EAC to Continue Pursuing Election Flaws

Posted November 24, 2004 at 3:13pm

Meeting Tuesday for the first time since the Nov. 2 election, members of the Election Assistance Commission breathed a collective sigh of relief about the relatively smooth operation of this year’s Election Day — but they promised to do more in the coming year to improve the nation’s balloting system.

“This election has taken America a giant step forward,” said EAC Chairman DeForest Soaries. While Soaries applauded the fact that the balloting produced “no major crisis,” he still acknowledged that a “cloud” hangs over the election process and that the cloud must be lifted.

“The lack of a major crisis on Nov. 2 does not mean that we can overlook all of the critical, unresolved issues,” Soaries said.

The four-member body — which will soon celebrate its one-year anniversary — plans to conduct public hearings on several matters, including the creation and issuance of voluntary guidelines on voting systems, statewide voter registration databases and provisional balloting.

Soaries, a Republican appointee and former New Jersey secretary of state, also promised that the agency would promote further debate about whether electronic voting equipment should offer voter-verified paper trails.

“To ignore that would be to have our head in the sand,” Soaries said.

Members of Congress are deeply divided over the thorny issue. Paper-trail backers, including Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), argue that providing paper trails increases voter confidence in the electoral system and makes it possible to conduct recounts if the electronic system fails.

But other lawmakers, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), rejected that approach and aligned themselves with disabilities advocates who argue that making such changes to voting equipment could jeopardize the strides in accessibility made under the Help America Vote Act.

In other business, EAC staffers reported success with an initiative launched late in the 2004 election cycle to recruit and train college students to work as poll workers. Of the 4,000 college students recruited across the nation, 1,500 received special training and 1,300 ended up working on the polls on Election Day.

The agency is now collecting data from election officials nationwide, including the number of provisional ballots cast, counted and rejected. This data should be available by Jan. 1, officials said.

Several commissioners who fanned out across the nation on Nov. 2 honed in on specific areas of concern.

EAC Vice Chairwoman Gracia Hillman, a Democrat, said that she witnessed extremely long lines for early voting in Los Angeles. She also noted poor placement of “signage” that listed voter rights.

Soaries said he was surprised to find that such signage was entirely absent in some early-voting places because such venues were not actually considered polling spots. Since 30 percent of people voted early in the last election, they “did not vote under the conditions that HAVA expects,” Soaries said.

Paul DeGregorio, another Democrat, visited four states on Election Day, including a polling place in the Bronx, where the 14,000 people registered to vote still cast their ballots on 1940s-era lever machines.

In another polling spot close to the World Trade Center site, he said, voters encountered long waits and difficulties when a number of machines jammed and broke down. In Illinois’ Cook County, DeGregorio observed poll workers who did not completely understand the provisional-balloting process.

DeGregorio also encountered at least one “hanging chad” in Missouri’s St. Louis County, where he once served as the director of elections.

Ray Martinez, a Republican EAC appointee, said he encountered particularly long lines at one of the 10 sites he visited in Cleveland. As it turned out, only five of the dozen or so voting stations had actually been set up for voters, because poll workers believed there were not enough electrical outlets to run all of the machines.

After Martinez intervened, the poll workers learned that the machines could be plugged into one another. That helped dissipate the glut of waiting voters.

In a related development, the Government Accountability Office sent word to several Democratic lawmakers last week that it will grant their request to investigate election irregularities in the 2004 election.

Reps. Holt, John Conyers (Mich.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Bobby Scott (Ga.) issued a statement saying they were “pleased” and would provide the investigative arm of Congress with copies of specific incident reports received by their offices, including more than 57,000 complaints that were provided to the House Judiciary Committee.