Monday, October 13, 2008

What’s the Matter with Ohio?

Published to the Huffington Post.

Updates: The US Supreme Court has now quashed the ruling of a lower court that tried to require that government databases be provided to county boards by Oct 17 to cross-check thousands of voters registered. The earlier ruling was a response to
ongoing challenges by Republicans.

This annoying sign was posted in my neighborhood and reminded me of the latest debate out there on voter dumbness. (I’m reserving the right to save the “dumbness” of New York tourists for another post.) But for the time being, “Who’s dumb and who’s smart, attractive and eats fresh arugula salad” has become catnip on political blogs and in cable news shows. It's raised ubiquitously – you almost can’t read a word of media drivel without seeing it sometimes, the euphemisms directed at working class votes somewhere in between metropolitan New York and San Francisco.

A pundit laid out this dimension luridly in his article on campaign activism this week, in which he described in inordinate detail how to volunteer ‘smartly’ (doing it stupidly, I suppose, is the other alternative). Those asked to make signs in states like Pennsylvania or Ohio are probably too ingenuous to do brainier tasks like beguiling fence-sitters, according to this guy. His point seems to be that you’d better watch out, if, as a young activist, you are relegated to such trifling efforts.

Funny any efforts to woo this season could be pegged as too cute for the educated classes since hundreds of thousands of new voters have registered so far, and many of them in none other than tiny Ohio (total population: 11.4 million) which has made history in both past presidential election seasons. In 2004 Ohio tipped the scales against Kerry when tens of thousands of voters were purged from the rolls and scores of provisional ballots and voter registration cards were not counted.

Last week, the New York Times reported another case of voters being purged in the state so safe to say that in every last county every last volunteer is likely to help. And if signs aren't your thing, perhaps electing to be an election observer (something some Ohioans have suggested) is worth considering.

For those who do get to rally fence-sitters, one recent post on volunteerism may have managed to challenge nearly every dismissive red-state stereotype. Filmmaker Sandi DuBowski outlines the unlikely story of an Ohio woman he met who became a field organizer of sorts when she opened her doors to Sandi and scores of his friends campaigning for the Dems in 2004 for several days. Mary Ellen, this kindred spirit, was a home-schooling mom of six and has a gay, Evangelical best friend.

But there’s still a distrust of Democrats in Ohio that's now rising to fever pitch. Especially in one case in which a Republican group pinned allegations of fraud on Democrat Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, urging she needed to check the integrity of every ballot cast. When a left-leaning group called ACORN announced that a small group of its volunteers had been bullying voters to fill extra forms, after firing the volunteers and denouncing their behavior, the GOP nonetheless seized on the group's honesty and called for every ballot to be personally checked by Brunner (PS- note there were no more than a handful of spurious forms).

Judges in an appeals court thankfully overruled a lower court’s decision siding with the GOP by charging in an opinion that, "[w]ith less than a month until the election, and less than two weeks until the beginning of counting absentee ballots, the secretary cannot be required to undertake the extensive reprogramming and other changes to the election mechanics without complete disruption of the electoral process in Ohio." In the meanwhile, election officials in another significant Ohio county have voted unanimously that the county prosecutor investigate all registrations submitted by ACORN in their district.

Li’l Ohio has just 20 electoral votes but what the appeal court judges were concerned about, of course, are the state’s new voting rolls now 8 million strong with over a half a million new voters. Yikes, now I’m pondering how many extra election officials it takes to goad 600,000 newbies to use scanners properly, especially since everyone is still fumbling to learn how they work themselves. Which machines will they use? How many are too few? How many are too many?

In 2004, it seems many election officials couldn’t make that choice either, especially when it came to certain districts. So some ended up waiting six hours at their local polling station. It had something to do with black and white districts going something (though not exactly) like this: there was, oh, say, a single machine for each black county and 9 for each white county of similar size. The black county’s machine worked just 80 percent of the time and after 5PM had to be transferred to a white district so folks after-hours could use it when they got home from work. And then maybe the black county was given more provisional ballots to fill out by hand, and so, all in all it was pretty much square in the end? Well, wasn't quite like that. For starters, white voters were more likely to vote in the morning than at night. But otherwise there hasn’t really been much more of an explanation apart from the fact that black voters felt resentful for waiting four to six hours. White voters waited twenty minutes.

This year most new registrants are in the three more populated urban counties in the state, so how machines are allocated will probably matter once more. And more space to be sure for some fetching barnyard antics.

This past Friday Sheriff Gene Fischer, in Greene County which is home to five colleges (two are attended predominantly by black students), retracted an earlier request he made to ‘verify’ every new voting registrant (I guess young voters can’t be trusted either!). These were voters who had opted to register and cast their ballots on the same day. After a few intrepid folks at FOX News posted the story (go Fox?!), the sheriff’s doubts evanesced. Lets just hope there are enough well-meaning “vote-checkers” this time around to keep black and college-going voters from waiting nine hours in line to get their voices heard. For more on what happened in 2004 you can read what Raw Story discovered several years after the fact about African Americans who voted in Franklin County. It turned out to be one of most egregious examples of voter intimidation in the course of the election.

Disruptions are relatively common during elections as both sides are gearing to win but claims of voter fraud at the ballot box are greatly exaggerated, according to Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State and Associate Director of the university’s Election Law Center. In a recent discussion online he outlined an attempt this year to require voters register for at least 30 days before even requesting an absentee ballot. Thousands of veterans would have been made ineligible in addition to many others. Fortunately, the courts saw it as voter suppression and rejected the request.

Lastly, for those of you wanting and waiting to just do the right thing, wearing your favorite Obama t-shirt may get you turned away at the polls, although that doesn’t seem altogether clear either so maybe it will depend on your district. Conventional wisdom now has it though to post your Obama sign on your lawn and hold an art show for your candidate as much as it pleases but leave all your t-shirts home in the dryer Nov. 2nd.

And that concludes this post on Ohio, at least for now. Keep your comments flowing and feel free to write on this page! You can also click “follow” in the lower right-hand box to get an e-mail each time there’s a new post.

Thanks for reading and wishing you all a great week.

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