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Sunday, February 27, 2005

OHIO’S ODD NUMBERS by Christopher Hitchens

Vanity Fair
March 2005



If it were not for Kenyon College, I might have missed, or skipped, the
whole controversy. The place is a visiting lecturer’s dream, or the
ideal of a campus-movie director in search of a setting. It is situated
in wooded Ohio hills, in the small town of Gambier, about an hour’s
drive from Columbus. its literary magazine, The Kenyon Review, was
founded by John Crowe Ransom in 1939. Its alumni include Paul Newman,
E. L. Doctorow, Jonathan Winters; Robert Lowell, Chief Justice William
Rehnquist, and President Rutherford B. Hayes. The college’s origins are
Episcopalian, its students well mannered and well off and predominantly
white, but it is by no means Bush-Cheney territory. Arriving to speak
there a few days after the presidential election, I found that the
place was still buzzing. Here’s what happened in Gambier, Ohio, on
decision day 2004.

The polls opened at 6:30 AM. There were only two voting machines
(push-button direct-recording electronic systems) for the entire town
of 2,200 (with students). The mayor, Kirk Emmert, had called the Board
of Elections 10 days earlier, saying that the number of registered
voters would require more than that. (He knew, as did many others, that
hundreds of students had asked to register in Ohio because it was a
critical “swing” state.) The mayor’s request was denied. Indeed,
instead of there being extra capacity on Election Day, one of the only
two machines chose to break down before lunchtime.

By the time the polls officially closed, at 7:30 that evening, the line
of those waiting to vote was still way outside the Community Center and
well into the parking lot. A federal judge thereupon ordered Knox
County, in which Gambier is located, to comply with Ohio law, which
grants the right to vote to those who have shown up in time. “Authority
to Vote” cards were kindly distributed to those on line (voting is a
right, not a privilege), but those on line needed more than that. By
the time the 1,175 voters in the precinct had all cast their ballots,
it was almost four in the morning, and many had had to wait for up to
11 hours. In the spirit of democratic carnival, pizzas and canned
drinks and guitarists were on hand to improve the shining moment. TV
crews showed up, and the young Americans all acted as if they had been
cast by Frank Capra: cheerful and good-humored, letting older voters
get to the front, catching up on laptop essays, many voting for the
first time and all convinced that a long and cold wait was a small
price to pay. Typical was Pippa White, who said that “even after eight
hours and 15 minutes I still had energy. It lets you know how worth it
this is.” Heartwarming, until you think about it.

The students of Kenyon had one advantage, and they made one mistake.
Their advantage was that their president, S. Georgia Nugent, told them
that they could be excused from class for voting. Their mistake was to
reject the paper ballots that were offered to them late in the evening,
after attorneys from the Ohio Democratic Party had filed suit to speed
up the voting process in this way. The ballots were being handed out
(later to be counted by machine under the supervision of Knox County’s
Democratic and Republican chairs) when someone yelled through the
window of the Community Center, “Don’t use the paper ballots! The
Republicans are going to appeal it and it won’t count!” After that, the
majority chose to stick with the machines.

[ click here for rest of article ]


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