7 Things That Could Go Wrong on Election Day

From: Abdullah Bakhach <abakhach_at_fossfactory_dot_org>
Date: Tue Nov 04 2008 - 07:50:37 CST

The Well; Election Special What Could Go Wrong
*7 Things That Could Go Wrong on Election Day*
Michael Scherer
3030 words
3 November 2008
Time <javascript:void(0)>
40
Volume 172; Issue 18; ISSN: 0040781X
English
(c) 2008 Time Incorporated. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All
Rights Reserved.

When 130 million people vote, what do they get? Long lines, ID checks and
court challenges. A guide to the potential chaos

We can go to the moon, split atoms to power submarines, squeeze profits from
a 99 hamburger and watch football highlights on cell phones. But the most
successful democracy in human history has yet to figure out how to conduct a
proper election. As it stands, the American voting system is a worrisome
mess, a labyrinth of local, state and federal laws spotted with bewildered
volunteers, harried public officials, partisan distortions, misdesigned
forms, malfunctioning machines and polling-place confusion. Each time,
problems pop up on the margins; if the election is close, these problems
matter a great deal. Republicans and Democrats predict record turnouts,
perhaps 130 million people, including millions who have never voted before.
The vast majority will cast their votes without a hitch. But some voters
will find themselves at the mercy of registration rolls that have been
poorly maintained or, in some cases, improperly handled. Others will endure
long lines, too few voting machines and observers who challenge their
identities. Long a prerogative of local government, the patchwork of
election rules often defies logic. A convicted felon can vote in Maine, but
not in Virginia. A government-issued photo ID is required of all voters at
the polls in Indiana, but not in New York. Voting lines are shorter in the
suburbs, and the rules governing when provisional ballots count sometimes
vary from state to state. As Americans cast their ballots on Nov. 4, here
are some problems that threaten to throw this election to the courts again.

1. The Database Dilemma

"Joe the plumber" is not registered to vote. Or at least he is not
registered under his own name. The man known to his mother as Samuel Joseph
Wurzelbacher, who has become a feature of John McCain's stump speech, is
inscribed in Ohio's Lucas County registration records as "Worzelbacher," a
problem of penmanship more than anything else. "You can't read his signature
to tell if it is an o or a u," explains Linda Howe, the local elections
director.

Such mistakes riddle the nation's voting rolls, but they did not matter much
before computers digitized records. The misspelled Joes of America still got
their ballots. But after the voting debacle in 2000, Congress required each
state to create a single voter database, which could then be matched with
other data, such as driver's licenses, to detect false registrations, dead
people and those who have moved or become "inactive." In the marble halls of
Congress, this sounded like a great idea--solve old problems with new
technology. But in the hands of sometimes inept or partisan state officials,
the database matches have become a practical nightmare that experts fear
could disenfranchise thousands.

In Wisconsin, an August check of a new voter-registration database against
other state records turned up a 22% match-failure rate. Around the time four
of the six former judges who oversee state elections could not be matched
with state driver's license data, the board decided to suspend any database
purges of new registrants. But database-matching continues elsewhere. In
Florida, nearly 9,000 new registrants have been flagged through the state's
"No Match, No Vote" law. (Their votes will not be counted unless they prove
their identity to a state worker in the coming weeks.) In Ohio, Republicans
have repeatedly gone to court to make public a list of more than 200,000
unmatched registrations, presumably so that those voters can be challenged
at the polls, even though most of them, like Joe, are probably legit. "It's
disenfranchisement by typo," explains Michael Waldman, executive director of
the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting issues.

Elsewhere the purges are peremptory. A county official in Georgia this year
removed 700 people from voter lists, even though some of those people had
never received so much as a parking ticket. Another Georgia voter purge,
which seeks to remove illegal immigrants from the rolls, has been challenged
by voting-rights groups that say legal voters have been intimidated by
repeated requests to prove their citizenship. Back in Mississippi last
March, an election official wrongly purged 10,000 people from the voting
rolls--including a Republican congressional candidate--while using her home
computer. (The names were restored before the primary.)

With just days until the election, the scale of the database-purge problem
is unknown. Millions have been stripped from voter rolls in key states, but
the legitimacy of those eliminations remains unclear. The sheer volume of
state voter checks against the federal Social Security Administration
database, however, has raised concerns. Six states that are heavily using
the federal database were recently warned by Social Security commissioner
Michael Astrue about the danger of improperly blocking legitimate voters.
"It is absolutely essential that people entitled to register to vote are
allowed to do so," he said in October.

2. 'Mickey Mouse' Registrations And Polling-Place Challenges

Thanks to a few bad apples, ACORN is no longer just an oak-tree nut. McCain
blames the group for "maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter
history." Members of Congress have demanded investigations. The FBI is
asking questions. Republican protesters have started crashing political
events in squirrel costumes.

Yet the problem of registration fraud is age-old. For decades, both parties
and many other groups have paid people to go out and register new voters. In
the case of ACORN, a community group that represents low-income and minority
communities, this led to a massive registration drive this year, which
signed up 1.3 million new people, mostly in swing states. The problem is
that a small fraction of those new voters don't exist. That's because the
13,000 part-time workers conducting the ACORN registration drive were paid
on a quota system, providing them a clear incentive to fabricate
registrations. Across the country, registrars have flagged thousands of
ACORN forms as suspect. In Florida, "Mickey Mouse" tried to register with an
application stamped with the ACORN logo. The starting lineup of the Dallas
Cowboys signed up to vote in Nevada.

But there's a difference between registration fraud and voter fraud; the
latter has not been documented on any significant scale in decades. Phony
registrations are difficult to translate into fraudulent votes. Under
federal law, new registrants still have to provide election officials with
identification before casting their first ballot. Unless Mickey Mouse has an
ID, the chance that he'll vote is slim.

Democrats complain that trumped-up charges of voting fraud could scare
people from the polls. On the other hand, the ACORN effect makes elections
suspect--and that's bad for everyone. Republicans in several key swing
states have argued that the false registrations make it necessary to monitor
polls and challenge suspect voters. If that happens on a grand scale, the
voting process could become more like running a gauntlet than exercising a
right, with polling-place delays and confrontations that could scare people
off or just lead them to conclude it's not worth the time.

3. Bad Forms

Until the Palm Beach County butterfly ballot had its 15 minutes of fame, few
believed that bad design could determine the fate of the world. But then a
local election official created a form that confused elderly voters, causing
thousands to mark both Al Gore and another candidate on the same form,
disqualifying enough votes to put George W. Bush in the White House.

Eight years later, punch-card ballots are mostly a thing of the past, but
bad design lives on. This summer, the McCain campaign sent poorly designed
absentee-ballot forms to more than 1 million voters in Ohio. The form
included a redundant box for voters to check if they were "qualified
electors." Though the box was not required by law, the Democratic secretary
of state, Jennifer Brunner, rejected thousands of otherwise complete forms
with unchecked boxes. Luckily for the voters, the state supreme court
stepped in to overrule Brunner's order, which it noted "served no vital
public purpose or interest." A lawsuit has yet to be filed in a similar case
in Colorado, where Republican secretary of state Mike Coffman, who is
running for Congress, ruled that more than 6,400 new registrations should be
rejected because people failed to check a box before providing the last four
digits of their Social Security number. Again, the box was redundant, since
new registrants provided all the other required information, yet Coffman has
declared the forms incomplete and sent letters alerting voters that they
have just a few days to fix the mistakes or be left off the rolls.

4. The Voting-Machine Fiasco

As soon as the last chad was counted in Florida, Congress got to work on a
new law that authorized $3.9 billion to buy new, high-tech voting equipment.
On the whole, the new machines were an improvement over the old punch cards
and levers, but many parts of the country now find themselves yearning for
the old problems of paper.

About one-third of voters this fall will use electronic machines, usually
touchscreen systems that produce no paper record of the vote. If the
machines are miscalibrated, they are known to malfunction, sometimes causing
the selection of one candidate to show as a vote for another. But the bigger
concern, which has been echoed by computer scientists, is that the machines
have no independent paper backup. A memory failure or a corruption of the
data leaves no route for a recount. The 2006 congressional election in
Florida's 13th District produced the nightmare scenario. Republican Vern
Buchanan won the contest by a margin of 369 votes. But in a single,
Democratic-leaning county, more than 18,000 voters mysteriously failed to
record a selection in the congressional race, an undervote as much as six
times the rate of other counties. There is no way to know for sure what, if
anything, went wrong.

Since that election, several states, including Florida and California, have
required paper records for all electronic-voting devices. A bill in Congress
that would mandate paper records of all machines nationwide has gathered 216
co-sponsors, including 20 Republicans.

Meanwhile, 11 million people live in counties that will use lever machines
or punch-card ballots this year, even though the congressional deadline to
replace that equipment passed in 2006

5. Unequal Distribution of Resources

This Summer, a local democratic county clerk in Indiana noted a surprising
increase in new registrations from the area around Ball State University. He
suggested that a new early-voting location be set up on campus. But the
county's Republican chairwoman, Kaye Whitehead, opposed the plan, calling it
a "political ploy" that would encourage students to vote in exchange for
freebies like hot dogs. "This is a serious election," she told the local
newspaper, before the lone Republican on the election board blocked the
site. "You need voters who are informed."

Partisan squabbles about access occur regularly across the country, often
with major effects on Election Day. In 2004 lines in Ohio's Franklin County
led some Democrats to complain that Republicans were using resources to
affect the outcome of the vote. While suburban precincts had enough machines
so voters didn't have to wait, largely Democratic precincts in Columbus had
lines with four-hour waits--often in the rain. Bipartisan estimates
suggested that between 5,000 and 15,000 voters gave up on waiting and never
voted. But even the question of which precincts get election machines is a
maze: in Wisconsin, one voting machine is required for every 200 voters
registered in a precinct. In Virginia, by contrast, the law calls for one
machine for every 500 to 750 voters, depending on the size of the precinct.
In Colorado, which saw six-hour waits for ballots in 2006, the law simply
calls for a "sufficient" number of voting booths.

6. New Burdens of Proof

The sisters of the holy cross in Notre Dame, Ind., don't have much use for
driver's licenses. Or at least that's what a dozen of the nuns thought on
May 6, when they went to vote in the presidential primary. They were each
turned away as a result of a recently established ID-check requirement at
Indiana polls.

In the intervening months, the elderly sisters have all had a chance to get
government identification. But an explosion in voter-identification laws has
raised the prospect that thousands will turn up to vote next month and find
themselves turned away. Federal law now requires that all first-time voters
who register by mail provide some sort of identification either when they
register or when they vote. But states have applied that rule in markedly
different ways. In Pennsylvania, first-time voters can use a firearm permit
or a utility bill to identify themselves, and longtime voters don't have to
show anything at all. In Georgia and Florida, gun permits don't help; all
voters must show a state or federal photo ID at the polls. In Indiana,
residents who attend state schools can use their student IDs in many cases,
but students who attend private schools cannot. The laws have been
established to prevent voter fraud, but some experts worry that voter
suppression will result. "There is very little evidence of widespread voter
fraud," says R. Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting
Technology Project. "Imposing these additional barriers doesn't seem
terribly justified."

How big a barrier? A 2001 study found that 6% to 10% of the voting-age
population lacks driver's licenses or other state-issued IDs. The most
reasonable worry is that many local ID requirements are not well known to
voters, which could lead to significant numbers of people leaving the polls
frustrated on Election Day without casting their ballot. That should not
happen: in all states, voters without IDs are permitted to cast a
provisional ballot. But in many states, for the ballot to count they must
bring a valid ID to election officials within days after the election,
proving that they are the person they claim to be.

7. Confusing Rules, Bad Information

As Election day nears, dirty tricks surface. Flyers are left on cars telling
Democrats that they should vote on Wednesday, not Tuesday. Anonymous
automated phone calls warn people that they will be arrested at the polls or
that their polling places have moved. The impact of such gambits is usually
small, and in an increasing number of states, such tricks are punishable by
law.

A more insidious type of misinformation starts months earlier with local
officials. Last March, the president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs
received a letter from the El Paso County clerk, Robert Balink, warning that
out-of-state students cannot register to vote if their parents claim them as
dependents in another state. This was false. The registrar of elections for
the area around Virginia Tech issued other confusing messages to students
there, obliquely suggesting that their parents' tax status could be
jeopardized based on vague state-board-of-elections guidelines.

A widely circulated anonymous e-mail warns voters that they will be turned
away from polling places if they wear a BARACK OBAMA button or a JOHN MCCAIN
T shirt. This is true in only a minority of states. In Virginia, for
instance, wearing a candidate's T shirt or button can get you tossed from a
polling place. After agreeing to the policy, Virginia Board of Elections
officials said decisions about what to do will be subject to the
interpretation of local poll workers and judges--which is a pretty good
metaphor for the controlled electoral chaos that is about to unfold all over
America in a few short days.

On the rise

New voters have been flooding registrars' offices in 2008, with more than
8.5 million new filings nationwide. Below are the numbers of new registrants
in key states and their share of all voters in each state

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Source: Catalist (as reported from Jan. 1 to mid-October)

[BOX]

How to Tackle Problems at the Polls

On Nov. 4, the overwhelming majority of Americans will cast ballots without
a hitch. But for some, troubles will occur. Here are a few simple steps you
can take to make sure your vote counts:

* Before going to the polls, check to make sure your registration is in
proper order by contacting your local registrar or going to canivote.org.
(There is still time to fix problems.)

* Polling places can change. Make certain you know your proper polling
location and the ID requirements for your state, especially if you are a
first-time voter.

* Once at the polls, don't take no for an answer. You should not leave a
polling place without casting some sort of ballot.

* If you encounter problems, request an emergency paper ballot or, as a last
resort, a provisional ballot. (Provisional ballots should be avoided
whenever possible because they are less likely to be counted. If you must
cast a provisional ballot, ask polling officials what steps you can take to
ensure your vote is counted.)

* If you still have questions about polling-place locations or ID
requirements, or if you encounter any problems at the polls, call Election
Protection (866-OUR-VOTE), the nation's largest coalition of poll watchers
and lawyers. The nonpartisan call center will be staffed through Election
Day.

See also additional image(s) in Cover Description file of same issue.

Copyright (c) 2008 Time Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this material
may be duplicated or redisseminated without permission. | Michael Scherer |
   | With Reporting by Marti Covington/Washington | | Maya
Curry/Washington |

[Illustrations for TIME by Dave Wheeler]; THREE ILLUSTRATIONS | |
[ALEJANDRA LAVIADA--POLARIS]; Paper trail This touchscreen system, used in
Ohio, makes a printout of every electronic vote; PHOTO |

Document TIMAG00020081025e4b300003

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