Vote watchdogs warn of troubles on election day

Williams and Levey are Times staff writers.

Counting down to an election day expected to draw a record-shattering turnout, voting-rights watchdogs are sounding the alarm that a repeat of the Florida fiasco of 2000 could occur in any of a dozen battleground states.

Lawsuits are already flying in many of these states.

Voting rights advocates in Colorado, to take just one example, told a federal judge Wednesday that the names of nearly 30,000 voters were recently purged from the state registry in violation of federal law and ought to be restored by election day. In a compromise, those voters will be allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Across the battleground states, where Democrats had a 2-1 advantage in new registrations, voting-rights groups contend the eleventh-hour verifications demanded by Republican officials are attempts to disenfranchise the new voters.


The flood of millions of first-time voters could lead to crowded and contentious polling places across the country, triggering last-minute identity checks that could deny ballots to those whose names or addresses don’t match other government records.

“This one is the meltdown scenario,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Ad vancement Project founded by civil rights lawyers to pursue racial justice.

Common Cause, the American Bar Assn., the League of Women Voters and a phalanx of other public interest groups are urging states to ensure that the polls are adequately staffed to handle an onslaught bolstered by millions of newly registered voters.

Voting advocates are worried about its effect in states like Virginia, which has one of the lowest ratios of voting machines to registered voters.

“Voters will simply walk away if the lines are too long,” warned Susannah Goodman, who directs the election reform program at Common Cause, a campaign reform group based in Washington. “They don’t want to, but they may have a job they have to get to, and they have to go.”

Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act in 2002 in response to the Florida debacle two years earlier. The law provided $3 billion for new equipment and statewide registries, but the sheer volume of new voters has overwhelmed efforts to verify their eligibility.


Litigation brought in recent weeks in Ohio, Georgia, Florida and Colorado may serve to alert voters that they may be challenged. But in many states, the verification methods have created more obstacles than they have removed.

In Florida, an aggressive “no match, no vote” standard has been applied to question whether more than 10,000 of those who have registered since Jan. 1 should be given ballots despite discrepancies between their registration information and other government records, said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause.

Voting rights groups, both nonpartisan and Democrat-aligned, have compiled lists of vulnerable voters and tried to track them down.

“We’re engaged in protecting voters from being disenfranchised by virtue of typos and clerical errors,” said Adam Skaggs, an attorney with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

He said that the likelihood of fraud has been “vastly inflated” and that discrepancies are overwhelmingly the result of innocent mistakes or outdated voter registries.

In Montana, authorities recently sought to drop 6,000 voters from the rolls because of address changes, including soldiers deployed to Iraq, Skaggs noted.


A Brennan Center study of ballot designs found problems in North Carolina, where voters who choose a one-touch straight-party option on voting machines may not notice that the presidential race isn’t included and requires a separate vote. In Ohio, the candidates for the top office are split between two pages, which could lead some voters to invalidate their ballots by choosing one on each.

In Georgia, the voter registry has been scrutinized for potential noncitizen entries, and thousands of people -- most with Latino names -- have been flagged for identity checks if they seek to cast a ballot.

Lawsuits challenging election officials’ plans to deny ballots in cases of mismatches in at least six states have been shot down by the courts. But appeals are in the works, and concerns over access persist in most of the states analysts consider a toss-up.

“I think we’re still going to see a lot of problems, in part because some voters aren’t going to find out until election day that they’ve been dropped from the rolls,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of election law at Loyola Law School. “I expect this to happen in Florida, where they had a very aggressive no match, no vote policy.”

Citing news reports from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Florida, the community activist group ACORN warned last week that Republican officials in those states had hinted at intentions to scan foreclosure filings to identify voters who are no longer living at the address on their registration.

“This shameless challenge adds insult to injury to those who have been hit hardest by the economic crisis,” said ACORN, which itself has been accused of fraudulent registrations.


In response to the flood of early voting problems, the Obama campaign, Cable News Network and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have set up hotlines, with CNN fielding more than 15,000 calls since opening its phone bank on Oct. 15.

While legal challenges loom over denied ballots and voting machine breakdowns, legal experts said they doubted the electoral vote count would hinge on a single state this time, as occurred in Florida in 2000, when 537 votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“The good news story is that it’s very unlikely in any given year that you’re going to have such a close outcome,” said Edward B. Foley, an Ohio State University law professor. Just in case, he has developed a proposal for a nonpartisan arbitration tribunal that could be an alternative to ceding that role to the Supreme Court.

The two presidential campaigns are also preparing to deal with lawsuits over the outcome by joining nonprofit and pro bono attorneys who are fanning out by the thousands to monitor the polls.

The Obama campaign has been urging supporters to vote early as a way to avoid problems. “We think for the most part local election officials have done a good job,” said Jenny Backus, a campaign spokeswoman.

The McCain campaign has focused in recent weeks on attacking ACORN’s voter registration efforts. But spokesman Ben Porritt said the campaign had confidence in most local election officials. “For the most part, these things are handled properly,” he said.


While attention has zeroed in on perceived attempts to deny ballots to certain voters, seasoned election monitors point out that such infringement is rare and usually the result of unintentional human error in a system reliant on lay volunteers.

More pleased than apprehensive over predictions of historic turnout, League of Women Voters President Mary Wilson said the nonprofit was concentrating in the final days on ensuring polls have enough workers and equipment, and was seeking to downplay the obstacles so as not to discourage voters.

“It does no good to be talking about barriers to voting when we’re this close to the election,” she said.

Wilson hailed the improvements in voter registration procedures mandated by the Help America Vote Act but lamented the unanticipated complications imposed by the verification regime.

“A person can leave off a digit from his driver’s license, or a woman who gets married and uses her maiden name as a middle initial -- they’re not going to match,” she said. “Couple that with the fact that the Social Security Administration itself says 28% of the time there’s not going to be a match with its data entry and you can see that some of the things HAVA brought to us turn out to be barriers in their implementation.”

One benefit of the voting reform law, she added, has been the provisional ballot for voters who show up at the polls only to learn their eligibility is in question. These ballots will be counted if voters confirm their identity within 48 hours, whereas many of those challenged in previous elections were turned away.


Courts including the U.S. Supreme Court have so far ruled against screening efforts that could deny access, allaying activists’ worst fears.

“I was really scared,” said Wendy Weiser, who heads the Brennan Center’s voting rights project. “Now, I am cautiously optimistic, or maybe just mildly apprehensive.”




Ballot battles

A state-by-state look at legal actions over voting rights issues:


Voting rights groups sued, asking a federal judge to reinstate 30,000 names purged from the state registry in what they argue was a violation of federal law prohibiting removals within 90 days of a federal election. In a compromise, those stricken will be allowed to cast provisional ballots.


Voter advocacy groups sued last year to challenge a “no match, no vote” law, but failed to revoke it. About 10,000 voters remain on a list flagging them for identity checks on or before election day. The state is also one of five against which the Justice Department has filed complaints alleging misconduct related to minority voting.


A three-judge federal panel ruled that election officials needed Justice Department approval to check voters’ immigration status. The ruling didn’t make clear, though, whether the checks must cease.



A Republican Party lawsuit alleging registration fraud seeks to shut down early voting in four counties.


A federal judge struck down the state’s voter removal program and ordered election officials to cease purging names from the rolls when their voter identification cards were returned by the Postal Service as undeliverable.


A Justice Department complaint alleges misconduct related to minority voting.


After the state Democratic Party sued to halt challenges to the eligibility of 6,000 registered voters, a federal judge deemed the challenges frivolous.


A Justice Department complaint alleges misconduct related to minority voting.


State Republican Party leaders are negotiating with election officials to resolve a dispute over what to do about more than 200,000 voters whose registration data don’t match other records. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled against efforts to strike the names from voter rolls, but the issue was raised again in state courts.


Civil rights groups filed suit asking a federal court to order election officials to have on hand emergency paper ballots on election day in the event that a majority of voting machines become inoperable amid record turnout.


A Justice Department complaint alleges misconduct related to minority voting.


Justice Department complaints allege misconduct related to minority voting and disenfranchisement of overseas military voters.



The NAACP sued Gov. Tim Kaine, alleging that the state failed to prepare adequately to accommodate a record increase in voter registrations. The suit asks the federal courts to put the federal government in charge of the election.


A Dane County judge threw out the state attorney general’s lawsuit demanding that election officials validate the identities of hundreds of thousands of new voters by election day, ruling that the checks weren’t justified by law. An appeal is pending.

Source: Times reporting