When Democrats Became Republicans and Vice Versa

The strange fight over choosing a system that wouldn't lose votes
It was like improv comedians dueling by mimicking each other, aiming for an imitation so spot-on, the audience cracks up at the uncanny tics and habits. In the fight over how Cuyahoga County should vote this year, the Republicans pierced their own hearts and let them bleed nobly on the floor, while the Democrats wielded cutthroat power like whiskey-mad Dick Cheney impersonators.

They never broke down and confessed to putting us on. No joke: The Republicans really did team up with the ACLU to defend the votes of poor people and minorities. The Democrats really did push for a cheap, simple system that wouldn’t bust the budget, and they actually did declare that losing a thousand or so votes in poor parts of town was no big deal.

The weirdness began in December, when secretary of state Jennifer Brunner released an alarming report about voting systems’ security — and called upon Cuyahoga County alone to immediately trash its touchscreen voting system, which had a bad habit of breaking down when it tried to count.

The two Democrats on the local board of elections sided with Brunner. The two Republicans said no, because her brilliant new alternative would lose votes.

“Secretary Brunner’s recommendation for central-count optical scan is a step backward to the bad old days, which will disenfranchise thousands of voters,” warned board member Rob Frost at a Dec. 20 meeting. Votes will be lost more often in minority and poorer areas, added Frost, who’s also the county Republican chair.

The vote split along party lines, 2-2, so Brunner broke the tie and got her way. As the meeting ended, an activist in the audience scoffed about Frost that he hadn’t heard a Republican so concerned about minorities since Abraham Lincoln. But, I wondered, why did the Democrats let Frost steal their lines?

People who study voting know that paper ballots can confuse people with low levels of literacy. Those voters sometimes check two candidates by accident, voiding their vote. Ballot scanners in precincts catch the mistakes, called overvotes, and warn voters. But the system the Democrats chose — counting ballots at a central location with high-speed scanners — catches overvotes too late. Aware of the problem, the Republican-controlled Legislature banned central counting of ballots after this winter’s primary.

In the March election, the Republicans’ warning came true. About 2,000 Cuyahoga County residents overvoted, in an average of two races each. Just like predicted, the problem was more common in poor and minority areas, especially Cleveland’s East Side. Elections officials “remade” ballots, interpreting what the voter intended to do, to get rid of about a quarter of the overvotes — which might’ve gotten them sued in a close election, according to election law expert Daniel Tokaji of The Ohio State University.

Yet once the primary was over, the Democrats — from Brunner to the Cuyahoga County commissioners, who got stuck paying for the new system — pressed the Legislature to change its mind and let them lose some more votes in the presidential election. They wanted to dodge the high cost of precinct scanners and didn’t want to change systems again before fall.

The Legislature wouldn’t budge. So this summer, the board and county finally gave up and bought precinct scanners for $13.4 million. Thanks to Republicans’ insistence on busting the budget to defend the poor, the Democrats were saved from their own plan to leave voters in mostly Democratic areas free to screw up their ballots.

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