As continuing investigations into the 2004 presidential election reveal yet more flaws in the nation’s election machinery, the call for meaningful election reform is growing across the country and in Washington, where members of Congress who opposed Ohio’s 2004 Electoral College vote have proposed sweeping reforms. It remains to be seen if a growing coalition of civil rights activists, election reformers and others can create a clamor for change that cannot be ignored – even by the Republican-dominated Congress.

This past weekend, civil rights activists, election reformers and peace groups held a series of teach-ins in California where they laid out a broad and deepening case for congressional action. The sessions featured emotional footage taken in Ohio this November. It featured updates from investigators who challenged the certified results in Ohio and New Mexico, including new findings that cast further doubt on the accuracy and reliability of the newest voting systems used and their related methods of counting the ‘certified’ vote. Academics who specialize in statistical analysis explained why exit polls projecting John Kerry the winner were probably correct – and why refutations by the polling firm that conducted the national exit poll did not hold up.

Meanwhile, as more than two dozen election reform bills have been introduced in Congress, the focus also included organizing strategies to urge meaningful congressional action in 2005. This weekend in Selma, Alabama, Rev. Jesse Jackson will lead a march at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where 40 years ago Monday – March 7, 1965 - a protest that turned bloody caught the nation’s attention and launched the events that culminated in the passage and signing of the National Voting Rights Act the following summer. Many of those speaking at the California teach-ins said the GOP’s tactics in last year’s swing states – tilting the vote toward President Bush - were a return to the tactics commonly used in the country’s racist, Jim Crow past, before the 1965 Voting Rights Act ended electoral apartheid in America.

“Unless we get this right on voting, nothing else matters,” said Robert Fitrakis, one of four attorneys who filed Ohio’s Election Challenge lawsuit who first reported many of that state’s abuses in, where he is editor and publisher. “The facts are on our side. We want full transparency… The new voting rights movement begins here today.”

The challenge of election reform begins with identifying what problems matter most – because the 2004 elections in Ohio and New Mexico were a veritable catalog of a broken election system. Various speakers addressed elements of this big picture. The top concerns had to do with ensuring the individual right to vote and verifying that vote will be honestly and accurately counted.

On the front-end of the election process – before Election Day – openly partisan actions by top state election officers, most notably Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State and Bush-Cheney Co-Chair J. Kenneth Blackwell, were highlighted as an unacceptable, anti-democratic element that had to be outlawed. Not only do openly partisan secretaries of state tamper with registration rules, ballot access, voter roll purges, selection of voting machines and other factors that disenfranchise voters before ballots are even cast, the presence of openly partisan chief state election officer confirms public perceptions that votes cannot be accurately counted, nor recounted with credibility. In one of many examples given from Ohio, Fitrakis described how Blackwell illegally targeted felons for a statewide voter roll purge before Election Day. That tactic was followed on Election Day by GOP operatives - who called themselves “the Texas Strike Force” – who made threatening phone calls to felons, who are allowed to vote in Ohio. “John Conyers (the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, whose staff authored a lengthy report detailing dozens of such abuses in Ohio’s 2004 election) called this a ‘caging’ tactic,” Fitrakis said. “This is Carl Rove’s version of Jim Crow.”

The lack of national standards – for voter registration, up to and including Election Day – as well as for voting machines and way votes are counted, were also highlighted. Among the most critical issues in the registration process are the lack of uniform standards that encourage voter registration – not making it more difficult. On the type and accuracy of voting machines, municipalities now use a mix of voting technologies, and there are no standards for the per-capita allocation of these machines, to ensure every willing voter actually gets to vote. Moreover, on the newest electronic machines there is no verifiable paper trail, to ensure accuracy of the vote and credible recounts.

Instead, as independent investigative reporter Wayne Madsen pointed out, a web of related, interlocking private companies – with family members sitting on the boards of each – oversee the development, manufacture and use of the electronic machines. These companies have deep ties to the Republican Party as well as to fundamentalist Christian organizations, which both had vested interests in re-electing the president and the Republican-controlled Congress. The most notable example is Walden O’Dell, who was a top donor to Bush’s re-election campaign and is chief executive of Diebold, Inc., which makes paperless electronic voting machines.

Equally glaring but less well-known, Madsen said, is Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr, the Bush-appointed chairman of the new United States Election Assistance Commission, which was created after Florida’s debacle in 2000. Saories is a partisan Republican with a long history of attacking Democratic candidates and office-holders. When GOP consultant Ed Rollins boasted in the 1993 New Jersey governor’s race electing Christie Todd Whitman that he suppressed the Black vote, Madsen said Rollins was referring to money that he gave Soaries to distribute among Black clergy to discourage turnout. The chairman of the nation’s supposedly unbiased election oversight board also had a role in attacking the former California Secretary of State, Kevin Shelly, who recently resigned under pressure. “We’ve got to get the election process out of the hands of these kinds of firms and these people,” Madsen said.

The abdication of election oversight to private companies wasn’t just a problem in Ohio, several speakers noted. In New Mexico, Warren Stewart, director of legislative issues for The Ballot Integrity Project, described a revolving door between that state’s top election officers and a private company, Automated Election Services, which was hired to help run New Mexico’s elections. Stewart described how at different stages in 2004’s post-election recount, the Secretary of State provided contradictory data sets of supposedly ‘certified votes.’ Initially, the provisional ballot count was not released because “a vendor” had the data, Stewart said he was told. When Stewart said he finally obtained those figures in early January, the fuller data set didn’t match what he was given after the election. “The numbers were different,” Stewart said. “I called the Bureau of Elections back. They said that is not possible. The vendor provided it all to us.”

The privatization of the most public of activities – elections - becomes even more significant when considering that John Kerry lost New Mexico by only 11,000 votes. The state has the nation’s highest ‘undercount rate,’ meaning thousands of votes for president did not register, and therefore were not counted. Stewart said the state’s electronic voting machines produced the largest number of undercounts – which election officials duly ignored. “The secretary of state of New Mexico said they don’t spend much time on undercounts,” he said. “The secretary of state blames the voters. I blame the machines. Without a paper trail, there’s no way to know which is correct.”

Exit poll Jonathan Simon again made the case that the Nov. 2nd poll conducted for the nation’s leading media organizations was correct in projecting Kerry the winner. He said the rationale given by veteran pollster Warren Mitofsky – appearing on NBC on the eve of the January 6th Electoral College certification – did not hold up when the known exit poll results were analyzed. Mitofsky said Democrats were more eager to respond to exit poll questionnaires than Republicans – and that accounted for Kerry’s projected win. “The real world picture of responder behavior is there is no way to make this work,” Simon said. “We are left with no basis for exit poll discrepancies. But the national media didn’t investigate this.”

Butch Wing, who is the California State Coordinator for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-Push Coalition, said there were two dozen bills in Congress addressing aspects of election reform. On the Senate side of the aisle, Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and Barbara Boxer, D-CA, recently convened a meeting of top Democratic senators – including Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, John Kerry, D-MA, Dick Durban, D-IL, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV – to discuss a major election reform bill.

According to press materials, the Boxer-Clinton “Count Every Vote Act” will:

  • Provide voter-verified paper ballots for every vote cast on electronic machines;

  • Set uniform standards for provisional ballots;

  • Ensure equal access to voting machines and election personnel in every community;

  • Designate Election Day as a federal holiday;

  • Reduce wait times for voters at polling places;

  • Make deceptive voter suppression activities a federal crime;

  • Restrict the political activities of state elections officials and voting machine manufacturers;

  • While these elements seem to be a significant and promising start, it’s important to keep in mind Jonathan Simon’s closing remarks in Berkeley. “It is highly improbable that the Republicans will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. There is more than one hole in all of these legislative proposals. You have to be very careful about taking crumbs as victory. Take the materials that are here today. People are so misinformed about this…”