Activists Hold Forum Spotlighting Voting Issues in Presidential Election

Times Staff Writer

While President Bush secured his reelection with a 119,000-vote victory in Ohio, voting-rights advocates dwelled Tuesday on a statistic they said told another story -- more than 414,000 calls to national hotlines established to monitor complaints and compile eyewitness observations about the Nov. 2 vote.

Among those calls, according to a new report from the Common Cause Education Fund, were many accounts from Ohio.

A woman in Miami County took her registration card to a polling site, the report said, but was forced to use a provisional ballot even though her address was current.

A man in Knox County complained that his daughter was forced to wait more than seven hours to vote, one of 11,000 people able to use just two machines. “I just thought you would like to know that,” the man said. “It seems a little extreme to me.”


In Franklin County, a man reported being turned away from a polling place because he wore a T-shirt that said “Vote or Die.”

Such anecdotes fueled a vigorous -- but mostly one-sided -- forum on Capitol Hill on Tuesday spotlighting voting-system issues raised in last month’s presidential election, four years after an electoral meltdown in Florida led to a bitter standoff that required Supreme Court intervention.

Common Cause, the Century Foundation and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights sponsored the forum. Many people in attendance at the Dirksen Senate Office Building appeared to be as disappointed by Bush’s victory as they were incensed at voting foul-ups. But others were more sanguine.

“Our system held up remarkably well,” said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who helped draft a landmark federal election reform law in 2002. “This is not to say the election was perfect. No election ever is.”

Ney told the forum that Congress would continue to push for improvements in voting systems. “We are under no illusions today that our election reform work is finished,” he said.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday that the presidential voting was widely perceived as “very free and fair.” McClellan’s assessment came the same day that Ohio’s Republican secretary of state certified Bush’s victory by a margin that had shrunk somewhat after provisional and absentee ballots were counted.

Unofficial returns on election night had Bush winning the state’s decisive 20 electoral votes by a 136,000-vote margin over Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee. The final tally, which still is subject to a recount, had Bush up by 118,775 votes, or about 2 percentage points.

Still, forum sponsors said Tuesday that widespread accounts from frustrated would-be voters showed that much remains to be done to restore confidence in a system shaken by the 2000 Florida recount.


“It is clear that voters still faced problems in getting to vote and having their votes counted,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Coalition for Civil Rights, a Washington-based organization comprising more than 180 civil rights and affiliated groups.

Common Cause President Chellie Pingree, a former Democratic candidate for Senate in Maine, said: “Just because this election didn’t go to the courts, just because there aren’t fistfights in the streets and just because there wasn’t a long, contested election doesn’t mean there weren’t problems on election day.”

The Democratic Party, while not contesting Bush’s victory, announced this week that it would conduct its own investigation of Ohio voting problems.

People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal group critical of Bush, also issued a report on “voter disenfranchisement” that surveyed 39,000 complaints recorded in an electronic database. “It was a national disgrace,” said Ralph G. Neas, the group’s president.


Drawing a comparison to the uprising that has forced a revote of a contested presidential election in the Ukraine, Neas said: “Whether it’s in the Ukraine or the United States of America, we’re going to make sure every vote counts. And that did not happen in 2004.”

The forum touched on concerns about long lines at some urban polling places, error-riddled voter registration databases and voting machines that critics said failed to include adequate antifraud safeguards.

There was also much talk about provisional ballots, which Congress required in the 2002 election law. Such ballots are intended to allow people to cast a vote at a given polling place even if their election qualifications are uncertain. Later, election officials are able to check the validity of the claim and count ballots that pass muster.

In Ohio, for instance, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said that 153,539 provisional ballots were cast. Of those, according to a state website, 118,734 were deemed valid and added to the election totals.


But voting-rights advocates here said Blackwell and election officials elsewhere took steps to hinder provisional voting -- violating, they said, the spirit of the 2002 law.

In Philadelphia, for example, some voters were sent to police stations to cast provisional ballots, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told the forum. “Clearly an intimidation,” he said.

In suburban areas of Cook County, Ill., about 5,400 provisional ballots were counted as valid and 5,000 disqualified, according to County Clerk David Orr, a Democrat. Orr said most of the invalid ballots were tossed out because voters were not registered. But nearly 5% were ruled out of order because of name variations, including women who had changed their names after getting married. “It’s ridiculous,” Orr said.

Other panelists told of familiar election complaints that often have occurred in areas with large minority populations, including bogus leaflets and automated phone calls meant to confuse voters about where and when they were supposed to go to the polls.


Some participants reported progress in the use of new voting systems. Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller praised a new computerized voting system that produced a paper trail so auditors could verify the outcome. And David Jefferson, a computer scientist who advises California elections officials on voting systems, said that trials of new touch-screen voting systems in the state, called “parallel tests,” had turned up no evidence of suspicious software irregularities.

“This is the kind of testing that has to be made a permanent part of our testing protocols for voting systems,” Jefferson told the forum.