A Lesson From the '04 Election in Ohio: How Latinos Were Disenfranchised

On the eve of the 2004 presidential election, the Republican Party threatened to challenge the qualifications of 35,000 registered voters in Ohio, and went to court to secure their right to do so. For the most part, this turned out to be a smokescreen, or what Steven Rosenfeld has aptly called a "perfect football fake." Not only did it force the Democratic Party to send its own voting rights advocates to inner-city polling places to defend the challenged voters, but it served as a distraction that allowed other methods of voter disenfranchisement to escape detection.

Voters in Cleveland and Akron went to the wrong voting machines, intended for a different precinct, on which the candidates' names were listed in a different sequence, which caused their votes to be shifted from Democrat John Kerry to Constitution Party candidate John Peroutka, Libertarian Michael Badnarik, Reform Party candidate Ralph Nader or Republican George W. Bush. Voters in all the urban punch card counties were given ballots already punched for a third-party candidate, thus ruining ballots expected to be punched for Kerry. And we have powerful evidence that Latino voters in Cleveland were intimidated into leaving the polling places without ever receiving a ballot at all.

Shortly after the election I noticed what appeared to be impossibly low turnout in numerous precincts in Cleveland. In two precincts -- Cleveland 6B and 6C, which voted at the same polling place, the Martin Luther King Library -- the official voter turnout was 22.31 percent and 7.85 percent, respectively. I found it difficult to believe that fewer than one in 12 registered voters showed up at the polls in any precinct in a hotly contested presidential election in the foremost battleground state.

The initial explanation of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, related by the Columbus Free Press, was that there were high numbers of Hispanic voters who could not speak or read English, and there were no Spanish-speaking poll workers to help them; consequently, many voters put their punch cards in backwards.

The explanation does not withstand scrutiny. In order for the official turnout of 7.85 percent (52 of 662 registered voters) in Precinct 6C to be true and correct, the overwhelming majority of voters must have guessed wrong, analogous to scoring well below 50 percent on a true-false test -- even though the back sides of the punch card ballots contained the following words, in big, bright, orange, capital letters: "STOP (WRONG SIDE) TURN CARD OVER." Surely some of these registered voters had drivers' licenses, and one hopes that they are able to read a stop sign.

Actually, the explanation cannot be true, because, according to the official results, there were only three more ballots cast than votes counted for president in the three precincts at this polling place. We know from examining the ballots from other polling places that if a ballot is put in backwards the punches will not go through, because the perforated rectangles on the punch card will not be aligned with the holes in the plastic mask or shield through which the voter must punch the ballot. The result is a punch card ballot filled with "dimpled chads" instead of clean punches. In other words, no more than three voters put their punch cards in backwards at Martin Luther King Library.

A more likely explanation would be that a great number of voters in these overwhelmingly Democratic precincts were stopped by challengers at the polls. Voters unable to speak English would have been unable to defend themselves, and would likely have left without signing the voter signature book or ever being given a ballot. Even if they knew to ask for a provisional ballot, we know from www.voteprotect.org that the refusal of poll workers to provide and validate provisional ballots contributed to the low turnout at this polling place.

This must not happen again in 2008. All eligible voters should be allowed to vote without interference, for the candidates of their choice, and have their votes counted as cast.


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