People For Memo On Election Day '08 Voting Issues

To: Boards of Directors
From: Tanya Clay House and Kathryn Kolbert
Re: Democracy Campaign Update
Date: November 12, 2008

While the votes in some contests are still being counted, there is little doubt that last week’s election was historic and extraordinary. Despite efforts to keep them away from the polls, voters came out in record numbers. And, through coordinated voter outreach, education, training, and protection efforts including People For the American Way Foundation’s large-scale distribution of voter ID toolkits and fliers and voter ID palm cards (in cooperation with key allies such as SEIU and NEA) voters came to the polls armed with the appropriate identification and information to ensure that they would not be disenfranchised. Americans soundly rejected the divisive ideology of the GOP and the Bush administration and voted overwhelmingly for positive change.

Prior to the election, the Right was setting itself up to challenge the integrity of the election. They repeatedly trumped up claims of voter fraud, attacking ACORN and other voter registration efforts and lambasting the Justice Department for its failure to stop this alleged “fraud.” But that effort sputtered when the false claims of voter fraud mushroomed into threats against ACORN workers and vandalism of their offices and
real facts started being reported. With our help and that of concerned media, the country turned its attention to serious concerns about voters being disenfranchised through long lines, errors on the voting roles, and voter suppression and intimidation tactics.

Going forward, there is a need for major election reform, a goal we believe is achievable with a new President and Congress. If successful these reform efforts could one day eliminate the need for Election Protection efforts that People For the American Way Foundation helped found with its coalition allies after the 2000 elections.

Some of the common sense fixes we need are:

  • Universal early voting to help take some of the pressure off on Election Day;
  • Sufficient machines and resources to help eliminate long lines and ensure equal treatment at the polling place;
  • Same day registration, which allows citizens to register and vote on Election Day;
  • Enactment of now President-Elect Barack Obama’s Deceptive Practices and Intimidation Prevention Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), where it passed in June of 2007. The bill makes deceptive practices a felony with a fine as much as $250,000 and five years in prison, and increases the prison sentence for voter intimidation to five years. It also requires the Department of Justice to step in with accurate information when voters are misled and deceptive practices are confirmed; and
  • A Department of Justice committed to the protection of voting rights, with a strong Solicitor General, Civil Rights Division head, and Voting Rights Section head committed to enfranchising Americans

Election Day Problems

While right wing partisans tried to whip up a frenzy over non-existent voter fraud issues, thousands of eligible Americans still experienced challenges at the polls in part due to an organized effort to disenfranchise voters. These challenges included voter purges; voter intimidation and suppression including misleading fliers and misinformation from elections officials; challenges to their right to vote by partisan operatives, and absentee ballot problems. Below is a sampling of the problems reported on in the weeks and months before, and on, November 4:

Voting machine problems

Some polling precincts were plagued by machine problems. At one polling place in Virginia, an early breakdown of the electronic voting machines led to a three hour wait, with no option to vote by a paper ballot.

Voter intimidation and voter suppression

There were reports of voter intimidation in Philadelphia, where men dressed all in black and brandishing nightsticks stationed themselves outside a polling place. Police asked one man to leave, and he did, but another had a poll watcher certificate and was allowed to stay. And in multiple states, there were reports of unwarranted police presence at the polls.

In multiple states, People For Foundation received reports of flyers claiming that the election was moved to November 5. At George Mason University in the battleground state of Virginia, someone hacked the e-mail system to send a message from the provost to all students claiming that Election Day was moved. In at least six states, cell phone text messages were circulated saying that Obama supporters shouldn’t vote until November 5th.

Confusion around acceptable government ID

In Ohio, some voters were forced to vote on provisional ballots if the address on their driver’s license did not match what was on the voter roll, even though that type of match is not a requirement to vote under Ohio State Law.

Suppressing the vote of students

Students at Norfolk State University in Virginia were denied regular ballots because their addresses are all the same their dorm building.

Prior to Election Day

Absentee ballots problems

Voters in Rensselaer County, New York reported absentee ballots printed listing “Barack Osama” as the Democratic candidate for president. Upon discovering the error, officials in the office shredded the remaining erroneous ballots and mailed correct versions to some 300 voters. A county election official said the mistake was made in only one of 13 different versions mailed throughout the county in upstate New York.

Ballot confusion

In North Carolina, the straight ticket ballot option does not include a vote for president, a measure that many expected would yield a high rate of undervotes.

The official North Carolina ballot includes the following statement: “A Straight Party vote is a vote for all candidates of that party in partisan offices. Individual partisan office selections are not necessary if you select a Straight Party below.” However, the presidential race is not included in the list of partisan offices and as such, it is not included in the straight ticket vote. In 1992, this ballot design yielded approximately one percent under votes. The 2008 ballot contains reminders that even if voting straight ticket, one must still cast a separate vote for president, though the ballot instructions are difficult to follow.

Voter Challenges

The Montana Republican Party challenged the eligibility of 6,000 registered voters in the state’s Democratic strongholds Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Lewis and Clark, Deerlodge, Glacier, and Hill Counties. The state GOP matched the statewide voter database with the National Change of Address database to identify voters who aren’t living where they are registered to vote. The Montana Republican Party Executive Director Jacob Eaton subsequently resigned after a firestorm of controversy surrounding the challenges.

Only days before Election Day, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel sent notification to 4,770 voters informing them that their votes would be challenged because they believed the voters were not citizens. Additionally, Handel declared any voter could challenge another voter’s qualifications by simply notifying a precinct poll manager. The challenged voter is then given a “challenge ballot” and has to go before the election board. While most state laws allow for some form of challenges at the polling place, the encouragement by SoS Handel of voters to challenge other voters at the polling place is not only extremely disappointing, but borders on intimidation of eligible voters.

Voter suppression and intimidation

In African American neighborhoods of North and West Philadelphia, an anonymous flier was circulated warning votes that police would be arresting people with outstanding arrest warrants and outstanding traffic tickets at polling places on Election Day. The author of the flier claimed to have been informed of this matter by an Obama supporter.

A Republican group, the Chaffey Community Republican Women, printed a newsletter with a cartoon depicting Obama on a food stamp. The newsletter was sent to approximately 200 members and associates of the group, saying that if Obama is elected, he’ll appear on food stamps rather than dollar bills. Amid controversy surrounding the cartoon, the group’s president sent a letter of apology.

Government ID/Proof of citizenship

Florida recently tightened its voter ID laws with its “No match, no vote” policy and its new law allowing people to challenge the eligibility of voters without having to provide proof for their accusations. The challenged voter has two days to justify his right to cast a ballot.

Lose your home, lose your vote

It was widely reported that the Macomb County, Michigan, Republican Party had plans to use home foreclosure lists to challenge Democratic voters at the polls. On October 20, 2008, a lawsuit brought by the Barack Obama campaign and the DNC was settled, with all parties agreeing not to use foreclosure lists as a basis for challenging voters’ eligibility.

Suppressing the vote of students

At Drexel University in Philadelphia, fliers were found around campus that noted an “Obama supporter” told the author of the flier that police would be on the lookout for criminals at polling places and would be checking IDs and license plates of those going to vote on Election Day. It suggested that those with outstanding traffic tickets would be arrested if they attempted to vote.

Registrars in Colorado, Virginia and South Carolina were wrongly informing students that there could be dire consequences such as losing their dependent status if they register to vote where they attend school. In Blacksburg, Virginia, students at Virginia Tech were incorrectly told that registering at their campus could adversely affect their scholarship eligibility and their tax status as dependents, per a memo from Montgomery County Registrar Randy Wertz. The county registrar has since said that he cannot provide tax advice, and that he did not intend to suppress the vote of students.

Voter purges

The perfect match requirement under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) has had the effect of purging approximately one quarter of Colorado voters. Various voting rights groups such as Common Cause, sought legal action and successfully ensured that the purged voters were put on a protection list, given provisional ballots, and then individually approved by the Secretary of State.

Maintaining the integrity of our electoral process is critical to America’s democratic institutions. We are confident that there is a clear way forward to fully serve the needs of all voters and election officials. Despite the difficulty that many voters still faced before and on Election Day, without the efforts of People For Foundation and its coalition allies through the Election Protection Coalition, many more would have surfaced. We are committed to continuing the outreach, education, and training as long as necessary to protect all voters, while we await adoption of a reform agenda that will ensure voters’ right to vote and to have their vote counted.

If you’d like to speak with our experts on election reform, the problems at the polls, and the response from the right-wing, please contact Stacey Gates at 202-467-4999 or media@pfaw.org.

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