The Morning After, Voting Problems Remain

Wednesday, 19 November 2008 13:40 By David Herbert, National Journal | name.

The Morning After, Voting Problems Remain
Chicago voters during the primary. (Photo: M. Spencer Green)

    Election Day was rife with problems, and voting rights advocates have thousands of videos and phone call reports to prove it. Two weeks later, does anybody care?

    Anyone walking through Election Protection's headquarters on Nov. 4 could have been forgiven for thinking the invasion of a small country was under way rather than an election.

    Dozens of volunteers fielded calls from harassed or confused voters in a command center complete with a 20-foot-high wall of digital maps and statistics. Upstairs, teams of lawyers hunched around conference tables littered with soda cans and cups of cold coffee, working the phones and dispatching legal teams to troubled polling stations.

    In the press room, the coalition's leaders clambered over one another to report the latest voting malfeasance. TV cameras rolled and calls poured in from newspapers around the country concerned about long lines and voter disenfranchisement. Standing before a bank of television screens and interactive maps, Jonah Goldman, the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections and one of the leaders of Election Protection, paused to encourage the assembled press to see the day as a jumping-off point for future stories of election reform.

    "When we wake up tomorrow, there will be a lot of coverage of who won and who lost, but we don't want to be here in two or four years," he said.

    Reporters nodded and tap-tap-tapped on their laptops in approval.

    In the early evening, polls began closing and the press room thinned out. As networks started calling states, views of long lines at polling stations were replaced by talking heads and color-coded maps and Obama's march to 270 electoral votes. The story at Election Protection headquarters was over.

    But the constellation of voting problems - 50,000 calls that day about long lines, registration errors, machine malfunctions and voter intimidation - certainly hadn't disappeared.

    "If this election were being decided by 537 votes," Goldman said last week, referring to the margin of victory in Florida in 2000, "there were a dozen different areas where you could find them."

    Sidebar: An Election Reformer's Wish List

    The voting rights groups that spent millions observing this fall's election haven't forgotten, and they are hoping to leverage the wealth of data they collected on Nov. 4 to pass reforms. Election Protection will release a report highlighting the mishaps - though Goldman said he and his colleagues could have predicted most of them months in advance. Video the Vote, which commissioned amateur filmmakers to document polling problems, is editing and distributing its footage.

    The Election Protection groups' ultimate goal, organizers said, is to help pass legislation currently being crafted in the House and Senate that would automatically register eligible voters nationwide and mandate that all states provide early voting options.

    Political Will, But For What?

    This year's decisive outcome in the presidential race might seem to take away some of the urgency behind election reform. But voting rights advocates contend that shifting the debate away from something seen as politically motivated and toward a good-governance policy movement increases its chances of success.

    "The fact that this election was decided by such huge margins allows us to take it out of a partisan lens and deal with this in a more American way," Goldman said.

    Yet not all reformers are in lockstep when it comes to implementing potential solutions. While most agree that a form of universal voter registration is needed, some want to give the federal government that power, and others want to delegate the responsibility to states.

    Expanding early voting is another option that many reformers support. More people casting their ballots before Election Day this year meant fewer people at the polls on Nov. 4, Goldman said, and early voting states had fewer machine malfunctions since their equipment was battle-tested before most voters went to the polls.

    But George Mason University professor of government Michael McDonald warned that absentee ballots, a key component of early voting, have a high rate of disqualification: More than 1 percent weren't counted nationally in 2004, with some states rejecting as many as 4 percent.

    "One of the easiest ways for a voter to disenfranchise himself is with a mail-in absentee ballot," said McDonald, who studies early voting patterns.

    Low-information, low-income voters (the majority of whom are Democrats) are responsible for a disproportionate number of ballots missing signatures, marked improperly or not sealed correctly, he added. And in elections decided by fractions of a percent, tossing out a few percent of the absentee ballots can make the difference.

    Election officials can try to minimize sources of electoral error but, McDonald conceded, when a race gets as tight as the one for Minnesota Senate (down to a 206-vote margin and counting), it becomes a crapshoot.

    "That race is essentially a tie," he said. "And whoever we decide wins, it is going to be random."

    Poor Track Record

    Activists may favor reworked election laws, but the government response to the disputed 2000 election suggests that legislation is the beginning rather than the end of the solution. The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002 after Florida's "hanging chad" debacle, provided billions to help states institute a provisional balloting system, replace punch-card voting machines and improve access to polls for the disabled.

    The law also created the Election Assistance Commission, designed to serve as a clearinghouse for HAVA information and help states coordinate the changes. But the agency was wracked by charges of partisanship from the get-go and was so underfunded that staff meetings were held in a downtown Starbucks. A former commissioner has called his time there "the worst experience of my life."

    "It doesn't do anything," said McDonald, who is himself contributing to an Election Assistance Commission report on the 2008 election.

    When states started buying up shiny, new electronic voting machines with federal money, the commission provided little guidance, said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Those machines have since proved unreliable, and some states are going back to optical scan systems.

    "You pass legislation that has lot of problems, and then you create a commission that doesn't have any teeth," Greenbaum said. "It doesn't get listened to very much."

    Election reform advocates have had even less legislative luck recently. In 2007, the House passed the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, which would have established criminal penalties for spreading voter misinformation, but the bill died in the Senate.

    Rosemary Rodriguez, the chairwoman of the Election Assistance Commission, said her agency hasn't lived up to expectations because "maybe some of the deadlines were unrealistic.

    "What we're learning," she added, "is if you really want to set something up that can improve the field, it takes some time."

Last modified on Monday, 24 November 2008 12:34