COLUMBUS -- There's more to the 2004 election than you've heard, according to Sharon Lettman of People For the American Way, a panelist in an unofficial Nov. 13 public hearing on voter suppression and fraud in Ohio.
"Ever since the election there has been a conventional wisdom growing within news media that the election ran smoothly," she said. "That's a myth."
More than 300 concerned citizens from all over the state turned out to attend the hearing at the New Faith Baptist Church here. More than 100 presented sworn testimony and reported alleged irregularities and crimes they witnessed on Election Day.
"The reality is there were thousands upon thousands of problems all over the country, from unexplained vote tallies on electronic voting machines to lines so long that working men and women had to give up and go back to work or care for their children without casting a vote," Lettman said. "Election officials made bad decisions, horrible decisions that kept voters away from the polls. Voters were asked for ID when they didn't need to present it. Absentee ballots were late or never came at all. People in some precincts had plenty of voting machines, while others in other precincts had so few people were waiting in line for more than 10 hours."
Some votes count
The voters who came to speak at the hearing echoed the problems that Lettman identified: disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters; careless, sometimes malicious, behavior by poll workers; systemic discrimination, with minorities and poor voters denied their right to vote because of waiting lines that lasted hours; and allegations of outright fraud at polling locations.
The hearing was sponsored by the Ohio Citizens Alliance for Secure, People for the American Way and The Columbus Free Press.
Bob Fitrakis, editor of the Free Press, acted as moderator.
Most of the testimony by voters focused on systemic disenfranchisement and discrimination, even though high-profile cases of alleged election fraud have received the most national press coverage. In the unofficial results from Gahanna in Franklin County -- where the polling place was a right-wing, evangelical church -- Bush received 4,258 votes to Kerry's 260, even though the records show only 638 voters cast ballots there.
Fitrakis said that there was a "total system failure" in Franklin County. Franklin County Board of Elections guidelines call for one machine for every 100 voters. Many precincts in Columbus' poorer and minority neighborhoods had more than 200 voters per machine, even though 68 machines were left in a warehouse on Election Day and many of the suburban neighborhoods had more machines than they needed.
"What disturbed me more than anything was the non-random nature of the error," Fitrakis said.
Those who testified had other stories of how their votes became lost as if they just went through "a sausage grinder," as one speaker put it.
Joe Popich brought photocopies of the voter sign-in books from Perry County's precincts. By law, voters must sign in to be allowed to vote. There were fewer names in the book than votes counted, he said.
Victoria Parks of Pickaway County reported that she had asked and was allowed to view the sign-in book from her precinct. She said the names were there, but the signatures were all in the same hand. When she pointed this out, the elections official took the book away from her.
Harvey Wasserman of Franklin County said he received his absentee ballot by mail and later received a letter that said his ballot had been sent to the wrong address. Wasserman said he went to the board of elections and told them that his ballot went to the right address and even showed his ID. He was told that he still couldn't vote, he said.
Other instances of alleged suppression were documented, including:
· fraudulent "official notices" placed on the doors of minority voters that indicated that, because of the high turnout, Democratic voters should go to the polls on Nov. 3;
· men in suits telling voters at the end of long voting lines that the polls were closed because of the high turnout; and
· racist comments by a poll worker, asking a voter for ID and explaining that she had to make sure "Arabs aren't voting."
Kerry's last chance
"This isn't necessarily about disputing the results," said event organizer Naina Khanna, an organizer with the League of Pissed Off Voters and This Time We're Watching. "It's about disputing the process, which doesn't seem to be working. We have heard of widespread machine malfunctions, in addition to the thousands of reports received of people, particularly first-time voters, students and people of color facing problems at the polls."
Still, many attending the hearing were calling for Sen. John Kerry to drop his concession and formally demand a recount. The Libertarian and Green parties say they have raised the funds -- $110,000 in Ohio -- to pay for a recount. Many others are looking at the possibility of lawsuits and other actions to change the outcome.
Marcia McGee, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, wrote in a letter last week to Denny White, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, that there are two issues the party should concentrate on: "Did Bush win?" and "Were voter rights violated in Ohio on Election Day?"
To both questions, the answer is maybe, maybe not. More than 92,000 Ohio ballots recorded no votes for president. These were votes that couldn't be read by the scanning machines and could hold the key to Kerry winning Ohio. Independent journalist Greg Palast maintains that these "spoilage" votes came disproportionately from minority communities in Ohio.
Other instances of voter suppression and possibly fraud, if proven and litigated, could also swing the vote. The bottom line is in that old baseball adage, "It ain't over 'til it's over." That might well mean the courts will have to decide.
A complete audio archive of the hearings is available at www.independenteye.net.