Making Every Vote Count

Phoebe Connelly

This year’s presidential election has spurred massive registration drives. States are hiring extra help to process applications and to implement new procedures required under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by Congress in 2002. But will these new voters have their day at the polls?

States were required to comply with two HAVA mandates by January 2004: provisional balloting and ID requirements for first-time voters registered by mail. However, reports by the Election Reform Information Project and the National Conference of State Legislatures show that implementation was slow in coming, leaving poll workers throughout the United States woefully under-trained to deal with the changes.

Add ongoing patterns of Republican secretaries of state disenfranchising voters to this mix, and you have a recipe for Election Day chaos.

While election irregularities in Florida received the lion’s share of attention in 2000, voting problems, often concentrated in minority communities, plagued many states. In Chicago, for instance, 7 percent of votes cast went uncounted due to ballot errors, and in minority precincts the percentage was as high as 17 percent. In the 2004 South Dakota primary, a different HAVA-induced problem surfaced: Native Americans were prevented from voting after they failed to provide photo IDs, a requirement not mandated by state or federal law.

Irregularities that result in spoiled ballots will mean everything in this close presidential race. Voters and poll workers need guidance on November 2, and several groups are gearing up to provide it.

Educating voters

The following groups are making voting rights information accessible to voters before they get to the polls.

  • ACLU (www​.aclu​.org/vote): The ACLU Voting Rights Project has produced voter empowerment cards for 12 states and will add other states up until the election. It also provides regular updates about efforts to protect the votes of minorities and ex-felons.
  • Project Vote Smart (www​.vote​-smart​.org): Project Vote Smart’s site provides links and contact information for all the states’ boards of election, as well as voter registration requirements.
  • League of Women Voters (www​.lwv​.org): The League has long been respected for its nonpartisan voter guides. During this election, the League also produced a brochure, 5 Things You Need to Know on Election Day. 
  • Election Reform Information Project (www​.elec​tion​line​.org): This project of the University of Richmond and The Pew Charitable Trusts administers elec​tion​line​.org, a nonpartisan Web site that analyzes and reports on election reform efforts. The site provides breaking news about election reforms around the country and a state-by-state breakdown of HAVA implementation.
Observing the polls

The following groups are organizing and deploying teams of poll monitors (also called poll watchers) to observe the election. For the first time international organizations will participate in these efforts.

  • Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (www​.osce​.org): The OSCE is a 55-nation regional security organization that encourages member nations to monitor each other’s elections, and has sent delegations to observe elections in Britain and France. The OSCE will send a delegation of 75 observers to monitor the U.S. presidential election in response to requests for international observation by a group of congressional leaders headed by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D‑Texas). We owe our efforts to improve upon our democracy not only to Americans but also to the rest of the world,” Johnson says. The world looks to the United States as a role model for freedom and justice.”
  • Global Exchange (www​.fair​elec​tion​.us): Global Exchange, an international human rights organization based in San Francisco, is sponsoring Fair Election: International Election Observation 2004. The effort began September 14, when a 20-member delegation — including Horacio Boneo, an Argentine professor who is one of the United Nations’ top advisors on elections, and Brigalia Bam, who chairs South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission — visited the United States to examine the state of voting procedures. During election week, an eight-person delegation will visit polling sites and conduct interviews with voters. 
  • Election Protection (www​.elec​tion​pro​tec​tion2004​.org): A coalition of groups led by People for the American Way, Election Protection 2004 is training and deploying 25,000 poll monitors throughout the United States. They are distributing Voters’ Bills of Rights” and staffing a toll-free number 866-OUR-VOTE (8666878683) to answer registration and voting questions. Monitoring is focused in states where minority communities have been disproportionately disenfranchised in the past.

What you’re really talking about is credibility and acceptability,” said Terence Humphreys, an election observer with Global Exchange. What appears to have happened is that the 2000 elections were not acceptable to a large number of U.S. citizens. … observation is one way to help make them more credible.”

Phoebe Connelly, a former managing editor at In These Times, is Web Editor at The American Prospect.
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