Dec. 11, 2004 – While scrutiny over election problems has focused on Ohio in recent weeks, a preliminary report released this week by a coalition of voter advocacy groups details widespread disenfranchisement and suppression across the country before and during this yearâ€™s presidential election.
"The idea that the election ran smoothly, the idea that the problems we saw in 2000 did not recur in 2004, is simply a crock," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way Foundation, quoted in a press statement about the release of the report. "Too many people faced too many barriers to the ballot box, from impossibly long lines to outright voter intimidation and misinformation," he said. "Itâ€™s time to shatter the myth and work toward an election system that is more fair and more reliable for every American."
The report, entitled "Shattering the Myth: An Initial Snapshot of Voter Disenfranchisement in the 2004 Elections," was published by the Election Protection Coalition, of which Neasâ€™ organization is a member. It is based on information gathered from the groupâ€™s election monitors as well as from a hotline the group operated on election day.
Other groups involved in the coalition include the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Bar Association, Common Cause, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Congress of American Indians, and the American Civil Liberties Union, to name a few.
So far over 39,000 reports of election problems have been registered into the groupâ€™s Election Incident Reporting System, a database used to track and categorize the thousands of complaints received by the Coalition, while thousands more have yet to be processed.
The report found that, in addition to the by now infamous long lines on election day which kept voters -- primarily in urban and minority areas -- waiting for hours to cast their ballots, problems with voter registrations, absentee ballots, provisional ballots, and voting machines made up the majority of the problems documented by the group. Election Protection also found a significant amount of voter intimidation and suppression.
According to the report, the Coalition received more than 10,000 complaints from would-be voters who experienced voter registration difficulties, including those who had registered by the deadline but were not found on voter rolls, as well as people whose registration cards arrived with incorrect information about polling locations.
For instance, the report details a case of a voter in Broward County, Florida who had recently moved from another county. Though he tried on several occasions to change his registration, he never received a new card. On Election Day, he went to his original county to vote, but was told he was registered in Broward County. Officials did not tell him his new precinct and he was unable to cast a ballot.
The Coalition also reports thousands of complaints from voters who had trouble with the absentee ballot process. Most involved people who said they did not receive their absentee ballots in time to vote. In some states, voters who did not receive their ballots were prevented from voting with regular ballots when they went to try to cast their votes in person.
Election Protection also cited widespread confusion and a variety of regulations among the states concerning the use of provisional ballots. The Coalition says that it documented more than 1,000 separate provisional balloting problems, including many in which voters were refused provisional ballots altogether.
Voting machines were also the subject of many votersâ€™ concerns. The Coalition received calls from thousands of voters reporting that machines did not accurately record their votes.
There were also about a thousand calls in to the Coalition about voter intimidation at the polls. Among the incidents included in the report are stories about police standing outside polling places in Cook County, Illinois, asking voters for photo identification and telling them, falsely, that convicted felons could not vote. Minority voters in Arizona reported being harassed by election officials and forced to verify citizenship with a picture ID by a man who appeared to be armed before they were allowed to vote. There were also cases in which people with poor English skills were denied proper ballots and directions in their language -- a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"Shattering the Myth" also documents instances in which partisan groups distributed misinformation to minority and low-income communities about the election, giving voters incorrect voting dates or incorrect polling locations. For instance, some voters were sent fliers that said, "If you already voted in any election this year, you canâ€™t vote in the Presidential Election." Other received notices reading, "If anybody in your family has ever been found guilty of anything, you canâ€™t vote in the Presidential Election."
"Since we targeted 3,500 vulnerable precincts, we saw only the tip of the iceberg," explained Neas. "We found human error, equipment problems, bureaucratic snafus and outright attempts to deceive and misinform the voters everywhere. Extrapolate our findings to the rest of the country, and you see a picture of a flawed election system, badly in need of reform."
A comprehensive report will be released by Election Protection in 2005, incorporating all data gathered through their tracking system, as well as analyses by statistical and social science professionals on the obstacles in the voting process. In the meantime, the group has already made several recommendations for electoral reform addressing some of the problems they documented.
Many of the groups involved in the coalition are working on lawsuits throughout the country in attempts to remedy some of the specific situations tracked by the Coalition. In addition, the group is advocating voter verified audit trails on all new polling systems, full funding for the 2002 Help America Vote Act, legislation ensuring that voting machines are distributed and accessible on Election Day in minority and low-income areas, and that states employ accurate and centralized voter registration lists. The Coalition also supports strengthening and increased enforcement of laws prohibiting voter intimidation.
"The bright light of public scrutiny, intense pressure from the media and action in the courts helped us stop some of the most egregious actions, but, nevertheless, too many voters were either disenfranchised or discouraged by the decisions of public officials," said Neas. "Itâ€™s the job of government officials to advocate for voters and to clear the path to the ballot box, not [to] erect barriers."