2008 will go down as the year voting rights activists finally learned how to push back and keep a rotten electoral system acceptably honest.
For all the anxiety about possible meltdowns–machine failures, voter challenges, large-scale disenfranchisement and outright vote theft–the election went off remarkably smoothly. And the credit for that has to go to the armies of lawyers, voting rights advocates and policy institutes that challenged suspect laws and attempts at dirty electioneering, monitored every move made by election officials and party operatives, and either mitigated or headed off a multitude of potential catastrophes on election day.
None of this, of course, should be an acceptable substitute for durable election reform. It is still far too difficult to register to vote–the biggest problem in this year of Obama-inspired mass participation. Local election officials are still given far too much discretion to purchase lousy voting machines and too little guidance on how to ensure that the supply of those machines will meet demand. Partisan Republicans, inspired by Karl Rove and a heavily politicized Justice Department, had far too much leeway in their efforts to suppress new voters and promote their bogus campaign against the nonexistent problem of individual voter fraud.
Still, the lesson of November 4 is that election protection works. Thanks to the unstinting legal challenges to Republican dirty tricks, the courts rejected pre-emptive attempts to challenge tens of thousands of eligible voters in Colorado, Ohio and other swing states. The activist groups did not sit back as the usual crop of deceptive fliers and e-mails popped up urging Democrats to vote on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. They made their own robocalls to counter the disinformation, hiring Danny Glover to put out a message heard in more than 400,000 households.
In just about every precinct in the land, lawyers were present to make sure paper ballots were in plentiful supply in case of machine breakdown; that those ballots were not relegated to provisional status unless the law required it; and that voters unable to have their vote counted immediately knew what to do to prove their eligibility.
There were problems, of course, notably on college campuses, where lines were often outrageously long–up to four hours at Penn State, two or three hours at dozens of others–and students were vulnerable to challenges because they had registered at their campus address, not at home.
The measure of this election, though, was in how these problems were addressed. Under other circumstances, Virginia Tech might have become to 2008 what Kenyon College in Ohio was to 2004–a flash point in a key swing state with horrendous lines created by a mixture of bureaucratic incompetence and political ill will. The local registrar of voters in Montgomery County, Virginia, certainly made things as hard as he could–moving the precinct to a location six miles from campus, on a remote, unmarked country road half a mile from the nearest parking. Student groups and national organizations like Rock the Vote responded, however, by bringing in buses to shuttle students to and from the site. The waits were long–up to three hours–but the students’ votes got cast.
Virginia as a whole might have been in line to become the next Florida, not so much because of political interference but because the state–unused to being in the eye of the presidential storm–simply could not cope. On election morning, there were so many machine breakdowns across Virginia that leaders of the Election Protection coalition–put together by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP and other groups–pressed state officials to keep the polls open for an extra two hours in the evening.
As the day wore on, however, it became clear that many of the problems had been solved relatively quickly–in large part thanks to the presence of partisan and nonpartisan lawyers. One roving Election Protection volunteer in northern Virginia, Paul Kugelman, said he had gone to several precincts where there were reports of trouble, only to find the problems had been solved by the time he got there. “In some places, there were more lawyers than voters,” he said.
Clearly, we have come a long way. The Florida debacle in 2000 took everyone by surprise, while in 2004 the Republicans largely outplayed their opposition. Ben Jealous of the NAACP perhaps summed up this year’s response best. “If we had had in 2000 what we have now,” he said, “it would have been a very different election.” It shouldn’t take an army of lawyers to guarantee a fair process, but if that is what it takes, at least we now know how it should be done.