Cleaning Up Election Day Disasters

Monday, November 13, 2006

Increasing Democracy

Cleaning up Election Day Disasters

Even with the good news that came last Tuesday, all too much evidence exists that the basic machinery of democracy in America is broken. Election Day is like Groundhog Day and the first stories of problems with voting machines, long lines, or voter intimidation hit the wires in the early A.M. Fortunately, with progressives in control in more states than ever before, we have an opportunity to get the machinery working, so that the engine of democracy starts humming again.

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Increasing Democracy

Election Day Problems

Voters in several states reported confusion over voter identification requirements, registration problems, voter intimidation and poll workers failing to show up at precincts.

Malfunctioning Machines & Missing Ballots: In a suburb of Denver, Colorado, the last vote cast on election day was at 1:30am. The late hour was not due to an overwhelming voter turnout, although Colorado did boast a 60 percent turnout. Instead, voting machine malfunction led to severe delays, which reached up to four hours in Douglas County, Colorado. Adding to machine malfunction, poll officials were not adequately trained to deal with the new electronic-voting machines and struggled to get them back online after malfunctions. Ill-equipped to deal with high voter turnout, several polling stations in Boston, Massachusetts ran out of ballots during peak voting periods. While city officials tried to downplay the problem, voters, particularly those in communities of color, said the city cared little for their votes. In Tennessee, a lack of machines in one jurisdiction led to waiting times of five and a half hours.

Identification and Registration Problems: The governor of South Carolina, Congressman Chabot (R-Ohio), and Indiana state Rep. Charlie Brown were all turned away at the polls because they didn't have acceptable ID. They took the time to go home and return with different, multiple forms of identification, but many working people don't have that luxury.

Voter Intimidation & Deception: Beyond technical glitches, reports of severe voter intimidation came in from across the country.

  • In Arizona, The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund reported seeing three men approach only Latino voters and videotape them as they went into polling places in Tucson.
  • Backers of the Republican candidates for Governor and U.S. Senate in Maryland went so far as to recruit and bus in homeless individuals from as far away as Philadelphia to pass out voter guides with misinformation about the candidates. The individuals were promised $100 and three meals for passing out fliers misnaming the two candidates as Democrats. Besides the obvious voter misleading, exploiting the homeless population shows the level of desperation and deprivation running through the right.

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Increasing Democracy

Ohio in the Spotlight

Ohio, where dubious voting procedures were uncovered when the spotlight fell upon the state in the 2004 presidential election, experienced the same problems in the midterm elections last Tuesday: voter intimidation that threatened jail time if voters showed up with the wrong I.D., long lines causing people to leave without voting, high use of provisional ballots, and vote hopping (where one candidate is picked but the machine records a vote for the opponent).

These problems were not a surprise as they had all been reported during both the primaries and in early voting.

  • Cuyahoga County, a heavily democratic county, released a report detailing some of the issues that arose during the primary election, including incredibly poor chain of custody practices that resulted in the loss of 812 voter-access cards and 313 keys to voting machine memory cards (where votes are stored).
  • A second report also documented the problems with the voting machines themselves, including machines that could not be located after the election and a number of machines found with no data on them at all, even though paperwork states that they were used.

None of these concerns were addressed in Ohio, as evidenced by Franklin County's crashed phone system that could not deal with the high volume of calls regarding malfunctioning electronic voting machines.

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Increasing Democracy

Solving Election Day Problems

With progressives gaining ground in last week's elections, they need to make election reform a key part of their agenda. Key reforms include:

Paper Trail Legislation:

Requiring that each voter receive a verified printout of their voting choices won't fix broken machines and long lines, but it will assure voters that their voting decisions are being properly recorded -- and give officials a paper trail to consult in case of a recount. Many states have mandated paper trails, but 15 states and the District of Columbia use electronic voting machines without requiring a voter-verified paper trail.

Reforming HAVA and ID Requirements: States need to reform database procedures, following best practices to improve voter matching and verification after registration to avoid problems when voters show up on election day. And those states that have enacted onerous identification rules -- which even elected officials apparently seem to have trouble meeting -- should reform them to assure that honest voters are not turned away from the polls.

Voter Intimidation and Deception Act: After the voter intimidation of the 2004 election, Senator Barack Obama has introduced a federal Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act to create strong penalties for groups that suppress voter turnout through deception and intimidation. The Center for Policy Alternatives also has a state-level Voter Protection Model Bill with similar goals.

Vote by Mail: One of the most fundamental ways to eliminate election day debacles is to allow people to vote by mail. Permanent Absentee Voting has been implemented in many states to allow people to sign up to vote by mail-- in 2005, it was estimated that up to 50% of voters in California voted from home. Oregon has moved all their elections to a vote by mail system that has not only eliminated long lines on election day, but has lowered the costs of running elections and given election officials usually weeks, not hours, to fix problems that may arise when people vote.

Election Day Registration: Another key reform to expand voting participation is allowing people to register and vote up until and throughout election day, an approach that has significantly expanded voter turnout in states that have implemented it. Montana implemented the reform for the first time in 2006 and the results were a massive increase in voting participation, especially by young people who often focus in on elections too late to register. Election day registration also enfranchises people incorrectly removed from the voter rolls.

Each of these reforms will move states towards a saner election day-- and one where more people vote without fear of intimidation or harassment.

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Eye on the Right

James Leininger tried to buy the Texas legislature in his pursuit of school privatization legislation. He spent roughly $5 million in his efforts, but ended up actually losing seats after voucher opponents organized and went to bat in close races, many of the anti-privatization legislators won handily, despite being outspent by large margins.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
Matt Singer, Communications Director


Please shoot me an email at if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

Matt Singer
Editor, Stateside Dispatch


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