National syndicated radio host, Tom Joyner, appeared before the House Administration Committee on Wednesday, testifyingon continuing voting problems as documented by his 1-866-MY-VOTE-1 hotline during the primary season.
The Washington Post described the hotline as “the center of an expansive effort – run largely by African Americans independent of political parties and election officials – to make sure every vote is counted in this year’s elections.” According to The Post, more than 1,000 lawyers have volunteered to staff polling places and call centers, and approximately 70,000 voters have reported problems, “including extraordinarily long waits, a shortage of ballots, difficulties finding polling locations and being dropped from registration rolls.”
Joining Joyner on the Hill yesterday were representatives of the NAACP National Voter Fund, Voter Action and VoterLink Data Systems. They testified on the need for long-term reform – uniform election standards rather than the current hodgepodge of differing rules within thousands of jurisdictions. But with November just around the corner and record turnout expected, advocates recognized the urgency for action now as well. They pointed to the need for proper allocation of reliable voting machinesso that votes aren’t lost to long lines and flawed technologies. Poll workers have to be trained on voters’ rights and the voting systems that will be used. And we need better protection of eligible voters so that valid ballots are counted and people aren’t turned away from the polls.
The Democratic National Committee isn’t waiting until November to address these problems either. As part of its Voting Rights Institute and 50-State Strategy, its field staff has conducted approximately 1200 interviews with local elections officials in order to investigate exactly how elections will be administered come November.
“While there are state and federal laws governing elections, local election officials have a lot of discretion,” Anna Martínez, DNC Deputy Political Director for Voter Protection, told me. “So we’ve used local field staff to conduct these interviews, looking state-by-state and county-by-county. Even within a single state there are a lot of discrepancies as to how elections are run and how local election officials are interpreting the law.”
Martínez came to the DNC after working as a senior analyst in the Voting Rights section of the Department of Justice from 2000-2004 – overlapping with the tenure of former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division Hans von Spakovsky, and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bradley Schlozman.
“The people in charge there, the political appointees over in the front office, not only lacked commitment to civil rights but actively worked against voting rights enforcement and over time created a demoralizing work environment for career professionals,” Martínez said. “I went to the DNC before the 2004 election, so I could take my experience and apply it to actually working to promote and protect the right to vote.”
Many troubling issues have already been uncovered by the DNC during its interview process, including: election officials saying they won’t allow college students to vote in their hometowns even though that’s not within their discretion; improper purging of voters from registration lists; lack of training for election officials; 25% of jurisdictions surveyed have no formula for allocation of voting machines; 34.7% have no written policy for removal of voters from voter registration lists; 16% have no written chain of custody procedure for equipment and election results; 66 jurisdictions have polling places that are inaccessible to people with disabilities (and those are just the ones that admit it); there is also much confusion over who has jurisdiction – state or county – over various aspects of election administration.
“When you start listing these things you realize how much there is that we need to be on top of,” Martínez said.
The problems are now being addressed by the state parties and the DNC’s National Lawyers Council (NLC), made up of thousands of Democratic volunteer lawyers and law students. Leadership in the state and county NLC chapters are working with a whole cadre of lawyers at the local level to help get that job done. Martínez said that many of these lawyers have relationships with local election officials, and for those that don’t, establishing them now is critical.
“This project is allowing our local lawyers to meet with the local election officials now, so that we can work together addressing issues we identify,” Martínez said. “Normally these issues don’t get the attention they deserve until really late – like the last 6 weeks before an election – and then it’s chaotic. But decisions about administering elections are being made year round, so we’re trying to be vigilant in seeing what these decisions are, who’s making them, and we’re trying to flag issues and resolve problems well in advance of the election.”
The lawyers are also working with state parties to draft tailored Voter Protection Plans. There is a particular focus on traditionally disenfranchised voters – young voters, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and people with disabilities – and lawyers are drawn from these communities to help address the relevant issues. Law students assist in much of the research on precedent and establishing principled positions to protect the vote. College students and local activists devoted to the voting rights issue help with recruiting poll workers and also voter education, including demonstrations in public places on how to use new voting machines. States share information about solutions that they have found to common problems and what has proven “politically palatable.”
“There’s been some resistance,” Martínez said. “But for the most part election officials want to do their jobs well and are happy to participate. Where there is resistance I’m concerned. It should be a transparent process.”
Indeed it should be. But as we learned in 2000 and 2004, transparency isn’t always the way things pan out. Between now and Election Day the DNC will track problems, state parties and lawyers will work to address them, and how and when they are resolved will be monitored. When Election Day rolls around the DNC hopes to use its own voter hotline quickly respond to problems, and lawyers and field workers will utilize new technology to locate troubled spots in real time and respond.