Many voters in Franklin County, Ohio, home to the city of of Columbus, experienced waits of five hours or more on election day. Lawsuits against the Ohio Secretary of state were filed that day on behalf of some of these voters. There were many reports of voters leaving before they could vote, in some cases because they were too old or infirm to be able to wait in line for hours.
Voting machines in Franklin county had to handle 170 voters each, on average, much more than the 86 voters per machine in Summit County (Akron) and 68 per machine in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland). [LINK]
The conventional wisdom is that "record turnout" swamped the precincts and caused the lines. This seems to be false. There was high turnout throughout the rest of Ohio on November 2nd, but not in Franklin County.
In fact Franklin's 60.95% turnout rate was LESS than in 2000, when the rate was 61.30%. However voter registration in Franklin county had increased by 24% since 2000. You would expect nearly all of the new voters to go to the polls, so turnout should have been much greater. That seems to indicate that many thousands of voters didn't get a chance to vote in Franklin, perhaps because of intentional vote suppression tactics by the Republicans.
Statewide voter turnout was about 70% in Ohio this year, up from about 64% in 2000. In Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati, where vote suppression tactics don't seem to have been as intense, turnout was 73%.
If Franklin county had 73% turnout this year, an additional 76,115 votes would have been recorded. Let's say these voters would go for Kerry 75% to 25% -- a reasonable assumption given that Democratic-leaning precincts seem to have been targeted. That means a net gain of 38,057 votes for Kerry.
38,057 votes isn't enough to overcome the highly-publicized gap of 136,000 votes that Kerry needs to win the state back from Bush. But combined with the provisional vote count yet to be completed, losses from vote suppression tactics in other counties like Cuyahoga, and future adjustments due to fraud or machine malfunctions [LINK], it could have been significant.
It appears that a lack of voting machines in certain precincts was the cause of some long lines. According to the Columbus Dispatch, "many polling places in inner-city neighborhoods had fewer voting machines than during the last presidential election." [LINK]
The man in charge of outfitting Franklin County polling places is Elections Director Matthew M. Damschroder. For the conspiracy-minded among us, the Free Press cites some interesting facts about Damschroeder: [LINK]
Damschroder is the former Executive Director of the Franklin County Republican Party, and sources close to the Board of Elections tell the Free Press that Damschroder and Ohio’s Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell met with President Bush in Columbus on Election Day.
Can anything be done about the vote suppression tactics at this point? Even if the current lawsuits go against Damschroeder and Blackwell, the vote counts in Franklin County wouldn't change. But if it can be shown that the vote suppression was intentional, there could be consequences for Damschroder in particular.
There are some reports that up to 2000 voting machines were willfully withheld from polling places in Franklin County. [LINK] The Columbus Dispatch claims that many machines were moved to the (more Republican) suburbs in the county because of population shifts. But reports from observers show that waits in the inner city districts were much longer than waits in affluent suburban areas of the county. [LINK] [LINK]
It is clear that Damschroder and others expected high turnout throughout the county this election, given the large amount of new voter registrations. From an article in the pulication Columbus Business First on October 8, 2004: [LINK]
"[The large number of new voter registrations] does suggest that the mechanisms in place could be overwhelmed," said John A. Powell, a Moritz law professor specializing in civil rights and civil liberties. "But from what I've seen and read around the state, Franklin County seems to be one of the better-prepared counties..."
Damschroder said part of that preparedness can be attributed to a 13 percent increase in the Board of Elections' budget, to $5.3 million in 2004 from $4.7 million in 2003. The county also gave the board a $112,000 supplemental payment in September, and Damschroder said his office may need to ask for more...
Most precincts will have between two and four machines, but four to six machines will be allocated to precincts where heavy voter turnout is expected. A few machines are left in reserve in case of breakdowns...
The county should have enough poll workers for its 788 precincts this year, Damschroder said, thanks to a state law that was passed in May allowing county employees to take off work with pay to work at the polls on Election Day. In addition, several Central Ohio companies, including American Electric Power Company Inc. and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, are allowing some employees to volunteer at the polls as well...
So Damschroder and others knew there would be high turnout. They had an increased budget and more poll workers than before to help handle all these voters. And still someone made a decision to provide fewer voting machines in the Democrat-heavy inner city districts.
If it could be shown in court that Damschroder or his staff intentionally fouled up the voting process, those individuals could suffer. It wouldn't change the vote count, but it might at least tarnish the "Republican Election Official Career Path" pioneered by Katharine Harris in Florida, whereby election tampering wins one favor within the Republican party, leading to a new Congressional career. (There's speculation that Ken Blackwell, who has mentioned his intention to run for Governor of Ohio, intends to follow a slight variation of that path.)
One radical outcome of the court cases could be a call for a complete re-vote in Ohio, but that is unlikely and would get appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, I imagine. We all know what would happen then.
The only chance for more fairness in Ohio is a recount of all the punch card ballots in other counties like Cuyahoga. The votes lost to vote suppression tactics in Franklin and Cuyahoga counties are lost for good, but a punch card recount could discover a large number of "spoiled" Democratic votes and gain Kerry some ground. [LINK]
The lawsuits must proceed, and a recount should be called for in as many Ohio counties as possible. Let's make sure the Republican election officials in Ohio don't get rewarded for suppressing votes.