Election Watchdogs Gird for Problems Tuesday

Posted October 31, 2008 at 4:49pm

Although state election officials say they’ve got it covered, election watchdogs are warning that a potentially volatile concoction of new voters, wayward poll workers, fickle voting equipment and Mother Nature could boil over Tuesday and threaten the integrity of the results across the country.

“We know there will be long lines. The question is: Will poll workers be trained and will Americans go through those long lines — which could depend on the weather?” Project Vote Executive Director Michael Slater said Friday. “Voting has a bunch of different systems, and at each point there are things that can go wrong and create problems.”

As of late Friday, weather forecasts predicted sunshine on Election Day for key population centers in Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri — all key battlegrounds in races up and down the ballot.

Although they could be exacerbated by the weather, Slater and other poll watchers say nearly all of the potential Election Day problems likely will stem from record voter turnout, primarily by African-Americans, who have registered in record numbers this cycle.

Voting issues “disproportionally affect minorities,” Slater said. “And that’s really true with the entire voting system, in part because minorities in America disproportionally are lower income and have less education.”

“Whenever you have a system that has to work perfectly and you have to fill out forms and follow instructions, some people are going to make mistakes,” he continued. “We have millions and millions of people going through the system each year, even if you have 2 to 3 percent fallout, that adds up to hundreds of thousands of people.”

Florida and other “no match, no vote states,” which require voters to cast provisional ballots if their registrations are flagged when crosschecked with government data, are expected to cause the most headaches Tuesday.

The Campaign Legal Center’s Gerry Hebert said 10,000 potential voters in Florida could be forced to cast provisional ballots because of misspellings and other database inconsistencies. But a bigger concern, Hebert said, is untrained polling-place volunteers who are not versed in exactly what documents voters must show to cast a ballot.

“You’re going to see some complaints over people imposing rules that they think are required by law but they’re not — for example, you have to have a driver’s license, which is not the case in most states,” Hebert said.

Even more, Slater said there is evidence that poll workers more frequently require black voters and other minorities to show identification when state law does not require it. In addition to the Sunshine State, he said this could be a potential issue in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Arizona.

“If you have tiers of options, poll workers sometimes apply the strictest one to people of color,” Slater said. “That’s going to be a real issue.”

But election officials in key battlegrounds say they are doing everything possible to prevent long lines and potential mishaps, primarily by encouraging voters to cast their ballots early.

In Ohio, where there is a 16 percent minority population, voters are allowed to cast their ballots absentee, no questions asked. According to Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, 1.5 million people have requested absentee ballots and state officials expect 25 percent of them to be cast.

“It’s clear that as people understand the convenience of absentee voting. They are making that their choice,” Ortega said.

So far, Ortega said in-person early voting has proceeded “without incident,”other than a handful of issues on the first day of voting. To boost voter confidence, Ortega said that backup paper ballots will be available where electronic touch-screen machines are used and that poll-goers may also cast their ballots on optical scan voting equipment.

Reports of long lines have streamed out of Colorado, where election officials also are hoping early voting will alleviate long Election Day lines. According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Web site, 993,542 early ballots have been issued and 298,029 have been cast.

In Virginia, voters have already cast more than 312,000 absentee ballots and state election officials have developed “Plans A, B, C and D” to mitigate any Election Day emergencies. One potential hiccup in the Old Dominion, however, could be whether voters in the state, which does not allow early voting, qualify to vote absentee.

A state official downplayed any confusion.

“I think if they want to vote, they’ll go and vote on Election Day,” Virginia State Board of Elections spokeswoman Jessica Lane said.