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Friday, 25 January 2013 07:39

America's Electile Dysfunction

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The hanging chad may be a relic from the not too distant past, but anyone who waited in line for hours to cast their vote, anyone who thought they were legitimately registered but were forced to cast a provisional ballot because their name wasn’t on the voter rolls, or anyone who found that their polling place may have been changed at the last minute, knows that year after year and election after election, we still can’t the voting process right.

During his election night victory speech, President Barack Obama acknowledged as much by referring to the long lines experienced by thousands of voters, and saying, “by the way, we have to fix that.”

“The breakdowns that most bedeviled election officials and led to problems for voters in 2012 were not new: chronic problems with our antiquated voter registration system that result in voters being denied their right to vote, woefully undertrained poll workers misapplying voter ID and provisional ballot laws, mismanaged and chaotic polling sites, last minute changes to polling locations that result in voter confusion over where to vote, problems with absentee voting, long lines, failing voting machines, and deceptive and intimidating practices,” a December 2012 report by the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition -- led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – titled Election Protection 2012: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Plaguing the American Voter (.pdf file), maintained.

As the report pointed out, Election Day snafus are nothing new; a rudimentary “understanding of recent history, or a quick read of Election Protection’s previous four post-election reports” lead to an inevitable conclusion; America’s electoral process needs to be fixed.

GOP-sponsored voter suppression

Instead of dealing with some of these long-term problems, “politicians
in states across the country” went an even more restrictive route, choosing to pass “unnecessary
and restrictive forms of voter identification
and other suspect voting procedures and
requirements, putting the votes of up to 25
million Americans at risk.”

Thirteen state legislatures passed restrictive voting measures. “Five governors (Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, and New Hampshire) vetoed restrictive photo ID laws. Three-judge panels in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to Texas’s photo ID law, as well as to Florida’s restrictions on early voting.

“A federal court in Florida also blocked the state’s new restrictions on community voter registration. South Carolina was required to substantially modify its photo ID law in order to obtain Section 5 preclearance from the D.C. Court, which did not permit the law’s use in the 2012 election. Wisconsin’s photo ID law was blocked in state courts, and the Pennsylvania state courts ruled that poll workers could request photo identification, but voters were not required to show it in the 2012 election.”

Although these voter suppression measures were staved off November, they are likely to re-emerge in the 2014 off-year election.

Leading up to the November election, voter suppression and intimidation efforts were only limiting by the perpetrator’s imagination: voters in Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia “were reporting that they received live phone calls falsely telling them that they could vote over the phone”; E-mail and social networking in several states advised voters against straight ticket voting; “dozens of anonymously financed billboards appeared in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Wisconsin and Ohio, bearing a picture of a gavel and menacingly stating that “VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY! Up to 3 1⁄2 YRS & $10,000 Fine.”

The placement of these billboards in black communities weren’t merely a friendly reminder, the report pointed out. Rather it “was a tragic example of history repeating itself. These billboards falsely stigmatized these communities by suggesting that their voters were likely to commit voter fraud. It was a clear, racially motivated intimidation tactic that attempted to instill fear and dissuade eligible Americans from voting.” The billboards were eventually removed.

Access, inadequate planning and loss of confidence in the process

While suppressing the vote was a Republican Party strategy that at least for this past election failed, the electoral system itself is riddled with holes. Election Protection 2012 divided the longer term problems it has found into three categories: “1) access to the ballot; 2) inadequate planning and implementation for elections; which result in 3) a lack of confidence in the integrity of the voting process.”

The report pointed out that “The problems of access to the ballot are wide ranging” and include: “Registered Voters Missing From Poll Books”; “Registered Voters Denied Early Vote Opportunities”; “Absentee Ballots Lost in Mail”; “Disabled Voters Denied Accommodations”; “Language Assistance Unavailable.”

Although it is unclear as to what the turnout will be for any given election, the report noted that many of the Election Day “problems … can be traced to inadequate planning and preparation for heavy voter turnout.” In Florida, where early voting was reduced from 14 to eight days, voters across the state “faced incredibly long lines” both at early voting polling places and on Election day itself.

Millions of voters in New York and New Jersey were impacted by Hurricane Sandy: “States along the East Coast tried to improvise with measures to accommodate voters affected by Sandy, but New Jersey and New York voters nonetheless suffered due to the fact that both states have limited absentee and early vote options, and emergency planning did not extend to voting.”

In addition, the report noted that there aren’t enough poll workers and many of those workers are poorly trained, our voter registration system is “antiquated,” and there are not enough voting machines and many of them malfunction.

A lack of confidence in the integrity of our voting process is perhaps the most harmful to democracy as it discourages voters to even bother casting their ballots. As the report maintained, “Unfortunately, the problems that lead to lack of confidence are infecting every aspect of the voting process and often start before voting even begins.”

Election 2012 saw: a “Proliferation of Deceptive Practices”; “Absentee Ballot Errors”; and a “Misapplication of Voter ID Laws.”

Sometime this year, Election Protection “will release an indepth report detailing further not only the problems faced by voters but also making the case that now is the time for Congress, in a bi-partisan fashion, to set our country on the course to a truly accessible and secure system of elections.”

A New York Times post-election editorial -- dated November 20 – took a shot at suggesting several common sense remedies. These included: “Mak[ing] it easier to vote” – “Congress … has the power to establish a nonpartisan federal elections board to maintain a national registration database, mandate the choice of voting machines and set standards for counting provisional ballots”;  and, “Remov[ing] the barriers” – “Republicans” should “give up” their “misguided and offensive” voter suppression efforts.”

The editorial also suggested that it was necessary to “Dilute the power of money.” Although it would take a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, “A bill introduced by House Democrats would sever the informal relationships between ‘super PACs’ and the candidates they support, and use federal matching money to encourage small contributions to presidential and Congressional candidates. It also remains vital for Congress to pass the Disclose Act and eliminate the use of secret campaign donations.”