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Not Again! How Our Voting System Is Ripe For Theft and Meltdown in 2012

The Republican war on voters is only the start of really big problems voters face in the 2012 presidential election.
 
 
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Voting in America is ripe for a major meltdown in 2012.

The most fundamental of democratic processes has become more barrier-filled and error-prone than at anytime since Florida’s 2000 election, when voter list purges, flawed voting technology and a partisan U.S. Supreme Court majority ended a statewide recount and installed George W. Bush as president.

This fall’s potential problems begin with a new generation of voter suppression laws and aging voting machines in a handful of presidential battleground states. And other important factors are in play, such as election officials curtailing voting options due to fiscal constraints, the increasing age of poll workers—volunteers averaging in their 70s—who must referee an ever more complex process, and the likelihood that close races will end up in post-Election Day legal fights.

Voters tell academics they want consistency in voting. Yet emerging trends are poised to upend that hope in many states . This year’s big questions are: where will the meltdown—or meltdowns—occur, what will go wrong, on what scale, and, when it comes to computer failures or tampering, will we even know about it?

“The arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP Tuesday, saying the Justice Department was pushing back on new voter suppression laws, calling voter ID rules the modern version of segregationist poll taxes. “We will simply not allow this era to be the beginning of the reversal of that historic progress.”

“We need good technology and we need good laws,” said Barbara Simons. The retired IBM computer scientist and nationally known expert on voting technology is co-author of a new book, Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? which details America’s history of voting machinery and election administration, and concludes that many states have neither good technology nor good vote count rules.

“We are running elections in this country as if we are still in the 19th century,” she said. “The results are announced and there is no verification. At minimum, we should be doing manual post-election ballot audits for all major elections whether or not the results are close, because there even could be a major problem with an election with a wide margin.”

The More You Look, The More Problems

What’s alarming in 2012 is that different experts are citing a variety of worst-case scenarios, all of which might involve many states and vast numbers of voters. Some scenarios have been well covered in the media, such as the GOP’s war on Democratic voting blocks, which the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson this week called “a crime.” And some have barely been covered, especially as the focus shifts to election administration or vote counting.

“Those of us who specialize in election law engage in a heart-wrenching task: attempting to make an educated guess about the likelihood that one or another election irregularity will lead to a Bush v. Gore-style meltdown,” wrote Nathaniel Persily, a Columbia Law School professor this past Sunday in the New York Daily News. “My candidate for the honor of the next potential chad to dangle: absentee ballots.”

Persily makes a persuasive case in this corner. In 2010, 18 percent of the country voted by mail-in ballots and another 8 percent voted early, in special polling places set up before Election Day. He suggested that potential problems surrounding absentee ballots may be more troubling than the polling place chaos created by harsh voter ID laws, which could create delays that prompt people to leave without voting, and push poll workers to issue many provisional ballots that have to be verified before they are counted.