News & Politics

Fixing The 2008 Election

No single catastrophe of election administration grabbed headlines this year, but that doesn't mean the problems voters encountered on Election Day were not serious.
The mainstream media in its instant analysis has proclaimed the election system worked surprisingly well in 2006. While it is true that no single catastrophe of election administration grabbed headlines this year, it is quite dangerous to suggest that the problems voters encountered on Election Day were not serious. As over 25,000 callers from across the country to the 866-OUR-VOTE voter information and protection hotline confirm, these problems led to thousands of eligible Americans being denied the opportunity to cast a ballot.

There's a sense that the book is already closed on the 2006 election. But despite the nation's attention now turning to the seismic political shift in Washington, several House races remain undecided. In Ohio, two of the races hinge on thousands of provisional ballots that likely were cast by legitimate voters but because of misguided and confusing election rules, will be thrown out, clearly affecting who wins the race. In Florida, it is likely that a problems with electronic voting machines caused far more votes to be lost than the current margin of victory.

While the case should not be overstated, it is critical that as we immediately enter the 2008 presidential election cycle, we undertake a more honest assessment of what happened in this election so we can concentrate on ensuring real, meaningful reform before the next federal election cycle. Only if we understand the problems that voters reported in 2006 can we enact real solutions that will move us toward a more fair and accurate system of elections.

Identification Problems

Over the past two years, the country has engaged in a national debate about how voters should identify themselves at the polls. Advocates for election reform and voting rights have shown that current protections, such as signature matches and severe penalties, strike an effective balance between protecting the rights of eligible voters to participate in the process and preventing ineligible people from manipulating the system. Unfortunately, partisanship has trumped reason as the states and the Congress are now grappling with unconstitutional legislation which hypes the false specter of voter fraud as an excuse for disenfranchising countless eligible voters.

On November 7, 2006, the result of this exaggerated concern over voter fraud was two-fold. First, in states like Arizona where restrictive voter identification requirements were operable, eligible citizens were prevented from casting a ballot because they did not have the requisite documentation. Second, a combination of confusion and lack of training forced voters to provide identification that was not required by law, resulting in many voters being turned away at the polls. In over a dozen states across the country, the Election Protection Hotline received complaints of poll workers asking voters for identification that was not required by law, wrongly forcing voters to cast provisional ballots, and otherwise misinterpreting the voting rules to prevent eligible voters from casting a ballot.

In Ohio particularly, poll workers improperly implementing identification requirements could have significant ramifications as two House seats remain undecided. The winner of those seats may well be elected by a margin smaller than those eligible voters who were either turned away, or who wrongly were forced to vote a provisional ballot that will not count. The most public example of this misapplication of Ohio identification requirements is Rep. Steve Chabot, who was wrongly turned away at the polls because his Ohio driver's license did not have a current address. Although he was able to come back to the polling place and eventually cast a ballot, many ordinary Ohioans do not have the time to make multiple trips to the polls. Missouri's Secretary of State Robin Carnahan was also improperly asked for photo ID and reported that her office got numerous complaints of similar incidents throughout the day.

Congress and state legislatures must pay more attention to the problems created by our election system and less to partisan proposals designed to remove eligible voters from the process. In addition, confusion about identification problems will be solved through better poll worker training.

Voting Machines

Problems with the administration of the election that could have been avoided instead created obstacles to efficient voting that have become increasingly familiar to voters across the country. In multiple states there were reports of people waiting in line for hours on end because of machine failures, poll workers who didn't know how to operate the machines, insufficient numbers of voting machines and general poor administration of election systems. In Tennessee for example, too few machines in one jurisdiction led to waiting times of five and a half hours. In Prince George's County, Maryland, voters stood in line for hours as poll workers struggled with voting technology and new voter registration procedures.

In all of these places, many voters left without casting a ballot. This denial of voting rights disproportionately impacts working people, especially those who have work or family duties that prevent them from having enough time on Election Day to stand on long lines or make multiple trips to the polls. There must be statewide standards for sufficient and equal distribution of voting machines, improved and standardized training and testing of poll workers, and increased resources to ensure sufficient numbers of machines and professionals operating them in every jurisdiction.

Across the country voters noticed that electronic machines "flipped" their votes when the vote summary screen indicated that the machine registered a vote for the opponent of their desired candidate. Elsewhere, voters complained that, despite going through the steps required by the machine, their vote for certain races never registered. Problems caused by inadequate procedures for making the best decisions about voting machines will be solved by demanding accountable, accessible and transparent voting technology.

Deceptive Practices

Voters also encountered problems before they even arrived at their polling place. Voters complained of cynical and fraudulent activities of both campaigns and individuals. In Orange County, California, a congressional campaign sent 14,000 voters with Hispanic surnames a letter advising recipients that "if you're an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in incarceration," or deportation. While illegal immigrants are barred from voting, legal immigrants who have become citizens are of course permitted to do so. In Virginia there were numerous reports of voters receiving calls telling them, falsely, that their polling place had changed, and telling them to go to the wrong precinct. Similar reports came in from New Mexico. In Colorado it was reported that Hispanics were getting phone calls telling them they were not registered and that they might be arrested if they voted. In heavily Democratic Maryland, materials were distributed statewide that suggested Republican candidates actually represented the Democratic Party, causing widespread confusion.

States and the federal government must do more to prevent and punish those who would commit this type of fraud. This means taking measures to directly criminalize such activity and requiring election administrators and elected officials to take proactive steps to ensure that voters are made aware of the deception and provided with the correct information immediately.

Voter Registration Problems

Voting rights advocates widely predicted that many voters would appear at the polling place to find their names not on the registration list. It was an easy prediction given the fact that many states were imposing unnecessarily high hurdles to registration. This included states requiring exact matches between voter registration information and information in existing state databases--despite the overwhelming evidence that much of that information is inaccurate because administration of both the registration rolls and other state databases is often inexact, frequently causing the names and other information in the databases to be incorrect. In other states, new registration requirements for proof of citizenship and rules virtually shutting down voter registration drives by civic organizations both reduced registration rates and made it more likely that voters would be left off the rolls.

On Election Day, voters from Georgia to California who were eligible to vote and submitted a timely voter registration form were turned away at the polls because their names did not show up on the registration lists. In some situations, these voters complained that they were not provided a provisional ballot.

These problems underscore the importance of fair and effective protocols for matching voter registration information and the elimination of rules requiring an "exact match"; the abolition of rules requiring proof of citizenship in order to register, when voters already must swear an oath under penalty of a felony that they are a citizen; and only reasonable rules governing third party voter registration drives, not rules that are meant to shut such worthy and essential services down.

Of course, Americans deserve better than what many thousands of them experienced on Election Day 2006. The infrastructure that supports our voting system should be strong and responsive to the will of the voters. Our democratic values demand that issues around election reform be considered outside of politics and the campaign cycle. In short, Congress and the states must move forward on meaningful reforms that strengthen citizen confidence in the system and expand access to all eligible Americans, as well as the resources necessary to make our democracy the model for the world.
Tova Andrea Wang is Democracy Fellow at The Century Foundation. Jonah Goldman is the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections.