Unstuffing the Ballot Box

The right is working to change voting rules. Advocates and ordinary citizens are pushing back.


| July-August 2006


In the 2004 election, 126 million Americans voted, up a staggering 15 million from 2000, and voter registration soared to 72 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Call it the silver lining in the divisive Bush presidency, a tribute to registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns by political parties and ideological groups ranging from progressives to evangelical conservatives.

But since then, the right has sought to consolidate its gains and cripple the left’s successes at the ballot box. The chief vehicle is state-by-state legislation to stiffen photo ID requirements for registration and voting—supposedly to reduce fraud that even proponents allow is minimal, while fundamentally erecting a huge barrier for millions of voters who don’t drive or have recently moved: people in urban areas, seniors, minorities, and the disabled. Not surprisingly, those groups are among the electorate’s most progressive.

Thanks to John Kerry’s quick concession, 2004’s troubles were swept away like so many fallen chads. But that election was rife with problems that could well be repeated in this fall’s midterm elections and in 2008:

  • In Ohio—2004’s Florida—voters in poorer areas found far too few voting machines, subjecting them to the “three-hour poll tax” and discouraging unknown numbers from voting. No federal legislation exists to mandate a minimum ratio of reliable machines to registered voters, and state minimums are often inadequate to handle large voter turnout.
  • Partisan secretaries of state, charged with monitoring the election system, actively discouraged turnout. In Ohio, current Republican gubernatorial nominee Kenneth Blackwell initially disqualified voter registrations that weren’t on 80-pound card stock until a public uproar caused Blackwell, who was then secretary of state, to reverse the ruling. Katherine Harris’ Florida successor, Sue Cobb, ordered registration forms trashed because applicants failed to check a box indicating they were citizens, even though they signed a statement elsewhere on the form attesting to the fact. In Minnesota, Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer demanded that local officials post warnings that terrorists might attack polling places. In Ohio, a referendum to take away such power from partisan officials (Blackwell also co-chaired his state’s 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign) failed in November 2005.
  • In North Carolina, a new electronic voting machine lost more than 4,500 votes; without a verifiable paper record of ballots cast, at least one close state race was thrown into chaos. Nationally, VoteProject.org tallied more than 1,000 “machine problem” complaints, and despite millions of federal, state, and local dollars spent on new electronic machines since 2000, many that will be used again in 2008 are susceptible to hacking, result-switching, and faulty vote-tallying equipment—making their lack of a paper trail truly frightening.
  • In the state that became election reform’s poster child, Florida, GOP governor Jeb Bush installed in Democratic Broward County a Republican elections supervisor who came under fire after 58,000 absentee ballots disappeared in the mail in the 2004 race. Many replacement ballots were issued too late to be counted. Nothing has been done to prevent a reoccurrence.

“What we learned after Florida and Ohio is that election protection needs to be 24/7 and aware of all aspects of the threat to voting rights,” says Mark Ritchie, who coordinated the wildly successful November 2 Campaign, a consortium of nonprofit groups that registered 5 million voters in 2004. “We’re seeing more and more networks of state-based groups that are fighting for good legislation and getting the public involved.”

Citizen voices have been remarkably effective at turning back some of the worst abuses and advancing the best reforms. Because states and localities administer elections (as Florida proved), the voter-rights movements have sprung up in nearly every state. Good lists of issues and groups in your state can be found at www.electionline.org and www.voteraction.org.

In Minnesota, the Voting Rights Coalition—which yoked traditional volunteer groups such as the League of Women Voters to progressive-action groups—got model legislation passed in 2005 to block voter-intimidation efforts. The bill outlaws tactics such as importing out-of-state challengers to harass voters at polling places and requires challengers to have personal knowledge that an individual isn’t eligible. It also allows employees at nursing homes, shelters for battered women and the homeless, and other licensed residential facilities to vouch for residents, allowing them to vote.