The November presidential election was a historic landslide victory for Barack Obama. A closer election would have magnified some very troubling aspects of our election systems, despite the improvements made by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

The Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism, in conjunction with the Ohio Green Party deployed a team of observers on Election Day. Observers monitored the opening of precincts, activities throughout the day, and the closing of polls. Other observers spent election night watching the activities at county board of elections (BOE) offices.

Our observers noted an outrageous number provisional ballots, up to 20% in some inner city precincts. Over 180,000 provisional votes were cast in the state of Ohio. Voters were sometimes forced to vote provisionally due to improper interpretation of voter ID rules. Many Franklin County voters were forced to vote provisionally due to “data entry” errors, which resulted in voters marked in the poll book as a “designation 3” based on returned mail. These angry voters were allowed to vote a regular ballot if they first went home to get a utility bill or other alternate ID proving their residency. Since Provisional Ballots are often uncounted, excessive provisional voting leads to voter suppression.

In Union county, “an unidentified BOE representative who was at BOE in the evening said that it was “a cluster****” (this is verbatim) at the polling site he watched. They had machine problems initially and were late getting started, and at the end of the day, they took tapes out of the machines before closing them out properly with the downloading process. So, when they did download the data, the machine printed some more, and they ended up taping this last printing to the paper that had already been removed. One precinct did not reconcile correctly but the presiding judge for that precinct had already gone home.

While others celebrated the Obama victory, dedicated election observers spent the evening at the BOE offices in twenty counties. The county observers found multiple problems that may have affected close elections for down ticket candidates.

In Hamilton County, observer Jane Schiff was met with serious resistance and was threatened with arrest. In Belmont County, John Morgan was prevented from seeing where electronic votes were tallied. In Montgomery county, Observer Barbara was denied reasonable access, and was unable to closely observe the “helter skelter” activity where high school students were returning bags of materials from the precincts. Considering the importance of election day, one might expect a precise operation rather than one that is more appropriately described as chaotic.

Technical problems occurred in several counties. In Union County, observer Mark Loux reported that: “at 9:45, when the computer showed a message stating that it already had data for a precinct from which they were downloading. They had apparently loaded in early voting data, and this messed things up – the software did not know how to handle it. So, they cleared out all of the data (I think) and started loading precincts again. They were evidently loading from both flash cards and PBE modules, and things stopped again at 10:50, when they received the same message – that they were trying to download data for a precinct that had already been updated. It took a full hour to remedy this, with the S&S representative on the phone most of the time. They eventually concluded that the problem was that they were downloading from both flash card and PBE’s, rather than downloading from all of the flash cards first, and then from all of the PBE’s. So, at 11:50 they cleared data again, loaded data from flash cards, and then from PBE’s, and then added absentee data. This apparently worked.”

Similarly, in Summit County, Terry Grimm reported that the process was delayed 35 minutes while the materials from the city of Barberton were sorted and organized, including a lack of security seals and missing supply bags.

In Portage County, Kevin Egler noted that the optical scan machine scanned 2800 ballots, but the memory card was corrupted, forcing BOE personnel to rescan these ballots, delaying the process 30 minutes and demoralizing the staff. At least 9 of 50 observed precincts returned materials which lacked security seals.

Observer Katie Barns reports that in Delaware County, security for the memory cards is completely inadequate. The “security” tape over the memory card is a piece of plastic tape that could easily be removed and reapplied, with no way to tell if it had been disturbed, so a memory card could be switched without detection.

Warren County, site of the suspicious 2004 homeland security lockdown, observer Marilyn Welker found the staff to be very accommodating. Similarly, Adele Eisner found the staff receptive in Cuyahoga County. Lauren Anderson was well received in Licking County, and wrote a detailed report as a result of BOE cooperation.

The stolen elections of 2000 and 2004 motivated election activists to involve themselves in election protection activities. The public overwhelming rejected the disaster that is the Bush administration, but this one victory does not permanently protect against future stolen elections. Close elections occurred in congressional and senate races, such as Franken vs. Coleman in Minnesota. We must continue to work to reduce provisional voting and to apply voter ID laws fairly and uniformly. On Election Day, end of day processes should reflect best practices, and avoid the confusion and chaos that was observed on this Election Day. The collective experience of the 2008 observer program tells us that our work is not yet done.

Pete Johnson organized the Election Observer project, with Joe Parenteau, in Columbus, Ohio and is the president of the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism.