In June of 2005, John Tanner, the chief of the voting rights section, wrote Columbus, Ohio's election officials to publicly assure them that the Justice Department had found no evidence of intentional African-American voter disenfranchisement in the 2004 election.
Not only was that an unprecedented move, former Department lawyers say, but the letter is another, and particularly galling, example of Tanner using the force of the Department to further Republican aims -- in this case, to hamper future lawsuits or investigations concerning the problems in Columbus.
"It really looked like the Civil Rights Division was used to run interference for Republican election officials in Ohio," former voting rights section deputy chief Bob Kengle told me.
At issue was the experience of thousands of voters in Franklin County, Ohio, in the 2004 election. Voters in mostly African-American precincts were forced to wait hours in long lines to vote. An investigation by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) found that voters often waited as many as four to five hours, some as many as seven, deep into the night. The Washington Post reported that "bipartisan estimates say that 5,000 to 15,000 frustrated voters turned away without casting ballots." The culprit, of course, was a scarcity of voting machines in those districts, one that seemed to follow a suspicious trend: "27 of the 30 wards with the most machines per registered voter showed majorities for Bush" and "six of the seven wards with the fewest machines delivered large margins for Kerry."
But Tanner, who's due to appear in a Congressional hearing, launched an investigation (more on that below) and found that "Franklin County assigned voting machines in a non-discriminatory manner," as he wrote in a detailed 4-page letter to a local official. But if the distribution of the machines was non-discriminatory, why then were polling places in predominantly African-American areas forced to remain open for hours after the normal 7:30 PM closing time in order to accommodate the long lines?
Tanner explained that African-Americans simply vote later in the day:
.the principal cause of the difference appears to be the tendency in Franklin County for white voters to cast ballots in the morning (i.e., before work), and for black voters to cast ballots in the afternoon (i.e., after work). We have established this tendency through local contacts and through both political parties, and it accords with our considerable experience in other parts of the United States. Morning voters may wait in line several hours, as happened in white precincts, without keeping the polls open after 7:30 am; this is not the case, however, at sites where voters arrive after 5:30 p.m.
If that makes no damn sense to you, welcome to the club. I don't know if there was some grand conspiracy to suppress the votes of African-American voters in Ohio in 2004, but there are odds and ends that are difficult to explain, and Bush administration officials-as usual-have gone out of their way to make sure they're never explained. Can't have anyone wondering about the legitimacy of two elections I guess.