Your Vote Counts ... Or Does It?


The presidential election in 2000 woke us up to the reality that elections aren't perfe

At high noon, the protesters snaked through torn-up concrete, orange barrels and flimsy plastic fencing and besieged the Board of Elections. They filled the steps of the brutally ugly building, then spilled onto the sidewalk and newly poured pieces of street, toting “Respect Our Vote” and “Vu Must Go!!!” signs.

“We’re not doing this because of the problems in 2004,” union leader Mike Murphy announced into a megaphone. “We’re not doing this because of all the employee morale problems.

“We’re doing it because we believe the director does not have the ability to lead this organization,” Murphy said. “And what’s at stake here is the very confidence of the voting public!”

Michael Vu, Cuyahoga County’s elections director — the most embattled public official in Cleveland — heard the protesters chanting from his fourth-floor office. He was meeting with his staff, weighing a response to a special report that detailed the hundreds of ways that he, his employees and their contractors had bungled the May primary election, all the ways Greater Cleveland’s voting system had failed.

“Who must go?” the protesters chanted. “Vu must go!”

Vu looked out the window, trying to see the protesters’ signs.

Should he try to talk with the crowds, brave their catcalls, tell them he was listening to them, declare he’d shake up the elections office and get it working right?

“Look, I already know where their position is,” he told himself. “I need to do the work.” He finished his meeting.

That’s the kind of guy Vu is. When he came to Cleveland in 2003 to run our county’s elections at the shockingly young age of 27, after doing the same for Salt Lake City since he was 22, he was praised for his technical skills, his sharp intelligence, his youthful enthusiasm for figuring out the new technologies of electronic voting that would save us from the dangers of hanging chads. His fresh talent and nonpartisan problem solving would help him rise above all the cronyism, viciousness, old systems and obsolete thinking that had dragged down the county’s elections office.

After Vu’s first big test, the 2004 presidential election, held under all the pressures of our role as a swing state, the press and Vu’s bosses declared our vote a success. Any problems at the polls were minor, they assured us.

But our May election was a nightmare, an embarrassment. It took a week to count the vote. The absentee ballots were flawed, so all 17,000 had to be counted by hand. Poll workers weren’t trained properly to run our new electronic voting machines. Hundreds of them didn’t even show up on Election Day. Long lines clogged some precincts, even though it was a low-turnout election. Memory cards, carrying votes, disappeared. Ten percent of the machines’ paper trails — the official records used in recounts — were damaged. So were many machines themselves.

A review panel hired to find out what went wrong blamed problem after problem on Vu and his deputy. Two of the four members of the county board of elections voted in July to fire or demote him. A third board member said he would replace Vu if the November election weren’t coming up so soon. Meanwhile, three county election workers face a criminal trial on felony charges that they rigged the 2004 presidential recount — and more indictments may be coming, because both the prosecution and the defense say at least some of the workers’ mistakes were based on instructions from their bosses.

Word of Cleveland’s bungled voting has spread. The left-wing magazine Mother Jones just named Cuyahoga County one of the nation’s “11 worst places to vote.”

Today, everyone still says Michael Vu is smart and skilled. Yet smart and skilled, it turns out, is not nearly enough to pull off a good election in Cleveland in the 2000s.

Florida’s Bush vs. Gore electoral meltdown in 2000 stripped away the safe, bland facade of every elections office. We’ve learned the terrifying secret that our elections have a margin of error, that it’s larger than we think, and that really close elections will be decided by obscure bureaucrats, systems and rules — some competent, some not; some fair, some susceptible to brute political force. So Congress and the states have rushed new laws into action, some vague, some complicating things, some pushing unproven technology on voters. Meanwhile, activists have packed those once-quiet board meetings, questioning everything, cheering angry Democrats and booing every mention of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and voting-machine maker Diebold Inc.

Since Ohio decided the 2004 election, and Cuyahoga is Ohio’s biggest county, activists nationwide have been scrutinizing the elections office at East 30th and Euclid. Reporters, filmmakers and international observers watched us vote, amateur statisticians eyeballed our precinct results, and electronic-voting opponents, concerned about security flaws, tried to talk Vu and his bosses out of buying our new machines.

Under pressures like these, what does it take to run a successful election? Intelligence and skills, sure. Farsighted planning, definitely. And something more: the ability to listen, to accept advice and scrutiny, and use them to come up with better ways to run elections.

Vu and the board of elections members reacted instead by turning defensive. By assuring us they had everything (or almost everything) under control. By mostly ignoring the warnings they heard from activists and other observers after 2004: Voters were disappearing from our voting rolls thanks to human error. Badly trained and badly performing poll workers were costing people their votes. Election Day support systems for poll workers were failing. The board had approved illegal recount procedures. Electronic voting would require yet more poll-worker training to avoid chaos at the polls. All those mostly ignored warnings have been proven right, catastrophically, in 2006.

Now Vu and the board say they’re working hard to turn the elections office around in time for November’s vote. They’d better be right.

Because imagine this nightmare: As Ohio counts its votes late on Nov. 7, Democrats gain U.S.

Senate seats in several other states. With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the race between Sen. Mike DeWine and Rep. Sherrod Brown is too close to call. DeWine comes out ahead by a few thousand votes, close enough for a recount. Democrats cry that long lines and breakdowns at polls in Cleveland kept their supporters from voting or being counted. When the recount starts, just like in May, many of our paper trails can’t be read. Lawyers swarm in, file suits and poke and prod our elections office’s every mistake.

If something like that happens, the whole country will be watching Cleveland. And the whole country will know Michael Vu’s name.

When Michael Vu walked into his office in August 2003, he found a big ’70s-style leather chair sitting across from his desk. The chair haunted him, a symbol of everything in the agency that needed changing: the voter-registration system, the outmoded equipment, the hiring through political patronage. “The whole concept, attitude and the way we worked needed to be updated,” he says.

Three years later, a month after July’s “Vu Must Go” protest, Vu’s talking with me across a light table where the leather chair used to sit. His job is safe, for a while. His bosses compromised by appointing ex-lottery commissioner Tom Hayes as a project manager for the November 2006 election. Hayes — a member of the review panel that severely critiqued Vu’s leadership, but also Vu’s friend and Saturday running buddy — is either Vu’s special aide for the next few months or his overseer, depending on whom you ask.

Vu’s intelligence is obvious. His mind is full of nuances of election law, the mechanics of each department he oversees, the pros and cons of electronic voting. Ask him a question and he’ll likely have a thoughtful answer, making it hard to dismiss him as incompetent.

Yet he’s no stiff technocrat. He laughs, heartily and a little nervously, when asked questions with political implications — about his past disagreements with Secretary of State Blackwell or the pressures politicians put on the elections board. Running the tensely bipartisan board of elections office, he’s trying to be nonpartisan.

Naturally, he’d rather talk about his family: how his father, a desk worker in the South Vietnamese Army, put his wife and Michael’s older brother and sisters on a motorcycle in early 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, sped to a military airport, and flew away on one of the last planes out as Communist forces bombed the airfield. The Vus, a Catholic family, took refuge at a mission in St. Michael’s, Ariz. Michael was born in March 1976, in a New Mexico hospital just across the border, and named after his first hometown. His godmother, a nun, suggested that Utah was a good place to raise a family, so the Vus moved to Salt Lake City. The first time Vu’s mother saw snow, she thought it was salt.

Vu was 19 and in college when he took a part-time job with the Salt Lake County clerk’s elections department. The clerk kept hearing what a great worker he was, so she hired him to run her new geographic information systems department. He taught himself the GIS program on the job while finishing college and helping his parents communicate with the doctors caring for his younger sister, who was dying of leukemia.

“He’s brilliant, a very fast learner,” says his old boss, Salt Lake County clerk Sherrie Swensen. “His work ethic is unmatched from anyone I’ve ever seen.” She named Vu her elections manager in 1998, when he was 22. Her staff still calls him for advice.

In 2003, Vu started interviewing for new jobs. He was a finalist for the elections supervisor job in Miami-Dade County before getting hired in Cleveland.

“He understood the election process and had a great background,” says board of elections chairman Bob Bennett. “We have a tendency in this county to chew up and spit out directors, so we conducted a national search to find one of the best and brightest.”

Vu took over an agency known for its bitter office politics and partisan bickering. In Ohio’s bipartisan elections system, each county elections board is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, and even many office jobs are divided equally between the parties. That’s led to an especially sour atmosphere at Cuyahoga’s board of elections, since it brings Cleveland’s contentious politics into the workplace. Many of Vu’s employees got their jobs thanks to political patronage.

When Vu started his new job, he was shocked at how political the board of elections was. (Salt Lake County’s clerk is elected, but her staff is all nonpartisan civil servants.)

“In Ohio, everyone has a stake in the board of elections,” Vu says. After six months, he felt like he knew almost all of Cuyahoga County’s countless elected officials.

Vu cleaned house. Ditching the leather chair was just the easiest part. He doesn’t have the power to fire his employees — under state law, the board of elections members do — but he convinced the board to fire five workers he felt were unqualified and bad at their jobs. When new registration cards came in, the staff was photographing them with huge, antiquated camera equipment. He replaced it with a scanner. Since the board members had all but decided to buy electronic voting machines to replace the county’s old punch-card machines, Vu helped them research the technology, take bids from vendors and hire North Canton-based Diebold Inc. in February 2004 to provide several thousand touchscreen machines.

And from his first day on the job, Vu had 15 months to get ready for one of the biggest challenges any election official in the country faced: running the election in the biggest county in the state that would decide the presidency.

“Vu, we got a holy mess out here,” Councilwoman Fannie Lewis says into her cell phone as a camera watches. “I done talked to everybody in your shop but you.”

It’s Election Day 2004, and Lewis is at a library in Hough, where restless, upset voters are stuck in a 1 1/2-hour line. Lewis has been on her cell phone all morning, trying to get more voting equipment and poll workers, being transferred to phone lines that go unanswered. New machines arrived, but they’re missing their punch-card inserts, so they’re useless. Meanwhile, local filmmaker Laura Paglin is shooting Lewis’ every move for what will become the documentary “No Umbrella: Election Day in the City,” which screened this winter at the Sundance Film Festival and Cleveland International Film Festival.

Now, 4 1/2 hours after her first call, Lewis is talking to Vu. He tells her elected officials aren’t allowed in polling places. “Don’t tell me where I’m supposed to be!” she snaps. “You do your job and I won’t have to do it!” More workers arrive soon after. The inserts don’t come for another two hours.

Right after Election Day 2004, Vu received compliments for his work. Sure, voters waited in long lines, The Plain Dealer conceded — its reporters found one that was 2 1/2 hours long — but the paper declared the election a success.

“As far as 2004 goes, I think for the most part, everything went well,” Vu says.

Give Vu this much: He managed the most overwhelming election in Cuyahoga County’s history. More than 687,000 of us voted in 2004, almost 100,000 more than in 2000. A massive registration drive deluged the elections office with more than 350,000 new registrations and changes-of-address. The board office handled 26,000 phone calls on the last day of registration alone. Predictions envisioned Cuyahoga County leading Ohio into a Florida-like electoral collapse.

A lot of people “anticipated we’d fail,” Vu says. He thinks proving those predictions wrong is one of his biggest accomplishments.

Liberal activists, who’d hoped a huge surge of Democratic Cleveland-area voters would make John Kerry president, even had reason to admire Vu in 2004: He defied Secretary of State Blackwell’s two most controversial election rulings. When Blackwell told county election officials they could only accept voter registrations on postcard-thick paper, Vu ignored him. (Blackwell rescinded that ruling a few weeks later.) When Blackwell released strict rules about when to give voters provisional ballots — issued when a voter’s eligibility is unclear — Vu announced he’d issue one to any voter who insisted on it. Blackwell sent an angry “cease and desist” letter threatening to remove him from his job — but just before the election, an appeals court ruling set provisional-ballot rules closer to Vu’s position than Blackwell’s. A few months after the election at a U.S. Elections Assistance Commission hearing, Vu even criticized Blackwell for issuing late and confusing elections directives — while Blackwell was sitting nearby.

Still, voting-rights activists were not as impressed with Vu’s performance. They knew firsthand that under the stress of 2004’s high turnout, Cuyahoga County’s election system strained and sometimes broke down — and lost thousands of votes.

Long lines drove an unknown number of people from the polls without voting. No one measured waiting times at Cuyahoga County’s polls or tracked where lines were longest, but some polls in Cleveland had waits of two hours or more, and many had 45-minute lines. (Vu says he heard of long lines in suburbs such as Strongsville, too.) The huge turnout is the simplest reason, and Vu bought more punch-card machines just for the 2004 election. Unlike Columbus’ Franklin County, which ended up with outrageously long lines in Democratic precincts, Vu allocated the machines based on September 2004 registration figures, to try to account for all the new voters.

Another reason for long lines is that the county’s poll workers get little training and little Election Day support. Regular citizens run our polling places; they work only one or two days a year after only a few hours of instruction. Their job was harder in 2004 because important court rulings about election law, including provisional-ballot rules, were issued in the last days before the election.

The poll workers’ only backup is a phone number for the elections office. But for years, only four to five elections office workers manned those phone lines on Election Day, according to a recent elections staff memo. That’s only one person for every 1,000 poll workers.

Michael Vu and the board say they're WORKING HARD to turn the elections office around in time for November's Vote.
They'd better be right.
Photo by Walter Novak  

All over the county, people had the same experience as Fannie Lewis on Election Day — repeatedly calling the elections office to report a problem at the polls, getting busy signals and slow response. “At several of the polling places I went to, I called in to the board of elections,” recalls U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, “saying, ‘People cannot get through to you. You need to give them another number.’ There were not enough lines.”

Candace Hoke, a Cleveland State University election law professor who was working as an elections inspector, also called the board office on behalf of overwhelmed poll workers.

Many poll workers Hoke saw in action were also poorly trained. “They did not understand what provisional ballots were for,” she says. After the election, activists warned Vu and his bosses that they needed to better train their poll workers. They didn’t get very far. “The attitude of the board of elections staff was that they were doing just fine, thank you very much,” Hoke says.

When poll workers don’t know the law, voters lose their vote. About 1,200 provisional ballots were rejected as cast in the wrong precinct, even though they were cast at the right polling place.

“You could be in the right church but the wrong pew,” Tubbs Jones says. Democrats blame Blackwell’s provisional-ballot rulings for that, but it’s also a combination of voter and poll-worker error: People got in the wrong line and weren’t pointed to the right one. Also, almost 700 Kerry votes and a handful of Bush votes were lost in Cleveland when poll workers directed voters to either the wrong precinct’s voting machines, where candidates’ names were listed in a different order, or the wrong ballot box. Their votes ended up going to third-party candidates.

As early as summer 2004, The Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition, a group funded by liberal organizations, figured out that voters it had registered were disappearing from the county’s rolls.

Clerical errors, made easier by user-unfriendly software, were the culprits. The coalition’s figures suggest that at least 1,700 Greater Clevelanders lost their vote in 2004 due to lost registrations, while other errors put another 8,000 or more people’s votes at some risk.

The coalition sued to restore the voters to the rolls before the election, but lost. After the election, they gave Vu the names of more than 600 voters who filled out lost registrations, tried to vote and had their provisional ballots rejected. “We asked them not to certify the election unless those voters were re-enfranchised,” says coalition study leader Dr. Norman Robbins. But they were left out.

Vu says he looked for the missing registrations but couldn’t find them. “When you’re processing 350,000 cards, you’re bound to have human error,” Vu says. Beyond that search, he and the board didn’t take serious action about the missing voters for two years. Finally, this July, when the panel reviewing the May 2006 election declared that the registration mistakes were real, board members Edward Coaxum and Bob Bennett apologized for not understanding the problem earlier.

This August, Coaxum and Bennett told Vu’s staff to try to retrieve deleted voters’ records from the database. But software fixes that’ll make it harder to delete more voters won’t be installed until after November.

The board and Vu were also warned not to make their worst mistake of the 2004 election. That December, Hoke testified at a board meeting that the county’s longtime procedure for recounts was illegal.

The Libertarian and Green parties had asked for a statewide recount of the presidential race. Ohio law required a hand recount of 3 percent of the county’s votes, using randomly chosen precincts. If the hand count and machine count didn’t match, the staff would have to recount all 687,000 of the county’s ballots by hand.

But for years, Cuyahoga elections staff had hand picked the precincts for the sample recount instead of choosing them randomly. The board’s lawyer, from county prosecutor Bill Mason’s office, warned that changing procedures just before such an important recount would invite lawsuits. It was disastrous advice.

Cuyahoga County’s December 2004 recount was the most scrutinized in local history. The 2000 Florida election had exposed the high failure rate of punch-card ballots, so the recount advocates wanted the elections office to thoroughly inspect all 13,500 punch cards in the county that registered no vote for president. Some left-wing activists were even convinced that Republicans had stolen the presidential election in Ohio, in part by suppressing the Democratic vote in Greater Cleveland — even though Bush’s statewide margin of victory was a hard-to-fake 118,000 votes, and though Kerry got 88,000 more votes in Cuyahoga County than Al Gore had in 2000.

So on Dec. 16, 2004, dozens of activists watched like bird-dogs as Vu’s staff counted their sample precincts. Vu, talking to a Plain Dealer reporter, dismissed Hoke’s warning, sounding cynical and defensive about all the scrutiny. “When we conducted this recount, we knew that anything we did, there were going to be critical remarks,” he said.

But when long, unbroken stretches of Kerry votes were counted, followed by long, unbroken stretches of Bush votes, the activists smelled a rat. They confronted a staff member, who allegedly admitted the staff had counted the precincts in advance. An attorney for the Kerry campaign complained to Mason’s office, which forwarded the complaint to an out-of-town prosecutor for a neutral review.

Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter responded by having three members of Vu’s staff indicted on felony charges. They’re accused of violating elections law by precounting selected precincts, then “excluding precincts which would not balance” — not to steer the election, but to avoid spending days or weeks on a costly full recount. Their much-postponed trial is still pending. The defendants’ lawyers say their clients were just following orders, and that they didn’t exclude unbalanced precincts. The prosecutor has warned that more indictments are possible and that “there is suspicion that others, higher in management, were involved in this miscarriage of an election recount.”

Vu says he believes the three indicted workers acted “in good faith.” Though they aren’t allowed to count votes anymore, all three are still working for the board of elections.

In the middle of the night, hours before May’s primary Election Day dawned, Michael Vu called the board of elections members with bad news. The optical-scan readers for absentee voting weren’t reading the ballots. All 17,000 would have to be counted by hand.

That day, dire reports flooded the elections office. It was the debut of the county’s new electronic touchscreen voting machines, and poll workers were struggling. Many workers hadn’t shown up. Polls opened late after trouble setting up. Machines weren’t working. Lines were growing.

That night, memory cards from some voting machines went missing. Machines came back to the elections office bruised and battered. Paper trails for recounts were torn, folded like accordions, blank. It took a week to hand count the absentee ballots.

All the same weaknesses from 2004 — problems with training and Election Day support for poll workers, overconfidence in the face of warnings — had combined with the extra stress of a new voting system to create a breakdown.

Cuyahoga, like counties throughout the country, had to replace its punch-card voting system this year to meet a deadline set by Congress. Teaching the new touchscreen voting system to poll workers is a huge task in a lot of places, but especially in large counties such as Cuyahoga, which has 5,000 poll workers. Our average poll worker is 66 years old and used to the old punch-card system. Many were not ready to operate unfamiliar touchscreen computers without personalized training.

Vu and his staff handled the training poorly, concluded a panel the board of elections hired to find out what went wrong: Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine, former state lottery commissioner Tom Hayes, and Candace Hoke, the CSU election-law professor.

First, Vu made a principled but ultimately bad decision. A deal with the state requires Diebold, the touchscreen vendor, to provide free manuals for its machines and free training for county poll workers. Instead, Vu told his staff to develop their own manuals and training lessons. He had Diebold trainers sit in and assist trainers the county hired. “We would be irresponsible if we did not learn to conduct the election for ourselves,” Vu insists.

But Vu’s staff didn’t start working on the manuals and lesson plans in earnest until February, even though federal funds for poll-worker training had been available for eight months and Vu’s staff got a copy of Diebold’s manual in October. In March, Vu discovered the first draft of the county’s manual was a poorly written mess. He took command of the rewriting himself, and made his top managers devote dozens of hours to working on it in March and April.

The county’s training lasted three short hours, with too many poll workers in one class and too little time for them to try out the machines. Trainers spent almost all of their time discussing the machines, and only 10 percent of it on the administrative tasks many poll workers had struggled with in 2004.

After the first wave of training sessions, Vu had his staff ask poll workers if the training had prepared them, the panel noted. Eighty percent said no. But Vu says trainers were telling his staff that 99 percent of their trainees were ready to work on Election Day.

Several hundred of the county’s 5,000 poll workers didn’t show up for the election. Of those who did, a survey found about two in five reported problems setting up the machines, problems taking them down and struggles with paper trails — loading them, tearing them by accident, dealing with paper jams. An audit found that 10 percent of the paper trails — the official voting record in recounts — were “either destroyed, blank, illegible, missing, taped together or compromised in some way.” If that happens again, the audit warned, the risk of a legal challenge to a future recount is “exceptionally high.”

Election Day support for the beleaguered poll workers was still poor. Half of the 5,000 poll workers tried to call the elections office for help, a survey says, but only a third could get through on their first try. Many staffers manning the elections office’s phones were not well trained for their jobs, the review panel found, and some reports of problems were logged but not acted upon. Vu and his deputy, Gwen Dillingham, knew that the “telephone queues and busy signals [were] a persistent problem on major elections, but they have not moved decisively to solve the problem — despite its existence on every major Election Day for several years,” the panel wrote. Vu claims his staff did act on all the calls — but admits it often took too long. The manager in charge of the call center in May — one of the three indicted workers — wrote in a staff memo that management tried to add more workers to the call center, including top managers, but they were called away to handle other problems and attend the board meeting about the hand recount.

May’s chaos also revealed weaknesses in the elections office’s security for voting machines — weaknesses hackers could conceivably exploit. Memory cards, which hold votes and can be tampered with, disappeared, and a few were never recovered. (The elections office recovered those votes from hard drives.) A single key, with 1,000 copies, opened all the county’s machines, allowing access to the memory card slot.

Also, an auditor discovered so many poll-worker errors that it could not judge the voting machines’ accuracy. Alarmingly, 78 percent of the audited paper trails did not match the electronic totals — but Diebold insists poll workers caused the discrepancies by switching memory cards, and elections officials in other Ohio counties using Diebold machines found no such discrepancies during several recent recounts. Vu agrees it’s human error, but he’s open to having another testing agency look into the issue further after November.

The panel report laid most of the blame for May’s collapse on Vu and Dillingham. It depicted Vu as ignoring warnings for too long — then panicking, making staff work punishingly long hours to deal with emergencies. Staff morale may be at an all-time low, the panel said, thanks to many factors, including the long hours and a sense that Vu was “arrogant” and lacked “people skills.”

Workers described the office’s atmosphere as “poisonous, toxic, backbiting, vicious, vengeful, mean, nasty, vicious, hierarchical, exploitative, oppressive, a sweatshop,” the panel reported.
In early January, a contractor for Diebold had sent Vu and his staff an e-mail warning of 13 ways the May election could break down. Many came true, including warnings that the absentee ballot scanners might fail, poll workers might not be well prepared and the plan for collecting the memory cards on Election Night might break down.

A day after the panel report came out in July, Vu’s Democratic bosses, board members Edward Coaxum and Loree Soggs, called for Vu and Dillingham to resign or be fired. The Republicans, Bob Bennett an

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