Central Ohio Farmers' Advance
Gannett News Service
Originally published October 6, 2006
WASHINGTON -- Six years after the Florida presidential election debacle, election officials, experts, civil rights groups and lawmakers warn this midterm Election Day could be another big mess.
"We will be flying by a wing and a prayer," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has been at the forefront of federal election reform efforts. "There are literally millions of Americans whose confidence in the voting process has been shaken in recent years in both parties."
Experts caution that with so many competitive races and with one out of three voters using new machines, a shortage of poll workers and new computerized voter registration databases, election systems might fail and thousands of voters might be disenfranchised.
"I'm scared to death of what we're going to see this election," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
State officials, who have been forced to make major changes in recent years, say they're preparing for what could be one of their most challenging elections.
"We've made some valiant attempts ... (but) there are going to be some problems," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, an association of election officials. "Things could be just a little bit ugly this time."
While most agree there will be problems, some national election officials argue they are not likely to be widespread. Most states have already held primaries this year and have been able to iron out any kinks, they say.
Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, said he doesn't believe "it's necessarily going to be chaos out there. We will see mistakes made just as we've seen in other elections, but because of close contests ... these problems will be magnified. People will wonder about all those reforms since 2000."
Following allegations of widespread irregularities during the 2000 presidential election, Congress enacted the 2002 Help America Vote Act to help states improve election systems. States have spent millions to train poll workers, create voter registration databases and buy new equipment, including ones for disabled voters.
"If implemented well, it will move the country forward," said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which recently released a report on voter suppression concerns. "But the way it is being implemented by many states combined with new underhanded efforts to lock down (voter participation) ... we'll move the country backward. We see real problems coming in November."
Nearly all states will use new computerized voter registration databases. Some systems have already had problems matching voters' names with other government databases. There have also been reports of voters wrongly purged from registration rolls.
Elections are run locally so there are a hodgepodge of rules, including how each jurisdiction counts provisional ballots. The ballots allow residents to vote even if their names aren't on registration lists. The voters' eligibility is verified later.
And for the first time, some states will require government issued photo-identification cards. Civil rights groups liken that to a poll tax and say it will disenfranchise many minorities and seniors. Supporters of voter identification cards say it protects against fraud.
Other looming concerns include the use of electronic voting machines and having enough trained poll workers to operate them. Several recent reports, including one from the Brennan Center, questioned the reliability and security of the machines.
Critics of electronic voting machines point to Maryland's primary last month in which many voters experienced problems, including not being able to use the equipment. Most problems were due to human error, such as poll workers not having the device to operate the machines, election officials note.
Still, several groups and lawmakers, including some in Maryland, are calling for a paper trail that allows officials to later audit votes. A measure proposed by Holt would provide $150 million to help states retrofit machines to issue printouts verifying a voter's ballot was recorded. Senate Democrats proposed a measure last month to reimburse states for emergency paper ballots in case electronic machines fail.
To help states avert problems, the EAC recently sent election officials a "quick-start guide" to set up voting equipment. And DeGregorio says voters can have confidence in their voting machines.
But Carol Waser, a voter and retired family therapist in Washington, D.C., says she's worried about the reliability of electronic voting machines, and whether the nation's election system will fare well.
"Our Democracy," Waser said "is in trouble."
On the Web:
www.electioncenter.org, The Election Center, www.brennancenter.org, Brennan Center for Justice, www.eac.gov, The Election Assistance Commission.
# www.CANIVOTE.org. The National Association of Secretaries of State recently launched a web site that links voters to registration information offered by many states, including polling sites, voter identification requirements and registration deadlines. It also provides information about becoming a poll worker and links to local election officials.
# www.vote-smart.org. Project Vote Smart offers a variety of resources, including information about state and federal candidates. Also call 1-888-Vote-Smart.
# www.lwv.org. League of Women Voters of the United States links voters to state registration information and state guides.
Also scheduled to start next week is www.vote411.org, a site offering polling place locators, voter requirements, tools for overseas voters, state absentee ballot rules, local election official contacts and some candidate information.
# www.ncbcp.org, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a nonpartisan group with programs that encourage voter registration and participation, including a focus on engaging black youth.
# Voters encountering problems during early voting or on Election Day can call 866-OUR-VOTE. The hotline begins Oct. 16. The program is operated by a coalition of nonpartisan groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
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