By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008
CLEVELAND -- With Ohio still up for grabs in next week's presidential election, the conversation here has expanded from who will carry the state to how -- the nitty-gritty of registration lists, voting machines, court challenges and whether it all will play out fairly.
Tim Tatarowicz, who runs a small supermarket on Cleveland's east side, said his worry has grown as he has watched the push to add new voters and get them to cast ballots early. When actor Forest Whitaker appeared at a registration drive outside the store, the parking lot was packed.
"It was all to drive up numbers for Obama; I understand that," said Tatarowicz, 44. "But it's pushing absentee ballots that bothers me," he said, because "that makes cheating too easy."
Cheating is not easy, countered Geraldine Tallie, 61, who lives in the housing project across the street. But she does believe that people can make it too hard to vote.
Political parties and elected officials for weeks have been trading sharp accusations and litigation over voting issues here, often for political advantage. But now, among the people whose ballots are at stake, the question of whether their votes will count has become deeply personal.
During the primary, Tallie was one of those caught in long lines at a recreation center, one of 21 East Cleveland precincts ordered by a federal judge to remain open an extra 90 minutes to replenish ballot supplies. But because the order came through late, only 10 polling places reopened -- and state officials say just five additional votes were cast.
That convinced Tallie to vote early this time, not just to avoid the lines but also to make sure her ballot was in. "I wanted my say," she said.
The vitriol over voting increased this week when the Ohio Republican Party released a statewide radio ad that opens with the ticking of a clock and asks, "Could Ohio's election be stolen?" The ad will run up to 20 times a day in some markets and accuses Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner of failing to fight voting fraud.
Brunner has accused the Republicans of positioning themselves to challenge the election results if Barack Obama wins, arguing that a series of GOP-backed lawsuits are meant to suppress votes, help John McCain, and "segregate and pick off ballots if it's a close race."
In recent years, elections in Ohio have not gone smoothly. Four years ago, the weeks before the vote were filled with partisan legal battles, and Election Day was marred by long lines, too few machines in some precincts, and reports of poorly trained poll workers. After the election, amid recriminations, some charged that thousands of frustrated voters had gone home without casting ballots.
Those memories are still fresh, brought to the surface in recent weeks with Republicans and Brunner in court over a range of disputes, including how to resolve mismatched registrations for 200,000 new voters. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the Republicans.
All of the fighting gets attention in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, which has 1.1 million of Ohio's 8.2 million voters. It also has had the biggest jump in new registrations -- 123,000 since January, an increase of nearly 13 percent.
"Did I register? Three times," joked a supervisor of a demolition crew tearing down an old public housing complex on the east side.
"I signed 73 times, got a cigarette every time I put down my name," said worker Randy Kinney, bringing up one of the much-publicized local voter-registration problems being investigated by the county elections board.
His co-worker Kevin Jackson shook his head. He said he isn't happy that some bad registrations cards were submitted, but his big worry was the lawsuit that challenged new voters whose personal information did not match other state records, sometimes because of slight clerical mistakes.
"I've been thinking I need to go down to the county and make sure it all is good," said Jackson, 40, who changed his registration when he recently moved to neighboring Parma. "I know we're joking about it, but this is serious stuff, and I want to be make sure I get to vote with no trouble."
"Okay, it is serious," Kinney said, relenting, "but here is the fix" -- and he raised his thumb. "Get some of that purple ink they have in Baghdad" to mark who voted.
"Please do not start up with that ink again," Jackson begged.
Kinney, 46, is a McCain supporter who lives about 40 miles southwest of Cleveland and has a disdain for what he sees as the loose ways of city politics. "They want change up here, and I'd rather go backwards."
Jackson is an Obama backer, and "loose" is not the word he uses. "I don't want voter fraud, but I think it seems to be going the other way, where people may be kept off the voter lists when they should have been kept on."
Both men said they will vote, and both said they believe their votes will count -- a triumph of faith over skepticism that was not uncommon among nearly three dozen voters interviewed last week in Ohio's most populous county.
Across town from the demolition site, Patty Ruccella, 44, whipped around her shoulder bag and pointed to a small pink "I [Heart] Sarah Palin" button to prove her interest in the election.
"People around me are talking about whether bad registrations got through by people hired to collect them, and it looks like some did," said Ruccella, who lives on Cleveland's west side. But she believes that any tainted names are being weeded out. "I have to have faith the system works."
This election cycle, Brunner has required counties to have a plan to distribute voting machines more equitably across neighborhoods and to have extra ballots on hand. But those improvements have not eliminated court disputes.
Lawsuits over election issues have become increasingly common, said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, adding that "Ohio is one of the worst . . . with more partisan wars."
Some lawsuits seek a concrete result -- Hasen cited Democratic efforts to knock Ralph Nader off the ballot in 2004 -- but the recent Ohio litigation, he said, along with "the talk about voter fraud and mismatching, is more for political consumption."
Daniel P. Tokaji, a law professor and associate director of Ohio State University's election law center, said Ohio voters "do tend to focus on election mechanics more than [voters] elsewhere." It has reached such a pitch, he said, that "you would have to have been under a rock" not to know about it.
In 2004, the bickering centered on then-Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican who co-chaired the Bush campaign in Ohio. He decided that votes cast in the wrong precinct would not count, and he required a certain stock of paper for registration applications; both rules were viewed as disqualifying many urban voters. He relented on the paper stock, but not in time to avoid an outcry.
This year, it is the Democratic Brunner being criticized.
Republicans here and elsewhere around the country have also cited problems with fake registrations collected by the community-organizing group ACORN, including 80 cards signed by a 19-year-old in exchange for cigarettes. The man was already a legally registered voter but has never voted in Cleveland, according to elections board spokesman Mike West.
Kimberly Balas, 48, a yoga instructor, said she and her friends have talked about bogus voter registrations, but "I'm not worried it would become voter fraud, because how would that work? You would need someone to show up and commit a crime by posing as someone or lying about being eligible."
Balas, a registered Republican who "may not vote that way," said she does have concerns about mail-in ballots. "I would want to know those are accurate -- that the right ones count and no wrong ones get through."
Thomasine Clark, 42, a longtime voter, is hoping that all the attention on registration problems does not discourage new voters from showing up.
"That worries me," she said. "I just don't understand why it's always we Democrats made out to be doing something dishonest."