(Photo: Phil Coale / AP)
We can go to the moon, split atoms to power submarines, squeeze profits from a 99 cent hamburger and watch football highlights on cell phones. But the most successful democracy in human history has yet to figure out how to conduct a proper election. As it stands, the American voting system is a worrisome mess, a labyrinth of local, state and federal laws spotted with bewildered volunteers, harried public officials, partisan distortions, misdesigned forms, malfunctioning machines and polling-place confusion. Each time, problems pop up on the margins; if the election is close, these problems matter a great deal. Republicans and Democrats predict record turnouts, perhaps 130 million people, including millions who have never voted before. The vast majority will cast their votes without a hitch. But some voters will find themselves at the mercy of registration rolls that have been poorly maintained or, in some cases, improperly handled. Others will endure long lines, too few voting machines and observers who challenge their identities. Long a prerogative of local government, the patchwork of election rules often defies logic. A convicted felon can vote in Maine, but not in Virginia. A government-issued photo ID is required of all voters at the polls in Indiana, but not in New York. Voting lines are shorter in the suburbs, and the rules governing when provisional ballots count sometimes vary from state to state. As Americans cast their ballots on Nov. 4, here are some problems that threaten to throw this election to the courts again.
1. The Database Dilemma
"Joe the plumber" is not registered to vote. Or at least he is not registered under his own name. The man known to his mother as Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who has become a feature of John McCain's stump speech, is inscribed in Ohio's Lucas County registration records as "Worzelbacher," a problem of penmanship more than anything else. "You can't read his signature to tell if it is an o or a u," explains Linda Howe, the local elections director.
Such mistakes riddle the nation's voting rolls, but they did not matter much before computers digitized records. The misspelled Joes of America still got their ballots. But after the voting debacle in 2000, Congress required each state to create a single voter database, which could then be matched with other data, such as driver's licenses, to detect false registrations, dead people and those who have moved or become "inactive." In the marble halls of Congress, this sounded like a great idea - solve old problems with new technology. But in the hands of sometimes inept or partisan state officials, the database matches have become a practical nightmare that experts fear could disenfranchise thousands.
In Wisconsin, an August check of a new voter-registration database against other state records turned up a 22% match-failure rate. Around the time four of the six former judges who oversee state elections could not be matched with state driver's license data, the board decided to suspend any database purges of new registrants. But database-matching continues elsewhere. In Florida, nearly 9,000 new registrants have been flagged through the state's "No Match, No Vote" law. (Their votes will not be counted unless they prove their identity to a state worker in the coming weeks.) In Ohio, Republicans have repeatedly gone to court to make public a list of more than 200,000 unmatched registrations, presumably so that those voters can be challenged at the polls, even though most of them, like Joe, are probably legit. "It's disenfranchisement by typo," explains Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting issues.
Elsewhere the purges are peremptory. A county official in Georgia this year removed 700 people from voter lists, even though some of those people had never received so much as a parking ticket. Another Georgia voter purge, which seeks to remove illegal immigrants from the rolls, has been challenged by voting-rights groups that say legal voters have been intimidated by repeated requests to prove their citizenship. Back in Mississippi last March, an election official wrongly purged 10,000 people from the voting rolls - including a Republican congressional candidate - while using her home computer. (The names were restored before the primary.)
With just days until the election, the scale of the database-purge problem is unknown. Millions have been stripped from voter rolls in key states, but the legitimacy of those eliminations remains unclear. The sheer volume of state voter checks against the federal Social Security Administration database, however, has raised concerns. Six states that are heavily using the federal database were recently warned by Social Security commissioner Michael Astrue about the danger of improperly blocking legitimate voters. "It is absolutely essential that people entitled to register to vote are allowed to do so," he said in October.
2. "Mickey Mouse" Registrations and Polling-Place Challenges
Thanks to a few bad apples, ACORN is no longer just an oak-tree nut. McCain blames the group for "maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history." Members of Congress have demanded investigations. The fbi is asking questions. Republican protesters have started crashing political events in squirrel costumes.
Yet the problem of registration fraud is age-old. For decades, both parties and many other groups have paid people to go out and register new voters. In the case of acorn, a community group that represents low-income and minority communities, this led to a massive registration drive this year, which signed up 1.3 million new people, mostly in swing states. The problem is that a small fraction of those new voters don't exist. That's because the 13,000 part-time workers conducting the acorn registration drive were paid on a quota system, providing them a clear incentive to fabricate registrations. Across the country, registrars have flagged thousands of acorn forms as suspect. In Florida, "Mickey Mouse" tried to register with an application stamped with the acorn logo. The starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys signed up to vote in Nevada. But there's a difference between registration fraud and voter fraud; the latter has not been documented on any significant scale in decades. Phony registrations are difficult to translate into fraudulent votes. Under federal law, new registrants still have to provide election officials with identification before casting their first ballot. Unless Mickey Mouse has an ID, the chance that he'll vote is slim.
Democrats complain that trumped-up charges of voting fraud could scare people from the polls. On the other hand, the acorn effect makes elections suspect - and that's bad for everyone. Republicans in several key swing states have argued that the false registrations make it necessary to monitor polls and challenge suspect voters. If that happens on a grand scale, the voting process could become more like running a gauntlet than exercising a right, with polling-place delays and confrontations that could scare people off or just lead them to conclude it's not worth the time.
3. Bad Forms
Until the palm beach county butterfly ballot had its 15 minutes of fame, few believed that bad design could determine the fate of the world. But then a local election official created a form that confused elderly voters, causing thousands to mark both Al Gore and another candidate on the same form, disqualifying enough votes to put George W. Bush in the White House.
Eight years later, punch-card ballots are mostly a thing of the past, but bad design lives on. This summer, the McCain campaign sent poorly designed absentee-ballot forms to more than 1 million voters in Ohio. The form included a redundant box for voters to check if they were "qualified electors." Though the box was not required by law, the Democratic secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, rejected thousands of otherwise complete forms with unchecked boxes. Luckily for the voters, the state supreme court stepped in to overrule Brunner's order, which it noted "served no vital public purpose or interest." A lawsuit has yet to be filed in a similar case in Colorado, where Republican secretary of state Mike Coffman, who is running for Congress, ruled that more than 6,400 new registrations should be rejected because people failed to check a box before providing the last four digits of their Social Security number. Again, the box was redundant, since new registrants provided all the other required information, yet Coffman has declared the forms incomplete and sent letters alerting voters that they have just a few days to fix the mistakes or be left off the rolls.
4. The Voting-Machine Fiasco
As soon as the last chad was counted in Florida, Congress got to work on a new law that authorized $3.9 billion to buy new, high-tech voting equipment. On the whole, the new machines were an improvement over the old punch cards and levers, but many parts of the country now find themselves yearning for the old problems of paper.
About one-third of voters this fall will use electronic machines, usually touchscreen systems that produce no paper record of the vote. If the machines are miscalibrated, they are known to malfunction, sometimes causing the selection of one candidate to show as a vote for another. But the bigger concern, which has been echoed by computer scientists, is that the machines have no independent paper backup. A memory failure or a corruption of the data leaves no route for a recount. The 2006 congressional election in Florida's 13th District produced the nightmare scenario. Republican Vern Buchanan won the contest by a margin of 369 votes. But in a single, Democratic-leaning county, more than 18,000 voters mysteriously failed to record a selection in the congressional race, an undervote as much as six times the rate of other counties. There is no way to know for sure what, if anything, went wrong.
Since that election, several states, including Florida and California, have required paper records for all electronic-voting devices. A bill in Congress that would mandate paper records of all machines nationwide has gathered 216 co-sponsors, including 20 Republicans.
Meanwhile, 11 million people live in counties that will use lever machines or punch-card ballots this year, even though the congressional deadline to replace that equipment passed in 2006.
5. Unequal Distribution of Resources
This summer, a local democratic county clerk in Indiana noted a surprising increase in new registrations from the area around Ball State University. He suggested that a new early-voting location be set up on campus. But the county's Republican chairwoman, Kaye Whitehead, opposed the plan, calling it a "political ploy" that would encourage students to vote in exchange for freebies like hot dogs. "This is a serious election," she told the local newspaper, before the lone Republican on the election board blocked the site. "You need voters who are informed."
Partisan squabbles about access occur regularly across the country, often with major effects on Election Day. In 2004 lines in Ohio's Franklin County led some Democrats to complain that Republicans were using resources to affect the outcome of the vote. While suburban precincts had enough machines so voters didn't have to wait, largely Democratic precincts in Columbus had lines with four-hour waits - often in the rain. Bipartisan estimates suggested that between 5,000 and 15,000 voters gave up on waiting and never voted. But even the question of which precincts get election machines is a maze: in Wisconsin, one voting machine is required for every 200 voters registered in a precinct. In Virginia, by contrast, the law calls for one machine for every 500 to 750 voters, depending on the size of the precinct. In Colorado, which saw six-hour waits for ballots in 2006, the law simply calls for a "sufficient" number of voting booths.
6. New Burdens of Proof
The sisters of the holy cross in notre Dame, Ind., don't have much use for driver's licenses. Or at least that's what a dozen of the nuns thought on May 6, when they went to vote in the presidential primary. They were each turned away as a result of a recently established ID-check requirement at Indiana polls.
In the intervening months, the elderly sisters have all had a chance to get government identification. But an explosion in voter-identification laws has raised the prospect that thousands will turn up to vote next month and find themselves turned away. Federal law now requires that all first-time voters who register by mail provide some sort of identification either when they register or when they vote. But states have applied that rule in markedly different ways. In Pennsylvania, first-time voters can use a firearm permit or a utility bill to identify themselves, and longtime voters don't have to show anything at all. In Georgia and Florida, gun permits don't help; all voters must show a state or federal photo ID at the polls. In Indiana, residents who attend state schools can use their student IDs in many cases, but students who attend private schools cannot. The laws have been established to prevent voter fraud, but some experts worry that voter suppression will result. "There is very little evidence of widespread voter fraud," says R. Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech/mit Voting Technology Project. "Imposing these additional barriers doesn't seem terribly justified."
How big a barrier? A 2001 study found that 6% to 10% of the voting-age population lacks driver's licenses or other state-issued IDs. The most reasonable worry is that many local ID requirements are not well known to voters, which could lead to significant numbers of people leaving the polls frustrated on Election Day without casting their ballot. That should not happen: in all states, voters without IDs are permitted to cast a provisional ballot. But in many states, for the ballot to count they must bring a valid ID to election officials within days after the election, proving that they are the person they claim to be.
7. Confusing Rules, Bad Information
As election day nears, dirty tricks surface. Flyers are left on cars telling Democrats that they should vote on Wednesday, not Tuesday. Anonymous automated phone calls warn people that they will be arrested at the polls or that their polling places have moved. The impact of such gambits is usually small, and in an increasing number of states, such tricks are punishable by law.
A more insidious type of misinformation starts months earlier with local officials. Last March, the president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs received a letter from the El Paso County clerk, Robert Balink, warning that out-of-state students cannot register to vote if their parents claim them as dependents in another state. This was false. The registrar of elections for the area around Virginia Tech issued other confusing messages to students there, obliquely suggesting that their parents' tax status could be jeopardized based on vague state-board-of-elections guidelines.
A widely circulated anonymous e-mail warns voters that they will be turned away from polling places if they wear a barack obama button or a john mccain T shirt. This is true in only a minority of states. In Virginia, for instance, wearing a candidate's T shirt or button can get you tossed from a polling place. After agreeing to the policy, Virginia Board of Elections officials said decisions about what to do will be subject to the interpretation of local poll workers and judges - which is a pretty good metaphor for the controlled electoral chaos that is about to unfold all over America in a few short days.
With reporting by Marti Covington and Maya Curry / Washington.