Glitches Ahead

Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:21pm

Eight years after the 2000 election fiasco in Florida, four years after horrendous voting delays in Ohio — and after Congress has dispensed $3 billion to the states to get the election process right — guess what? It’s still not right.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which blames faulty ballot design for continuing problems, and a front-page New York Times story on Monday, which surveys other factors, such as the likelihood of a massive turnout of first-time voters.

According to the Brennan Center, there are 15,194,000 registered voters living in counties using new voting systems this year. In addition, 29 million voting-age citizens move from one place to another each year. And in just the first three months of 2008, about 3,500,000 voters registered for the first time. That number will balloon, for sure, with this election likely to see by far the biggest turnout in U.S. history.

From 2004 to 2006, Congressional attention focused on the absence of a “paper trail” to verify results recorded on touch-screen voting machines that became all the rage after 2000. This year, a third of voters will use touch screens, down from 38 percent in 2006, while about 55 percent will use paper ballots read by optical-scan machines, up from 49 percent in 2006. Still, most of the 30 states using touch-screen machines don’t provide paper backup.

Attention this year is focusing on ballot design, with the Brennan Center charging that “poor ballot design and instructions have led the to the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters in the last several federal cycles. … A lack of clear and consistent ballot design guidance from federal and state governments contributes to differing … miscast vote rates from county to county, state to state.”

The federal Election Assistance Commission has resources available to states and counties to help them avoid trouble, including recommendations on ballot design and an image library that officials can download for easy adaptation. Whether they will make effective use of the resources is open to question.

Additionally, there’s the big question of personnel. EAC Chairwoman Rosemary Rodriguez told the Times that “so much depends on whether there will be enough poll workers, whether they are trained enough and whether their state and county election directors give them contingency plans and resources to handle the unexpected.”

The EAC predicts that 2 million poll workers will be needed in November, double the number in 2004. In addition, two-thirds of election officials were new to their jobs in 2004 and the number is even greater now.

It’s too late now for Congress to do much to improve chances of smooth voting in 2008. But if it’s rough once more, Congress has got to do more than it’s done so far — especially in making sure poll workers are well-trained.