Monday, August 04, 2008

Columbus Ballot Buffer Overload

Not in the machine memory. In my memory. I need to write a really big post about the Columbus ballot. What you are reading is a big summary post, but not nearly big enough. The longer I go without posting, though, the longer the needed post gets, and the less likely I am to post anything. So...

As far as I'm concerned the 2004 Columbus ballot, which had eight municipal bond proposals, almost undoubtedly robbed Kerry of far more votes than caging, poll challenges, ID rules, and touch screens combined. Thankfully, the folks who can do something to prevent a repeat are trying to do so. There have been a number of developments on the Franklin County voting front in recent days, and each of them deserves an in-depth piece with links. First of all, FC will have more machines. Second of all, these machines will be supposedly be distributed based on data that is current as of the fall, rather than as of the spring. Third of all, the FC Board of Elections has been piloting test ballots with actual voters to determine the average voting time. This will be a factor in distributing machines. And finally, on a related note, SOS Brunner has issued an advisory to BOEs advising them to not strictly enforce the 5-minute statutory limit on time at the ballot for each voter. Each of these things is a piece of good news, and together they are VERY good news for Barack Obama, David Robinson, and Mary Jo Kilroy. The only thing marring this set of developments is Dennis L. White's declaration that the new systems in place in Franklin County are better than the procedures in 2004, because then "It was all gut instinct."

In case you don't remember, in the aftermath of the voting tragedy in Columbus in 2004, Director of Elections Matt Damschroder countered charges of racial discrimination in voting machine distribution by explaining each of the quantifiable factors that went into the allocation formula which was approved by a bi-partisan BOE. William Anthony, an African-American and then head of the BOE, gave cover when he was quoted as saying no racially-based disenfranchisement occurred, noting that he had signed off on the decisions and he had no reason to discriminate against Democrats and/or people of color. This quote was used by Republicans (including, IIRC, Pat Tiberi) to denounce Democrats during the floor speeches associated with the challenge to the electoral votes being counted.

It appears that Damschroder later waffled a bit on the degree to which the process was rigidly systematic:

I have been quoted as saying the 11/04 allocation decision was calculated using `a little bit of math and a little bit of art.' Because 90% of the allocation decision using the old machines had to be made well in advance of the election, there was not sufficient time to take into full account the significant change in registration. Therefore, midsummer, post primary active voter numbers were used as an objective baseline and then changed based upon subjective evaluations such as past turnout, new construction (which would indicate more provisional ballot demand), and local contests or issues that may drive turnout beyond what was expected for the balance of the county (i.e., school tax levy).

Dennis White, current BOE chair and the other Dem on the BOE in 2004 is either calling BS 4 years too late or he had no idea what was going on at the time. Or, I guess, it's possible that White is willing to stipulate the possibility that he was a witless accomplice to racial discrimination and voter disenfranchisement in 2004 if it makes him look smarter today. Any of these is a possibility. The Franklin County BOE has a better history of camaraderie than competence. For what it's worth, my money is on some version of that last one.

Anyway, what you really need to know is that the City of Columbus has another huge bond package on the ballot this year, which will most likely again be made up of a number of wordy proposals. Unless a Columbus voter comes in with a cheat-sheet, it will probably take them twice as long to vote as it will a suburban voter (the tests alluded to before show 9 vs. 6 minutes, but I'd estimate by November that'd be down to an average of 6 vs. 3 minutes, or thereabouts). Let's say that there are hypothetically three machines in my Bexley precinct, and four machines in the neighboring Columbus neighborhood of Berwick. Let us also say, hypothetically, that between 7 and 8 am voters come in at the rate of 1 per minute. In Bexley, the first voter is done as the fourth voter arrives. Between 7 and 8 there is never a line. In Berwick, the fifth voter arrives at 7:04, and has to wait two minutes for the first voter to finish before they get a machine (by which point two people will be in line behind her) at 8:00 am the 61st voter arrives and the 41st voter enters a booth. There are 20 people in line, and the wait is more than half an hour.

Even with the same number of voters and 33% more machines, voters in Berwick start to skip voting so they can get to work on time... Now imagine that absentee/early voting is occurring at higher rates in the suburbs and middle-class city neighborhoods like Berwick, while in-person turnout at precincts in neighborhoods like Driving Park and Weinland Park hits levels approaching 90%...

This is what all of the above measures are supposed to help avoid.

I want to believe.

UPDATE: 4 hours after I posted this, Barbara Carmen at the Dispatch posted an article that reads like a response. Matt Damschroder explains how wording will be limited to 600 characters per issue on the ballot, while Dan Williamson explains that the city is fine with the limit, although he disputes the notion that the ballot length was responsible for long lines in 2004. This isn't the first time I've thought Mr. Williamson was full of it, but it is the first time since he's gone to work for the mayor.

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