As the Electoral College prepares to certify President Bush’s re-election on Monday, concerns persist about the integrity of the nation’s voting system — particularly in Ohio, where details continue to emerge of technology failures, voter confusion and overcrowded polling stations in minority and poor neighborhoods.
Few mainstream politicians dispute Bush’s victory, and the incumbent’s 3.5 million-vote margin nationwide was wider than any of the reported problems, which included insufficient or incomplete provisional ballots and, in some places, brazen partisan shenanigans.
But that is not stopping a disparate assortment of personalities — prominent among them Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and presidential candidates of the Green and Libertarian parties — from questioning the accuracy of certified results and demanding investigations.
Critical swing state
Of greatest concern is the extent of disenfranchisement in the critical swing state of Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes guaranteed Bush’s victory.
“It’s critical that we investigate and understand any and every voting irregularity anywhere in our country, not because it would change the outcome of the election but because Americans have to believe that their votes are counted in our democracy,” Sen. John Kerry said this week after calling for a statewide recount in Ohio.
The nation’s voting system, despite improvements since the 2000 Florida fiasco, remains a locally administered patchwork whose lack of national uniformity distinguishes the United States from many other democracies.
Although most complaints have come from Democrats and the third-party candidates, Republicans and bipartisan groups acknowledge problems. The Government Accountability Office is investigating election problems. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio and chairman of the House Administration Committee, will oversee an inquiry next year.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, created in 2002, is also scrutinizing the outcome. It plans to publish in January the government’s first report on the voting, which will serve as the basis for congressional recommendations and reforms.
“We definitely did not have a glitch-free election,” said EAC Chairman DeForest Soaries Jr., a Bush appointee.
Calls for dramatic changes
Jackson and other activists want wholesale changes in the U.S. voting process, ideally before the 2006 midterm elections. Jackson says the most distressing problem appears to be the lack of nationwide standards. No federal agency enforces regulations when states or counties fail to comply with internal procedures.
Without national standards, he said, some poor counties have inferior equipment and insufficient numbers of voting machines to support dense populations.
“What we really need is a federal standard for elections, and we need a constitutional, individual, federally protected right to vote,” said Jackson, president of the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Grassroots activists say politicians who refuse to discuss voting concerns will lose respect — and votes.
“If the Democratic leadership doesn’t step up, why do they think that the activists on the ground — the people who collected millions of dollars, made phone calls and registered people to vote — would do it again in 2008?” said Don Goldmacher of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club of Oakland, Calif.
Blackwell: Glitches, not fraud
Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, has conceded that a recount would likely alter the vote tally somewhat. But he adamantly dismisses allegations of fraud.
“This was an election where you have some glitches, but none of these glitches were of a conspiratorial nature, and none of them would overturn or change the election results,” Blackwell said Monday when he certified the results.
In the last five weeks, activists have documented thousands of voting problems across the nation. The citizens’ lobby group Common Cause received 210,000 phone calls to a hot line that logged complaints.
Electronic errors were so grave in Carteret County, N.C., that election administrators will hold a special election in early January to determine the next agriculture commissioner. Paperless touch-screen voting machines there failed to retain 4,438 votes during early voting before Nov. 2. The Democratic incumbent lost by just 2,287 votes out of about 3 million cast statewide.
In six states, including Florida and Texas, about three dozen voters complained that they selected Kerry on touch-screen machines but were shown as having voted for Bush until they revised their electronic ballot. Equipment manufacturers blamed the problem on miscalibration.
In New Orleans, poorly trained poll workers told thousands of voters to come back later in the day because they couldn’t turn on new electronic voting equipment when polls opened.
And in a Franklin County, Ohio, a precinct where 638 voters cast ballots, a computer recorded 3,893 extra votes for President Bush. The error was corrected in the certified vote total, and local election workers have been unable to reproduce the error.
Conyers: ‘Campaign of deception’
Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, began examining Ohio’s problems in a hearing this past week attended by eight Democratic lawmakers.
Among his concerns was that voters in urban, minority and Democratic precincts waited in lines up to eight hours — even though in Youngstown, election administrators had extra voting terminals stored in a warehouse. Conyers also charged that a “campaign of deception” directed some Democrats to wrong polling places, where they were forced to cast provisional ballots.
Last week, Conyers sent a letter to Blackwell asking him to cooperate in a Democratic investigation of “substantial irregularities” in Ohio, which certified a 119,000-vote margin for Bush. That is some 17,000 votes fewer than Blackwell’s original estimate of 136,000.
The margin shrank primarily because of the Franklin County glitch and the addition of overseas and provisional ballots. Provisional ballots — meant to address concerns of voter disenfranchisement — were cast by voters who showed up at the wrong precinct or without proper identification on Nov. 2.
Out of Ohio’s 156,977 provisional ballots, about four in five, or 121,598 ballots, were ruled valid.