Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Democracy (sic) in America: The Streets Of Columbus

In Columbus, Fraud Wasn't the Problem. Fairness Was

I don’t know University of Texas professor James K. Galbraith, but we have some things in common. We both left our jobs and our families and traveled to Columbus, Ohio to work on getting John Kerry elected. And both of us were upset (traumatized, in my case) at the long lines in the rain and cold that turned away countless, mostly Democratic voters.

In my case, I only cursed the darkness. Galbraith has analyzed it:
The vote in Ohio raised another issue, yet more serious for the future. Was the election conducted fairly? And, in particular, what effect did new machine technologies, used in many parts of the state, have on the vote? That forces us to consider the votes that were not cast.

Kerry did very well in Ohio. By the method described in the previous section, he exceeded his "expected vote"--based on Al Gore's 2000 performance--by nineteen full percentage points. This was better than Bush's gains in the state, which were seventeen points above expected values, in a state where turnout rose by just under ten full percentage points, from 53 to nearly 63 percent. Kerry's campaign had a terrific ground operation, which had canvassed his strong neighborhoods repeatedly and knew his voters. If Kerry lost the state, it was because Bush did just well enough so that Kerry could not quite overcome the deficit with which he'd started. Yet--as I wrote earlier--a scandal of this election became clear to me personally at 6.30 PM on election day, as I drove a first-time voter to her polling place in south Columbus. We arrived to find voters lined up outside, three and four across, for about a hundred yards, in the rain. Later the line moved indoors; we were told that the wait had averaged two hours for the entire day. By the time the doors closed at 7.30 PM, it was considerably longer.

Why such a line? The turnout--on average in the state, twenty percent above the previous base--was a factor. But in Franklin County high turnout was entirely in line with rising registrations, and the Election Commission obviously knew about it. The real problem was a grotesque shortage of voting machines. At Finland Elementary, where three precincts voted, an election officer told me that the smallest had some 400 registered voters, the middle-sized one had more than 800, and the largest had "thousands." Voters were being limited to five minutes to finish their ballot, and because of its length and complexity most were using the full time.

Each precinct had two functioning voting machines. The largest precinct was supposed to have three machines. One was broken at the opening, and later replaced with another machine that also did not function. Five minutes per voter means twelve voters per machine per hour. Ohio polls were open for thirteen hours, for a maximum throughput of 156 voters per machine, or 312 voters per precinct in this case. That's barely enough for a 75 percent turnout in the smallest precinct of the three. And the lines for all three precincts were jumbled together--so even if your machine was ready for you, you had to wait.

This situation played out all over the city of Columbus on election day, with lines reported at ninety minutes to two hours from start to finish. One of my drivers spent two and a half hours accompanying a single elderly voter to the polls. Commentators marveled at the turnout. But you cannot judge from the lines. You have to know the number of machines and the time it takes to vote. In relation to registrations, turnout in Franklin County was only 2 percent higher in 2004 than in 2000--by far the lowest proportionate gain of any major county in Ohio. While Kerry won Franklin County, he could have done much better. Vote suppression worked, in the face of the greatest get-out-the-vote drive I've ever seen. Raising the increase in turnout of registered voters to ten percent (as happened in Cuyahoga County) would not have made the difference in the state.

Nevertheless: it is an injustice, an outrage and a scandal--a crime, really--that American citizens should have to wait for hours in the November rain in order to exercise the simple right to vote.
All I can say is “amen.”

Voter suppression or just good old American underfunding of basic human (democratic -- small "d") needs? I don't know. It doesn't really matter.

Galbraith’s solution is voting by mail. This is, of course, fraught with its own potential for fraud and manipulation, but from our experience, it sounds like the better alternative. Or we maybe we could just fund our democracy adequately...