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2008 Season of Voting Meltdowns Begins

Across the country, problems with voter rolls, voting machines and partisan tactics point to trouble in November.
 
 
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The chaos of the 2008 election has begun -- suggesting voting in November will be messy in many ways, in many states.

Across the country in recent days, newspapers, broadcasters and blogs have reported a dizzying array of potential problems that likely will complicate voting, if not confound voters, in the upcoming presidential election. The problems contain elements of the three major categories of ills affecting U.S. elections: bad management, bad technology and partisan treachery. Just how or if these issues are resolved remains to be seen.

Consider the following examples:

In New Jersey, state officials told 300,000 people that they were not registered to vote. However, new reports say an unknown number of those contacted were properly registered voters.

The problem is not confined to New Jersey. Under federal election reforms passed in 2002, every state is supposed to create statewide databases of its registered voters. The problem is not just that these new mega-lists contain errors but rather, as is the case in New Jersey and a handful of other states, what election officials do with the data.

In New Jersey, officials apparently compared the voter lists to other state databases, such as motor vehicle records, to see if voters had moved and therefore should be removed from voter rolls. That practice, which also has been done in Louisiana, Michigan and Kansas in 2008, is illegal, according to voting rights lawyers who say it does not follow the federal rules laid out in the National Voter Registration Act for purging voters.

What are the recipients of New Jersey's 300,000 letters to do? They need to call their local election office to confirm or correct their voter registration information before registration closes in that state on Tuesday, Oct. 14.

In Florida, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican, this week announced that he would resume enforcing a controversial state law that voting rights lawyers say has disenfranchised 14,000 minority voters since 2006. The state law penalizes voters through no fault of their own. It requires that new voters put their driver's license number or last digits of a Social security number on a voter registration form. If those numbers do not match a state or federal database, that person is not added to voter lists until the voter offers more proof to election officials.

This standard disproportionately victimizes minority voters, civil rights groups say, because unusual or foreign-sounding names are often misspelled in government databases. Still, under Florida law, it is the voter's responsibility, not the state's, to correct those problems. Florida law also says all voter registration information has to be correctly on file 29 days before an election, which means newly registered voters who do not meet the state's name-matching standards will have very little time, if any, to find out about this issue and fix the problem. The only remedy is for voters to call local election offices to verify or fix their voter registration information.

In Virginia, students who are registering to vote for the first time are facing ambiguous new state rules about whether a campus address is sufficient for voter registration purposes. Two weeks ago, in Montgomery County, where Virginia Tech is located, the county election director said students who register to vote in Virginia could no longer be claimed as dependents on their parents' tax returns -- which the Internal Revenue Service later said was incorrect -- and could lose scholarships or coverage under their parents' car and health insurance. Student voting advocates said those remarks were intended to suppress student voting.

This week, the state Board of Election issued a new policy that barely cleared up the matter. Under the new guidelines, local election boards can still determine whether on-campus addresses or other student housing can be considered a valid address for voter registration purposes. The guidelines also allow local registrars to ask about a student's financial independence, employment and parents' residence -- but say students do not have to answer those questions. That leeway with approving residency and ability to intimidate students with personal questions could discourage students from voting.

Students who want to vote should get help from the presidential campaign they are supporting, or call the hotline for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law during East Coast business hours to talk to a lawyer or voting specialist. That number is 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

In Michigan, the chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, one of three counties in the Detroit metro area, said he would challenge the right of people to vote if they have been evicted from foreclosed homes. Michigan is among a handful of states that allow "election challengers" to observe at polling places and force voters to show that their voter registration information is accurate. The county GOP chair, James Carabelli, said the use of foreclosure lists would determine if people were true residents at the address listed on their voter registration information.

According to the Michigan Messenger, there were nearly 2,000 foreclosure filings in July in the county, putting it in the top 3 percent of counties with troubled home loans. Across the state, there were 62,000 foreclosure filings as of July, the Web site reported. Michigan's Republican secretary of state, Terri Lynn Land, said the voter challenges could proceed "based on information obtained through a reliable source or means."

People who have lost their homes due to foreclosure or have been evicted must register to vote at their current address. The registration deadline in Michigan is Monday, Oct. 6.

In Kansas, new problems with paperless electronic voting machines surfaced. Last month, officials with Diebold -- the voting machine manufacturer that recently changed its name to Premier Election Solutions -- announced that its machines used to tabulate countywide results in 34 states were dropping votes because its software could not receive simultaneous transmissions of vote count data from more than one precinct at a time.

This week, another Diebold problem came to light in Johnson County, Kansas, where more than half a million people live. According to the Kansas City Star , the software in the firm's paperless voting machines will place the machines in a sleep or "time-out" mode if the screens are not touched for 2½ minutes. If the machine is not reactivated by a voter's touch, the voter's electronic memory card is ejected and the ballot is canceled. A spokesman for Premier said the firm is working to make this feature optional, but because that solution would require federal testing and certification, it will not be ready for a year or more.

What can people do if their voting machine goes to sleep and ejects their computer memory card? They can tell a poll worker and vote on a paper ballot.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at AlterNet.org, where he reports on elections from a voting rights perspective. His books include Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008), What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election (The New Press, 2006), and Making History in Vermont: The Election of a Socialist to Congress (Hollowbrook Publishing, 1992). An award-winning journalist, he has been a staff reporter at National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, TomPaine.com and at daily and weekly newspapers in Vermont.

 
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