Voting-Rights Advocates Cite Election Problems

By Nick Anderson

Los Angeles Times

December 8, 2004

WASHINGTON — While President Bush secured his reelection with a 119,000-vote victory in Ohio, voting rights advocates today dwelled on a statistic they claimed told another story: the more than 414,000 calls that were made 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 pleas for help 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 for whom just two voting machines were available.

"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 today to spotlight voting system issues raised in this year's presidential election. It came four years after an electoral meltdown in Florida that led to a bitter post-election 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 here 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 to voting systems.

"We are under no illusions today that our election reform work is finished," Ney said.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the Nov. 2 vote was widely perceived as "very free and fair."

McClellan offered his assessment as 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 immediately after the vote had Bush winning the state's decisive 20 electoral votes by a 136,000-vote margin over Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts. The final tally — which still is subject to recount — had Bush up by 118,775 votes, or about 2 percentage points.

Still, forum sponsors said that widespread accounts from frustrated would-be voters showed that much remains to be done to restore confidence in a system badly 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 civil rights group.

Common Cause President Chellie Pingree, a onetime Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from 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, a liberal group critical of Bush, also issued a report on "voter disenfranchisement," which surveyed 39,000 complaints recorded in an electronic database.

"It was a national disgrace," said Ralph Neas, head of the group.

Drawing a comparison to the uprising that has forced a revote of a contested presidential election in a former Soviet Republic, 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."