Art Levine is a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly and has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications.
How many electronic voting machines can dance on the head of a pin?
That’s nearly how arcane today’s raging, almost theological, arguments among progressives have become over the lost 2004 election. The debates continue over such admittedly worthy issues as whether the GOP’s evil minions literally stole the election in Ohio from John Kerry in 2004, and if the blame for Kerry’s loss was due mostly to his bungled campaign, rigged voting machines or voting suppression efforts that targeted black and low-income voters.
But these internal debates don’t do anything to fight flaws in our nation’s patchwork election system that threaten to rob millions of Americans of the right to vote in the upcoming November election—and weren’t remedied by last week’s House passage of the Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, we don’t have to limit ourselves to wringing our hands, filing lawsuits against voting-machine companies, hoping for sweeping federal reforms or, as author Mark Crispin Miller says, “Going Ukraine” if the Republicans hold on to Congress.
Instead, there are a host of concrete steps you can take up through Election Day to keep votes from being robbed—and admirable national and local groups (see resources here) you can join to help prevent the sort of meltdowns that happened in Ohio in 2004.
Why is election reform—a key element of initiatives by MoveOn.org, Common Cause and People for the American Way, among others—so important? It’s not just that it promotes fair voting and democracy. It’s also essential for Democrats’ hopes of winning back either house of Congress this year, especially in any close elections. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who knows a thing or two about gaining power, put the issue at the top of her speech at the Take Back America progressive conference last month: “The Republicans have absolutely no interest in changing the way we vote, in holding the machine makers responsible, in having a verified paper trail, in eliminating conflicts of interest [of partisan election officials]…” She noted that voting reform isn’t going to pass Congress this year and urged, “So until we get back a Democratic Congress, we have to hold local and state officials accountable…Make sure you do everything you can in the next several months so we don’t have a repeat of what happened in Ohio, what happened in Florida.”
The looming threat of electoral train-wrecks in November can’t be overstated. As Andrew Gumbel observed recently in a tough-minded article in The Nation on Ohio’s wide-ranging restrictions on voters: “What the Republicans have created is, in effect, a system where they have multiple tools to deter their opponents from casting ballots in the first place—through the voter-ID requirement, the strict rules on provisional balloting and so on—and then making the vote count itself so opaque as to be beyond redress.”
Similar, if not always as comprehensive, limitations on voting rights are at work in other states, experts say, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana and Arizona. And under the guise of stopping voting fraud (in truth, quite rare), such states are basically saying, “They don’t trust voters,” observes Spencer Overton, a George Washington University law professor and author of the important new book, Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.
In addition, 17 states are at risk of having unaccountable voting results because they use machines without voter-verified paper records (VVPR) and don’t require manual audits of voting machine results, Common Cause reports. But thanks to groups such as Verified Voting, 28 states—representing a majority of American voters—now require VVPR. But that’s still no guarantee of secure voting, because an authoritative report last month by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that all electronic machines, even those with paper trails, are vulnerable to hacking and need to be audited.
Even though the House last week passed a reauthorized Voting Rights Act, a variety of disturbing anti-voter trends are likely to limit voting rights as surely as 60’s-era Southern thugs and politicians blocking African-American voters at the courthouse door. They range from sloppy oversight of flawed machines to penalizing voter registration drives. “We’re going in the opposite direction [of the Voting Rights Acts] with things that are likely to heavily impact minorities and poor people,” says Elliot Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, a leading member of the election-monitoring Election Protection coalition. The potential crisis is so threatening that over 20 lawsuits have been filed challenging everything from voter registration restrictions to the use of faulty voting machines, according to a report issued this month by Project Vote, an organization promoting voter turnout and quality control of election agencies. “A lot of progressive groups focus on the week before the election, but you have to monitor election administration 365 days a year,” says Project Vote’s executive director, Jehmu Greene.
Some of the problems facing voters this year may seem obscure and technical, such as registration database fiascos, but they can block nearly 50 percent of new or re-registered voters from voting. And they can likely rob more people of the vote than the faulty electronic voting machines that have been the target of the most outrage. The Brennan Center has documented the numerous ways citizens are being denied the right to vote this year, along with the vulnerability of voting machines.
As one voting expert observes, “Machines don’t steal elections, people do.” On several fronts, state laws and election administrators are working—intentionally or unintentionally—to block voters, especially minorities, young people and the elderly, from either registering to vote or having their vote counted on Election Day. For instance, some states are adding requirements that new federally-mandated statewide databases must exactly match state motor vehicle department or federal Social Security records. While that may sound reasonable at first glance, in practice it’s leading to widespread disenfranchisement: Los Angeles County’s use of the database rejected a whopping 43 percent of those who registered to vote between January 1 and March 15. Election officials started scrambling to fix the problem and have made significant progress—but only because someone was holding their feet to the fire.
There are other state-approved voter suppression schemes underway. A small but growing number of states, such as Georgia, Indiana, Arizona and Missouri, have moved to demand photo IDs at polling places, even though a Georgia court has ruled that the state’s law was the equivalent of the poll tax—and 10 percent of voters lack such IDs. On top of that, Florida and Ohio, echoed by a few other states, penalize independent voting registration campaigns that registered five million new voters for the 2004 elections by demanding felony charges or exorbitant fines if the groups miss deadlines. For instance, if a group such as the League of Women Voters fails to turn in any signed registration form, it will cost the group $5,000 per lost form—wiping out the League’s Florida budget with just 16 lost forms, even if a hurricane has hit Florida. The League has sued the state and has suspended its longstanding registration efforts there. “These issues are affecting the right to register and vote,” says Mary Wilson, the president of the National League of Women Voters.
To fight back, reform advocates are urging progressives to join with ongoing reform campaigns. These include working with national groups such as Common Cause and People for the American Way that have local affiliates, and such exemplary local organizations as the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, in pressuring local and state election agencies to offer fair and open elections. While working for longer-term legislative and administrative reforms, their priorities for November include monitoring tests of election machines; demanding sufficient voting machines and properly trained poll workers in polling places; and pressing for audits of databases and voting machine results.
“We want to create transparency from registration through tabulation,” says Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, the president of Verified Voting. “The power of being there and watching can’t be underestimated.”
The sort of difference you can make in winning fair elections is best illustrated by the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition’s “I Count ” pledge campaign, listing over 20 ways individuals can get involved, from registering voters to becoming a watchdog of local officials. As their pledge states—progressives please take note—“Power is about making sure that every voice and every vote counts.”