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2007 Elections Presage Potential Problems in 2008

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Mostly, Tuesday’s state and local elections fell within the bounds of what observers might call “free and fair”. However, there were enough rough spots to call attention to the fact that 2008, like 2004 and 2000, is likely to see a range of rules, laws, and tactics that will serve as barriers to participation.

Steven Rosenfeld of AlterNet, writing on Election Day, laid out what might face voters at the polls. “While not as high-profile as races for Congress or president, these contests can experience numerous voter suppression tactics and deceptive election practices,” said Rosenfeld, also identifying a multitude of election administration hurdles and barriers, including restrictive voter identification laws, “fervent anti-immigration rhetoric,” and voter challenges, among others.

At the top of voter intimidation schemes are voter identification laws, fueled by the spread of the phantom issue of voter fraud, an issue itself often conflated with simple breakdowns in the election administration process such as list maintenance problems and voter caging efforts. These “solutions” solve problems that don’t exist, while never truly addressing the issue of election integrity and effectively inhibiting votes rather than encouraging them.

“The most common example of the harm wrought by imprecise and inflated claims of 'voter fraud' is the call for in-person photo identification requirements. Such photo ID laws are effective only in preventing individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls — an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning,” wrote Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice report, “The Truth About Voter Fraud.”

“By throwing all sorts of election anomalies under the 'voter fraud' umbrella, however, advocates for such laws artificially inflate the apparent need for these restrictions and undermine the urgency of other reforms,” Levitt wrote.

In this week’s elections, Georgia, Indiana and Michigan were closely watched because of their recent adoption of stringent voter ID laws.

Between Georgia's “tough” voter ID requirement and voter challenges, there's no telling how many people were turned away from the polls. Rosenfeld cited an Atlanta Journal Constitution report that claimed more than 160,000 voters could cast the allowed provisional ballots that may later be disqualified due to lack of ID: “These voters tend to be the youngest and the oldest, who often don't have driver's licenses, or low income voters who don't own cars.”

Further, “'a new citizens group formed to challenge newly registered students'” at Georgia Southern University could help disqualify these votes, said David Becker of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization. “'Students will have to prove they are eligible, instead of those people who are challenging them prove they [the students] are not eligible.”

Georgia elections officials reported no problems on Election Day, according to Shannon McCaffrey of the Associated Press. The law was also in effect for local elections in September, when reportedly eight people had to cast provisional ballots because they lacked an acceptable ID. As of Nov. 6, the Secretary of State's office could not say how many of the eight provisional ballots were counted, McCaffrey wrote. “The law will face it's highest hurdle in the Feb. 5 presidential primary, when turnout is expected to be far higher than it has been for local races.”

Indiana's aggressive voter ID law, which is set to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court later this fall, is perhaps under more scrutiny by “proponents and opponents” of voter ID laws who “will be looking for impacts on voting that might be cited in the high court litigation,” Rosenfeld wrote. “That eventual ruling could enshrine or ban the spate of new tough voter ID laws, in states such as Indiana and Georgia.”

Despite reports by state and local election officials that Michigan's newly implemented photo ID requirement at the polls went smoothly Tuesday, the NAACP “called the process 'messy,'” according to the Detroit News Wednesday. The voter ID law brought a surge of complaints to the Detroit NAACP's voter hotline with voters upset and confused. “It's created a problem where none should exist,” said the NAACP chapter's general counsel, Melvin Hollowell. “It's made voting more difficult and it's a big step in the wrong direction.” According to state officials, about 340,000 of Michigan's 7.18 million voters do not have a government issued ID, the report said.

Project Vote notes that one of the issues that researchers are studying is not just how many people are turned away at the polls with improper ID, but how many people do not show up at all in the belief that they will be turned away for improper documentation. The effect of voter ID laws may go much deeper than simply catching a handful of people at the polls with no acceptable ID.

Indiana faced some other hiccups in its implementation of elections on Tuesday, though the Associated Press found them to be few. There were problems with touch-screen voting machines and three precincts, which opened late, a contrast from the primary in May where “officials estimated 3,000 people who were not able to cast ballots” due to precincts opening late or not at all.

Some Indiana counties “consolidated local precincts into 'vote centers'” - a measure that is considered helpful in bringing voters, but has historically brought delays and lowered turnout. “Electronic voting critics also say these centers pose a greater risk for insider tampering with vote counts,” Rosenfeld wrote. Vote counting issues occurred at the new vote centers in Tippecanoe County Tuesday, “when a machine malfunction forced election workers to count ballots by hand,” according to the AP report.

In the state with the “toughest voter ID law,” it is not surprising that a witch hunt for voter fraud was included in local election reports. WEHT-TV, an Indiana local news station, tried to figure out how voter fraud was being prevented at the polls after Secretary of State Todd Rokita told the Associated Press, “my deputies monitor polling places to instill voter confidence. Our deputies are dispatched by the time polls open in the morning and they will continue working throughout the day.” When the news crew found no deputies at the polls, they called Rokita's office as well as a county clerk, learning that not only was it a state holiday, but that such workers only get involved in the elections when there is “something odd going on out of the law book.”

(We’ve linked here to a similarly quixotic quest for voter fraud in this story on a New York “researcher of election chicanery” who attempted to prove voter fraud could occur if one owns property in another locality.)

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