Weekly Voting Rights News Update
By Erin Ferns
Recent analyses of the 2008 general election find that overall participation increased on November 4, with a significant surge in voter participation among historically underrepresented Americans. Yet, while some lawmakers have been inspired by the recent voter turnout to propose election reforms that expand access to voting rights, others continue to focus on creating additional barriers to voting.
"I know there's a perception out there that this election proceeded more smoothly than the one four years ago," said election law expert at Ohio State University, Dan Tokaji in a recent Associated Press report. "But it's also clear from this election that we've got serious problems that remain," he said.
The inconsistency among states in interpreting federal election law is proving problematic in the administration of elections. Provisional ballots, for example, which are granted to voters who encounter "voter registration problems or because a person had signed up to vote by mail but wanted to cast their ballot at the polls," are counted differently from state to state, rendering many legitimate ballots ineligible if not cast within the correct county or even precinct.
In Colorado, a recent lawsuit to look into the questionable purging of 44,000 voters led to the investigation of whether 69 rejected provisional ballots were actually legitimate, according to Rocky Mountain News reporter, Myung Oak Kim.
"The analysis is being done as a result of a lawsuit filed last month by state and national voter-rights groups against Secretary of State Mike Coffman," Kim wrote. "The plaintiffs claimed that Coffman inappropriately removed scores of people from the voter rolls in violation of a federal law that prohibits purging of voter files within 90 days of a federal election. Coffman contends that it was legal to remove 44,000 voter files since May."
About 365 voters with canceled registrations cast provisional ballots, wrote Kim. Statewide, more than 53,000 provisional ballots were cast, about 80 percent of which were actually counted.
In 2004, acceptance rate of provisional ballots varied from 96 percent in Alaska to 6 percent in Delaware, according to a Project Vote report, Maximizing the Effectiveness of Provisional Voting.
These kinds of inconsistencies are also being challenged in Ohio for their potential to violate "citizens' equal protection and due process rights," according to the Associated Press . The report announced the court's decision to move forward with a lawsuit challenging the state's voting system after the 2004 presidential election.
"The Ohio lawsuit cites examples of voters in some counties who were misdirected by poll workers, believe their votes were miscounted or not counted at all, found broken or not enough voting machines at their polling sites, and it also alleges misuse of provisional ballots. It claims the irregularities fell disproportionately on minority voters," AP reports.
The case, filed by the League of Women Voters three years ago, cites election system issues that date back to 1971. And yet the problems persisted in 2008, according to Pete Johnson of The Free Press. According to this story, a coalition of Election Day observers from The Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism and the Ohio Green Party found an "outrageous" number of provisional ballots being distributed in inner city precincts due to misinterpretation of voter ID law and even data errors on voter rolls. Malfunctioning machines were also reportedly a serious voting inhibitor.
Despite state compliance issues with state and federal election law to protect and facilitate voting rights, from registration to ballot casting, several states are attempting to institutionalize barriers instead.
After instituting Same Day Registration during the early voting period this year to the dismay of state partisans, Ohio Republican lawmakers are attempting to halt the practice by passing a bill (SB 380) that would require voters to be registered 30 days before the early voting period, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Most states require voters to register 30 days before the actual election.
Proposals in other states to implement Same Day or Election Day Registration are being met with resistance from election officials. In West Virginia, for example, according to local newspaper, Beckley Register-Herald, "a proposal before a legislative interims panel would allow potential voters to come by Election Day, get registered and promptly mark ballots, all in one convenient trip."