Wednesday, September 06, 2006

More Black Eyes for Cuyahoga County
In National Media Over Voting Troubles

The recent comprehensive report examining the difficulties the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections experienced during this year's primary cycle have prompted a couple of negative pieces in the national media this week.
Yesterday's lead editorial in the New York Times begins with the observation that it's hard to believe that six years after the Florida debacle, "states still haven't mastered the art of voting counts accurately." For those of you who haven't registered for free access to the online version (shame on you), here's what the paper had to say:
It’s hard to believe that nearly six years after the disasters of Florida in 2000, states still haven’t mastered the art of counting votes accurately. Yet there are growing signs that the country is moving into another presidential election cycle in disarray. The most troubling evidence comes from Ohio, a key swing state, whose electoral votes decided the 2004 presidential election. A recent government report details enormous flaws in the election system in Ohio’s biggest county, problems that may not be fixable before the 2008 election. Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, hired a consulting firm to review its election system. The county recently adopted Diebold electronic voting machines that produce a voter-verified paper record of every vote cast. The investigators compared the vote totals recorded on the machines after this year’s primary with the paper records produced by the machines. The numbers should have been the same, but often there were large and unexplained discrepancies. The report also found that nearly 10 percent of the paper records were destroyed, blank, illegible, or otherwise compromised. This is seriously bad news even if, as Diebold insists, the report overstates the problem. Under Ohio law, the voter-verified paper record, not the voting machine total, is the official ballot for purposes of a recount. The error rates the report identified are an invitation to a meltdown in a close election. The report also found an array of other problems. The county does not have a standardized method for conducting a manual recount. That is an invitation, as Florida 2000 showed, to chaos and litigation. And there is a serious need for better training of poll workers, and for more uniform voter ID policies. Disturbingly, the report found that 31 percent of blacks were asked for ID, while just 18 percent of others were. Some of these problems may be explored further in a federal lawsuit challenging Ohio’s administration of its 2004 election. Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who has been criticized for many decisions he made on election matters that year, recently agreed to help preserve the 2004 paper ballots for review in the lawsuit. Ohio is not the only state that may be headed for trouble in 2008. New York’s Legislature was shamefully slow in passing the law needed to start adopting new voting machines statewide. Now localities are just starting to evaluate voting machine companies as they scramble to put machines in place in time for the 2007 election. (Because of a federal lawsuit, New York has to make the switch a year early.) Much can go wrong when new voting machines are used. There has to be extensive testing, and education of poll workers and voters. New York’s timetable needlessly risks an Election Day disaster. Cuyahoga County deserves credit for commissioning an investigation that raised uncomfortable but important questions. Its report should be a wake-up call to states and counties nationwide. Every jurisdiction in the country that runs elections should question itself just as rigorously, and start fixing any problems without delay.
Meanwhile, a major roundup piece in Mother Jones Magazine also lambastes Cuyahoga voting officials. It ranks the county as #4 on a list of the 11 worst places in the country to cast a ballot. Just read it and weep:
Dominated by the city of Cleveland and its Democratic machine, Cuyahoga County has a stunning history of poll-worker incompetence and technology failures, resulting in de facto disenfranchisement on a massive scale. In primary elections this spring, so many poll workers failed to show up for work that numerous polling places opened more than an hour late, some because they didn't have extension cords or three-prong adapters. Once voting began, it was promptly undermined by a shortage of voting machines, confusion over precinct voter lists, and paper jams that poll workers did not know how to fix (some asked random voters to repair the machines). Though only 20 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary, it took more than a week to count their votes. Around the nation, says Brenda Wright, managing attorney at the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute, election administration is massively underfunded, with poll workers paid mere pittances, trained only marginally, and overseen bystate officials who don't provide "any meaningful check on recurrent problems at the local level."

But that's not the only bad news for this area in that issue. Alyssa Katz, a New York University journalism professor, also writes a stand-alone piece (not online) about Cleveland's foreclosure boom, which the magazine calls "the dark side of America's real estate boom." The subject was covered in even greater depth some months ago in the Times, but unlike this new piece, Cleveland wasn't the only focus then.


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