A September 2002 report by the Election Reform Information Project and the Constitution Project described the our nation’s system of state-based election administration as having “50 states — and hundreds of systems.” Some states are highly centralized and others use several local authorities with little state involvement.
A wide range of persistent problems compromise the integrity of voting. Our compendium of reported problems from this year’s primary elections suggests that such problems have not been alleviated since the 2000 elections. Many of these problems start in voter registration. Incomplete implementation of 1993’s “Motor Voter” law continues to be a problem; many voter registrations done at state agencies are not being correctly processed and are effectively disfranchising legitimate voters in a number of cases. In many cases, these and other problems disproportionately impact the poor and minority voters who rely on these civil services for their voter registration.
Problems at polling places cause different, but no less serious damage. The number of stories about long lines, broken phone connections and overburdened poll workers threatens to become a cliché, but it should be taken very seriously. When some voters have easy access to the polls and others must run a gauntlet of obstacles, we do not have equal access to the right to vote.
One of the recurring problems seen in reviewing the problems from the past year or so of voting is incorrect voter assignment, which was often an indirect result of redistricting required after the 2000 census. This is a challenge that voters and elections officials did not face in the chaotic 2000 elections. Many of the redistricting-related problems were a byproduct of politics; state legislatures and sometimes the courts wrangled over new district boundaries for so long that local officials had little time to prepare for their elections. The repeated stories of voters who could not vote because of changes or mistakes in assigning new polling places sends a dire warning for the upcoming election. If more is not done in the upcoming days to provide options for misassigned voters to ensure they are not deprived of their right to vote, we risk having a large number of people disfranchised in November.
Old voting machines and paper ballots came under intense scrutiny after the 2000 elections, and many communities have started to invest in new election technology as a result. But this poses another challenge for the upcoming election. Again, Florida and Illinois together serve as the canaries in the proverbial coal mine for the rest of the country. And, if the 2002 primary is any indication, American voters are likely to experience serious problems in conjunction with new voting technology.
For example, even after investing in computerized voting systems, Florida’s two most populous counties, Broward and Miami-Dade, experienced problems in this primary that rivaled the problems in the 2000 elections. Some Florida counties avoided these problems with careful planning and training. But many other communities are set to roll out new systems and risk the mass disfranchisement that Florida voters experienced for the second time in as many years.