News & Politics

If You're in a Swing State, Don't Just Vote -- Verify

As the 2008 election comes to close, swing states may find voting is needlessly complex -- and that is before any ballots are counted.
As Americans head to polls on Tuesday, voters in a swing states -- and in pockets across the country -- may learn the some hard truths about U.S. elections as poor management, unreliable machines and partisan tactics converge and complicate their goal of electing the next president.

The statistics begin to explain why this is so and why 2008 is no ordinary election year. Records have been set for voter registration, turnout in the primaries and caucuses, voting by mail and for early voting. In North Carolina, officials said that more people voted this year during early voting than on Election Day four years ago. In Florida, officials said nearly half of that state’s electorate had cast ballots during early voting.

But the surge of early voters also previews problems that will likely continue Tuesday, from waiting in line for hours, to voters finding their names missing from registration rolls, to electronic voting machines not recording their choices -- and these hurdles are before the vote counting process starts on Tuesday night.

What is often omitted in describing American elections is the human toll. But observers in Miami-Dade County in Florida on Monday said thousands of people stood in line all day and weathered notable indignities. Here is an e-mail from one observer:
I saw mothers standing the rain for hours, with babies in their arms, waiting to vote… I saw thousands of people waiting in lines in the heat of the Florida sun and under the drench of tropical downpours… I saw people willing to wait over 8 hours in line to vote. You read that right. Eight hours. Exposed to sun, rain, and ultimately the fall of night… (all in) a fierce patriotism and desire to be part of the most transformative election in memory.
Even more telling was an account by Miles Gerety, a Connecticut public defender who said he was present when an elderly woman who had left her husband in hospice to vote was told that he had died while she was waiting for hours.
She'd told the others around her that Hospice had given her husband a week to live. She said it was a relief for her to be in the line. That woman was perhaps 80 feet from the library doors, when I heard her wailing. Another woman approached me, literally grabbed onto me, I had to help this woman, her husband had just died. Hospice had called. As a former Hospice volunteer, I was determined that this poor woman was going to vote immediately if that was what she wanted. The death of a loved one should trump everything else, period. She said she wanted to vote, she was imploring me to help her vote… Mustering all the confidence I could, I put my arm around her and marched her into the library: "Her husband has just died, you should by law let her vote immediately." My voice tremored; she shivered, the poll workers embraced her, and this poor woman got to vote.
Gerety blamed the delays on officials for assembling a four-page ballot with too many arcane local offices and ballot questions, and not opening enough early voting centers to accommodate the public, who mostly were minorities. While county officials lauded the turnout and declared democracy was working, he described the extended waiting and scene as "institutional racism."

The long lines, requests for specific forms of ID to vote, and unpredictable machinery underscores how in many states the process may be more like a rickety New England covered bridge than a modern highway designed to handle the traffic. But these issues of election management and voting systems are only part of the landscape that people will face Tuesday. The other part -- prompting responses from civil rights advocates and political campaigns -- are partisan efforts to impede or discourage voting, in order to shape the electorate to favor one side.

Since Labor Day, the Republican Party or GOP officials in virtually all the swing states have attempted to alter the rules for admitting voters and counting their ballots. While almost all of these efforts have lost in court, the 2008 campaign’s final days have seen these efforts evolve into murkier attempts to discourage likely voters.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, listed some "deceptive practices" that have surfaced in the past 24 hours. Fliers and robo-calls telling voters, likely Democrats, to vote on Wednesday have appeared Pennsylvania, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In New Orleans, returnees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could not confirm their status as voters, she said. Until just days ago, voters in Georgia were stopped from voting by poll workers unless they showed proof of citizenship, which is not state law.

In Colorado, the Republican Secretary of State was ordered by a court last Friday to restore tens of thousands of voters who had been illegally purged, said Bob Edgar, President and CEO of Common Cause, whose group was part of a suit that forced the reversal. In the battleground states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida, thousands of voters -- including members of the military -- had not yet received absentee ballots, Arnwine said, "not a shred of paper."

On Tuesday, possibly anticipating a recount fight in Virginia, the McCain campaign sued the state to force it to count all military ballots -- which echoes Republican moves in Florida’s 2000 presidential recount fight. Meanwhile, in other states there have been efforts to discourage student voting, and voting by people with disabilities and voting by minorities, several election protection lawyers said.

Some at the press conference stressed these barriers and tactics would not affect most voters Tuesday. But where they appear is not entirely random, either. As Republicans have filed suits or acted in numerous battleground states to seek to limit an influx of new voters believed to be likely Democrats, the Obama campaign has taken steps to avert so-called election challenges by Republicans -- where GOP partisans can stop voters in line and force them to document their voter registration information.

The extent to which such challenges will occur on Tuesday is unknown. However, in Florida, lawyers for the Democrats filed a suit this past Friday seeking to stop any such challenges, saying "the success of such a baseless challenge -- throwing the election system into disarray, and jeopardizing the rights of vast numbers of eligible Floridians" is to create a burden for voters "who are in line and forced to wait for unjustifiable periods."

Perhaps the largest unknown about Tuesday’s election will be the vote count itself. So far, all of the errors associated with voting machines have concerned the way paperless machines record votes. In West Virginia, Texas, Colorado, Illinois and other states, voters -- including television host Oprah Winfrey -- have seen their selection jump to another candidate. While election officials have said these are calibration errors that have been fixed, there is a smaller window for the vote counting process.

Already, the GOP has attacked Democrats for “voter fraud” because of voter registration issues surrounding third-party voter drives. In radio ads in Ohio, the party has accused Democrats of attempting to "steal" the election. While the Democratic Party has taken steps to guard against problems with voting machines that tabulate the vote, it may find itself in the position of having to defend the election machinery if Obama wins.

While it is anybody’s guess if the fight over the accuracy of Tuesday’s vote will linger past Election Day, what will stay in people’s minds is their experience of voting in 2008 as record numbers of people turn out. That experience will create a new election reform agenda, no matter who is elected president.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).
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