It’s Election Time Again. Have We Learned Anything From 2004?

by Denis Smith

“We have found numerous, serious election irregularities in the Ohio presidential election, which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters. Cumulatively, these irregularities, which affected hundreds of thousands of votes and voters in Ohio, raise grave doubts regarding whether it can be said the Ohio electors …. were chosen in a manner that conforms to Ohio law, let alone federal requirements and constitutional standards.”

Is this quote a prompt to propel us back to the future? Maybe an excerpt from a Rod Serling Twilight Zone script?

Nope. No fiction writers were involved in crafting that statement.

In fact, this passage is from a portion of the Executive Summary of a report on the 2004 presidential election written by the House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff. The report has a chilling title: “Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio,”  and details a cascade of events in the Buckeye State that handed the election to George W. Bush and assured him a second term.

While doing some research on election history a few weeks ago, I found the House Judiciary Committee report and read it for the first time. After reading the first several pages, the narrative sounded all too familiar. (If you have the time and it’s a particularly slow day, you might want to read this 102-page report to fortify you as to what to expect this year. Just substitute the name Blackwell and replace it with Husted for what could be the 2016 version.)

Of particular interest was the very first bullet in the report:

  • The misallocation of voting machines led to unprecedented long lines that disenfranchised scores, if not hundreds of thousands, of predominantly minority and Democratic voters.

Yes, this statement struck a chord. In 2004, I had the unique opportunity to witness first-hand the mess that many will never forget. On Election Day, I served as a volunteer for MoveOn, assisting voters at Precinct 25-B in Columbus and saw the result of the “misallocation of voting machines” and the “unprecedented long lines” that were the result.

Reading the report moved me to search for a statement that I wrote on November 13, 2004 for a public meeting, a forum designed to be a postmortem on the election. Those who attended were told beforehand that any documents submitted would be forwarded to interested parties and become artifacts of that election. Knowing this, I carefully prepared a six-page statement and submitted it to the meeting organizers.

After going through several flash drives in my desk drawer that were themselves artifacts from three computers ago, I found the statement. Allow me to share some excerpts from that statement so that we may both be reminded and vigilant about how the 2016 election might be conducted.

(Excerpts from November 13, 2004 Statement)

“At my precinct in Westerville, a location with 82 parking spaces and four voting machines, I was the 19th person in line by the time the doors were opened precisely at 6:30am.  It felt good to see the process go so well in my community, and after having some breakfast, I arrived at Precinct 25-B shortly before 8:30am.  The contrast between my own precinct in Westerville and 25-B in Columbus was immediately apparent.  First, how can you access a system when there is no place to park?  After circling the library polling place, I was forced to park illegally across the street on Cleveland Avenue, then, later in the day, I moved my car again to a side street.  What can you say about a polling place, a facility that has only 20 parking spaces available for voters, poll workers and volunteers?

The second obvious issue was the long voting line by 8:30am.  Two hours into the opening of the polls, the line snaked through the lobby and down the south side of the building.  After asking some questions about the operation of the polling place and the length of the voting line, I was informed by several community members that there were only three election machines inside, when six were supposedly in place for the March primary election.

During my time at 25-B, individuals told me that they had to leave to get to work, get back to work, pick up children from school, or in one case, provide visiting nurse care to homebound patients.  In the pouring rain, with people frantically circling a parking lot… I saw the stress and frustration on the faces of people who very much wanted to be participants in the voting process.

After struggling to find a place to park, our voters at 25-B joined the line and hung on, despite intermittent rain showers, to stand and wait for one of those three scarce voting machines.  After a one or two hour or longer wait, many people left, and I talked to some of them as they walked away, begging them to return after work and vote.  They assured me that they would return and try to join the line again later in the day.

As the day wore on, I answered questions about conditions from newly arriving voters, some walking and others attempting to find a parking space on the tiny lot, and the obvious question was how long the wait time was expected to be.  The expression on the faces of those who were told the wait was two hours, then three, then four hours, spoke volumes about what was wrong with this system.  I shall never forget the pained expressions that appeared on the faces of so many people as the reality of the wait was shown in their non-verbals.  But the line kept getting longer.  At some point, stanchions were used to form a more compact line which allowed it to be contained almost totally inside, and that was a more welcoming sign for newly arrived voters to see.  But the length of the line didn’t diminish.

After a series of phone calls to the board of elections placed by an attorney working for the Democratic National Committee, as well as other phone calls placed independently by one of the judges inside, two workers arrived in a truck with a fourth voting machine at 2:30pm.  When I asked the workers if they knew why only three machines were delivered instead of the six used just a few months before at the same precinct, they simply smiled, got back in their truck and left the tiny, teeming parking lot overflowing with citizens trying to access a precious few voting machines after they could not find one of the few, precious parking spaces.  Why do we base our fragile democracy on the principle of scarcity?  Scarce parking spaces.  Scarce voting machines.  Scarce poll workers.  Why is this?  Incompetence, ineptness, or design?

During the day, I observed the comings and goings of a television crew from ITN News in London, and they provided video back to the United Kingdom about the plight of voters in the Linden community, trying to access the system.  When the UK crew returned after a few hours, they found an even longer line, and voters tired from standing, stressed over being forced to think about leaving, tired after being drenched from one brief shower after another.  I spoke to the crew and found that they had been traveling in the United States for the last several weeks, covering our campaign.  By the stroke of good luck, or good investigative reporting, they came to Linden and saw for themselves.

Slowly, inexorably, attrition was taking its toll.  How many people did we lose, people who left work or were late for work or who had some other obligation?  How many left the lines, never to return?  How many driving by on Cleveland Avenue saw the long line down the sidewalk of the library and no parking anywhere to be found, or the cars scattered along the narrow alley behind and running parallel to Cleveland Avenue?  How many people did we lose?  We will never know, but the system triumphed in keeping people away from participating.

For those who prevailed over the long lines, help did arrive from several organizations in the form of snacks, bananas, apples and water.  Our team helped distribute these items as far as they went, and we hoped it helped to keep some weary, wet, hungry and thirsty people from losing the fight, beaten down by all the disincentives our system has to offer.

Just before the polls officially closed at 7:30, I said goodbye to my co-workers and told them that after 11 hours standing in and out of the rain, my gas tank was empty.  I arrived home around 8:00pm, and getting out of my wet clothes, watched a live report on Channel 4 from 25-B, the very precinct I had just left.  The reporter said that voters were expected to wait as late as 1:00am to vote.  Ah, I thought, how fortunate that a British television crew and Channel 4, among others, were able to visit us.  There were others, but there was too much action going on to know what organizations were represented with so many crews.  Was it pure luck that we had so many crews visiting us?

Ineptness, incompetence or design.  We are free to choose one of these descriptors or perhaps some others, to characterize our “system,” but one thing is clear:  Our system is not broken, because we really are not describing a system here.

But let’s go further.  A coherent, aligned, equitable electoral process would provide an equal opportunity for any citizen in any neighborhood to vote and access the “system,” regardless of any other consideration.  That did not happen on Election Day.  I saw two neighborhoods, Westerville and Columbus, and two realities, and this disparity is unacceptable, now or in the future.”


Back to the future? Who knows? It’s so interesting what you can find on a nearly forgotten flash drive stored in a desk drawer. Twelve years after that debacle, the election of 2004 remains vivid in my memory and perhaps yours as well. We may yet face another nightmare in November.

Yes, a nightmare by ineptness, incompetence or design. Will we take a journey back to the future? Should we tolerate bad fiction, past history that might become a permanent reality? Stand by.


Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.