Sunday, October 31, 2004

Vote Suppression Update

In addition to growing press coverage of various efforts to suppress or intimidate voters, especially in heavily Democratic and/or minority areas, I'm getting a lot of email from attentive readers citing this or that development, most of it in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

It's probably useful, at this point, to separate these developments into three categories:

(1) Good ol' fashioned dirty tricks. As Jo Becker and David Finkel report in this morning's WaPo: "Dirty tricks are a staple of campaigns, but election officials say this year's could achieve new highs in numbers and new lows in scope, especially in key battleground states such as Florida and Ohio." As usual, many of the nasty tactics are aimed at minority voters, which gives you a pretty good idea where they are coming from. In Leon County, Florida, thousands of students at (historically black) Florida A&M University and at FSU are discovering that their addresses have been changed on registration lists, possibly disqualifying them from voting. In Milwaukee, mysterious fliers are appearing in African-American neighborhoods telling voters they cannot participate on Tuesday if they voted earlier in the year. In Charleston, South Carolina, a dirty tactic used in Maryland in 2002 re-emerged, with a fake NAACP letter warning voters they can be arrested if they show up at the polls owing parking tickets or in arrears on child support payments. And in Ohio, another fake letter "informs" voters registered by the NAACP that their registrations have proved invalid, and that they face legal sanctions if they vote. It goes on and on.

(2) Official malfeasance. There's also a noticable upsurge in major screwups--due either to incompetence or malice--by election officials. One reader informed me on Friday that the (Republican-controlled) Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania election board suddenly announced changes in polling locations for 21 precincts, affecting as many as 15,000 voters in one of the hottest battleground areas of the country. There have been widespread delays in the mailing and processing of both new voter registrations and absentee ballots, along with poor preparations for places where early votes can be cast. It's impossible to know in many of these case if the blunders are unintentional or designed to put a thumb on the scales, but they reinforce how little progress has been made since 2000 in creating an efficient and even playing field for voters.

(3) Voter intimidation. We won't know for sure until Tuesday how far the GOP will go in wholesale challenges to voters in heavily Democratic precincts, but so far, they are winning the obscure legal battle over the rules for casting and counting the "provisional" ballots required by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in cases where voters' eligibility is in question. Michigan will apparently be the only battleground state where voters who are residents of the county, not the precinct, where they show up to vote will have their votes counted. That may be why last-minute changes in precinct boundaries and polling places seem to be happening.

Meanwhile, the high-stakes maneuvering over voter challenges in Ohio continues. As I cynically (but accurately) predicted on Friday, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's noble-sounding "instruction" to Attorney General Jim Petro that he ban voter challenges altogether went nowhere, as Petro quickly denied he had the authority to take that step. On a more marginal issue, a federal judge overruled Blackwell's earlier ruling that official partisan challengers could be apportioned to concentrate them at particular polling places within precincts. Unfortunately, it's not the number of challengers, but the number of challenges, that matters.

Finally, there's an aspect of the voter challenge/provisional ballot maneuvering that should be kept in mind. Provisional ballots will not be counted on Election Night; most states will allow up to ten days for them to be resolved and either counted or discarded.

If you remember how important it was to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 to claim victory in Florida from the get-go, it's entirely possible that a part of its strategy this year is to get the maximum number of Democratic votes in very close states made provisional, so that Bush will be "ahead" in the count the morning after. I certainly hope that impartial election officials, Democratic poll watchers, and journalists pay close attention to the number of provisional ballots that are pending in key states, and to deny possible Republican victory claims based on initial counts.

With most tracking polls showing the race dead even going into the final 48 hours, this sort of stuff, murky as it is, could be crucial.

UPDATE: Here's another important question: How will the official, media-consortium-sponsored exit poll operation deal with provisional ballots? Will voters be asked if their votes are provisional? And if not, will some voters who have been challenged volunteer the information, or simply fail to respond?

My own information about the exit poll operations this year suggests (a) the exits will be done very professionally, and (b) it's very likely that despite the best efforts of the sponsors, they will be leaked on election day in a way that minimizes word-of-mouth distortions, and that will be all over the internet within hours if not minutes. Be forewarned.
-- Posted at 1:53 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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