Voter Suppression: Did It Happen in Ohio?
My friend Taimur is in Cincinnati, reporting for The National, out of Abu Dhabi. We met for coffee about 9:30 this morning. I went to the Hamilton County Board of Elections to correct a problem with my absentee ballot. It was insane, but probably no more insane than you'd expect. My ballot issues were sorted out.
We went to a cafe to make some calls, asking national organizations if they'd heard of any irregularities at polling places in the area. We got nothing.
We walked over to the Salvation Army on Central Parkway, the polling place for Cincinnati precincts 6-C and 6-D. This is in Over-the-Rhine, a gentrifying but mostly poor black neighborhood. There was one observer working for the Hamilton County Democratic Party, one for the local Republicans, one from Obama for America, one from a voter-protection organization called 866-OUR-VOTE. We asked everyone, in turn, how things had been going. They were going smoothly.
I asked if they'd heard anything from True the Vote, the Texas-based voter suppression organization, or from the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, an affiliated organization that's been challenging voter rolls in Hamilton County. The woman from 866-OUR-VOTE pointed out a poll worker, a white guy in a windowpane-check shirt, checking voter registration at one of the two desks for precinct 6-C. She said that 866-OUR-VOTE had sent her because they'd had knowledge that one of the poll workers at 6-C had True the Vote ties. She suspected it was him.
We looked at the list of names of poll workers and figured out that his name was Mark Kleespies. He's an investment advisor working out of an office on the extreme east side of Cincinnati, the neighborhood where my parents live. We asked the presiding judge of the precinct about him, and she said "Mark? There's nothing up with that guy. That's my assistant judge." So we left.
On black radio all over Ohio right now the talk is of provisional ballots. "Don't let them make you vote provisional." Angela Basset was on 12:30 AM the Buzz with Cincinnati's mayor. She said she doubted they actually counted provisional ballots. The mayor said that he was a “no excuses guy." They are making it impossible to vote, and "leave work, get out early." The refrain, over and over, is that "They will steal this election if we let them."
But it's confusing how it is that they're actually stealing it. We went to a polling station in Avondale where we'd heard reports of problems. A lawyer working for the Democrats told us that they'd been false. A guy had been yelling, another guy heard that someone was harassing voters, it made it onto the radio. People are jumpy. "Go vote. Just go and stay in line as long as it takes. They will steal this if we let them." On white talk radio Mitt Romney was speaking jovially with the conservative radio host Bill Cunningham. "Tomorrow, sir, Ann Romney will wake up and say good morning, uh, President-elect Mitt Romney."
We went for more coffee. We got a call from the national offices of Video the Vote, a voter-protection organization based in California. They said that there had been irregularities at the Salvation Army in Over-the-Rhine. We doubted this, given that we'd just been there. They gave us the number of a man named Bo Bogarty. We called him and he said that the gentleman in the windowpane check shirt, Mark Kleespies, was on a list compiled by the Democrats of poll workers likely to be involved in voter-suppression. (This, I should say, is unconfirmed. Hamilton County is a madhouse right now. It's all I could do to get my mom to return my calls.) We walked back over.
Now things were slightly different. The observer for Obama for America had a long list of names of people who'd been forced to vote provisionally. We spoke to the British guy observing for the Democrats. He said that in precinct 6-C alone 63 voters had to cast provisional ballots. "They aren't going to count those," a woman passing by said.
That may or may not be true. The nature of the provisional ballot is that you cast it and then have ten days to submit whatever documentation was lacking when you came to the voting place originally. This is all per poll-workers. So if you're registered in one precinct, but your license lists an old address in a different precinct you have ten days to go down to the Board of Elections with documentation of your current address. It seems reasonable to assume that many people won't actually make it down.
And then: It's quite well documented that in 2004 many legally-validated provisional ballots were simply left uncounted. And that belief has become pervasive. I'm not entirely sure where this number came from. But stop someone on the street in Cincinnati and ask them if they count the provisional ballots. I'll bet you a dollar that they say: "They drop 30 percent." It's everywhere. Everyone is stressed; no one's confident they'll be able to vote.
A gorgeous black woman passed us in the hall outside the basement room where the polling was actually taking place. "I'm trying again here. If they don't let me vote this time..." She trailed off.
We heard reports that a white man had come into the voting room with a video camera. Which is legal, if you have media credentials. But he refused to produce them. A poll worker told us that he'd been zooming in on voters in booths. The booths had no curtains. He was asked to leave. He refused. The board of elections was called. He left.
We watched Kleespies reject a black girl with a blonde dye job and a pink hoodie. The 866-OUR-VOTE people caught her on her way out and asked why she'd been rejected. She was vague on the reasons. They told her to go back in and insist. She was allowed to vote.
A toothless black man named Darnell came in, carrying a plastic shopping bag full of clothes. He had procured a photo ID on October 21, specifically so that he could vote. He lived in this precinct, but he had registered to vote with an address ten miles away, in College Hill. His ID gave an address in Over-the-Rhine, on Vine Street. He was rejected anyway. "I'm so confused man. Like I don't even know what dude is saying—I live on Vine Street." They told him he had to go to College Hill. He didn't have a car. He was told that he could vote provisionally. He left.
This bullshit is perfectly legal. It's encouraged. You can challenge anyone on anything. The nature of the game is that some very large percentage of the people challenged simply don't have an answer or even understand the nature of the challenge itself, and so they vote provisionally or go home discouraged. The girl in the pink simply could not say why she'd nearly been disenfranchised. An observer took her up and she was in the booth seconds later. But they can't get everyone. And more to the point: They can't get the people who've heard the horror stores and simply decided to stay home. That's how voter suppression really works, just by scaring people off from trying
This was all taking place at 3:30 PM. The final rush is still coming. Bo Bogarty pointed out to us that the 63 votes listed as provisional in precinct 6-C came to sligtly more than half of Obama's 124 vote-per-precinct margin in 2008. "And one plus one is two. If you get one every so often, soon you have eight, and then hundreds, and you add it up across all the black precincts in the county, in the state. We're talking hundreds of thousands, more than the margin of the election." That math works, by the way.
Mark Kleespies finally came up to see who we were. I asked if he was with True the Vote, and he naturally said no. I did check him with the FEC and find that he's a Republican donor, which proves essentially nothing. The presiding judge, a black woman, told us that there's supposed to be at least one Democratic and one Republican poll worker at every precinct. I cannot confirm that, and she frankly seems like a shady woman. But that's just a personal impression.
The thing that I don't understand, though, is that everyone is racing around following rumors of malfeasance and manipulation and in the end the law is so much on the side of people who want to disenfranchise people down here that they don't need to do anything shady at all. They simply need to be callous and willing to call people on bureaucratic bullshit and they can run up a 63-provisional-vote total scary enough to have poll workers calling the county Democrats trying to figure out what the hell they can do to stop it from running up any more. And they basically can't do anything. "Don't take a provisional ballot," the volunteers call as voters go in. Everyone is grim and harried.
I asked Kleespies what the hell made a guy with a nice shirt like his want to spend a long day getting paid $160 for tedious work in a sketchy neighborhood. He said that he couldn't speak to the media. He asked why I was interested in him, and I said that he was on a list. He didn't seem surprised. I asked him to confirm his name for me, because we'd gotten it from a list of voter-suppressionists—which was not the truest thing I've ever said—but the point is that this is the kind of place where everyone is watching everyone, where the simple act of voting has become such a fucking fight that it's really hard to find any joy or excitement in it at all. My sisters grew up in this neighborhood. I went to high school down here. I went with my mom to vote right up the hill, and I always remember it being fun. And now we get a callous motherfucker in a tan like this guy and I don't really care whether or not he's involved with a shady organization. He's bad enough on his own.
"Can you just confirm the name I have on the list?" He said he couldn't talk to the media. I said that he'd just be confirming that he was the guy on the list. He spelled his name. "K-l-e-e-s-p-i-e-s."
UPDATE: VICE has just acquired the list of poll watchers suspected by the Obama campaign of trying to suppress voters in Ohio. Note that no one on this list has been found guilty of doing anything wrong or illegal. It is simply an email sent out by the Obama campaign to their poll watchers, listing the other poll watchers (including Mark Kleespies) that they are suspected of belonging to the Ohio Voter Integrity Project and/or likely attempting to suppress votes in Ohio. We found the list interesting, and thought you might, too.
More election stuff:
Daniel Denvir on Mitt Romney, the liar.
Bhaskar Sankara on why Ezra Klein creams his pants over Paul Ryan.