As we head into the final stretch of the election season, alarming reports of dysfunctional voter registration, purges of the rolls, and possible voter suppression are surfacing weekly, if not daily. The National Campaign for Fair Elections’ hotline (866.OUR.VOTE / 866.687.8683) is already receiving roughly a thousand calls a day; while the majority of these are requests for information, some concern problems with registration. The New York Times reports that tens of thousands of voters may have been illegally purged from the rolls in swing states. Other news sources speculate there are 600,000 voters at risk of disenfranchisement in Ohio alone. What goes unreported upon amid all this turmoil is how effective the response has been, and what can still be done.
Take Montana. On October 8th, US District Court Judge Donald Molloy issued a scathing ruling denouncing the state Republican Party’s effort to challenge the registration of 6,000 voters: “The timing of the challenges is so transparent it defies common sense to believe the purpose is anything but political chicanery.” The Montana Republican Party and its leaders, he wrote, “are abusing the process.”
The real danger is that the process itself is flawed. “We have an election system that’s exquisitely designed for low rates of participation,” says Tova Wang, Vice President of Research for Common Cause. “We’re expecting increased turnout and we have a system that’s not designed to handle it.” While these problems are endemic throughout our fractured electoral system, three states–Virginia, Florida, and Ohio–present both the challenges we face and the measures we might take to solve them. All three are closely contested, and an Obama victory will require every one.
Virginia has emerged as one of the crucial battlegrounds of the election, and voters are clearly excited. In 2004, there were 4,517,980 voters on the state’s rolls when the registration period ended; this year there are 4,890,393, an increase of nearly 400,000. The 2008 primary saw turnout rise a staggering 266 percent over 2004 (although still only a little more than a quarter of the electorate made it to the polls). If this is any indication of what to expect on election day, advocates fear that the state’s laws and protocols are insufficient to handle the high turnout.
A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU identified Virginia as one of the least prepared states in the country. The report rated the state’s contingency plan in the event of voting machine failures as in need of improvement, and pointed out that Virginia law requires neither a voter-verified paper trail nor a post-election audit of the results. Virginia doesn’t even require every poll worker be trained, and allows for a minimum of three poll workers at a given polling place, a standard advocates are concerned is too low (although Board of Elections officials in the state assure them there will be more poll workers than required manning the polls). The state’s laws also require that there be only one voting machine for every 750 voters, a ratio Common Cause’s Tova Wang calls “enormous.”