The Democratic National Committee's investigation into Ohio's 2004 presidential election irregularities is the perfect postscript to the party's 'election protection' efforts last fall: it is a shocking indictment of a party caught completely off-guard in its most heated presidential campaign in years, and a party that still doesn't fully understand what happened and how to avoid a repeat in the future.
The report primarily documents the fact that Jim Crow voter suppression tactics targeting Democratic African-American voters were rampant in Ohio’s cities during the 2004 presidential election. It cites and spends most of its time analyzing the most visible problems: from shortages of voting machines in minority precincts, to unreasonable obstacles to voter registration, to disproportionate use of provisional ballots on Election Day among new voters and Democratic constituencies, to inadequate poll worker training and election administration, to poor post-Election Day record keeping.
But the DNC reports says those factors do not mean John Kerry won the election, nor does it mean that the new electronic voting machines are unreliable – even though some of the precincts with the highest percentages of reported problems were outfitted with the new electronic voting machines, known as DREs. The DNC asked for access to the new electronic voting machines and their software, but was denied by local election officials and the private manufacturers. The report leaves the matter there.
It is statements like this one, on page 189, and a failure to follow-through that make the report more than a disappointment to election protection workers, voter rights advocates and those grassroots activists who worked for John Kerry’s campaign. Speaking of the new electronic voting machines, the DNC report states, that “many of the county boards (of elections) do not actually control the electronic records created during the tallying process.” When the Fairfield County Board of Elections was asked for election results, they merely forwarded data from a private vendor.
Since county vote totals are tabulated on computers and sent directly to the Secretary of State’s office – who has real-time access to those figures – you might expect the report to address the question of whether the 2004 vote count was susceptible to fraud. It doesn’t.
The DNC says it sought access to the computers used to record and tabulate Ohio votes, but those same county boards of election that didn’t control the data - and the voting machine manufacturers who did – declined, citing “security concerns” (p.187) and “vendors pointed out their extreme discomfort with providing this sort of access to a partisan organization.”
That might sound reasonable, if you don’t recall – and the report does not recall - that the chief executive of the nation’s largest electronic voting machine manufacturer, Diebold’s Walden O’Dell, was not only a top-tier fundraiser for George W. Bush, but also promised in an infamous August 14, 2003 fundraising letter to Republicans that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Also, both ES&S and Triad corporations, the latter which tabulated ballots in 41 of Ohio’s 88 counties, have well-established Republican ties.
The DNC report is filled with omissions of that magnitude and dismissals of the work of citizen-activists who – with no help from the DNC, or Kerry campaign – fought for a fair accounting of the 2004 vote after Election Day.
Consider these paragraphs from an introductory letter to the report from Donna Brazile, the chair of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute.
- “Although voters across America voiced concerns which questioned the fairness and the accuracy of the 2004 general election, President George W. Bush’s narrow victory in Ohio (a pivotal state) provided sufficient electoral votes to ensure his re-election. There was a myriad of litigation surrounding the general election in Ohio that targeted controversial conduct on the part of the Office of the Secretary of State.
“Following the election recount, the House Judiciary Democratic Staff published an exhaustive report, “Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio” that is replete with anecdotal evidence of numerous, serious election irregularities in the Ohio presidential election which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters.”
People who put their lives on hold and went to Ohio to work for John Kerry will shake their heads. Brazile cites “a myriad of litigation” that her party and candidate fought, did not fund and sought to undermine. Moreover, the reference to the House Judiciary Committee’s Democrat Staff inquiry as “anecdotal” is an insult to voting rights activists and volunteer lawyers who conducted public hearings – at their own expense, not the DNC’s - and took sworn testimony from more than 1,000 voters who cared enough and volunteered to testify under oath and file affidavits. The hearings were anything but anecdotal; they were perhaps the largest group of people to testify under oath about elections in the history of the state. The first two hearings in Columbus occurred within two weeks of Election Day. Four other hearings in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Warren occurred more than a month before the DNC could conduct its phone survey from the east coast.
It’s worth remembering the timing and origin of this report. The Democratic Party and its allied supporters, such as Americans Coming Together, spent millions of dollars on their election protection efforts. The same Ohio Democratic Party that told John Kerry not to challenge the result and to concede to Bush, also was completely caught off-guard with Republican’s resurrection of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics, according to its own report. What kind of a party stations hundreds of lawyers at polls in anticipation of poll challenges that don’t happen, but isn’t aware that voting machines will not be evenly distributed among white and black neighborhoods? Or isn’t aware of the fact that newly registered voters aren’t receiving proper precinct information, or are being targeted with new provisional ballots that are likely to be disqualified on frivolous technicalities?
There’s more history to the DNC report. The DNC announced it would investigate election irregularities on December 6th, two days before Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, and Democrats on the House Judiciary opened their first of several hearings into the 2004 Ohio presidential vote. In effect, the DNC knew Conyers’ inquiry would be explosive and sought to pre-empt his investigation by announcing its inquiry first.
The Ohio Democratic Party wanted nothing to do with examining the evidence of voting fraud – what Brazille derides as "anecdotal" – and did not participate in the election recount. The Kerry-Edwards campaign joined the recount effort late, only after it was embarrassed by the Libertarian and Green Parties. The Kerry campaign gave several hundred thousand dollars to the gubernatorial recount in Washington, but didn’t advance a dime to the Ohio election challenge lawsuit.
What the DNC did was announce – two days before Conyers’ first hearing – that its review would not contest the election results, but would “fulfill the Democratic Party’s commitment to ensuring that every eligible voter can vote and every vote cast is counted.” Rather than achieve that lofty goal, the party conceded for a second time – Kerry’s concession being first – by confirming Bush’s victory before a recount was completed and similarly by avoiding participation in a voter challenge suit.
The report contains other outrages. It states African-American voters waited an average of 52 minutes in line, compared to white voters waiting an average of 18 minutes. That calculation defies the experience of thousands of voters who waited four, five or six hours. That figure is the kind of statistical averaging is akin to having a tornado touch down in Columbus and having the National Weather Service say its been a breezy day across the state.
In the primarily African American 55th ward in Columbus, on the ground election protection volunteers clocked an average wait of 3 hours and 15 minutes. In the adjacent inner city 5th ward, the wait was 3 hours and 5 minutes. The Franklin County Board of Elections, under the control of former Franklin County Republican Party Chair Matt Damschroder failed to put out 76 voting machines by his own admittance. All 76 from the Democratic-rich city of Columbus and 42 of them from the African American wards on the city’s near east side. Apparently, a few blacks in Bucyrus didn’t wait long and needed to be averaged into the DNC’s report totals.
But the biggest disappointment of the DNC report is that it gives no indication that the old-school Jim Crow abuses will be addressed and rectified, and that the newer school electronic voting machine abuses will be similarly addressed. The report portrays a statewide landscape of separate and unequal rules in election jurisdictions across the state. It says local and statewide election officials – and the private companies they hire – aren’t interested in cooperating to make the system more transparent and equitable. And the party hierarchy that commissioned this report dismisses the work of its activists and loyal volunteers who worked before and after the 2004 race for electoral justice.
Is that any way to prepare for 2006 or 2008? Read the report at www.democrats.org and decide for yourself if the DNC learned the real lessons of 2004 in Ohio.
Steve Rosenfeld and Bob Fitrakis are co-editors, with Harvey Wasserman, of DID GEORGE W. BUSH STEAL THE 2004 ELECTION: ESSENTIAL DOCUMENTS, published by www.freepress.org.
Revised June 26, 2005