The Center for Grassroots Oversight

This page can be viewed at http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=us_election_2004_timeline_206


Context of 'October 29, 2004: African American Activists Contest Ohio Voter Challenge Law'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event October 29, 2004: African American Activists Contest Ohio Voter Challenge Law. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

Thousands of African-American voters in Florida are illegally denied their right to vote, as is proven in many instances by subsequent investigations. Adora Obi Nweze, the president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, is told by election officials she cannot vote because she has already cast an absentee ballot, even though she has cast no such ballot. Cathy Jackson, a Broward County voter since 1996, was told falsely that she was not on the rolls and could not vote; she sees a white woman cast an “affidavit ballot” and asks if she can do the same, but is denied. Donnise DeSouza of Miami is told, falsely, that she is not on the voting rolls and is moved to the “problem line”; when the polls close, she is sent home without voting. Another voter, Lavonna Lewis, is in line to vote when the polls close. Though the law says that voters already in line can vote even after the polls close, she is sent home. She will later say she saw election officials allow a white male voter to get in line after the polls had closed.
US Representative Fights to Cast Vote - US Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL) is followed into her poll by a television crew. Officials there tell her that her ballot has been sent to Washington and therefore she cannot vote in Florida. Brown spends two and a half hours in the polling place before finally being allowed to vote. Brown later notes that she helped register thousands of African-American college students in the months prior to the election. “We put them on buses,” she will recall, “took them down to the supervisor’s office. Had them register. When it came time to vote, they were not on the rolls!” Many African-American voters like Wallace McDonald of Hillsborough County are denied their vote because they are told, falsely, that they are convicted felons whose right to vote has been stripped. The NAACP offices are inundated with telephone calls all day from voters complaining that their right to vote is being denied.
'Painful, Dehumanizing, Demoralizing' - Donna Brazile, campaign manager for the Gore campaign whose sister was illegally asked for three forms of identification in Seminole County before being allowed to vote, later says: “What happened that day—I can’t even put it in words anymore. It was the most painful, dehumanizing, demoralizing thing I’ve ever experienced in my years of organizing.” Hearings in early 2001 held by the US Commission on Civil Rights will record more than 30 hours of testimony from over 100 witnesses as to a wide array of racially based disenfranchisement. The commission will find that the election probably violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but Attorney General John Ashcroft will ignore the report.
Gadsden County - One exemplar of systematic disenfranchisement is seen in Gadsden County, one of Florida’s poorest counties, with 57 percent of its voters African-American. Its elections are supervised by white conservative Denny Hutchinson. Hutchinson refuses to take action to increase registration, put in more polling places, and other actions designed to increase voter turnout. Gadsden County Commissioner Ed Dixon later recalls: “He never advocated for any increased precincts, even though some of our people had to drive 30 miles to get to a poll. In the only county that’s a majority African-American, you want a decreased turnout.” After the votes have been tallied, Hutchinson’s deputy, African-American Shirley Green Knight, notices that over 2,000 ballots (out of 14,727 cast) are not included in the registered count. The reason? Gadsden uses a so-called “optiscan” balloting device, which allows voters to “bubble in” ovals with a pencil; these “bubbles” are scanned and the votes they indicate are tallied. Optiscan ballots are prone to register “overvotes,” essentially when the ballot indicates votes for two separate candidates in the same race. Overvotes are not machine-tallied. The machines have a sorting switch that when set to “on” causes the machine to record overvotes or “undervotes” (no vote recorded) in a separate category for later review and possible inclusion. Knight will learn that Hutchinson had insisted the machines’ switches be set to “off,” which rejects the overvotes without counting them at all. “I have no idea why he would do that,” Knight later says. When she learns of the problem, she asks Hutchinson to run the ballots through again with the sorting switch on, but he refuses. He is later overruled by the Gadsden canvassing board. When the ballots are run through a second time, the results are startlingly different. Gadsden uses a variant of the so-called “caterpillar ballot,” which lists candidates’ names in two columns. George W. Bush, Al Gore, and six other presidential candidates are listed in one column. The second column lists two more candidates, Monica Moorehead and Howard Phillips, and a blank for a “Write-In Candidate.” Hundreds of voters apparently believe that the second column is for an entirely different race, and vote not only for Bush or Gore, but for Moorehead or Phillips. And some voters vote for Gore and, to ensure clarity, write “Gore” in the write-in box. (Some, thoroughly confused by directions telling them to “Vote for ONE” and “Vote for Group,” bubble in all 10 presidential candidates and write “Gore” in the box.) None of these votes are originally counted. More sophisticated optiscan machines would refuse to accept the ballot, prompting the voter to correct the error. But Gadsden uses a cheaper machine that allows the error to go through unbeknownst to the voter. When Gadsden performs its machine recount, Gore will receive 153 additional votes from the erroneous optiscan. These will be included in the state’s final tally. However, over 2,000 of the “overvote” ballots will not be counted. Two-thirds of those ballots have Gore as their selection.
Duval County - Similar problems plague voters in Duval County. Duval, a large Democratic stronghold because of its inclusion of Jacksonville, is 29 percent African-American. Twenty-one thousand votes are thrown out as “overvotes.” Part of the problem is a sample-ballot insert placed in the newspaper by elections supervisor John Stafford, giving erroneous instructions as to how to complete the Duval ballot; any voter who follows these instructions does not have their votes tallied, though corrected instructions are posted in some Duval precincts. In the critical 72-hour period after the votes are complete, Gore campaign staffer Mike Langton will spend hours with Stafford, a white Republican, attempting to address the situation. Stafford lies to Langton and tells him Duval has “only a few” overvotes. It is not until after the deadline to ask for a machine recount has passed that Langton learns of the 21,000 uncounted votes. Nearly half of these are from four heavily African-American precincts that usually vote 90 percent Democratic. In theory, nearly 10,000 votes for Gore from Duval County will go untallied.
'Felons' and 'Purge Lists' - Florida law disenfranchises citizens convicted of many felonies (see June 24, 1974). In this election, thousands of Florida voters, mostly African-American males, lose their vote when they appear at their precinct and are told they cannot vote because they are felons, even though they are not. One is Willie Steen, a military veteran who loses his vote in Hillsborough County. “The poll worker looked at the computer and said that there was something about me being a felon,” Steen later recalls. “I’ve never been arrested before in my life,” he recalls telling the poll worker. The worker refuses to listen, and orders Steen to leave the line. Steen later learns that the felony he supposedly committed was done between 1991 and 1993, when he was stationed in the Persian Gulf. Tampa youth leader Willie Dixon and Tallahasse pastor Willie Whiting are also denied their votes through improper classification as felons, as do thousands of other voters. Investigative journalist Greg Palast later learns that the felon-disenfranchisement is widespread and systematic. He will publish a story exposing the scheme during the Florida recounts—in a London newspaper. No US newspaper will consider it. Palast later says: “Stories of black people losing rights is passe, it’s not discussed, no one cares. A black person accused of being a felon is always guilty.” Palast and other investigators learn that Republican legislators have in recent years upgraded a number of selected crimes from misdemeanors to felonies, apparently in order to “purge” the voting rolls of African-Americans. State Senator Frederica Wilson is one of many who believe the new classifications are “aimed at African-American people.” Black lawmakers have been unsuccessful in attempting to repeal the felon-disenfranchisement laws. After a 1997 election, where some 105 felons were found to have voted and analysis showed that 71 percent of Florida felons were registered Democrats, the Florida state government allocated $4 million to “purge” felons off the voting rolls. The government turned the task over to a private firm, Database Technologies (DBT) of Boca Raton (which later merged with the firm ChoicePoint). When the first purge lists from DBT began appearing in 1998, county elections officials were worried. Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor for Leon County, will recall: “We were sent this purge list in August of 1998. We started sending letters and contacting voters, [saying] that we had evidence that they were potential felons and that they contact us or they were going to be removed from the rolls. Boy, did that cause a firestorm.” One of the “felons” was Sancho’s close friend Rick Johnson, a civil rights attorney. “Very few felons are members of the Florida bar,” Sancho will note. In early 2000, Sancho asked Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell, a lawyer for the Florida Division of Elections, why so many “false positives”—innocent people—were on DBT’s list. Mitchell told Sancho that the problem was DBT’s, not Florida’s, and the firm had been told to handle the problem. Instead, according to ChoicePoint marketing official James Lee, Florida relaxed the criteria for its purge list, and tens of thousands of voters who had names roughly similar to those of actual felons were added to the list. Why? Lee will say, “Because after the first year they weren’t getting enough names.” Willie D. Whiting, a law-abiding pastor, is denied the vote because Willie J. Whiting is a felon. Willie Steen is denied his vote because Willie O’Steen is a convicted felon. Mitchell told a DBT project manager that it was up to elections officials like Sancho to find and correct the misidentifications. The lists even include actual felons whose right to vote had been restored by previous Florida administrations during amnesty programs. The initial database for the purge lists is comprised of people arrested for felonies, not convicted—thusly many citizens never convicted of a crime are now on the purge list. Others are incorrectly listed as felons when they were convicted of misdemeanors. A May 2000 “corrected” list stunned county elections officials. Linda Howell, election supervisor of Madison County, found her own name on the list. Monroe County supervisor Harry Sawyer found his father on the list, along with one of his employees and the husband of another. None of those people were felons. Some counties, such as Broward, Duval, Madison, and Palm Beach chose not to use the lists at all; Sancho meticulously checked his list of 697 names and ended up retaining only 33. Most supervisors use the lists without question. A thousand Bay County voters are denied their vote; 7,000 Miami-Dade voters lose theirs. It is unknown how many of these are actual felons and how many are law-abiding, legitimate voters. A 2001 class-action lawsuit brought by the NAACP and African-American voters will charge DBT and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris with deliberately attempting to disenfranchise black voters. It will be settled out of court, with Florida agreeing to provisions that nominally settle the problem (see Late August 2002), but a 2004 article by Vanity Fair will note that by 2004, Florida’s government has implemented none of the corrective procedures mandated by the settlement. Subsequent investigations will show that the “felons” on the various purge lists are disproportionately Democratic voters and disproportionately African-American. (Tapper 3/2001; Margolick, Peretz, and Shnayerson 10/2004)
2001 Investigation Proves Widespread Disenfranchisement - A 2001 investigation by the progressive newsmagazine The Nation will show a widespread and systematic program of voter disenfranchisement in effect in Florida during the 2000 elections (see April 24, 2001).

Florida NAACP official Anita Davis begins receiving phone calls from African-American voters in Leon County, which includes the heavily African-American areas in and around Tallahassee, complaining about Highway Patrol roadblocks that are interfering with their attempts to get to their polling places. Davis calls the Highway Patrol office and is told the roadblocks are just routine traffic stops, asking motorists to show their license and insurance identification. However, given Florida’s often-ugly history of racial oppression, Davis wonders about the timing and nature of the roadblocks. “It’s odd for them to be out there on Election Day,” Davis says. “It just doesn’t smell right.” Davis and fellow NAACP officials soon conclude that the Highway Patrol is attempting to interfere with black citizens’ attempts to vote. (Tapper 3/2001)

Florida NAACP official Anita Davis, already troubled by reports of Highway Patrol roadblocks interfering with black citizens’ attempts to vote in Leon County (see 11:30 a.m. November 7, 2000), receives a telephone call from her grandson Jamarr Lyles, a college student at Florida A&M in Tallahassee, the county seat. Lyles had joined in the NAACP’s effort to register new African-American voters, and like Davis is thrilled at the reports of huge turnouts among black Floridian voters, but tells his grandmother that he is receiving dozens of reports from his friends that they were not allowed to vote: that their names were not on the voting rolls, though they had registered to vote. (Tapper 3/2001)

The Republican Party provides Ohio election officials with lists of the people they have recruited to work as “challengers” on election day. According to a 1953 Ohio state law—which critics says is rooted in a blatantly racist 1886 statute that emerged after the Civil War—“challengers” are permitted to challenge the qualifications of voters who they suspect are not eligible to vote. (Moss 10/23/2004; Andrews 11/1/2004) Before a challenger can ask a poll worker to question a voter, it must first be shown that there is “reasonable” justification for doubting a voter’s qualifications. All eligible voters must be citizens, at least 18, a resident of the county and must have lived in Ohio for the previous 30 days. The Republicans’ list includes 3,600 challengers, many of whom will be working in the heavily Democratic urban neighborhoods of Cleveland, Dayton and other cities. For example 1,436 of the Republican challengers will be stationed in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold. The Republicans claim that using challengers is necessary because the Democrats may have fraudulently registered thousands of ineligible voters. The Democrats enlist more than 2,000 recruits as challengers who they hope will protect legitimate voters from being denied their rights by their Republican counterparts. But in some of the most critical counties the Democrats will be grossly outnumbered. For Cuyahoga County, the Democrats will only have 300 challengers. (Moss 10/23/2004) Election officials are concerned about the huge number of challenges that are expected at the polls. “I’m not sure how we’re going to accomplish this,” says John Williams, deputy elections director in Hamilton County. “We’ve never had anything like this before.” Some fear that the challengers intend to reduce voter turnout. “Some observers worry the parties will indiscriminately challenge voters in heavily Democratic or Republican precincts as a strategy to discourage people from voting,” The Columbus Dispatch reports. (Niquette 10/23/2004)

In Akron, Ohio, the Summit County Democratic Party goes to the federal district court in an attempt to block the Republicans’ plan to station some 3,500 “challengers” at voting sites in 65 different Ohio counties (see 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). They say that the 1953 vote-challenge law—which critics say is rooted in a blatantly racist 1886 statute that emerged from the Civil War—jeopardizes people’s fundamental right to vote. The law allows citizens to be denied the right without an opportunity to be represented by an attorney or rebut evidence. The case will be decided Monday morning (see Early Morning, November 1, 2004) (Andrews 11/1/2004; Niquette 11/1/2004; Weinstein 11/2/2004)

In Cincinnati, Donald and Marian Spencer, elderly African American civil rights activists, go to federal district court to challenge the 1953 Ohio law that permits poll watchers to challenge voters (see 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). Critics of the law say it is rooted in a blatantly racist 1886 statute that emerged after the Civil War. The couple is supported in their case by the Democrats. The couple complains that most of the Republican challengers will be deployed in the heavily black precincts in the Cincinnati area in order to suppress minority voters. (Andrews 11/1/2004; Weinstein 11/2/2004) David Maume, a sociologist from the University of Cincinnati, testifies that demographic data show a disproportionate number of Republican challengers would be sent to precincts that are predominantly Africa-American. Maume further explains that perhaps as many as 77 percent of black voters would encounter a challenger on Election Day, compared with 25 percent of white voters. There is “a clear correlation between a voting population that is black and the placement of Republican challengers,” Maume concludes. (Theis 10/31/2004) The court resumes hearing on the case Sunday evening (see Evening, October 31, 2004). (Weinstein 11/2/2004)

In a fax to US District Judge Susan Dlott, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta, offers the Justice Department’s unsolicited opinion on a pre-election lawsuit that has been filed by Donald and Marian Spencer (see October 29, 2004), elderly African American civil rights activists, who claim that Republican plans to deploy thousands of partisan challengers to Ohio polls on election day violates the US Constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights because it targets black neighborhoods in Hamilton County. Copies of the fax are sent to Al Gerhardstein, who is representing the Spencers, and Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro. (Dyer 10/31/2004; Sloat 10/31/2004) Acosta writes in his letter that civil rights lawyers for the Bush administration’s Justice Department see no reason why the plan would be illegal. “[N]othing in the Voting Rights Act facially condemns challenge statutes,” the letter claims. Bush’s Justice Department also argues that “[r]estricting the ability of citizens to make challenges when they have such information would undermine the ability of election officials to enforce their own state laws that govern the eligibility for voting.” (Sloat 10/31/2004; Dyer 10/31/2004; Weinstein 11/1/2004) Gerhardstein says he believes the Justice Department may have breached legal rules by contacting the judge directly. “It is totally unusual, it is unprecedented for the Justice Department to offer its opinions on the merits of a case like that,” he tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “This is the civil rights division saying it is OK for voters to be ambushed when they reach for a ballot.” (Sloat 10/31/2004) Similarly, he tells the Los Angeles Times: “The Justice Department is not a party to the case. They have not filed a motion to intervene in the case or filed an amicus brief. They volunteered information that goes beyond any federal interest.” (Weinstein 11/1/2004)

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, a Republican, files a suit in the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals asking for a stay of the court decisions in Akron (See Late October 2004) and Cincinnati (See Evening, October 31, 2004). Petro claims that the two federal judges, one of whom was appointed by George Bush in 2002, are “injecting themselves” into the presidential elections and rewriting Ohio’s election laws. (Sloat 11/2/2004) The court will grant the stay early the following morning (See 1:24 a.m., November 1, 2004).

In Cincinnati, Donald and Marian Spencer, go to federal district court to resume their challenge (see October 29, 2004) of a 1953 Ohio law that permits poll watchers to challenge voters (see 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). The couple contends that most of the Republican challengers will be working in the heavily black precincts in the Cincinnati area in order to suppress minority voters. The court decides early Monday morning (see 1:24 a.m., November 1, 2004). (Weinstein 11/2/2004)

In Cincinnati, US District Judge Susan J. Dlott rules on a case brought by Donald and Marian Spencer (see Evening, October 31, 2004), in which the couple challenged the GOP’s plan to deploy challengers to polling sites in Hamilton County (see 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). Dlott, appointed by Clinton in 1994, rules against the Republican plan, noting that there is no need to have challengers since Ohio already requires the presence of election judges at precincts in order to avoid voter fraud. “Under Ohio law, each polling place is staffed by four election judges, no more than two of whom can be from a single party,” the Los Angeles Times explains. “One of the four is appointed by each county election board to be the presiding judge, who can rule on challenges to a voter’s qualifications.” Dlott warns in her 18-page decision that the Republican plan, if permitted, could cause “chaos, delay, intimidation and pandemonium inside the polls and in the lines outside the door.” She notes “that 14 percent of new voters in a majority white location will face a challenger… but 97 percent of new voters in a majority African American voting location will see such a challenger.” Dlott says also that the law permitting challengers does not sufficiently protect citizens’ fundamental right to vote. (Andrews 11/1/2004; Niquette 11/1/2004; Weinstein 11/2/2004; Wilkinson and Andrews 11/2/2004) Dlott ruling is very similar to another one that is delivered a few hours later in a similar case in Akron (see Early Morning, November 1, 2004). Commenting on the two rulings, two election law experts, professor Edward Foley of Ohio State University Law School in Columbus and Richard L. Hasen of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, both tell the Los Angeles Times that they consider it significant that the two judges have provided similar rationales for their rulings. “It is quite striking that the reasoning of both judges is the same and they echo one another,” Foley says. (Weinstein 11/2/2004)

In Akron, Ohio, US District Judge John R. Adams rules on a case brought by local residents (see Late October 2004), challenging the Republicans’ plan to station challengers at polling sites in 65 Ohio counties (see 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). Adams, appointed by Bush in 2002, rules against the GOP plan. In his decision he notes that Ohio already requires the presence of election judges at precincts in order to avoid voter fraud and that there is therefore no need to place challengers at the polls. “Under Ohio law, each polling place is staffed by four election judges, no more than two of whom can be from a single party,” the Los Angeles Times explains. “One of the four is appointed by each county election board to be the presiding judge, who can rule on challenges to a voter’s qualifications.” Judge Adams also expresses concern that “random challenges or challenges without cause advanced by members of any political party… could result in retaliatory ‘tit for tat’ challenges at the polling places.” Furthermore, he argues, “If challenges are made with any frequency, the resultant distraction and delay could give rise to chaos and a level of voter frustration that would turn qualified electors away from the polls” Finally, Adams also says that the law permitting challengers does not adequately protect a citizen’s fundamental right to vote. (Weinstein 11/2/2004) Adams ruling is very similar to another one that was delivered just a few hours ago in a similar case in Cleveland (see 1:24 a.m., November 1, 2004). Commenting on the two rulings, two election law experts, professor Edward Foley of Ohio State University Law School in Columbus and Richard L. Hasen of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, both tell the Los Angeles Times that they consider it significant that the two judges have provided similar rationales for their rulings. “It is quite striking that the reasoning of both judges is the same and they echo one another,” Foley says. (Weinstein 11/2/2004)

The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a ruling made by a federal district court the previous day (See Evening, October 31, 2004) which had barred Republicans from challenging voters at the polls (See 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). The appeals court is presided by three judges, two of which were appointed by Republican presidents—Judge John M. Rogers, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002, and Senior Judge James L. Ryan, who was appointed by President Reagan in 1985. Judge Rogers writes in the court’s decision: “Longer lines may, of course, result from delays and confusion when one side in a political controversy employs” challenges “more vigorously than in previous elections,” but “such a possibility does not amount to the severe burden upon the right to vote” that would justify a court order. Appeals Court Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., a 1995 appointee of President Clinton, disagrees. In his dissenting opinion, he says that under the Republican plan, “partisan challengers for the first time since the civil rights era seek to target precincts that have a majority African American population and without any legal standards or restrictions, challenge the voter qualifications of people as they stand waiting to exercise their fundamental right to vote.” He adds: “In this case, we anticipate the arrival of hundreds of Republican lawyers to challenge voter registration at the polls. Behind them will be hundreds of Democrat lawyers to challenge these challengers’ challenges. This is a recipe for confusion and chaos.” (Weinstein 11/2/2004)

Jesse Lee Peterson, appearing on a Fox News broadcast.Jesse Lee Peterson, appearing on a Fox News broadcast. [Source: Think Progress]The Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson attacks the Reverend Jesse Jackson for participating in what he calls a liberal conspiracy to “keep black[s] on the plantation of the Democratic Party.” Jackson has caused a media stir by raising questions about the fairness of the voting process in the November presidential elections in Ohio (see October 29, 2004 and Evening, October 31, 2004). Jackson, Peterson says, is part of an organized liberal effort to “keep black Americans angry in order to keep them on the plantation of the Democratic Party.” Peterson also accuses liberals of being the real racists in America, calls allegations that blacks were disenfranchised in the 2000 elections “a lie” (see November 7, 2000, November 7, 2000, November 7, 2000, 11:30 a.m. November 7, 2000, and Early Afternoon, November 7, 2000), and falsely claims that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) supported reparations for slavery during his campaign. Peterson makes his remarks during an appearance on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes. Co-host Sean Hannity is a member of BOND’s advisory board, and is quoted on the BOND Web site as calling Peterson “a great American” and “a man of conscience.” The liberal media watchdog organization Media Matters notes that Peterson has often attacked Jackson. Peterson’s organization, the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND), has held a “National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson” for the last five years. In an August 2000 article in the John Birch Society’s New American magazine, Peterson called Jackson a “problem profiteer… who makes millions by exploiting and exacerbating racial tensions.” He wrote a 2003 book entitled Scam: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America, in which he attacked Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and other black civil rights leaders. Peterson and BOND have led a boycott of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), claiming the organization is “a tool of the liberal elite socialist wing of the Democratic Party.” And he is currently suing Jackson for assault and civil rights violations (Seifter 11/30/2004) (the case will be settled out of court in 2006 after a jury dismisses all but one charge against Jackson and deadlocks on the remaining charge). (Judicial Watch 1/27/2006)


Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike