What's a bigger problem with American elections: disenfranchisment of minority voters or new electronic voting machines stealing votes?
Most people on the political left will answer electronic machines. But last week, House Republicans showed America exactly why old-school election thuggery is a far more pressing problem. In fact, it was Jim Crow tactics, not computer hacking, which gave George W. Bush his Ohio victory in 2004. And such tactics are exactly what a handful of southern GOP congressmen defended on Wednesday when they derailed renewing the National Voting Rights Act, complaining it does not end federal oversight of elections in their states and requires multilingual ballots.
These Republicans want elections in their states to return to the good old days, when mostly white people voted -- just substitute registered Republicans in 2006 -- and ballots were only in English -- no Español, por favor. Their grassroots rebellion reveals a dirty secret about elections that liberals and Democrats still haven't learned from the 2004 presidential race: The GOP wins elections by targeting likely Democrats, especially minorities and new voters, by creating barriers in voter registration and obstacles to voting itself and ballot counting.
What's the biggest mistake made by the political left when considering whether the 2004 presidential election was stolen? Democrats need to understand that if they don't want a replay of swing states like Ohio tilting the outcome in 2008, they can't think that electronically hacking into vote-counting computers alone delivered George W. Bush his victory. A Republican do-everything-dirty strategy tilting the electoral process was the real culprit -- targeting every phase from voter registration to vote counting. Perhaps Wednesday's racist display by the House GOP will change minds. Perhaps we will realize that we need to expand the Voting Rights Act to ensure protections in every state, not just the South.
Unfortunately, far too many people on the left believe American elections were becoming freer and fairer until new, paperless, audit-averse electronic voting machines crept into the process. Concerns about the latest wave of election technology are realistic and are not political fantasy; just visit votetrustusa.org to see what may come this fall.
But problems with electronic voting machines were the tip of a much bigger iceberg in 2004's presidential election -- especially in the final swing state of Ohio. The real -- but still submerged -- story there was the deliberate, partisan targeting of every phase of the election process to hurt Democrats while benefiting Republicans. There wasn't much that was electronic about that nasty campaign or about the kind of tactics that southern House Republicans defended on Wednesday. Ohio in 2004 showcased virtually every underhanded election tactic devised in recent decades.
Start with the run-up to Election Day. Acting under orders from a partisan Republican Secretary of State, J. Kenneth Blackwell, who also co-chaired the state's Bush-Cheney campaign, local officials purged 300,000 voters from the state between 2000 and 2004. Did Democratic groups registering new voters in the summer of 2004 know they were playing catch-up, not getting ahead, with registration? No. Did these same groups know which precincts in minority and other Democratic strongholds would receive insufficient numbers of voting machines, causing thousands of people to leave without voting? No. Did they know which precincts were going to be relocated? No. Did they know that outdated voter lists would be delivered to those precincts? No. Did they know last-minute rules would invalidate provisional ballots if they were turned in at the correct precinct but the wrong table? No.
Ohio's secretary of state defended these -- and other tactics -- in congressional field hearings in early 2005 as prerogatives of local control. In a nation with 13,000 separate and unequal election jurisdictions, heavy-handed partisan elections are exactly what the southern Republicans want to see written into a renewed National Voting Rights Act.
But it's not just southern Republicans who want to game the election system. What else did Ohio's Secretary of State do under the false guise of local control? He rewrote the voter registration laws to reject applications that weren't on the right weight of paper. He made it harder for provisional ballots to be validated. Provisional ballots allow people to vote who believe they are registered but don't find their names on the rolls at a polling place, with election officials later investigating to verify the voter's eligibility. Blackwell threw up obstructions to the validation process by moving Democratic precincts without informing voters, not training poll workers and requiring new identification. He tried to summon 10,000 students to a sports arena saying they had to prove their registrations were valid. He stood with GOP officials who said they were going to try to stop 35,000 people from voting at the polls. He ran television ads that didn't tell people they could also vote at county boards of election.
Of course, the Democratic Party and their allies will never admit they should have known better and acted to stop these tactics. But you can read between the lines of the DNC's 2005 report on Ohio that said two percent of Ohio's 5.8 million voters who intended to vote were stopped from doing so. That's 116,000 voters in a state where George W. Bush's margin of victory was 118,775 votes.
On Wednesday, House Republicans reminded Americans that the ghost of Jim Crow is still hovering over our elections. It's time for Democrats and voting rights activists to look up from their computers and pay attention to the tactics that the Republicans are embracing and continuing to espouse. The problems with electronic machines will remain. But to ignore the ways the GOP wants to disenfranchise voters, complicate voting, discount ballots and manipulate the vote count is to duplicate what happened in 2004. Does the left really want history to repeat itself?
Steve Rosenfeld is executive producer of RadioNation with Laura Flanders, heard on Air America Radio. He is co-author of What happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, to be published by The New Press this fall.