Democratic Party officials charged yesterday that the election system in Ohio broke down in last year's presidential race, citing numerous problems that frustrated or disenfranchised voters while concluding there was no evidence of fraud in the outcome. The findings reignited a partisan debate that has colored efforts to improve voting procedures around the country.
"The results show that our election system failed the citizens of Ohio in 2004 and in particular failed African Americans, new registrants, younger voters and voters in places using touch-screen machines," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told reporters. During a question-and-answer period, he declined to rule out that partisan actions by the Republicans may have contributed to the problems.
Even before Dean and members of the Democratic task force finished their presentations, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman issued a statement denouncing the findings. "The report is pure political fiction," he said, charging that some Democratic-aligned groups had engaged in fraudulent or illegal voter registration activities in Ohio.
Members of the DNC task force, led by Donna Brazile, the chairman of the DNC's Voting Rights Institute, enumerated a series of problems on Election Day in Ohio, including too few voting machines in certain precincts and long lines that appear to have caused some voters to give up and go home. The study, which included statistical analysis of the voting patterns and polling to gauge voters' assessment of their experiences, found a clear lack of confidence in the system among African Americans.
Walter R. Mebane Jr., a professor of government at Cornell University and member of the task force, said Ohio suffered from a "gross administrative failure" on Election Day. But he later said there was no "support whatsoever for the claim that there was a large-scale misallocation of vote from [Democratic nominee John F.] Kerry to [President] Bush in Ohio" and said it is highly unlikely Kerry would have won the state in any case.
That conclusion runs counter to charges that circulated widely after the election maintaining that Bush had defeated Kerry in Ohio because of manipulation of the voting. Those assertions, fueled in part by exit polls that had showed Kerry winning Ohio, became a major issue among many Democratic activists and resulted in a challenge to the certification of Bush's victory when Congress convened in January.
The challenge, led by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), was overturned, but the issue continued to rage across the Internet. Terence R. McAuliffe, Dean's predecessor as DNC chairman, created the task force to examine what happened, and even though the Democrats crying foul were criticized by Republicans and by a number of Ohio newspapers, the issue has remained a rallying point, particularly among minorities.
Brazile and Dean said the purpose of the report was not to question the election's outcome but to advance efforts to improve election systems nationally, and the report included 23 recommendations. The recommendations urge states to adopt uniform rules on voter registration, the distribution of voting machines, the use of provisional ballots; and to make voter suppression a criminal offense.
Still, there were clear partisan overtones to some of Dean's comments, and Tubbs Jones renewed criticisms of J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state and chief election official in Ohio, saying he had created confusion that ultimately may have disenfranchised some voters.
Mebane stopped short of charging that Republicans had deliberately set out to frustrate Democratic voters. He said the scope of the study could not determine whether there was any partisan intent and noted that local election boards, which determine the distribution of voting machines, are bipartisan.
The report said that 28 percent of all Ohio voters and 52 percent of African American voters said they had problems in voting, whether it was long lines, ballot problems, intimidation or difficulty in finding their polling place. Although 71 percent of white voters said they were confident their votes were properly counted, just 19 percent of African American voters expressed similar confidence.
The long lines were caused by the scarcity of voting machines in a number of precincts, particularly in minority areas, the report said. Touch-screen machines contributed to delays.
The use of provisional ballots, issued when voters' credentials were challenged, was far more frequent in Ohio than in some other competitive states, according to the report, equaling 2.8 percent of all votes cast for president. That compares with 0.9 percent in Pennsylvania and 0.3 percent in Florida.
Blackwell's office in Ohio disputed the claim of voter suppression and said the report contained a number of errors. "The facts do not support their conclusions," said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office.
LoParo said census data showed that African American turnout reached record levels last year, increasing by 84,000 from 2000.
He said that the number of provisional ballots issued in 2004 was proportionally about the same as in 2000 and cited an Electionline.org analysis that found Ohio had counted a higher percentage of provisional ballots (78 percent) than either Pennsylvania (49 percent) or Florida (36 percent).