In special sessions of both chambers of Congress Thursday, Republican lawmakers met a handful of Democratic colleagues with vitriolic diatribes when the latter raised concerns about electoral irregularities that took place during Ohio’s controversial November 2 election process. The Democrats’ challenge came on the heals of a congressional report detailing numerous allegations of disenfranchisement in Ohio.
In a departure from traditional procedure, the joint session of Congress convened to certify the electoral vote count and officially recognize George W. Bush as president elect broke up for two hours of separate debate among senators and representatives. The special session was activated when Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) joined Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and other House members in challenging the certification of Ohio’s 20 crucial electoral votes.
Rather than an attempt to overturn the outcome of the 2004 election, Democratic legislators said they wished to use their protest as a means of highlighting what they consider ongoing election problems that stand little chance of correction unless the status quo is confronted.
“This objection,” Tubbs Jones said on the House floor, “does not have at its root the hope or even the hint of overturning the victory of the president but it is a necessary, timely and appropriate opportunity to review and remedy the most precious process in our democracy. I raise this objection neither to put the nation in the turmoil of a proposed overturned election nor to provide cannon fodder or partisan demagoguery for my fellow members of Congress.”
Speaking to the press Thursday morning, Boxer announced her decision to co-sign Tubbs Jones’ objection. “Every citizen of this country who is registered to vote should be guaranteed that their vote matters, that their vote is counted and that in the voting booth,” Boxer said, “their vote has as much weight as any senator, any congressperson, any president, any cabinet member, or any CEO of any Fortune 500 corporation.”
The chief concerns raised by dissenting politicians were mostly straightforward, like the alleged misallocation of voting machines that affected primarily Democratic districts.
Voters waited “hours and hours and hours in the rain to vote,” Boxer said. “Why did an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 voters leave polling places in frustration without having voted? How many more never even bothered to vote after they heard about this?”
Boxer also asked, “Why did Franklin County officials reduce the number of electronic voting machines in downtown precincts while adding them in the suburbs?”
To punctuate the urgency of her appeal, Boxer said the time has come to “cast the light of truth on a flawed system which must be fixed now. Not in years from now, but now.”
The fiercest debate took place in the House, where visibly frustrated Republicans unleashed verbal attacks on their Democratic colleagues. Representative Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) said she regretted that so early in the 2005 session, Congress was “bogged down” in “frivolous debate.” She warned the American public not to be deceived by dissenters, whom she called “aspiring fantasy authors” of “wild conspiracy theories,” possessing “no credible agenda for America” and bent on “baseless and meritless tactics.”
Florida Republican Ric Keller distilled his message down to three simple words: “Get over it,” he told Democratic detractors. Rep. David Hobson, an Ohio Republican, called the proceedings “outrageous.”
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) said questions about Ohio’s electoral process should be dealt with in Ohio, not in the United States Congress. “Every time we attack the process, we cast that doubt on that fabric of democracy that is so important.”
In an apparent attempt to argue against the Democratic challenges, Blunt continued: “People do have to have confidence that the process works in a proper way. They don’t need to believe that it is absolutely perfect because after all it’s the greatest democracy in the history of the world. And it’s run by people who step forward and make a system work in ways that nobody would believe until they see it, to produce the result of what people want to have happen on election day.”
Calling the proceeding “an assault against the institutions of our representative democracy” and “a threat to the very ideals it ostensibly defends,” Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) denied that any voter disenfranchisement took place anywhere in 2004 or 2000. He accused Democrats of crying wolf, and wondered “what will happen” when a future election is actually stolen.
Rep. Tubbs Jones, one of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, that spearheaded the challenge, preempted Republican attacks by setting the tone of the admittedly symbolic protest. “It is on behalf of those millions of Americans who believe in and value our democratic process and the right to vote that I put forth this objection today,” she said. “If they are willing to stand at polls for countless hours in the rain, as many did in Ohio, then I should surely stand up for them here in the halls of Congress.”
North Carolina Democrat Mel Watt couched his objection in terms of the US agenda abroad. “The United States cannot continue to claim that it stands for and is willing to fight for democracy and the rights of people to vote in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places around the world while not being willing to do whatever is necessary to guarantee the vote of our citizens here at home,” Watt said.
The handful of Democrats who acknowledged the voter disenfranchisement made clear that while Ohio may have been under the most scrutiny and may have seen some of the worst election irregularities, the state was but an example of voting problems throughout the nation.
In the end, each house had to vote on whether to accept Ohio’s 20 electoral votes for the Bush/Cheney ticket. The Senate voted 74-1, with Sen. Boxer maintaining her objection, while in the House, the vote was 267-31 in favor of certifying the Ohio outcome.
Staff Report Details Voter Disenfranchisement
Thursday’s challenge was bolstered by a report on Ohio’s electoral irregularities put together by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee and released on Wednesday.
Entitled Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio, the report recommends that Congress challenge results of the electoral tally, charging that the electors from the state of Ohio were unlawfully appointed by embattled Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth J. Blackwell.
The report also recommends immediate appointment of a joint committee to investigate election irregularities.
“Votes weren’t counted and there was possible machine tampering,” Judiciary Committee staffer Dena Graziano told The NewStandard Thursday. “Clearly, election law wasn’t carried out the way it was supposed to be in Ohio.”
Even the third party-sponsored recount in Ohio fell prey to procedural gaffe, the report contends. According to its final analysis, “numerous specific irregularities in the recount are inconsistent with several aspects of Ohio’s recount law.”
Problems found in the investigation of the recount included insecure storage of ballots and machinery, the counting of irregularly marked ballots, and a failure of counties to allow witnesses for candidates to observe the recount — a right guaranteed in Ohio law. In some counties, results were not rechecked after it was found that hand counts did not match machine counts.
The report concludes that the Ohio Secretary of State’s failure to set specific standards for the recount yielded a lack of uniformity that may violate the Due Process Clause and the Equal Process Clause of the Constitution.
Federal law states that all controversies regarding the appointment of electors must be resolved at least six days prior to the seating of the electors on December 13. The judiciary report points out that the official recount of the Ohio vote had not been completed by that December 7 deadline. According to Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee, Secretary of State Blackwell, who formerly chaired the state’s
Bush/Chaney 2000 Campaign may have intentionally delayed the certification of the electors in order to make a complete recount impossible before the December 13 seating.
Today on Capital Hill, protesters rallied in support of the election challenge taking place in Congress and calling for further investigation into the election.
“The hope is that we can create some new legislation to fix the problems we saw this election,” Graziano said, adding that members of Congress plan to create laws to fix problems that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) did not address.
Following the 2000 election, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan), drafted the Help America Vote Act. Since last November, the Michigan civil rights advocate has spearheaded investigation into the 2004 election. The Preserving Democracy report came out of research done by House Democrats, as well as testimonials given by Ohio voters and legal observers at two public forums, including one judiciary briefing moderated by Conyers last month on Capitol Hill. Although invited to attend by House Democrats, no Republicans attended last month’s briefing.
The Judiciary Committee Democrats cited sources ranging from New York Times articles to Board of Elections records and voter testimonies in their report. The 102-page document relies on experiential and statistical data, as well as extensive legislative foregrounding, to prove that the misallocation of voting machines in minority and low-income precincts resulted in mass, illegal disenfranchisement.
The long poll lines in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Gambier, and Toledo, the report argues, demonstrate that Blackwell did not act in compliance with Title III of HAVA, a provision which establishes funding for states to provide uniform and nondiscriminatory election technology and administration.
According to state funding records contained in the report, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) processed $32,562,331 for the fiscal year 2003 and $58,430,186 for 2004 election costs. A lack of public information on how Ohio spent its HAVA funds prevented Judiciary Committee staffers from further reporting on why these funds did not appear to allay resource shortages in the state’s Democratic precincts. Yet, the report does say that it was a statewide Board of Elections policy that instituted disproportionate allocations.
Under election policy, voter history and past turn-out statistics decide how many machines will go out to each polling location, a deployment strategy that discriminates against voters in areas with a shorter or less steady history of electoral participation.
Last month, the Washington Post reported that “in Franklin County, ’27 of the 30 wards with the most [voting] machines per registered voter showed majorities for Bush…[while] six of the seven wards with the fewest machines delivered large margins for Kerry.'” Quoting this data, House Democrats say that patterns of machine deployment in the state violate legal codes.
“A conscious failure to provide sufficient voting machinery violates the Ohio Revised Code which requires the Board of Elections ‘to provide adequate facilities at each polling place for conducting the election,'” the report states.
Committee investigation also found the process surrounding the casting and counting of provisional ballots deeply problematic.
In the report’s analysis, Blackwell’s decision to restrict the use of provisional ballots was “critical in the election,” and the restriction may have resulted in the “disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters.” The report mentions that one polling place in Hamilton County could not count more than 1,100 votes because of Blackwell’s choice to interpret federal election law narrowly and only count provisional ballots cast at the right precinct, even in cases where poll workers gave voters incorrect information and instructions.
“In our judgment, Mr. Blackwell’s restrictive interpretation violates the spirit, if not the letter of HAVA,” the report says.
According to their investigation, other states with broader readings of the federal code did not report the “chaos and confusion that Mr. Blackwell claimed to be the rationale for his decision.”