Four Things to Look for at the Polls on Election Day

Earlier this year, the outlook for voting rights was downright terrifying. Across the country, Republican legislatures had passed strict voter-ID laws, which reports showed could disenfranchise millions of voters. The political motives were clear: The people most likely to be without ID are poor and of color—groups that tend to vote for Democrats. By the summer, there was another threat to voter participation: purges of voter rolls. In Florida, and later in Colorado and Texas, voters began receiving letters saying their registrations were being questioned. While many who received the letters responded, activists worried about those voters who missed them or threw them away without responding—what if they arrived on Election Day only to discover their names had been deleted?

Now, two days from Election Day, election proceedings appear significantly sunnier. When it came to voter ID, judges forced states to broaden acceptable forms of identification or delay the laws until the electorate could be fully educated about them. The purges also stopped—either by court order or because of public outcry.

But a number of concerns about the voting process still remain heading into November 6. If the race winds up as tight as many expect, you can bet we’ll be hearing about these questions on November 7. Here's what to look out for.

One: Will True the Vote Turn Out in Force?

With the purges and ID laws at bay, the biggest variable for voters casting ballots may be independent citizens' groups—the so-called “voter vigilantes”—who have been accused of voter intimidation. True the Vote, the Houston-based group that purports to be concerned with voter integrity, has bragged about mobilizing thousands of volunteers to both identify invalid voter registrations and challenge them, and to work as poll watchers on Election Day. In my own investigation, however, I found conflicting evidence about just how great the group’s impact is likely to be this year. If True the Vote shows up in swing states like Ohio and Colorado in full-force, however, many worry about the potential for voter intimidation and general tension at the polls. The group’s work identifying potentially illegitimate voter registrations has also been riddled with errors; in several cases, legitimate voters have been unfairly flagged. There’s a possibility that on Election Day, voters could show up at the polls only to discover their right to vote has been challenged, which usually means they’ll have to cast a provisional ballot.

Then there are the controversies over progressive poll workers. For instance, in Fairfax County, Virginia, where one of the national architects of voter-ID legislation serves as vice chair of the election board, Democrats have filed a lawsuit over new rules that poll watchers may not talk to voters in any capacity. The Democrats argue that while poll watchers should not be allowed to say anything about whom to vote for, they should be allowed to inform voters unaware of the state’s new identification requirement that they can go home to get an ID and come back.

Two: Will Poll Workers Know Their Business?

With all the lawsuits and rule changes that have occurred so close to the election, some fear poll workers themselves may give inaccurate information out of confusion. For instance, in Pennsylvania, courts only decided weeks ago that the state's voter-ID requirement would not be in effect on Election Day—poll workers are supposed to ask for the ID, but also inform voters who don’t have theirs that they do not need it to vote.

Most disturbing, however, is the unfolding drama in Ohio, where Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a directive Friday that voters who cast provisional ballots would be responsible for also noting what type of identification they were using. That's normally been the duty of poll workers, and the shift makes it more likely voters will mess up and their ballots will not count. However, voting-rights advocates have filed an emergency motion with a federal judge, and the state has until Monday to respond. That means poll workers won't know what they're responsible for until less than 24 hours before the polls open. 

Three: How Damaging Are the Long Waits?

So far, the biggest problems with long waits have been in Florida. The last few days of early voting in the crucial swing state have brought a slew of controversies. Efforts in the state to suppress votes through purges and restrictions on registration were all beaten back by courts, but the state’s Republican legislature did successfully reduce the number of early-voting days by half. That’s meant long waits for those trying to cast a ballot before Tuesday. One article in the Sun Sentinel described people waiting for five hours to get into polling places—one guy even camped overnight to ensure a good spot in line. By many accounts, the lines were particularly long in areas where minorities live. Unlike his Republican predecessors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, Governor Rick Scott, also a Republican, has refused to extend hours to the weekend. The good news, however, is that turnout is high—despite the waits and the suppressive policies, voters of all stripes have already come out in big numbers. But the stakes will be even higher on Election Day since people can't come back another time if the line is too long, and some worry voters may eventually give up and go home if things get too extreme. 

Waits could also be a problem in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, power outages remain a problem, and while polling places usually get priority, it's likely that a lot of people will find that their polling place has been relocated. That's assuming they can get to the polls at all. As Bob Kuttner notes, public transportation is not fully operational, and particularly for low-income folks without cars, casting a ballot could get dicey.

Four: How Many Votes Will Be Lost to Technical Glitches?

In both Florida and Ohio, another swing state, there have been technical problems with voter registrations. In Ohio, as I wrote Friday, tens of thousands of registrations were delayed in being updated, meaning voters who requested absentee ballots would have been wrongfully rejected. In Florida, according to the ElectionSmith blog run by political science professor Daniel A. Smith, voters who have moved and updated their information but voted absentee while they still lived in their old county will likely have their ballots rejected. Things could get even stickier if the voter tries then to vote from the new county—he or she could be charged with a felony for trying to vote twice.

We likely won’t know the full impact of any of these factors until Election Day or later. Luckily, however, most of the other voting concerns, while disturbing, have been limited in their scope:

  • In La Porte County, Indiana, the Republican co-director of elections got very active while his Democratic counterpart was on medical leave. A voter purge wound up deleting 13,000 voters—16 percent of those registered in the county. 
  • In Clackamas County, Oregon, an elections worker is now under investigation for filling in straight Republican tickets on ballots with empty preferences.

Technical glitches and county-wide purges are certainly not as terrifying as the national push for strict voter-ID laws. But any voter denied his or her voice is one person too many, and even now, many big questions, like those surrounding possible voter challenges, won’t be answered until Election Day. That’s when we’ll find out whether our democratic process dodged a bullet this election.

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