01 May 2014

Or ... One average citizen's account of her unsettling experience video-taping on Election Day 2004, attending the public hearings afterward and then serving as an Official Witness for the Ohio Vote Recount.


In 2004, like most of my friends, I was asleep at the wheel, even with questions still lingering following the 2000 election. As an active mother, advocate and writer, I felt entitled to this lethargy. It's all too much was my hidden mantra. If I hadn't been asked to take my outdated family video camera to the polls on Election Day, I might still be able relieve myself of the burden of being awake and aware. But from that day forward, things changed. In late 2004, I added Voter's Rights activism to my list of duties. Nobody in my life saw it coming, least of all me.


Linda Byrket, a filmmaker and the organizer for video-documenting voter issues on the day of our last presidential election, had nabbed me three days before the election, while I was waiting in line for a showing of the film, Unprecedented, at the Drexel Theatre. She assured me that my ineptness with a video camera wouldn't get in the way of making a video record of voters and their stories.


I took film footage at precincts in Franklin County, Ohio, and it changed me, forever. Following that, I also attended two public hearings about election abnormalities and following that, I volunteered to become an official Witness for the Ohio Vote Recount.


On Election Day, 2004, I pulled out the camera, dusted it off, and showed up to precincts where voters were having problems. My job, and that of others who volunteered at the last minute for this project, was simply to document voter issues, complaints, and testimony of injustices. It was assumed there might be problems with Republican challengers. I would have taped happy voters, as well, but in my precincts, they were few and far between.


In the afternoon and evening, I went to precincts near the Ohio State Universtiy campus and to three predominantly African-American neighborhoods. In each of these polling places, there were not enough voting booths for the number of voters. What is going on?....was a constant question.


At 6pm, filming at a precinct in a small library, I followed a line of more than 200 people out of the doors, down a path and into the woods, in the dark, in the pouring rain. One woman yelled to me: "Get a picture of me. I'm voting! My vote counts!" My footage includes drenched people without umbrellas, smiling and giving me the thumbs-up sign.


Taking a break from the rain, I had a quick dinner at the simple, little church that was the headquarters for Election Protection, a coalition for the protection of our vote. There, I met people from Washington, New York and Michigan. Busloads of bright-spirited students from Howard University in Washington, DC got up at 4am to "protect the right to vote."


A young man came back to the church after his shift with what he called a victory story. He stood in front of the crowd to tell us that a man returned to vote after having been in line for 2 hours in the morning and leaving before voting in order to get to work. After coming back and waiting 3 more hours in the late afternoon he was about to leave in irritation again without having voted when these students found him. They talked him into going back and taking his place in line again. They brought him food. This time he got his vote cast. "One more vote!" this kid shouted to the group as he told his story. There was camaraderie here, real spirit! We were all in this together to try to make a difference, make a change.


Taping people's stories was the fun part of my job, but the truth about their devastating experiences, sometimes serving as roadblocks that kept them from casting their vote, started to unhinge me. To this day, visions of chaos at the polls and the glistening, hope-filled faces of people standing in long lines, in the rain, swim through my mind, haunting me.


Coming home that soggy night, thinking of my two sons, aged 17 and 19, twisted my insides. They are the next generation of voter and this had been the second election they would witness where fairness or even civility didn't seem to matter anymore. Common decency was exchanged for political advantage by our Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell. My own confidence in our system was slipping, so how would I be able to insure that my sons cherish their own vote someday? It made me think.


Once home, and after disturbing realities that my husband and I had witnessed that day, we were not ready for the final vote tally that gave George W. Bush the presidency. At midnight, heading up to bed, we felt sure that, by morning, John Kerry would be investigating the serious questions still lingering in Ohio--- long lines, machine errors, the lack of enough machines in Democratic districts and provisional ballot inequities--- since this was, after all, the swing state. I could not fathom conceding with even a hint of disenfranchisement after the Florida debacle in 2000. We had yet to find out whether our growing concern about local voter disenfranchisement was an anomaly or part of something bigger? Who knew?


In my mind and the minds of many, Kerry's concession speech was premature, at the very least. We were stunned by his seeming lack of curiosity. Were we just sore losers, wanting our man to win, or was there more to this story? Why did this feel different than a mere defeat? How could we get the answers we needed?


Multitudes of people in Ohio were outraged that the press had invaded our state for months, prior to Election day, following the candidates and yet ignored the voters, themselves, once Mr. Kerry conceded. In the end, we were left to stand up for the very institution of fair voting itself, our basic rights, rather than just for our candidate.


Irate political leaders stood up and demanded investigation and truth. They demanded a recount, which was complicated because Kerry, himself, with money in his budget for a recount, had not requested it. Citizens persisted anyhow. Meetings and public hearings were held to give a voice to disenfranchised voters. Bob Fitrakis, Harvey Wasserman, Cliff Arnebeck, CASE Ohio, Black Box voters and many, many other people stepped up the pressure on anybody who would listen. They were spirited and tough. The Green Party painstakingly put all the pieces in place to eventually get that recount done. They conducted themselves like true statesmen, wanting what was best for all of us.



Linda Byrket's documentary, Video The Vote, provided actual footage of many of the problems. It is a now powerful record of the rain, the lines, the attorneys, people in tears and other general chaos. My own shots were included. Was I at the right place at the right time to see the long lines, etc. or was it the wrong place at the wrong time? Either way, this voter is unhappy about what she witnessed. I do not concede my vote. My life as a US citizen will never be the same.


Because of that film and after attending the hearings, I volunteered to be an official witness of the Election 2004 Recount. I have no special skills in either politics or vote recounts but in an effort to get to the truth behind serious doubts regarding our free and fair election, extra hands were needed and I resolved to make a small difference by merely participating in the election vote recount. I had a very different Christmas season that year and it had a lot to do with the odd coincidence of my living in Columbus, the capital city of Ohio where the swing vote happened.


My assignment was in Ashland County, Ohio, about halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. Because of obstructionist delays by Ohio's Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, who is also the Co-chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign in Ohio, we weren't able to get a recount done before the electoral vote was cast, but the recount proceeded anyway.


Many people were needed on a moment's notice in the midst of already crowded holiday time. To be frank, I wasn't at all ready for such a job, and I knew it. Yet, the goal was to have each county's recount witnessed. I was told to watch the process and that anything I observed would be valuable information.


I resolved to do my best, overcoming basic hesitations. I didn't have enough time to study the Ohio Recount Law so that I would know all the right questions to ask and I didn't really want to confront officious personalities should I spot an error in the count. Yet, I couldn't seem to get over seeing those long lines and then hearing hours of sworn testimony …as in, under oath to God and country… at public meetings about peoples electronic vote inexplicably switching from Gore to Bush and other frighteningly unacceptable irregularities on election day.


What I did want to do was bake a few cookies before my son got home from college on Christmas break. I wanted to rest from three trips out of town, for work, in the last two weeks. I wanted, at least, to put the Christmas tree upright in its stand. In Franklin County, though, we'd just seen too much to be able to sip our eggnog in peace without this last effort. After the recount was done, it might be possible to put our feet up with a small amount of honor.


Ours is the county, located in the capital of the swing-state, yet it is also the place where the real story about problems in our election never got told. News teams were conspicuously absent from all those public hearings. Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, is on record as saying: " There were no problems in Ohio, whatsoever, beyond the usual election gaffes that happen in any election." This quote was circulated among the media, yet voters who lost their right to vote were not quoted. Disenfranchisement is a soft-sounding word, yet it is a horrific reality. What it means is that, by underhanded means, people were denied the right to vote.


I don't blame people in the other 49 states for not getting what we, in Ohio, mean when we say Voter Fraud or Disenfranchisement. How could they know any better without some serious research? Yet, as I heard a Nebraska Democrat speak on a national news show to Ohio citizens: "Get over it. Our candidate lost. Don't be sore losers." I wanted to respond...... "May God help you if this group chooses your state to be the next swing state because they've researched your subtle, sometimes outdated state election laws, found all the right gray areas, studied densities of population, gerrymandered your districts, and put one of their own in charge of the "free and fair" elections in your state."


After a small confidence speech to myself, I pulled myself together, put on some warm boots and found my way to the Board of Elections in Ashland County. This recount would now be used to collect the data necessary to take the next step in understanding what went wrong. Exit poll confusion, something that all election specialists look at in every other election around the world, were said by this administration to actually, in this case, not really mean that much.



Jimmy Carter, our former president, who has become an election specialist, working through the Carter Center, did not oversee our election because his suggestions after 2000, asked for by the administration in a "show" of good faith, were not taken seriously. Prior to the 2004 election, he said that it "is unconscionable to perpetuate fraudulent or biased electoral practices in any nation. It is especially objectionable among us Americans, who have prided ourselves on setting global examples for pure democracy. With reforms unlikely at this stage of the election, perhaps the only recourse will be to focus maximum public scrutiny on the suspicious practices in Florida."


We now have placed this intense scrutiny on the suspicious activity in Ohio. Though we couldn't do it before the electoral vote to actually make a difference to the outcome, we can now, at the very least, gain deeper insight into discrepancies.


In a recount, each candidate is entitled to send its own representative to oversee the process. I represented Cobb for the Green Party, another woman represented Badnarik, an Independent, and there were representatives from the Democrats and Republicans who showed up promptly for the 9am start. Also present were equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats from their Board of Elections and the staff from Ashland County who actually handled the ballots and fed them through the tabulation machine. Ms. Madhu Sing, a field representative for Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell was sent as an extra observer to this particular county.


A presidential election recount is a dread moment for any Board of Elections, a real bother and something that makes them vulnerable to outside eyes and possible criticism. As we all gathered for the day to begin, people were polite, yet tension hovered in the air, shown by tight smiles, crossed arms and serious attitudes.


The first question asked was about how they would take a random sampling of their precincts and the answer was that they had already figured out which precincts represented a typical random sampling. Since typical and random are opposing terms, this was not a random sample.


My report is posted on-line with the Green Party at www.votecobb.org, so here I'll just tell you of a few of my experiences and observations. I witnessed the Opti-Scan system of voting in Ashland County, which is similar to taking a multiple choice test where you fill in the correct circle with a number 2 pencil. Counting these ballots is done on a tabulation machine, scanning for areas marked by pencil. Erasures are a problem, since some pencil lead always remains embedded in the paper.


I learned what is meant by an overvote. It means that the intention of the voter isn't clear from whatever marks they put on their ballot. In a recount, the task is to try to make sure that ballots have not been thrown out without extra attention given to trying to ascertain the true intention of said voter. Marking an opti-scan ballot in pen rather than pencil, even if everything is filled in correctly, throws your vote out. All overvotes are re-examined in a recount.


The witness, me, spends a lot of time pointing at, but not touching certain ballots that appear to be clear as to the intention of the voter. Our chairs were on wheels, which meant we were like racecars that gun their engines at the appropriate moment and take off. But in our case we would lurch forward a few feet, to notice if, indeed, the offending ballot was credibly wrong, only to back up again a few minutes later and watch some more. Touching the cast ballots is absolutely forbidden.


The method of storing the cast ballots after the election, until they are destroyed, has strict rules. They must be under lock and key at all times. I observed the cubicles along the side of the room from which the staff was getting each precinct's cast ballots. Stacked on top of the cubicles were snacks, mugs and cleaning products. I also scanned the rest of the room, about the size of a two-person office, or maybe three or four work cubicles, not huge.


There was a table with a vinyl tablecloth, used for the recount. I also noticed a coat rack, fridge and microwave in the room. Since this looked a whole lot like a lunchroom, I asked if storing them in here was following the rule of being kept under lock and key. I was told that the door to the room had a lock on it, was kept locked when not in use and that the outer door to all the offices had a lock on it, as well.


"How many people are in and out of here each day," I asked? "Just us, and we are all trustworthy," I was told. This is not a satisfying answer. What about cleaning crew, electricians, visiting family?



Recounts are about collecting objective data, but people come with personalities. I believe my quiet demeanor was a little bit of a problem for Ms. Singh. Not being very chatty, I sat in my office chair-on-wheels, paying attention, taking notes and puzzling over the presence of this field representative of the Secretary of State. She intermittently asked me where I would be witnessing the next day. I always said that I didn't know yet. She interested me and I began to understand her role better towards the end of the day.


Our assigned schedule changed at lunch, which broke a half an hour early, after some whispering in the hall, between Ms. Singh and members of the board. These meetings in the hall went on, from time to time, all day, out of the range of the official witnesses to the recount. When we returned from our lunch recess, the recount continued with no clue as to why we had adjourned early and not come back early as well. Why the extra time? Secrets intrigue me.


We began to notice that the overvotes written in ink were now being put aside in a separate box from everything else. By the end of the day, about 4pm, we were told that during lunch, Ms. Sing had spoken to the Secretary of State and received permission to put the votes written in ink back into the count. This recovered a few votes for each party. She told us that our Democrat fellow observer had quietly asked her if these votes might be considered as being clear as to intent of the voter, so she spoke about this at lunchtime, by phone, with Mr. Blackwell. She repeated, over and over: "Now you can see that he is a truly fair overseer of the election."


I asked another question. "Did you also ask for a judgement about the overvotes where both a circle was filled in and the same name was written at the bottom?" These far outnumbered the ink overvotes. This was ignored. I was reminded that the role of the witness is to oversee the recount, not to impede it in any way. So I said clearly, in front of everyone: "I'd like to state, for the record, that I'd like the Secretary of State to consider those as well." Nothing more was said. In a future recount, I would have someone make a note of the number of overvotes in this category since they were vastly more significant in number. I still wonder why it was all so secret, the question, the phone call and the pulling aside of the ink votes. I wonder why my clear question did not even receive a response.


After Ms. Singh's announcement, it was assumed that we had come to the end and we were given the results of the recount. The recount added a total of 64 votes back into the vote count for this county, about 40 for Bush, 20 for Kerry and some others. I asked, for the third time to see the polling books, which is the right of the witness, under the law. I had asked by phone if I could come in the day before or early that morning to view the polling books and was told no, so this was the only time left. It stretched people's good graces, though, and I was yelled at by a member of their Board of Elections. I was told that I wouldn't know what to do with the information. "That's OK," I said. "This is what I'm supposed to do," which required another meeting in the hall.


With suppressed anger, workers brought out the books, precinct by precinct. My fellow witness for Badnarik and I, in an effort to speed things up, began recording our notes, each taking different precincts, of the numbers of ballots sent, votes cast, spoiled votes and provisional ballots. At this point, the same unsettled woman expressed great rage toward me. "This is ridiculous! You don't know what you're doing and were not even prepared for this! You are wasting everyone's time and just scribbling in your notebook!"


Realizing that it was imperative now that I speak with equilibrium in order to get on with things, I stood up slowly, spoke the name of the precinct just recorded and rattled off each number accurately. Then I said: "I know this is a pain in the ass and I have no desire to make it any more difficult than is necessary, but this is my job and I intend to do it. I can either come back tomorrow or go on as quickly as I can this afternoon until I've recorded what I need." This was met with silence, but it eased a bit of the tension. It was clear that no one wanted to come back the next day, so my partner and I proceeded.


About an hour later, we were finally done. With my coat on and clutching my notebook, I was first in line as we filed out, past the board of election, etc., to go home, yet I made it my business to shake each person's hand and to thank them. People rose as I approached them. One Democrat on the board told me he knew I was only doing the job I had come to do. Ms Singh remained seated.


On the whole, I liked the people in this county. They reminded me of my own neighbors and family, with broad mid-western faces and a desire for the system to work. We rely on the wheels of justice to turn in the direction of truth.


What strikes me now as still important is that three of Jimmy Carter's main points about election reform continue to remain big problems in Ohio.


1.We allow our Secretary of State, with strong party responsibilities

to oversee the election.

2.We do not have a single voting procedure with a paper trail,

which, in the case of electronic voting, would be a ballot printout.

3.We have not outlawed the practices that led to long lines at the polls.


The best proof available for voter disenfranchisement in Ohio, in the eyes of the law, has to do with those long lines that are in practically every clip of Linda Byrket's film, VIDEO THE VOTE. Its footage covers precincts all over the city of Columbus, Ohio, where there was incredible confusion within the polls. It shows people standing under umbrellas or dripping wet, wearing garbage bags for protection from the rain. I participated in that film and it stuns me to this day how that one fateful action has spawned my re-engagement with the political future of our country. It was difficult, at first, to be on the front lines of a new battle that seemed to just fall into my lap, but I now feel blessed to know that average citizens really can make a difference. At the end of the film are three words: Let's fix this. I'm now on that path.


John Conyers, Democratic congressman from Michigan, led a committee to ascertain What Went Wrong in Ohio. His report to Congress, now part of the Congressional Record, has also been published as a book with the same name. The film is part of that record as well.


Mid-terms are now upon us. The drumbeat has begun. Even for a middle-aged person, like me, with another life beyond politics, staying awake now, is necessary. My actions do count. I cannot just sit back for any election anymore. This is my country, my president, and my vote.