News & Politics

What Could Possibly Go Wrong on Election Day 2010?

Two voting rights organizations expose the possible shortcomings and abuse of our electoral systems this November.

In the past decade, voting rights groups have studied, documented and cataloged virtually every conceivable failure in voting machinery, voter registration procedures and outright partisan thuggery that could tilt the outcome of elections.

The good news is that the catalog of administrative snafus and political dirty tricks is widely known. The bad news is 2010's midterm election is as ripe for mistakes or mischief as any recent national election; if not more so, given this year's political dynamics.

What could possibly go wrong on Election Day this November?

Dozens and dozens of things, according to a massive report by two nationwide voting rights groups, Demos and Common Cause. The report pinpoints how administrative complexities or intentional interference in many steps in the registration and voting process can result in individuals not voting or casting ballots that count, as was the case for 3 million eligible voters in 2008's presidential election.

But administrative snafus -- such as registering to vote but not appearing on official lists -- is not the big worry of 2010. Beyond a catalog of possible errors that have shaved off thousands of votes in state after state in recent elections, the two voting rights groups say the current political climate is not conducive to an orderly vote or vote count.

The 2010 electorate is apparently angry or apathetic, depending which pollsters you believe, suggesting turnout in November will be lower and more polarized than in typical presidential contest years. Lower-turnout elections magnify the impact of procedural mistakes and partisan interference in the process. Both affect who votes and who wins.

"The volatile tone of recent political discourse in America demonstrates just how high the stakes are going into the 2010 midterm elections," said Tova Wang, senior democracy fellow at Demos and author of the report. "Strongly held views on the role of government in our lives and the rightful place of minorities and immigrants in our society will be directly reflected in the voting process."

"When the stakes are this high, the rules of the game -- and whether or not they are enforced -- make all the difference," said Susannah Goodman, director of election reform for Common Cause and co-author of the report. "This report shows where we need better rules--and better referees."

What could go wrong? The vitriol surrounding recent protests over health care reform (Washington, D.C., Tea Party rallies) and immigration (Arizona) could extend to various stages of the voting process as self-appointed political posses try to protect electoral "integrity" by policing polling places.

Voter suppression has taken many forms over the decades. In 2010, eligible voters, especially first-time voters, could be asked to present ID beyond legal requirements, be videotaped, or receive misinformation about where and when to vote -- all before even entering a polling place, according to Common Cause and Demos. Once inside polls, individuals could have their credentials as eligible voters challenged by partisans.

Few states have specific laws barring such actions, or a record of intervening when arch partisans insert themselves in the process, the groups noted. Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, all states with large populations of eligible Latino voters, could be vulnerable to such "passionate" outbursts this year, the groups said, based on recent political trends.

Demos and Common Cause said the proliferation of information technologies, such as text messaging and Twitter, could irresponsibly be used to foment confusion about the voting process or to spread misinformation -- to either discourage voters from casting ballots, or to inflame already overheated campaign passions around polling places.

In most campaign circles, excessive behavior on Election Day is seen as a virtue, not a vice. Already in 2010, the use of fabricated campaign Web sites that pretend to represent candidates, is widespread. Add the ability to widely disseminate misinformation -- by Internet-based phone calls, fraudulent e-mails, etc. -- and there are many precedents for mischief. One dismaying example cited by Common Cause and Demos was from Ohio's Butler County, where a cyber attack on the county Web site delayed the reporting of results during the spring primary. The attack caused the county server to crash.

Of course, the best antidote for electoral chicanery is high voter turnout. High turnout, as seen in the 2008 presidential election, dilutes the potential impact of partisan interference because the margin between competing sides is too big across more jurisdictions than any isolated effort can sway. Similarly, high turnout offsets the small percentage of voters who encounter administrative barriers that prevent them from casting ballots.

The Demos-Common Cause report may be seen as shrill by election administrators, since voting rights activists have long wanted states to address this laundry list of shortcomings. Still, the same technologies that sow discord can also be used to help voters quickly address intentional partisan mischief.

However, election officials know that managing elections is not a simple affair. And beyond unintentional bureaucratic mistakes that complicate their jobs and disenfranchise eligible voters, are deliberate partisan efforts to interfere and alter outcomes. If nothing else, 2010 looks like a year when those partisan currents are at high tide.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at, 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).
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