossed out by one appellate court. It’s now pending in federal court in Toledo.

Beck, the Election Protection monitor in Cleveland, said that the counting of provisional ballots was not guaranteed, and feared disenfranchisement was widespread.

She told an anecdote about a voter who claimed to have an up-to-date registration, but was turned away by two different precincts.

In the end, the voter used one of 155,000 provisional ballots cast in Ohio, but doesn’t know whether it will ever be counted.

“It’s like a snowball effect,” she said.

According to Davis of the Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections, the fate of provisional ballots in Ohio are a big part of his group’s plans to contest Blackwell’s official tally.

If the state supreme court approves the move to contest the result, then every available vote must be considered, including “spoiled ballots,” of which Blackwell’s office has set aside some 90,000.

LoParo said that the secretary’s office has standards they recommend counties follow for dealing with provisional ballots.

“We won’t allow any provisional ballot to be discarded on a technicality,” he said. “We would be quite offended.”

Beck’s observations at the polls jibe with what many voters in Ohio have testified to in a series of grassroots public hearings held throughout November, including a post-election rally on the statehouse steps in Columbus organized by the Central Ohio Peace Network and the Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections.

Attendees complained about a lack of voting machines in poor, mostly Democratic minority neighborhoods, resulting in waits of up to 11 hours in line.

Those who couldn’t spare the time from work often had to leave, according to the testimony.

Others cited malfunctioning machines, undelivered absentee ballots, and “inconsistencies in the unofficial reports of the election.”

The most well-known instance of this occurred in Franklin County, where Bush got more votes than the actual number of voters who cast ballots.

County officials have said they will resolve the problem, but this has done little to alleviate concerns.

“We know of people who were turned away from the polls, who were eligible, but didn’t know to ask for provisional ballots,” said CASE spokesman Evan Davis, who helped organize the mid-November hearings for Ohio voters alleging problems at the polls. “[A]nd there were at least a few incidents where people had problems with Republicans challenging their right to vote.”

Blair Bobier, Cobb’s media director, also said that while the election-night tally on the Secretary of State’s Web site gave Cobb 45,000 write-in votes, the Green Party was later told there were only 24.

“That’s a bit of a discrepancy, don’t you think?” Bobier said. “That’s just one of the reasons we’re doing a recount. There’s a whole grassroots movement in Ohio organizing to investigate reports of irregularities, voter suppression and voter fraud. When we announced our plan, we were inundated with requests that we do seek this recount.”

To this day, Cobb is unsure of how many votes he won in Ohio.

He has stated in newspaper editorials that he has no personal interest in whether Bush or Kerry wins — Bush holds a 136,000 vote lead — but he feels he has a responsibility to “ensure the fairness of elections and integrity of vote counts.”

While the outcome may turn out the same, Cobb said he and his allies are “looking to make sure [the Green Party’s] votes are counted accurately, that all votes are counted accurately, and that the integrity of the voting process is restored.”

Bobier said it took only four days to raise $150,000 in individual contributions to pay for the recount.

He acknowledged that the recount will not resolve potential problems of voter disenfranchisement.

But “[w]e’re hoping to raise that question and have it be answered elsewhere,” he said.

National efforts
Supporters of the recount, including a variety of good government and poll watching groups, say that if voters don’t have confidence, then the system itself is in trouble.

“Here we are trying to hold ourselves out as the model of democracy, and yet we can’t get the vote count right,” said National Voting Rights Institute spokesman Stuart Comstock-Gay. “A basic principle of American democracy is the counting of votes … Concern over that is what got us involved.”

Comstock-Gay, whose organization is providing legal counsel for the recount, said activists hope that a more standardized approach to vote counting, and especially of provisional ballots, will result.

“There are some serious questions that need to be addressed before the next election,” he said. “We may find that Ohio is not counting a particular kind of provisional ballots … It’s too easy to say, ‘It’s over. Let’s just ignore it.'”

The Ohio recount has become a prominent part of a movement nationwide to strengthen voter rights.

In New Hampshire, failed presidential candidate Ralph Nader demanded, and got, a recount.

The result did not show much discrepancy with the original count, but his campaign said it showed the importance of mandating paper vote-confirmations for electronic voting machines.

“Had there not been a paper trail, we would not have been able to do a hand recount so the grave concerns could be addressed,” Nader spokeswoman Amy Belanger said.

Cobb and Badnarik also decided on November 29 to demand recounts in New Mexico and Nevada, swing-states where there were reports of voter suppression and problems with electronic voting machines, according to the Cobb campaign.

In Washington, 13 Democratic members of Congress were able to get the federal General Accounting Office to launch an investigation into vote counting procedures around the country.

In Ohio, memories of Florida’s controversial Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican who was often accused of favoring George Bush in 2000, have prompted calls for Blackwell to recuse himself from the vote certification process.

“It’s lunacy to have partisan people do the counting,” Comstock-Gay said. “We’re putting ourselves in a bad position when we allow partisans to make these decisions.”

LoParo said that any charges of Republican suppression of Democrat voters are baseless, and that Blackwell is not interfering in the process and will not recuse himself.

Elections are organized at the county level, he said, by bipartisan boards of officials.

“I don’t think the Democratic members [of those boards] would want to see the vote suppressed in Kerry strongholds,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

The Cobb campaign and other activists aren’t so sure, and say the recount must take place.

“We’re confident there will be a recount and that it will be complete,” Bobier said. “If we find that Kerry actually took Ohio, Congress is going to have to do something serious about that.”

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