Published on Wednesday, November 24, 2004 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Fundamental Flaws Put Our Voting System at Risk
by Ralph Neas
The notion that the 2004 presidential election ran "smoothly" is a myth. In fact, the system is flawed, and significant barriers to the ballot box remain, especially for minorities and the poor.
Particularly in urban districts with too few voting stations, lines were up to 10 hours long. These excessive bottlenecks disenfranchised untold thousands who could not afford to wait that long and had to return to their jobs or children before reaching the voting booth.
Antiquated, faulty and insufficient equipment was also common in minority and low-income precincts. These problems were frequently compounded by inadequate training and short-staffing of poll workers.
Many hoped we had seen the last of the punch-card machines after their disastrous role in the 2000 election, yet they were used widely this election in Ohio and elsewhere. Punch-card machines are notorious for a high percentage of "spoiled" ballots.
A study found that in the 2000 election voters in predominantly African-American precincts in Ohio - which mostly use punch-card machines - had their ballots discarded at three times the rate of voters in predominantly white precincts, where newer voting equipment is often available. Every indication suggests that voters who used those machines this year were concentrated more heavily in minority and low-income precincts and experienced similar levels of disenfranchisement.
Problems were by no means restricted to punch-card machines. Many electronic voting machines failed to start in the morning and others malfunctioned throughout the day, often resulting in lengthy delays.
Suspicion and confusion surrounding electronic voting machines was widespread. Many voters believed that the machines did not accurately record their choices, or did not record their votes at all. Without a voter-verified paper trail in most places, they were forced to trust the machines, and election officials were left without a means for verifying voter intent in recounts. News that a "glitch" in an electronic voting machine gave President Bush 3,893 extra votes in an Ohio precinct where only 638 voters cast ballots highlights the problem.
Voters were largely uncertain about how to properly cast provisional ballots, and with good reason. Rules on the use of provisional ballots and recording of such votes varied widely from state to state - even from one polling place to the next - and many poll workers were as confused as the voters they were trying to assist.
Many voters requested absentee ballots that arrived too late to use or never arrived at all. To add insult to injury, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, issued a directive to election officials to turn away such voters if they arrived at the polls to cast regular ballots. A judge overturned Blackwell's directive but not before many voters were disenfranchised.
In other cases, voters received voter registration cards and other official materials with inaccurate polling place information. And many voters, new and longtime registrants alike, found that their names were not on the voter rolls.
Election Day was especially trying for voters with disabilities. Many polling places lacked the necessary materials, assistance and accessibility to ensure that disabled Americans could vote.
The good news about this election is that turnout increased substantially - and that tens of thousands of Americans were eager to volunteer time and energy to help voters overcome obstacles to voting and to document continuing problems. Nevertheless, untold thousands were deprived of their right to vote by intimidation, inequities and systemic problems at the polling place and decisions made by election officials that placed barriers between people and the ballot box.
Democracy requires better. Every American should be alarmed by a system that creates or permits voter disenfranchisement, no matter the outcome of any particular race. It is time to find the bipartisan will to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts.
Ralph G. Neas is president of People For the American Way Foundation, a founding member of Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition formed to monitor the election and advocate for electoral reform
© Copyright 2004 Newsday Inc.