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Election 2004 and HAVA: what next?

On television and in newspapers across the country, we saw countless photos of long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots. This was Election 2004, both during early balloting and on Election Day. The biggest news item--long lines and long waits. In addition, voters encountered polls that opened hours late and other inadequate polling place procedures and problems with voter registration systems, provisional ballots and voting machines. At the same time, however, voter participation was higher with voter mobilization (see youth vote sidebar, p. 6) and voter protection making big contributions.

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Overall, as LWVUS President Kay J. Maxwell noted, "this was far from a perfect election ... the election system showed signs of stress and voters faced real problems." In the months before Election Day trouble was brewing, and on Election Day (see sidebars on LWV pre-election HAVA survey, p. 5; election protection, p. 7; and League Election Day survey, p. 6) with so many voters turning out, serious difficulties arose that accentuated failures in the voter registration system; problems stemming from the lack of standardization of rules for casting and counting of provisional and absentee ballots; inadequate polling place procedures, including poll worker related problems; and problematic voting machine operations.

Long Lines

The major new issue emerging from Election 2004 is long lines. Voters stood in line for more than two hours in many jurisdictions across the country, in both battleground and non-battleground states. And, there is no count of how many voters didn't vote because of the long lines. USA Today reported that one polling place in Gambier, OH, did not close until 4 a.m. to accommodate 1,179 voters on two machines.

Factors being examined as likely causes for long lines and waits are inaccuracies in voter registration databases, not enough voting machines, poorly organized and inadequately staffed polling places, special needs arising from registration problems, and large numbers of provisional ballots being cast.

Reform of polling place operations is in order given reports of multiple lines at polling places with some lines empty or very short, while others were long. Perhaps the alphabetical division in lines needs to be adjusted based on the actual names on the rolls for a given precinct. There were numerous cases in which there were too few machines for the number of voters assigned to a particular polling place. Some have noted that long lines were seen more often in minority and student precincts than rural and suburban ones. Was this the case? If so, it is imperative that there be a thorough examination of such cases as well as all the causes for long lines. Whatever caused the long lines, asking voters to wait several hours to vote poses an unacceptable barrier to citizen participation.

Voter Registration

Voter registration problems were evident in the months preceding Election Day. The issue of applicants not checking a box affirming citizenship, although they affirmed citizenship upon signing the form, arose in some stares including Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Washington. But the biggest problem appears to be the inaccurate voter registration databases themselves. There were questions about proper processing of applications as well as inaccurate list maintenance procedures. Some of these issues were still being resolved in late October, along with challenges regarding the eligibility of newly registered voters. The huge number of new voter registrations, a cause for celebration, nevertheless created difficulties in many states as registrars worked overtime to input new voters in time for Election Day.

By 2006, all states are required to implement statewide registration databases. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has made providing guidance on these databases one of its top priorities. There are serious issues that need to be resolved along the way, including privacy concerns and the interface of various databases, including those from the Department of Motor Vehicles and public assistance and disability agencies. Accurate list maintenance procedures must be implemented as well. These include timely notice to voters before removing them from the rolls and setting an early deadline for these procedures so that errors can be corrected before Election Day. Also, communications systems should be provided on Election Day between each polling place and the registrar's central office to ensure accurate voter and polling place information. (See the League's monograph, Helping America Vote: Safeguarding the Vote.)

"Non-traditional" ballots

The provisional ballot, a new federal requirement for 2004 to help avoid the turning away of voters, was a big positive in this election--hundreds of thousands cast their vote using provisional ballots. As early as August 2003, the League, concerned about problems that could arise in the implementation of this new requirement, reached out to elections officials. In Helping America Vote: A Guide to Implementing the New Federal Provisional Ballot Requirement, the League presented the problems and questions likely to arise and suggested some states' "model practices," in the hope that states would be more prepared.

Despite these early efforts by the League and some state officials, nationwide implementation of this valuable reform was problematic. To begin with, the rules for provisional ballots are not uniform across the country, and state guidance to local elections officials was often slow and late. In addition, some states would not count a provisional ballot cast outside the "home" precinct, while others would. Without intervention and litigation, for example, more than 121,000 voters in Ohio would not have had their votes counted (see sidebar on HAVA implementation survey, above).

Provisional ballots definitely eased voter registration problems since voters who were not listed in registration rolls could request such ballots and cast their vote. However, large numbers of provisional ballots did mean delays in final vote tallies as states determined each voter's eligibility before counting their provisional ballot.

Absentee ballots, another "non-traditional" ballot, also saw problems. There were numerous reports of not only overseas citizens failing to receive their ballots in a timely fashion, but other voters within the 50 states, particularly students, sharing the same fate.

Finally, in those states that had "early voting," there were long lines and questions arose about the number of polling places matching the voting population size. This election we saw an increase in the use of this method of voting.

The EAC considers provisional ballots one of its high priorities and is holding hearings. It plans to issue voluntary guidelines. Providing a "federal" provisional ballot for Presidential and Congressional races is one way of assuring that no voter is disenfranchised for going to the "wrong" polling place. Full transparency of the process of counting provisional and absentee ballots, including informing the public of the number of each type of ballot issued and counted in each jurisdiction, is also needed. Finally, voter eligibility, not administrative convenience, should be the test for issuing and counting ballots.

Polling Places

The two-hour, and even eight-hour, waits voters endured in 2004 clearly underscore the need for improvement in polling place operations, whether in basic organization, staffing, or the number and reliability of voting machines.

Clearly, better programs to recruit, train and appreciate poll workers must be created. Local governments, companies and community organizations could be encouraged to establish innovative programs. Recruitment of poll workers from underrepresented communities could add to the numbers. Some communities have trained students and rewarded them in tangible ways for working at the polls. Flexible working hours for poll workers is still not prevalent. Effective training on the proper rules for non-discriminatory application of ID requirements, issuance of provisional ballots and operation of voting machines should be addressed.

Finally, we must educate voters in advance about what they can expect at their polling places. The League's highly successful 5 Things project (see our October 2004 issue and our November e-newsletter) is an excellent example of such voter education.

Voting Systems

In election 2004, most voters used the same machines as in 2000. And, there were issues that surfaced with all machines--lever, punch card, electronic and optical scan. No machine was exempt. Whatever the machine, there were problems; problems that could have been avoided and should be identified, examined and remedied before the next election.

All machines should meet federal qualifications and state certification standards (see "Safeguarding Your Vote" in our October 2004 issue). Management safeguards and testing of all machines should be instituted. And there should be cooperation with design and usability professionals to ensure ballot readability and proper design and operation of the machines. Finally, voters need advance training as do poll workers.

What Next?

It is apparent that there is much work ahead for everyone, including the EAC, congressional oversight, state and local elections officials, and voter advocacy organizations if the mid-term and the 2008 elections are to see needed improvements. The League has already started the process and is prepared to work with partners and other organizations, and federal, state and local government officials, including the EAC, to identify and remedy all voting problems. Safeguarding the vote is the League's business and the League is definitely open for business.

VOTER LINKS

* www.lwv.org

* www.lawyerscomm.org

* www.newvotersproject.org

RELATED ARTICLE: LWV Survey of HAVA Implementation

In April 2004, the League of Women Voters began a survey of local and state election officials in a number of targeted states to identify potential problems that could put the votes of eligible voters at risk. We asked specific, detailed questions about the implementation of key components of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA): changes in voter registration procedures: the issuing, casting and counting of provisional ballots; and new voter identification requirements.

The survey uncovered several risks facing eligible voters in 2004, and helped to frame debate on policies that came under intense scrutiny before Election Day. Armed with this information, the League reached out to state officials including attorneys general, governors and state legislative leaders to push for a resolution prior to the election. League leaders in various states provided critical access to information and were at the forefront of high-profile battles over the implementation of the new federal law.

The League's efforts had clear impact. Six key states--Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, Washington and Michigan--changed their policy regarding incomplete voter registrations forms, allowing voters to provide missing information on Election Day. In addition, election officials in ten states were prompted by the survey to clarify their positions in writing.

Many of the risks uncovered by the survey were the subject of lawsuits in key states:

(1) High numbers of eligible voters' registration applications were rejected.

(2) Discriminatory application of the ID requirements was a problem.

(3) Restrictive interpretations of the new provisional ballot safeguard resulted in ballots of eligible voters not being counted.

Several key issues regarding implementation landed in state and federal courts just days prior to the election. While those decisions may or may not be appealed, questions raised in those suits remain to be fully resolved. One of the results of litigation by the LWV of Ohio was that more than 156,000 provisional ballots were issued, contrary to earlier rulings by the Ohio Secretary of State, and more than 121,000 were accepted as valid and counted!

Submitted by Jennifer Collins-Foley and Tracy Warren.

RELATED ARTICLE: League Election Day Survey

Every Election Day, Leagues across the country are known as the go-to resource for voters and other interested parties, including the press, who are looking for election information. This year was no exception. Prior to Election Day, the League at all levels was highly visible fighting for reforms and seeing that they were implemented. On Election Day, Leagues in nine states (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania) worked with the LWVUS to pull together useful information about how the election process was functioning, especially in regard to the important HAVA reforms.

Participating local Leagues gathered information on how long people waited in line to vote; whether or not directions were posted at the polling place, voters were being turned away, poll workers were applying ID requirements in a uniform and nondiscriminatory fashion, the polls opened on time; and much more. Their findings were communicated to the LWVUS once or twice on Election Day. This provided the LWVUS and state Leagues with valuable insight into what voters were experiencing on Election Day. The number one observation of participating League volunteers was that there were long lines at nearly every polling place they observed. Volunteers attributed the long lines to too few voting machines, poor polling place layout and high voter turnout. Numerous other voting irregularities were also reported.

At the same time, the LWVUS ran an online survey to collect information directly from voters regarding their experience at the polls. The goal was to learn what voters themselves were finding at the polling place and what the impact was on them and their perception of the electoral system. More than 4,500 voters from all 50 states and the District of Columbia shared their experiences. Overall, they reported that their personal voting experience was positive. However, despite this positive experience, these same voters reported a low level of confidence in the voting process.

Submitted by Jeanette Senecal, LWVUS senior manager for Elections.

RELATED ARTICLE: Youth Vote: 21 Million Strong

Contrary to the gloomy, early post-election reports of no change in youth vote turnout, the 18 to 29 age group turnout was huge--an increase of 9.3% over the youth vote turnout in 2000. One reason for the early gloom was that the total eligible voting population turnout was also larger so the percentage of youth voters within that context did not show the dramatic increase.

The successful turnout of an additional 4.6 million young voters over the 2000 count resulted from an historic effort to mobilize youth by hundreds of organizations and coalitions across the country, including the League of Women Voters, Youth Vote Coalition and the Hip Hop Summit Action. Groups such as the PIRGs' New Voters Project, MTV's Choose or Lose, Rock The Vote, Citizen Change, World Wrestling Entertainment and Declare Yourself spent an estimated $40 million--a very small amount in the scheme of overall campaign spending--to achieve impressive results.

Efforts ranged from high profile media events to grassroots, on-the-ground, peer-to-peer mobilization of young people. Many of the organizers credit their success on Election Day to collaboration over the past several years and the work on the ground. For example, more than three million young people downloaded registration forms from or were registered by volunteers from hundreds of organizations like those listed above. And then, many of these new voters received a knock on the door or a phone call from a local organizer with one of these groups just before and on Election Day. It was a coordinated group effort that did the trick.

The historic increase in turnout of young Americans has sparked increased attention from the media and from partisan campaigns. Many are asking: "What's next for this new generation of voters?" What's certain is that there will be a lot more attention paid to young voters. Republican pollster Frank Luntz put it this way, "2004 ushered America into a brave new world where young people not only talk the talk, but vote. Never again will the parties or candidates be able to take that segment of the population for granted."

Submitted by Ivan Frishberg, Communications and Outreach director. The State PIRGs' New Voters Project.

RELATED ARTICLE: Protecting the Voter

On Election Day, major media sources suggested that all had gone well at the polls with no significant voting irregularities to report. Meanwhile, a different story was unfolding on the Election Protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE. More than 140,000 calls from embattled and determined voters across the nation flooded the hotline with reports, including registration mistakes or omissions, absentee and provisional ballot problems, polls opening late and closing early, voting rights abuses, problems with voting machines of all types, and voter suppression tactics in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

The hotline also received calls from county election officials, election judges and poll workers seeking guidance on federal and state election laws. Overall, the hotline provided assistance to some 205,000 callers from the Early Voting period to poll closings on Election Day.

Of the barriers encountered by voters, the largest number came from registration related issues. Tens of thousands of calls were received from concerned voters across the country who never received their registration cards or who had other problems related to voter registration systems. Absentee balloting was the second largest problem. Faulty distribution of absentee ballots placed many voters, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, at risk of disenfranchisement. In Broward County, Florida, for example, over 57,000 voters did not receive requested absentee ballots. In addition, polling place problems, voting machine problems with lever, punch card, electronic and optical scan machines, and problems with provisional balloting were reported. Significant acts of voter intimidation were also reported. Finally, there were very large numbers of inquiries about proper polling place locations. Currently, the number of reports is climbing as Election Protection continues to log hundreds of incident reports from the election period into the Election Incident Reporting System (EIRS).

Acts of voter intimidation were evident throughout the election period, becoming more pervasive on Election Day. "Dirty Tricks" flyers were distributed within predominantly minority neighborhoods misidentifying polling places, publicizing Election Day as November 4th and threatening voters with legal action should they vote. One Milwaukee flyer, purportedly from the Milwaukee Black Voters League warned voters that "if you've ever been found guilty of anything, even a traffic violation, you can get 10 years in prison and your children will be taken away."

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law a lead organization of Election Protection, and its coalition partners including the League of Women Voters, conducted empowerment programs educating voters about their voting rights. Poll monitors and legal experts, an unprecedented 25,000 volunteers, were stationed at polling places nationwide and implemented the voting rights hotline, providing voters in all 50 states with immediate assistance. When frustrated voters reported the failure of Ohio election officials to provide absentee ballots thereby disenfranchising thousands of citizens, Election Protection immediately filed litigation allowing Ohio voters to cast provisional ballots on Election Day. Election Protection also defeated widespread racially targeted voter challenges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida.

For the first time, the Election Protection Coalition documented the systemic failures of the U.S. electoral process and the pervasive threats that disenfranchise voters. The Election Incident Reporting System has catalogued tens of thousands of incidents of voting barriers. The Lawyers' Committee will use this documented evidence to make a strong case for electoral reform. A report, due early this year, will outline the problems of the 2004 election.

Submitted by Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
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Author:Ponomareff, Shirley Tabata
Publication:National Voter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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