Ohio Election Problems Highlight Urgent Need for Reform
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, January 7, 2004
The Democrats' brief Congressional challenge to Ohio's electoral votes last week was met with howls of derision from Republican lawmakers. "They're still not over the 2000 election, let alone the 2004 election," said Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Well, why should they be? Why should anyone who cares about democracy just let these things go? Many Americans don't know this, but according to the best information available, George W. Bush lost the 2000 vote in Florida and therefore should not have become president the first time.
A consortium of news organizations -- including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Associated Press commissioned an independent recount. The study was done by the University of Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center.
The study, which examined 175,010 uncounted ballots in all of Florida's 67 counties, found that a complete recount would have given the state, and therefore the presidency, to Al Gore. This was true no matter what criteria were used for accepting or rejecting the uncounted ballots: i.e., what kinds of "chads" or markings were taken as clear indication of voter intent.
This ballot count showed Gore winning Florida by a very small margin -- between 60 and 171 votes, depending on the criteria used. But we know from the study that he actually won by a much larger margin, because Gore lost about 8000 votes in Palm Beach County due to the confusion caused by the notorious "butterfly ballot." A similarly confusing ballot cost Gore an estimated 7000 votes in Duval County.
And all this does not even count the systematic disenfranchisement of Democratic voters in Florida by partisan election authorities. So there is very little doubt that, in a technically clean election, we would have had a different president for the years 2001 through 2004. This is not something to just "get over;" this is something we should never forget, and do whatever is necessary to make sure it never happens again.
Did it happen again last November, in Ohio? It is difficult to say without an investigation. The Democratic staff report of the House Judiciary Committee found "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio. In many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio."
These included a misallocation of voting machines that resulted in long lines in Democratic areas. There was also a shortage of provisional ballots, delayed absentee ballots, and 93,000 spoiled ballots -- and most of the latter have yet to be examined. There were many other irregularities that cast a cloud of suspicion over the vote in Ohio: one of the most bizarre was the exclusion of public observers from the Warren County tally on the basis of an alleged FBI warning of a potential terrorist threat, which the FBI denies having issued.
The Judiciary Committee Democratic staff report also found that the recount was not conducted properly or even legally, with precincts not selected randomly, as required by law. Bush's official margin in Ohio was 118,599 votes, so it is unlikely that a full and complete recount would reverse the result. But if we were to estimate the Democratic votes lost from all the other shenanigans, including the misallocation of voting machines, it's not clear whether George W. Bush would have won a clean election in Ohio, and therefore the presidency in 2004.
Some of our electoral procedures -- such as electronic voting with no paper record -- would not pass the laugh test in other democracies. This includes having a Bush campaign official -- Ken Blackwell in Ohio -- oversee statewide elections. At a recent press conference in which Russian President Vladimir Putin came under fire for undemocratic practices in his country, he retorted: "Do you think that the electoral system in the US is without flaws? Need I remind you of how elections were held in the US?"
It was reminiscent of the 1960s, when international criticism of the massive disenfranchisement of black voters in the South helped build pressure for our Voting Rights Act. With no rival superpower competing for the hearts and minds of developing countries, most of our leaders today don't seem to care as much what the world thinks of American democracy. But we who live here deserve better.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the "Experts" Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).