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Democracy & Voting - Ohio 2004 as Lesson in What Can Go Wrong

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Thirty Ohio precincts disregarded requirements for curbside voting machines for seniors and the disabled. A polling place in Cuyahoga County shut down at 9:25 AM on Election Day because they had no working voting machines. The Washington Post estimates that misallocation of voting machines in in Columbus alone reduced the number of voters by up to 15,000. Some find that estimate to be low.

- Late on Election Day, a federal court in Southern Ohio found the misallocation of working voting machines to be such a serious violation of voting rights that it ordered paper ballots distributed to those waiting in lines more than two hours.

- New restrictions on provisional ballots The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) specified that voters whose names do not appear on poll records are to sign affidavits attesting that they are in the correct jurisdiction, and must be given provisional ballots. A provisional ballot is one cast by a voter whose eligibility is yet to be determined, and will be determined after the polls are closed.

Provisional ballots are used mainly by first-time voters, people who moved since the last election and newly-registered voters. First-time voters are usually younger and more liberal, and political analysts say that lower-income people are likely to move more frequently than wealthier, more conservative voters. It was also common knowledge that the bulk of new voter registrations in Ohio in 2004 was Democratic.

Until six weeks before the 2004 election, "jurisdiction" was defined in Ohio as county, as it is in most states. In mid-September 2004, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, also state co-chair of the Republican Bush/Cheney campaign, changed the Ohio definition of "jurisdiction" to mean ward/precinct, not county. Ohio's Republican Governor Bob Taft believed that this change could affect over 100,000 votes.

Suit was filed to prevent this disenfranchisement of voters, and two separate federal court rulings were made against Blackwell. "Secretary Blackwell abided by neither judgment and instead proceeded with directives that would disenfranchise Ohio voters," recounts the Congressional Report.

Chairman Deforest Soares of the federal Election Assistance Committee believes that Blackwell was the only US secretary of state who misread the intent of its rules, established by HAVA. "The purpose of provisional ballots is not to turn anyone away from the polls...We want as many votes to count as possible."

The court was forced to request new provisional ballot guidelines from Blackwell within an ultra-tight deadline. Blackwell appealed the ruling, and it was overturned. Blackwell chose to use his original, restrictive new rules.

But confusion reigned...many Ohio county election boards disagreed with Blackwell. Cuyahoga and Franklin Counties chose to follow old regulations while Hamilton and Stark counties elected to follow the newer, more prohibitive rules. In fact, in Hamilton county, some poll workers refused to give out any provisional ballots at all.

- Limiting voter registration On September 7, 2004, less than one month before Ohio's voter registration deadline, Blackwell issued a directive mandating rejection of voter registration forms based on their paper weight.

Specifically, he ordered that forms "not printed on white, uncoated paper of not less than 80 lb. text weight," were to be treated as applications for new voter registration cards.

Confusion again ensued at county election boards. Some ignored the newest directive change, some followed it, some gave it low priority. At least one election board said they had no ability to track card weight. At Montgomery County, their processing backlog of 4,000 forms prevented them from sending new forms by the October 4th deadline.

Under pressure from voting rights groups, Blackwell reversed his directive on September 28, but it was too late to mitigate the damage.

- Intimidating new minority voters The Ohio Republican Party sent registered letters to 35,000 newly registered voters in minority and urban areas, and then sought to challenge voter eligibility for letters never signed for or delivered. Of course, voters may not be home, may be homeless, may be serving in the armed forces or may be uninterested in or intimidated by an official-looking letter from the Republican Party.

In Sanduskey County, Republicans arranged for the county sheriff to visit the residences of 67 of these new registrants.

While federal courts found that this technique, called "caging," substantially violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, notification to the relevant voters was effectively too late to allow voter challenges to Republican charges of ineligibility based on their address.

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