Activists Gear Up for Expected Problems at the Polls on Election Day
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 10/31/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Six years after the 2000 election fiasco that disenfranchised more than a million African-Americans, voting advocates and election officials are taking steps to avert any serious problems during Tuesday’s high stakes election.
“We truly have concerns, which is why we’ve been pushing for preparation. It’s because we do believe there’s going to be a lot of chaos at the polls,” says Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive officer of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
“Folks who want to disenfranchise are going to be working overtime to intimidate and suppress Black voters, Hispanic voters, women, seniors, the most vulnerable at the polls.”
Short-staffing at polls because of budget crunches, confusion over new voting machines and other election procedures on Nov. 7, will likely be exacerbated by very close races as Democrats and Republicans compete for control over the House and Senate.
“It’s a very highly contested election. That’s for sure,” says Campbell.
“There’s nothing to make us believe that there are not going to be problems at the polls. A key is giving people what they need in order to do everything they can so that if they’ve got problems, they’ll know it before Election Day.”
Campbell says prospective voters should be clear in advance that they are indeed registered to vote and where they must vote.
Unity ’06, a campaign that has been led by a coalition of major Black organizations convened by the NCBCP for every national election since 2000 provides a national hotline that is available this week and on Election Day to give this information to any voter who calls.
The federal Help America Vote Act has required each state to establish a Voter Registration Database, which Unity ‘06 has made easily accessible by a toll-free number, 1-866-MyVote1 (1-866-698-6831) or at www.mypollingplace.com. The number can also be used for a person to make a complaint about anything that has occurred at a voting poll or if a voter needs legal council.
In some states where races are especially contentious, lawyers, poll monitors and additional volunteers will be at precincts to assist voters in an “Election Protection” program led by the People For the American Way Foundation, the NAACP, and the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, all also accessible through 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
Unity has released a list of “Seven Things You Need to Know Before Election Day to Protect Your Vote.” In addition to whether a person is registered to vote and where to vote, the other five are whether you will be in town on Election Day; whether there are identification requirements for voting in your state; advance knowledge of individual Election Day rights; where to file a complaint if necessary and know that if you arrive at the polls before they close, you still have the right to vote - even with a long line.
Answers to some of the seven items can be researched state by state on www.CanIvote.org, a website compiled by the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Gracia M. Hillman, chair of the bi-partisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission, established by Congress four years ago to oversee the distribution of $3 billion to states for election improvements and the creation of new standards for voting machines, says voters will need all the help they can get.
“Voters may feel overwhelmed. It’s one thing that you’ll have to study what the candidates’ positions are. And if there’s referenda on the ballot; then you’ve got to be knowledgeable about the referenda. And on top of all of that, there are new voting procedures,” says Hillman. “It’s a lot.”
And a lot is at stake.
Currently, Republicans dominate both the House and the Senate. Democrats are striving to win at least 15 seats in the House and at least six in the Senate in order to gain control of Congress. For Blacks, a Democratic majority in the House could mean important committee chairmanships for four members of the Congressional Black Caucus, veteran Congressmen John Conyers (D-Mich.) of the House Judiciary Committee, Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) of the Homeland Security Committee; and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) of the Administration Committee.
All states maintain the right to choose their own voting systems and election procedures, but new voting machines in most states are variations of two systems, says Hillman. One is the optical scan system, in which a voter marks a paper ballot and places it into a scanner that tabulates it. The other is the electronic touch screen, a computerized system requiring only the touch of a voter making selections.
Officials are hoping for smooth processes, but there is evidence of pending trouble.
A report by Electionline.org, a non-partisan, non-advocacy Web site that provides news and analysis on election reform, says that 10 states are at particular risk for problems:
Arizona, where a 2004 court ruling requires proof of citizenship at the polls;
Colorado, where new consolidated voting centers called “voting centers” have replaced neighborhood precincts;
Connecticut, where antiquated lever voting machines still exist - out of compliance with a federal requirement for updated voting technology by Jan. 1, 2006;
Florida, which recently experienced problems auditing totals from new optical scanners and has also changed its voter identification requirement from allowing voters without state or federal identification to sign an affidavit to allowing voters without government-issued I.D.’s to only submit a provisional ballot;
Indiana, which has the most stringent voter identification law in the nation, requiring all voters to present state or federally-issued photo identification at the polls with no other options;
Maryland, where short-staffing and inadequate training is blamed for the mistaken omission of voter access cards from voter packages that resulted in chaos at several precincts during recent primaries;
New York, which failed to meet the federal deadline for creating a statewide voter registration database and for establishing accessible voting machines for the disabled;
Ohio, which faces an election in which Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell recently issued an advisory that said voter identification cards must have their current addresses, a requirement that was contrary to state law. He sought to clarify, but some confusion is still perceived.
Pennsylvania, where activists have filed yet unresolved lawsuits complaining that the paperless voting procedures in some counties caused confusion at the polls in 2004 as people were unable to see clearly how they voted;
Washington state, where King County, the most populous jurisdiction in the state, has moved to touch screen machines for the first time while the remainder of the state operates a vote-by-mail system following a tumultuous gubernatorial race in 2004.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be problems. And it doesn’t necessarily mean there are states not on the list where there might be a problem,” says Sean Greene, research director for the report, “Election Review 2006, What’s Changed, What Hasn’t and Why”.
Greene adds, “Almost all of these states on our 10 states to watch have close races as well. And that is usually the recipe for some sort of post-election problem.”
In most instances, when there is a dispute, provisional ballots can be cast and verified later by voter registrars. But Campbell warns that provisional ballots should not be accepted by voters who are simply confused and need help.
“Know you have a right to request and receive help from poll-workers,” Campbell says.
“What tended to happen in 2004, when there were a lot of long lines and poll workers were overwhelmed, they tended to give people provisional ballots. But, in most places, if you’re in the polling places, you can vote provisionally all you want, your vote doesn’t count. So, if you’re in the wrong polling place, they need to stop long enough to find out where you need to be so you can go to the right precinct.”
Hillman says it normally takes three to 10 days to determine – from a provisional ballot - whether a voter had a right to vote at a particular precinct.
Though even the government expects an imperfect Election Day, Hillman says she is hoping for mutual respect at the polls.
“Voters need to appreciate the fact that the people who run elections across this country are professional people. This is their full time job. They are working very, very hard to absorb all of the changes that the congress has mandated,” she says.
At the same time, says Campbell, even in states where everything seems perfectly prepared, voters should be armed with their rights in case of interference, intentional or unintentional. She says, “It could happen anywhere.”