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Counting The Vote In The Shadow Of Dr. King

In the Shadow of Dr. King, counting the vote remains a civil rights issue

by Bob Fitrakis, Steve Rosenfeld and Harvey Wasserman
January 17, 2005

King marched across the south and the nation to guarantee all Americans, black and white, the right to vote. But in 2000 and again in 2004, that right was denied.

Now in the wake of another bitterly contested vote count, is the electoral situation improving in the spirit of Dr. King?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, when briefing the Senate Democratic leadership on the day before the historic challenge to the Ohio electors, told them that in the 40 years since the Voting Rights Act, the people opposed to voting rights have simply changed parties -- from "Dixiecrats" to Republicans -- while still doing "everything in their power to suppress the voting rights of [the] poor and minorities." Jackson also told Senators Reid, Durbin and Stabenow that after President Lyndon Johnson refused Martin Luther King, Jr.'s pitch for voting rights in 1964 at a ceremony commemorating King's Nobel Prize award, it was a "remnant of the civil rights movement that went down to Selma" that was beaten and bloodied in a struggle that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Jackson's analysis, all that was won was a Jim Crow "state's rights" voting system that with new Republican political strength has moved to openly suppress voting rights. His Rainbow/PUSH is beginning talk about a Montgomery (Ohio) to Selma bus ride in the spring.

In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is taking steps to ensure perpetual Republican domination of Ohio. On January 12, Blackwell issued a statewide directive requiring all of Ohio’s 88 county Boards of Elections to commit to optical scan voting machine systems from two notoriously partisan Republican corporations – Diebold Election Systems or Election Systems & Software (ES&S). The choices are to be made by February 9.

Blackwell supporters say this move will effectively put the entire state into paper ballots, a crucial step toward unifying procedures and facilitating recounts.

But the machines and their makers remain suspect. John Kerry expressed concern over similar opti-scan tabulators that were used in the New Mexico election in 2004. In a conference call with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and two Ohio election litigation attorneys, Kerry observed that despite the registration percentages in New Mexico, he seemed to lose in every county where the optical scan systems were used, no matter what their demographic make up or party history.

Blackwell has come under fierce fire for running a bitterly contested election while serving as Ohio co-chair for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Ohio's vote was challenged January 6 by some three dozen Senators and Representatives under an 1887 law never before applied to an entire state's delegation. Blackwell was angrily criticized on the floor of Congress for his conflict of interest in running an Ohio election that gave George W. Bush the presidency while being riddled with a wide range of partisan irregularities.

Some 14.5% of Ohio's votes were cast on touch screen machines in 2004, a total in excess of 600,000 votes in an election where the official margin was under 120,000.

In Volusia Country, Florida, Diebold machines mysteriously switched thousands of votes from Al Gore to Bush at a crucial time on election night 2000, reversing trends that showed the election going to Gore. It was later shown the Diebold equipment had initially shown Gore with a minus 19,000 votes, while an obscure Socialist Party candidate got 9,000, far more than anywhere else in the state. Diebold later blamed the episode on a "faulty memory chip." But coming at a watershed moment on election night, the critically timed malfunction caused major networks to switch their predictions from a Gore victory to one for Bush.

In 2003 Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell issued a fundraising letter in which he pledged to "deliver Ohio's electoral votes" to Bush. O'Dell lives in Upper Arlington, a Columbus suburb, and is a major Bush donor -- a member of the Pioneer and Ranger team.

ES&S, the only other company from which Blackwell says the election boards of Ohio's 88 counties may buy their electronic scanning machines, also has deep Republican ties. The company was founded by Bob Urosevich, who still helps run it, and his brother Todd, who now works at Diebold. At one point the two companies were estimated to be counting up to 80% of the all the computerized votes in the country. But perhaps more frightening are the opti-scan machines that read the opti-scan paper ballots. These ballots that have to be marked with a special pen proved a notorious failure in Lucas County, Ohio, particularly in Toledo's heavily Democratic wards. One of the problems is that the machines can be calibrated to be very sensitive, rejecting abnormally high rates of ballots if the marks stray outside the designated area. The machines counting mechanisms are adjusted by technicians and controlled by secret proprietary software owned by the company. This lack of transparency is unacceptable in all other democratic governments.

Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has been elected and re-elected on machines made by ES&S, which is owned in part by a company in which Hagel still has a million-dollar stake. His most recently defeated rival has implied Hagel's ES&S-tabulated vote counts in both elections appear highly suspect. In particular, several African-American and Native American precincts gave Hagel large margins of victory that appear highly improbable.

The demand by Blackwell that the next Ohio election be tabulated by GOP-owned hardware and software has been angrily denounced by numerous county election board officials and election protection activists. But those aren't the only problems surfacing in Blackwell's office. The Secretary of State recently issued a fundraising letter taking credit for having delivered Ohio to George W. Bush, a controversial boast in light of Blackwell's control over how the election was conducted. Blackwell has also been cited for signing on to a fundraising letter soliciting corporate contributions, which is illegal. Blackwell's office has called that part of the letter "a mistake."

But in a lame duck session shortly after November's contested election, the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature grabbed another lever of power. In a hasty special session, the GOP rammed through a bill expanding the amount of money private individuals can give in election campaigns while restricting contributions from unions. Though the bill requires public disclosure of large donations, it tips the balance very heavily toward wealthy donors who are primarily Republican. Many observers believe the "reform" could guarantee Republican rule in Ohio for decades to come.

Meanwhile, new legal actions are being pursued in Ohio where the Alliance for Democracy filed to intervene in a pending Election Day suit in hopes of staying the inauguration. And in New Mexico, a recount is still being sought. Talk has also spread about the possibility of civil rights lawsuits being filed in Ohio in response to the denial of thousands of African Americans' right to vote on November 2.

The original Moss v. Bush lawsuit filed to overturn the seating of George Bush has been withdrawn, in large part because it was expected the courts would rule it moot. But the prospect of new litigation based on the legacy of Dr. King means the election of 2004 won't be over for a long time. It is 37 years since the legendary civil rights activist was shot. But in Ohio, New Mexico and around the US, the battle for the ability of all Americans to vote, and to have those vote fairly counted, has never been hotter.


Bob Fitrakis, Steve Rosenfeld and Harvey Wasserman are co-authors of OHIO'S STOLEN ELECTION: VOICES OF THE DISENFRANCHISED, 2004, a book/film project forthcoming from Support for this project is welcomed at and via the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism, 1240 Bryden Road, Columbus 43205.

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