People For the American Way Foundation

Election Protection: Our Broken Voting System and How to Repair It

Desiline Victor, you are not alone.

A report released on February 12, 2013 by the Election Protection coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pledges to address the “endemic yet solvable problems [that] continue to plague our system of elections and prevent too many eligible voters from fully participating in our democracy.”

The Election Protection 2012 report begins with a brief overview of the national Election Protection program and how we mobilize to protect and assist voters around the country. Next, the report provides a summary of the voting battles fought around the country in 2011 and 2012 in the lead up to Election Day—including the coordinated effort to suppress voting and the national response by Election Protection and its partners. We then highlight the critical role voting rights litigation played in 2012 with courts striking down several restrictive state laws in places like Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Then we present what actually transpired—as documented by Election Protection—on and before Election Day through the lens of the recurring issues that continue to plague our electoral process and prevent millions of eligible Americans from exercising their right to vote. Finally, we propose needed reforms to “fix that” as President Obama decreed in his acceptance speech on Election night and spotlighted in his Inaugural Address.

The numbers alone are astounding.

  • Over 37,000 calls on November 5 and nearly 90,000 calls on November 6 from all 50 states and the District of Columbia
  • Election Protection hosted 38 call centers across the country on Election Day
  • More than 5,300 trained legal volunteers and 2,300 grassroots volunteers in 22 states and over 80 voting jurisdictions

But so are the stories.

Problems and delays regarding absentee and early voting:

Astonishingly, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, over 800 absentee ballots were discovered to be lost in the mail before reaching the voters who requested them. Rather than reach out to the pool of affected voters, election officials waited for voters who did not receive their requested ballots to contact them before issuing a replacement ballot. Similarly, over 100 ballots sent to voters were lost in Roseville, Michigan. The lack of an affirmative effort to replace the lost ballots had a significant impact on the voters who did not receive them, particularly individuals with disabilities, military voters, and elderly voters for whom it may have been difficult or impossible to get to the polling place.

Polling place problems:

Even worse was a report from Blackstone, Virginia, where voters were turned away from the polling place at approximately 5 p.m. – two hours before polls closed. The voter who reported this was told that she would need to vote at the Municipal Building, but upon arrival, she was told that she needed to go to the Police Precinct polling location. Before leaving the Municipal Building, she overheard a conversation that the Police Precinct polling place was understaffed and turning away voters. She waited in line again and ultimately left (as did others) when it became clear that they were not admitting anyone else to vote. She did not get to vote in this election.

Lack of language assistance:

Another poll worker (at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church polling place in New Orleans, Louisiana) was under the erroneous impression that only [Limited English Proficiency (LEP)] voters whose language was covered by Section 203 [of the Voting Rights Act (VRA)] would be able to obtain assistance in voting. Because Vietnamese was not “on the books,” the poll worker incorrectly informed the LEP voters that they were not entitled to assistance. The denial of assistance to these voters was a violation of Section 208 [of the VRA], which allows all LEP voters throughout the U.S. to obtain assistance in voting from a person of their choice (so long as this person is not the voter’s employer, or an agent of the employer or of the voter’s union), regardless of the voters’ language or the jurisdiction’s obligations under Section 203 [of the VRA].

As the report makes clear, these voters were not alone in the challenges they faced. Nor are they alone in the ensuing call to action. Election Protection recommends such solutions as voter registration modernization (addressing convenience and portability), same-day registration, early and absentee voting, uniform standards, and continuing to take a stand against deceptive practices and voter intimidation – advanced, at least in part, through state and federal legislation.

PFAW Foundation, a founding member of Election Protection, released its own voting rights reports in 2011 and 2012 and, with People For the American Way, continues to monitor voting rights issues nationwide.


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