Ohio: Tight ballot security prevents dirty tricks

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The Independent US

Candise Dorsey couldn't quite believe what had just happened to her. A 40-year-old black voter from the eastern Cleveland suburbs, she went to her polling station early yesterday morning expecting chaos, confusion, aggressive challenges from Republican poll watchers, delays and possible bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of her exercising her franchise.

Candise Dorsey couldn't quite believe what had just happened to her. A 40-year-old black voter from the eastern Cleveland suburbs, she went to her polling station early yesterday morning expecting chaos, confusion, aggressive challenges from Republican poll watchers, delays and possible bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of her exercising her franchise.

Instead, she found crowds of people moving through the polling station with admirable efficiency. She had no trouble with the punchcard voting system ­ the same one that caused so much trouble in Florida four years ago ­ and she encountered no unpleasantness whatsoever.

"I've been voting for 22 years and I've never seen anything like this before," she said. She hugged her 11-year-old daughter proudly, glad to have shown her democracy in action.

One city worker said: "It's like going out to dinner with your mother-in-law. When you've got that kind of attention on you, you're going to be on your best behaviour." For months, Ohio has been touted as the state most likely to become the Florida of 2004. Not only is it an agonisingly close battleground in the race to the White House, it also has a state government dominated by Republican partisans whose preparations for the election had been regarded with the utmost suspicion by Democrats.

Right down to the wire, the prognosticators were foreseeing trouble, particularly over a Republican plan to station thousands of vote "challengers" in polling stations to question anyone and everyone about their eligibility to cast a ballot. State law permits challengers, but in practice they are deployed rarely and are associated almost exclusively with ugly attempts to suppress the black vote ­ something on which the outcome of the election in Ohio might well depend.

Until the early hours of yesterday, it was not clear whether the federal courts would accept the idea of vote challengers. Two lower-court federal judges in Ohio deemed them discriminatory and unconstitutional and said they had no right to be in polling stations. Then, at 2am on election day, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati split down both political and racial lines ­ two white Republican appointees versus one black Democrat appointee ­ to reverse the lower-court rulings.

The Democrats appealed to the Supreme Court in Washington, which refused to get involved, perhaps understandably after the flak it took for settling the 2000 election in Mr Bush's favour. In the end, the fuss may have been about very little. At least in the first several hours of voting, the challengers barely made their presence felt at all.

At Ms Dorsey's polling station, the only action came from a Democrat challenger, who objected to a poll worker's insistence on seeing a voter's ID. An official intervened, the poll worker backed off and the voter was allowed to proceed unhindered.

By midday, the Democrats had reason to feel pleased in Ohio, Cleveland in particular. Turnout was huge. Long lines of voters were still queuing up hours after the official end of the poll, with some people waiting for five hours to cast their vote. It may have been that vote challengers were restricted by Ohio law, which states that voters can be questioned only on three issues ­ age, citizenship and whether the person is voting in the correct precinct.

But the Election Protection Coalition, a nationwide umbrella group, reported many calls from voters in Ohio, insisting they were registered to vote but their names were not on official lists. These people may vote by provisional ballot ­ an option introduced for the first time this year ­ but there are concerns these will not be counted properly. In an election in Chicago in March, only 7 per cent of provisional ballots were deemed valid.

Overall, Ohio had been well down the list of the coalition's concerns. Perhaps because of media scrutiny, the state ran as tight a ship as possible.

But the huge turnout caused problems. The Democrats obtained an order in federal court requiring election officials in two central counties to let voters use paper punch-card ballots as well as touch-screens to speed up voting. But the Ohio attorney general filed an appeal, adding to the confusion.

The Election Protection Coalition had a presence outside every Cleveland polling station, offering legal guidance and troubleshooting. They talked election officials into letting people vote even if their names did not show up. Under such scrutiny, it was hard for poll watchers and challengers to step out of line.

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