Still Counting

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, December 8, 2004)

Ohio election officials certified their state’s election results Monday, giving George Bush the state by a margin of 118,775 votes and setting the stage for a recount. There’s no indication that this coming recount will overturn the result; but the prevalence of voting discrepancies, logistical problems and allegations of dirty tricks have made Ohio a living testament to the urgent need for voting reform.

Last week, John Kerry’s campaign joined the efforts by third-party candidates David Cobb and Michael Badnarik to push a statewide recount in Ohio. On Friday, their forces won a victory when a federal court denied an attempt by populous Delaware County to block a recount there (and therefore set an important precedent). Over the weekend, protesters repeated the call for a recount and asked (probably in vain) that Ohio wait to cast its Electoral College votes until a new count is completed. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, had to certify the tally before a recount effort could move forward, and Monday’s certification gave Ohio a 10-day window to start the process — one Blackwell doesn’t think will change anything:

“This was an election where you have some glitches but none of these glitches were of a conspiratorial nature and none of them would overturn or change the election results.”

For the most part, the rallying cry of those groups calling for a recount is not that it would throw Ohio to Kerry, but rather that it would expose systemic voting problems in urgent need of remedy. Cobb and Badnarik say they have raised the $113,600 needed for a county-by-county count (Blackwell’s office, citing unspecified extra costs, claims the total cost will be close to $1.5 million), and various non-profit organizations have also called for a count. That includes People For the American Way, which argued:

“A recount in Ohio and a full examination of ballots and registrations in Ohio and elsewhere are not only necessary first steps to ensure that we have an accurate count. Such efforts will also help all Americans better understand what is working and what is not working in our elections system. With that information, we can pursue reforms that will ensure that the next election is less likely to face doubts.”

A well-run recount would certainly clarify some of the problems in Ohio, such as the 93,000 reported “undervotes” (ballots on which some votes — but not the presidential vote — were counted), and ensure the proper counting of provisional ballots. But as Common Cause president Chellie Pingree pointed out in an interview with, a recount highlights only some of the problems:

“There’s some confusion about the value of a recount. Even in Ohio, while people may be hoping that the recount will overturn the election — which is a separate matter — it won’t necessarily reveal some of the most fundamental problems. In Ohio, we’ll know if they counted the punch-cards right, but we can’t really audit the electronic voting machines — all you can do is ask the machine to tell you the tally again. And you can’t go after fundamental problems like why there were such long lines and why there weren’t enough voting machines in places that had high voter turnout.”

As many activists argued before the election, the lack of a paper trail ensured no way to accurately recount the tallies of the controversial electronic voting machines, so any recount is by definition incomplete. And a recount does nothing about the votes that were never cast. To that end, outgoing DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe announced Monday that he’ll soon convene a group of lawyers and voter advocates, with the goal of completing a comprehensive study on Ohio’s voting irregularities by next spring. And ten Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have asked Blackwell to respond to charges of voter suppression in Ohio, particularly in areas with large minority populations:

“Consistent and widespread reports indicate a lack of voting machines in urban, minority and Democratic areas, and a surplus of such machines in Republican, white and rural areas. As a result, minority voters were discouraged from voting by lines that were in excess of eight hours long. Many of these voters were also apparently victims of a campaign of deception, where flyers and calls would direct them to the wrong polling place. Once at that polling place, after waiting for hours in line, many of these voters were provided provisional ballots after learning they were at the wrong location. These ballots were not counted in many jurisdictions because of a directive issued by some election officials, such as yourself.”

The congressmen named several specific allegations in their letter to Blackwell. Among them: voters in Mahong County who said voting-machine displays showed them voting for Bush when they attempted to vote for Kerry; some precincts in heavily Democratic Cleveland showing exponentially more votes for the Constitution Party “than all third-party candidates combined received in the 2000 election”; and Warren County officials allegedly claiming an FBI terror alert meant the press couldn’t observe the vote count. Again, electronic-voting issues and the alleged suppression of minority voters are serious problems that should be investigated, but problems a recount won’t solve.

Voting irregularities have cropped up in numerous other states, but Ohio’s many reported problems make it a microcosm of what’s wrong with America’s handling of elections. The recount will show some irregularities, but should be just the start of a serious re-examination of systemic problems and a push for improved standards nationwide. It’s important that every vote counts — but just as important that every eligible citizen can cast a vote fairly.

Tags: , , , , , , ,