Voter suppression was a key tactic for reducing turnout and violating voter rights in Ohio 2004. It was perpetrated primarily by Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell and other election officials acting in a partisan capacity, as well as members of the local and national GOP.
Long lines on election night were the glaring and frustrating symptom of a Republican voter suppression strategy that started long before November:
- Reduction in the number of polling sites
- Mass purging of the voter rolls
- Tampering with the voter registration process
- Inadequate and unfair distribution of voting machines
- Challenging voter registration at the polls
- Violating the right to a provisional ballot
- Discarding provisional ballots for reasons unrelated to eligibility
- Dirty tricks to intimidate minorities and ex-offenders
Urban, minority, Democratic, and student voters were the main targets of this voter suppression campaign. Many were unable to vote, or didn't have their votes counted. Nearly 300,000 Ohio citizens were prevented from participating in their democracy, far exceeding the presidential margin of victory in their state.
Lines on Election Night
Long Waits at Polling Places Were Caused by Malicious Election Administration
GOP voter suppression resulted in chaos on Election Day in Ohio 2004, with thousands of voters standing in long lines, sometimes for hours, in the rain. The distribution of voting machines was inadequate and unfair. Students and inner-city minorities were the prime victims of this discrimination.
174,000 discouraged voters left without casting a ballot, in an election decided by 119,000 votes. African Americans waited an average of 52 minutes to vote, compared to only 18 minutes for whites. Voters in inner-city Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo often waited up to seven hours.
- Columbus precincts that had supported Al Gore were allocated 17 fewer machines in 2004.
- Strong GOP precincts in Columbus received eight additional machines.
- Kenyon College received two machines for 1,300 mostly liberal student voters.
- Nearby conservative Mount Vernon Nazarene University had one machine for 100 voters.
- Kenyon students stood in line for 11 hours, with the last ballots cast after 3:00 a.m.
- 90 percent of the districts with the best voter-to-machine ratios were in Republican areas.
- 86 percent of the districts with the worst voter-to-machine ratios were in Democratic areas.
Ohio GOP Created a Polling Place Crisis
Voter registration was in overdrive for the hotly contested 2004 election. Yet state Republican legislators authorized a reduction of precincts across Ohio. As a result, officials in 20 counties favoring Democrats cut precincts by at least 20 percent. The legislators claimed that electronic voting machines would accelerate voting, but in many cases the new machines never materialized.
The board of elections in Columbus recommended using 5,000 voting machines to handle a surge of 125,000 new voters, more than half of them black. Yet the chairman of the of the Franklin County Board of Elections, Matt Damschroder, a former head of the Republican Party in Columbus, decided he could ''make do'' with 2,741 machines.
Meanwhile, white Republican suburbanites, blessed with a surplus of machines, averaged wait times of around 20 minutes. In contrast, black urban Democrats averaged nearly an hour wait, with many delays stretching to three hours and beyond.
Precincts requested the right to distribute paper ballots to relieve pressure on the lines, but Republican Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell denied the emergency measure.
Partisan Election Administration
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell Systematically Delivered Votes to the GOP
Blocking the Ballot Box
Kenneth Blackwell illegally manipulated voter registration to disenfranchise thousands
Less than a month before the registration deadline, Blackwell decreed that officials would only accept registration forms printed on 80 lb. unwaxed white paper stock. This arbitrary rule was eventually revoked, but not before creating chaos in the registration process.
The Voting Rights Act stipulates that no one may be denied the right to vote because of a registration error that is immaterial to determining whether that person is qualified to vote. Blackwell was clearly in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Statewide some 72,000 voters were disenfranchised through avoidable registration errors—amounting to 1 percent of potential voters in an election decided by barely 2 percent. Thousands of voters were disenfranchised because of data-entry errors by election officials. Thousands more lost the right to vote due to inconsequential omissions on their registration cards.
The registration process in Toledo was particularly partisan. Faced with an onslaught of new registrations, officials arbitrarily decided to process mail from the Republican suburbs first. The corrupt officials in that jurisdiction were forced to resign, but the damage had been done. George W. Bush thanked them at a rally.
In other areas, officials illegally stamped entire boxes of registration cards instead of stamping the individual cards, making it impossible to determine which ones had arrived on time.
Kenneth Blackwell Oversaw a mass purge of voter rolls
More than 300,000 voters who had failed to cast ballots in the previous two national elections were expunged from the record. This voter suppression policy was particularly effective in the blue-leaning urban areas of Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo. In Cleveland, where voters favored John Kerry five-to-one, nearly 25 percent of voters were wiped from the rolls between 2000 and 2004.
If only one in ten of those 300,000 purged voters showed up on Election Day, it still meant 30,000 people deprived of the right to vote, or given provisional ballots which were often not counted.
Voter Access Denied
Kenneth Blackwell illegally prevented thousands of voters from receiving provisional ballots
After creating immense problems with voter registration, Kenneth Blackwell was severely restrictive with provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are supposed to be the safeguard for when voters encounter registration problems at the polls.
- Blackwell denied provisional ballots to voters who had not received their absentee ballot on a timely basis, even though it was the fault of his office.
- Blackwell failed to articulate clear, consistent standards for the counting of provisional ballots. Narrow, arbitrary standards contributed to one-third of provisional ballots being discarded in Cuyahoga County.
- Black voters in Ohio were 20 percent more likely than whites to be forced to cast a provisional ballot.
- Almost 3 percent of voters in Ohio were forced to vote provisionally, and more than 35,000 of their ballots were ultimately rejected.
ILLEGAL PROCEDURE FOR DISTRIBUTING PROVISIONAL BALLOTS
As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. reports in Rolling Stone, Blackwell decreed just six weeks prior to the election that poll workers should make "on-the-spot judgments as to whether or not a voter lived in the precinct," and provide provisional ballots accordingly.
This illegal maneuver was completely contrary to the purpose of provisional ballots—voters have a right to a provisional ballot as a last resort when a poll worker deems them ineligible to vote. When a federal judge challenged Blackwell on this issue and asked him to expand provisional balloting, Blackwell declared he would rather go to jail than follow federal law.
An appeals court upheld the ruling against Blackwell on October 23, but confusion over the issue nonetheless caused voters across the state to be illegally turned away at the polls without being offered provisional ballots.
PROVISIONAL BALLOTS UNCOUNTED WHEN CAST IN WRONG PRECINCT
Blackwell tossed out the ballots of voters who submitted their ballots in the wrong precinct. A judge overruled this order, but Blackwell won his appeal from a court stacked with Bush appointees.
Precinct boundaries had been redrawn just prior to the election, and even the secretary of state's website had the wrong data on Election Day. Many voters went to old polling locations that were no longer correct. Some were incorrectly told by poll workers that they could cast a provisional ballot there.
In other cases, multiple precincts were located at the same polling place, meaning that some voters ended up at the right location, but had their ballots discarded because they were standing in the wrong line. As election defender Robert Fitrakis writes, "In one such multi-precinct building in Hamilton County, more than 2,100 provisional ballots were turned in at the wrong table, causing those ballots to be rejected and not counted."
Due to Blackwell's partisan meddling, at least 10,000 provisional ballots were tossed out after Election Day because citizens had been in the wrong line. This deliberate confusion, which was a direct result of Blackwell subverting the voter registration process, had a disproportionate effect on minorities who voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
Republicans exploited confusion over felon enfranchisement to intimidate likely voters
Rehabilitated prisoners are entitled to vote in Ohio. But election officials in Cincinnati demanded that former convicts get a judge's approval before registering.
The Ohio Republican Party also paid for the hotel rooms of goons imported from out of state to intimidate former felons and other Democratic voters. These GOP volunteers were overheard by a hotel worker ''using pay phones to make intimidating calls to likely voters'' and threatening former convicts with jail time for trying to vote.
According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., this “strike force” was an offshoot of the Republican National Committee, consisting of more than 1,500 volunteers deployed to battleground states. Its leader, Houston lawyer Pat Oxford, had managed George W. Bush's legal defense team in 2000 in Florida, where a similar squad of paid operatives disrupted the recount in Miami-Dade County by staging a fake riot.
Other voters were challenged directly at poll sites, with party operatives questioning the validity of their registration. These challenges caused delays, further adding to the problem of long lines.
The Ohio Republican Party used an illegal mail trick to intimidate 35,000 minority voters
Caging works by sending registered mail to a voter. When someone refuses to sign, is unable to sign, or the mail is returned undeliverable, that evidence is used to challenge and purge their voter registration.
In Ohio, the GOP sent registered letters to more than 200,000 new registrants, targeting minorities by zip code. With only 11 days before the election, Bob Bennett, the chair of the Cuyahoga County elections board, who was also the Ohio Republican Party chairman, sought to invalidate the registrations of more than 35,000 voters.
Legally each voter is supposed to receive a hearing when her registration is challenged in this manner, but Kenneth Blackwell set up kangaroo courts across the state to purge thousands of voters en masse. Voters were not given enough advance warning about those hearings.
Caging was halted by a U.S. district judge, but not before tens of thousands of new voters had received notices claiming they were improperly registered. Some jurisdictions ignored the ruling, stripping hundreds of voters from the rolls.
Just days before the election, a federal judge ruled that the GOP was in violation of a longstanding ban on caging. The judge also determined that the GOP had targeted precincts where minority voters predominate.
Challenging Voters at the Polls
Republicans Were Deployed to Challenge Voter Registration in Black and Urban Areas
GOP operatives added to the problem of poll-site delays by challenging voter registration in predominantly black and urban areas. As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., reports, "In Hamilton County, fourteen percent of new voters in white areas would be confronted at the polls, compared to ninety-seven percent of new voters in black areas."
An investigation of the Ohio 2004 debacle by the Democratic National Committee concluded that 3 percent of Ohio voters who showed up on Election Day left without casting a ballot—more than 174,000 voters in an election decided by 119,000 votes.