After the November presidential election, as informal accounts of massive voting irregularities began to surface, Columbus citizens organized public hearings to document and investigate the reports. Some national organizations had huge amounts of documentation that were to be used for future litigation and public policy changes to effect changes for future election cycles, but not to respond to this one. Organizers felt there needed to be an immediate public conversation about our local and statewide election administration with democratic access to the evidence of voting irregularities; a place for ordinary people- not just lawyers- to respond to the situation. Over 750 Ohioans attended the hearings where sworn testimony was gathered from voters, poll watchers, election experts, and investigative journalists.

The public hearings kicked off a host of widespread challenges to local and statewide election administration, as well as a growing public response of outrage and demand for accountability. The goals of this campaign were to address investigate and document voting irregularities, demand a recount, hold someone accountable, contest the election results, demand the recusal of the partisan Secretary of State, and challenge the legitimacy of Ohio’s electoral college electors (and the electoral college in general). There were rallies, panels, press conferences, church meetings, Congressional hearings, and lobbying that followed.

But something about this effort has appealed to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, middle-age audience. The historical moment was (is?) unique in that there were (are?) grounds for an immediate, real multiracial coalition in the midst of the segregated Ohio political landscape. Was the opportunity squandered?

The public hearings were all relatively impromptu- none organized with more than 1.5 weeks notice. This of course, couldn't be helped; it was an urgent organizing emergency. The result was events promoted far and wide over the Internet, on email lists, blogs, yahoo groups. Not so far and wide on the ground. Not so far and wide on campuses, at supermarkets, or churches, and not at all (to my knowledge) in languages besides English.

The Columbus hearings were promoted by trusted community leaders like Rev. Bill Moss, Charles Traylor, and Dr. Fitrakis for a week straight (and broadcast live) on local black-owned radio station WVKO. The first hearing was held on November 13, 2004, at New Faith Baptist Church on the Near East Side of Columbus, where audience and participants were evenly mixed racially and economically.

But at the second hearing on November 15, at the Franklin County Courthouse, both the audience and the participants who offered testimony were overwhelmingly white. The tendency was clear: middle-class, middle-age white people who had volunteered for America Coming Together,, the Kerry campaign, or Election Protection came to testify as eyewitnesses who had seen other people experiencing irregularities and suppression.

Certainly getting this testimony for the public record was valuable and helped compile a report with sworn statements under oath for public officials, includinf members of Congress. Certainly these hearings created space for public dialogue and information-gathering that led to continued investigation, litigation, action, and ultimately a challenge on the floor of Congress.

However, in the interest of self-determination and empowerment, having well-meaning white middle-class observers testify on behalf of low-income people of color is inappropriate.

The Columbus Post, a local African American paper, ran a front-page article about the 12/4/04 rally at the Statehouse titled “Blacks MIA at rally”. The article subtlety criticized the community for not showing up. Not mentioned was the fact that there was a symposium that same evening at Africentric Middle School featuring a panel of speakers, predominantly male, white, middle class, and over age 40- including the emcee. At a forum about issues that disproportionately affect poor people, people of color, and young people.

The white, mostly male, over-40 crew that represents this movement in the media (both mainstream and alternative) has demonstrated a condescending, self-congratulatory, opportunistic tendency. Leaders of national organizations who failed to protect voters’ rights in Ohio make speeches at hearings with members of Congress congratulating themselves on registering large numbers of new voters. People are promoting their political parties, their organizations, themselves. Events in Columbus are stacked with speakers who aren’t from Ohio.

The opportunism that tainted the remarks from movement ‘leaders’ was mirrored by the public: audience members consistently used question/answer time to make speeches, and people took up valuable time at hearings to give their opinions rather than present eye-witness or original testimony. I don’t blame people for their need to be heard and express their opinions, demands, and needs- but I do think that at all levels of this effort people demonstrated a love for hearing their own voices in a microphone, and were not necessarily respectful of audience members’ time.

With internal practices that are subtly racist, classist, sexist, and ageist, no wonder there are huge chunks of the community that are missing in action at the rallies. A successful movement to address these issues would internally promote racial justice and self-determination.

Recommendations for the future

(in my ideal world where there is unlimited time, people power, and resources to sustain a movement and where everyone actually cares to organize in an anti-oppressive way):

-Steering Committee
A committee to guide the direction of the movement could include representatives of the Ohio communities most affected by electoral injustice as well as organizers and lawyers. This could help insure that decisions are made democratically by a group that represents the movement's diversity, rather than by privileged fulltime organizers by default.

-Increased effort to reach voters who were actually disenfranchised [Read: Get off the Internet, hit the streets and phones] It’s a lot easier to organize online, and there was huge internet movement interested in this issue. However, we would have been more successful actually empowering voters who were disenfranchised if we had:

*Contacted every Franklin County voter whose provisional ballot was not counted (see for the complete list). There is an effort to do this now, even at this late hour. Contact to help.

*Helped CASE Ohio canvass whole residential neighborhoods in Columbus

*Held campus hearings at OSU, CSCC, Kenyon, Youngstown

*Flyered all supermarkets, health centers, library branches, barbers

*Translated flyers and posters, put them up in Somali- and Spanish-speaking communities; Had a translator at the hearings.

*Contacted organizations that provide services for citizens with different levels of ability. Their constituency was very much affected by inequitable and poorly planned practices at polling places.

*Contacted leaders of key neighborhood associations and area commissions: ask them to phone bank or canvass their neighborhoods.

-Volunteer Coordination
The effort was concentrated in the hands of so few people who had taken on so much responsibility that wasn’t shared or delegated. Meanwhile hundreds of interested, capable, committed people (in Ohio and around the country) wondered what they could do. Ideally, one person on the Steering Committee could have been Volunteer Coordinator and plugged willing people into various phone banking, canvassing, flyering roles. This way, people who support the movement can do more than attend rallies, clap, join yahoogroups, and read blogs.

- Archivist
Have one person on the steering committee organize the huge amounts of paperwork. Thousands of pages of transcripts, affidavits, and copies of affidavits should be filed and indexed, and databases of contact info for voters and movement supporters should be organized. This person should also organize an archive of the relevant local, state, and national press. This person can also be responsible for posting electronic photo, video, and audio files to the internet for public access and working with the photo, video, and audio documenters.

-Create space for non-lawyers to be important. Empower those who were actually affected by inequitable election administration to take leadership roles in the movement, speak at rallies, etc.

-Don’t tokenize people of color, or their churches.

-Curb the self-congratulatory tendency.
Do not convene public panels at which all the panelists are repetitive, quote one another excessively, and congratulate one another for being the best.

I wish to be clear that my critique is aimed as much at myself as at anybody else. It was a privilege to be a part of this electoral justice effort, I hope to continue working with all the individuals and organizations who were involved. I take full responsibility for the ways that my own organizing practices contributed to the above negative tendencies or failures, and I commit pubicly to doing better next time. I hope that my sharing this analysis inspires others to do better with me and challenge the way we organize in segregated cities.