As I received my assignment to monitor the November 2, 2004, Presidential Election in the swing state (and ultimately the last stand state) of Ohio as part of the Election Protection Program, my mind was filled with one objective: make every vote count. After witnessing the shaming of our democracy in Florida during the 2000 elections I was determined not to let it happen again.
We chose Ohio because if any place was going to be the Florida of 2004, Ohio was going to be it. While it wasn’t quite Florida 2000, the election did end up hanging on Ohio.
When I awoke at 4:30 a.m. on Election Day, I wasn’t prepared for what I would experience even though I had completed two training sessions. I arrived at 5:30 a.m. at the Election Protection Legal Command Center. I was paired up with a local attorney. We were to rove around six precincts located in African American neighborhoods. As we arrived at the first polling site at 6:30 a.m., lines were already forming. It was then that I knew this would be a very long day. By the time we made it to our second stop we began to see problems.
The Linden Library in Columbus, Ohio, at 7:15 a.m. on November 2, 2004, was a scene of electoral chaos. There were hundreds of people standing in two lines complaining about a voting system that was taking too much time. When my partner and I arrived, we asked the people in line what was the problem. They told us that two lines was not efficient. To their frustration they had to wait in one line to sign in and receive their voter registration slip and then they were made to go to the back of another line to cast their vote. The best way to deal with this in my mind was to create one line where people signed in, received their voter slip, and voted. My partner and I approached the presiding judge in that polling place and asked if we could do this. She agreed and thanked us.
But there was a much larger problem at that polling station. At the Linden Library there were only three voting booths for over 1,500 voters. The result was what you would expect. People, mostly African American, were forced to stand in long lines in the pouring rain for as long as seven hours to cast a ballot.
This problem was not limited to Linden Library. This was a systemic problem throughout the six African American precincts in Franklin County my partner and I monitored. We called in the problem to the Legal Command Center, which agreed to file a complaint with the Board of Elections. In the meantime, my partner and I collected affidavits from people attesting to the long lines and waiting time. What we found appeared to be no mere oversight or mistake on the part of the people in charge of this election. How could someone not foresee this result? Every affidavit filled out in our six precincts told of how in elections past there had been six to ten voting booths in the exact same locations. For this election there were only three. We heard that in White precincts in the same county there were six or more voting booths for registration rolls with less people. One precinct in a White part of the county had twenty voting booths, and of course, much shorter lines. This left no doubt in my mind that this was a concerted effort to intimidate and suppress African American turnout.
But a funny thing happened in Columbus, Ohio. People stayed in line and voted anyway. And not just a couple of people. Thousands of people. All day long they braved the rain and voted, determined to have their voices heard. There were hundreds of first-time voters. Hundreds of young voters, and many voters you thought you would never see in line to cast a ballot. I had one young man come up and ask me if he could vote even though he had an outstanding arrest warrant. I told him he could. Perhaps the most rewarding moment came when I saw a visibly upset man in his late 60s storming out of the polling place. I followed him and asked him what was wrong. He told me they would not let him vote because they said he was not registered. He assured me he was registered and had voted at the same location for 30 years. I asked him to come back to the polling place. We marched into the precinct and I asked the officials why he had been denied the right to vote. They told me that he wasn’t on the register list. I informed them that under federal law he was entitled to a provisional ballot. They agreed and gave him one.
As I left at 11:30 p.m., when the last voter cast her ballot long after the polls had closed, I felt as though I had done my best to make sure that every vote counted.
Black voters stood in line for hours to vote in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Chris Hicks.