NYTimes.com Article: The New Hanging Chads

From: Arthur Keller <arthur_at_kellers_dot_org>
Date: Fri Aug 20 2004 - 11:56:01 CDT

The article below from NYTimes.com

The New Hanging Chads

August 19, 2004

One of the scandals of the last presidential election was
the large number of voters who were denied the right to
vote because of foul-ups in the election system, like
errors in the voting rolls or problems in directing voters
to their correct polling places. As a result, Congress
required that this year, voters be allowed to fill out
provisional ballots if their eligibility is in question,
and that the validity of those ballots be determined later
on. It was a crucial reform, but in many places the ballots
aren't working out the way they are supposed to, because of
poor procedures and overly technical regulations. If this
year's election is close, there are likely to be furious
battles over how these rules were applied. While there is
still time, state and local officials should fix the
provisional-voting problems.

The nation's voting rolls are notoriously inaccurate. One
study found that as many as six million votes were lost in
the 2000 presidential election because of registration
problems and that the use of provisional ballots nationwide
could have cut the loss significantly. The Help America
Vote Act of 2002 mandated that such ballots be given to
every voter in a federal election who shows up at the polls
but doesn't seem to be listed on the voting rolls.
Unfortunately, Congress left local officials too much
discretion in carrying out the law. In Chicago this March,
93 percent of the provisional ballots were thrown out,
often for dubious reasons.

One of the biggest problems is that some states are
refusing to count provisional ballots cast in the wrong
polling place. In Chicago, this rule voided more than 20
percent of the votes with provisional ballots. But when
voters cannot locate their polling places, elections
officials are often just as much to blame. This month,
Claude Hawkins went to four Kansas City, Mo., polling
sites, trying to vote, only to be told he was in the wrong
place. No poll workers, however, could direct him to the
right place. The Board of Elections phone lines were busy
or not answered all day. At his fourth stop, Mr. Hawkins
cast a provisional ballot, which was disqualified - because
he had voted at the wrong polling place.

Mr. Hawkins and other Missourians are challenging the
wrong-polling-place rule in federal court. They rightly
argue that it violates the Help America Vote Act, which
says provisional ballots "shall be counted." They also
argue, in an equal-protection claim, that in Missouri's
2002 election, African-Americans were significantly more
likely than whites to have their provisional ballots thrown
out. The judge has ordered Missouri to wait before
certifying this month's primary results, and he has put the
case on a fast track.

This week, several unions filed a similar suit in Florida,
which also disqualifies provisional ballots cast at the
wrong polling places. The wrong-precinct rule serves no
legitimate purpose, and it denies eligible voters the right
to vote. States should not wait for a court to tell them
that rule is unacceptable. At the very least, election
officials who intend to throw away ballots cast in the
wrong locations must have a foolproof way of directing
voters on Election Day to their correct polling places.

Many more provisional ballots are disqualified because of
errors in completing them. Some 2,400 of the 5,914
provisional ballots in Chicago this year went not counted
because the accompanying affidavits were incompletely or
wrongly filled out. Provisional ballots cannot be a
literacy test, preventing all but the most sophisticated
voters from casting valid votes. The ballots and affidavits
should be simple and the instructions clear, and
well-trained poll workers should be on hand to help voters
complete them. When the time comes to count provisional
ballots, highly technical rules should not be used to
disenfranchise voters.

Finally, and most basically, elections officials must have
enough provisional ballots on hand. Since this is the first
presidential election with mandatory provisional voting,
and interest in this year's race is so high, they should
err on the side of excess. In California's March primary,
voters were turned away because polling places had run out
of provisional ballots. Some voters had to make three trips
before new ballots arrived.

The guiding principle behind the Help America Vote Act's
requirement for provisional ballots is that glitches in the
election system should not keep eligible voters from
voting. State and local elections officials must not handle
provisional voting in a way that frustrates this core
democratic ideal.

Making Votes Count: Editorials in this series remain online
at www.nytimes.com/makingvotescount.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

Arthur M. Keller, Ph.D., 3881 Corina Way, Palo Alto, CA  94303-4507
tel +1(650)424-0202, fax +1(650)424-0424
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Received on Tue Aug 31 23:17:17 2004

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