Voting rights advocates: reform needed

Voting rights organizations had warned for months that thousands of voters across the country mighbe disenfranchised by problems related to anticipated high turnout or actions that lessened participation of specific groups of voters. While they focused on protecting the vote, they also looked ahead to future fundamental reforms.

An Election Day telephone briefing by Common Cause — a leading partner in the very broad Election Protection coalition — provided a snapshot of problems and successes on Nov. 4.

While predicted problems did occur, including deceptive practices, confusion over identification rules and in several states, insufficient machines and paper ballots, Tova Wang, Common Cause’s vice president for research, reported that many difficulties “were being addressed rapidly” by the coalition.

In Ohio, Wang and others said, the election appeared to go much more smoothly than in 2004. The Board of Elections and secretary of state responded quickly to isolated serious issues involving provisional ballots and identification requirements, and the situation improved as the day progressed.

North Carolina also experienced a much smoother election this year, largely because of an extensive early voting period with same day registration, coalition members said.

The Coalition countered deceptive robo-calls to Virginia and Pennsylvania voters with a robo-call featuring actor and civil rights activist Danny Glover, who advised voters to check any claims with their election hotline.

Asked about basic reforms, Wang cited the need for a deceptive practices act at federal and state levels, as well as a universal voter registration system including same day registration. Common Cause’s president, Bob Edgar, said the coalition will work with the new administration to reform the primary election process and the financing of presidential elections.

Other organizations are urging a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all citizens “a fair, equal and inclusive voice in our democracy,” as well as a uniform federal system of voter registration, registration as part of the 2010 census process and implementation of the federal requirement that public assistance offices register voters.

Before the election, the Advancement Project, a national voter protection organization, had pointed to problems with misallocation of resources, including sending fewer voting machines and/or poll workers to precincts with a high proportion of minority voters.

In some cases, the Project said, groups of citizens were specifically targeted. Voting rights groups last week won a preliminary federal court injunction against Georgia’s Secretary of State over the misuse of a database matching process to challenge naturalized citizens even after they provided proof of citizenship.

Military voters overseas, including the 184,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, also faced hurdles in casting their ballots. National Public Radio reported this week that though the mechanics of military voting have improved, many servicemembers still did not receive ballots, or were sent the wrong ballots.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said in a telephone interview that the Department of Veterans Affairs appears to have disenfranchised tens of thousands of disabled veterans living in VA nursing homes by failing to register them to vote. He also cited “the lack of voting assistance provided by the military to our servicemembers deployed overseas.”

Many organizations, including the ACLU, NAACP, AFL-CIO and others, launched pre-election “voter empowerment” programs. The ACLU distributed nearly half a million cards in 32 states. The cards, in eight languages, let voters report complaints including access to the polls, equipment problems and discriminatory or illegal election practices.

The NAACP asked state election officials to report what they had done to assure sufficient voting machines, ballots and poll workers, and to prevent intimidation and improper purges of voters. The NAACP’s Youth and College Division launched a “Vote Hard” bus tour to educate and mobilize voters in four southern states.

The AFL-CIO’s My Vote, My Right project brought together union activists, lawyers, civil rights and faith organizations to trouble-shoot Election Day problems and issues.

mbechtel@pww.org