Keeping the Election Honest

by Catherine Komp

In his dissenting opinion in the 2000 Florida recount ruling, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

The party-line Supreme Court ruling that upheld former Florida Secretary of State and Bush campaign co-chair Katharine Harris’ certification of George W. Bush as winner in Florida may have put an end to the 2000 presidential election “debacle.” But there were many other events that led to a questionable electoral outcome, including the disenfranchisement of thousands of registered voters, many African-American and Latino.

There are good reasons to be concerned about the upcoming Presidential election. Error-ridden voter “purge” lists, similar to ones used in Florida in 2000, could prevent countless registered voters from submitting ballots. Poll workers may not correctly issue provisional ballots. The electronic voting machines in many districts are proving to deliver grossly inaccurate results in both demonstrations and actual elections. And information about new ID regulations could pose problems for voters unaware of the new requirements when they go to vote during their small window of free time on Tuesday, November 2, a work day for most voters.

Is there hope for safeguarding against the worst-case scenarios that could happen on Election Day 2004? Perhaps. Hundreds of organizations have been working feverishly to not only register voters for what many are calling the most important election in their lifetimes, but also to ensure a fair outcome.

Election Day Watchdogs

For the first time in US history, an international organization will monitor the November presidential elections. The US State Department has invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 55-member regional security organization, to monitor the election. Over the last decade the OSCE has sent some 10,000 monitors to more than 30 countries and 150 elections.

The League of Women Voters, and more than 40 organizations including the ACLU, the NAACP, the Alliance of Retired Persons, the National Council of La Raza, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, has sent letters to election commissioners in 50 states, urging them to help safeguard the election. The letter explains its most serious concerns: voter registration problems, erroneous purging, problems with new ID requirements, difficulties with voting systems, and failure to count provisional ballots. And it offers aid in preventing these problems.

The Florida ACLU has sent its own letter to county election supervisors encouraging them to implement a four-part program to help ensure the right to vote — measures to prevent errors in the felony conviction lists, better instruction for poll workers on provisional ballots and ID requirements, and independent testing of electronic voting machines prior to Election Day.

People for the America Way (PFAW) has one of the most comprehensive voter protection programs. With the help of about 60 partner organizations, it expects to have a presence in approximately 15 states with a focus on areas where there were problems in 2000 or where there is a concentration of minority voters. PFAW’s Election Protection Voter Empowerment program includes the 1-866-OUR-VOTE multi-lingual hotline to answer questions and help people register; more than 25,000 trained poll monitors; and civil rights lawyers to represent voters in potential lawsuits. Executive Director Elliott Mincberg says voter intimidation works best when it comes as a surprise. Which is why they are trying to get the word out about voters’ rights issues. “We’re trying to do intelligence gathering, to train poll workers to look for signs of that type of activity, to take pictures of people who are attempting to intimidate, and to hand out information that states intimidators could be violating state law. And if necessary, we’ll send lawyers to polling places and go to court right on Election Day.”

For those concerned about the fallibility of electronic machines, the Verified Voting Foundation www.verifiedvoting.org is working to encourage measures to require a “voter-verifiable audit trail.” Founder and Stanford University Professor of Computer Science David Dill and his colleagues have copiously documented the problems with “Direct Recording Electronic” voting machines (DREs) and why computer scientists are concerned about the paperless systems and potential for errors, hacking, and miscounted votes. “Trust in elections comes from transparency,” said Dill. “All the ballot handling and counting happens invisibly inside the machines, and there are no independent records that can be used to check the machines.” Dill hopes to show the public what is at stake, implement as many monitoring and voter education measures as possible this year, and make sure there is better technology and procedure in the future. He says serious concern, but not panic, is appropriate for November’s election. “That concern should be channeled into getting the problems with elections fixed. The public seems to understand the problem fairly easily, but a few key politicians and insiders are still in denial. My sense is that a little more grassroots pressure is all we need to succeed.”

Grassroots Groundswell

Beyond these well-recognized organizations, there are hundreds of other groups across the country working on voter registration, education and monitoring . There’s Philadelphia-based Bike for Democracy – a group of organizers in their 20s working to empower under-represented groups in the electoral process via a 90-day, 90-city cross-country bike tour. Democracy South, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is using GIS-based mapping technology to find the areas where citizens are least likely to turn out, with a focus on the southeastern states. The group then links up with local grassroots organizations to educate communities about voting rights, special interests, and clean elections.

At USAvotenet.com, a project of WomenVote, voter outreach organizations across the country coordinate their efforts and share strategies on-line. The site includes forums for Arab Americans, the gay and lesbian community, and low-income people, among other under-represented groups. USAvotenet also links to Fairelections.us, a group advocating full public funding of elections, eliminating barriers to voting, and transparent voting mechanisms. The National Voice Voter Project compiles many of these and similar organizations in a state by state, searchable online database www.nationalvoice.org– click on “voter projects”). And Working Assets, PFAW, and the Election Protection Coalition have put together a website www.workingforchange.com/electionprotection/ where people can learn about different election monitoring positions (all nonpartisan) and register to volunteer online. Verified Voter, League of Women Voters, PFAW, True Majority, and Moveon.org also have volunteer information on their websites.

This is neither an exhaustive review of the potential problems on Election Day 2004, nor of the efforts and organizations working to prevent those problems. While it is impossible to determine how fair the outcome will be ahead of November 2, the energy and excitement is palpable. In the short-term, the impressive number of programs and campaigns, including those detailed here, will likely decrease the number of discrepancies this November, especially when it comes to guaranteeing the right to vote. Moreover, the interest in democratic participation beyond voting from experienced activists, youth, and newcomers, is likely to persist for many long after election day.

Catherine is media editor for Clamor magazine, news producer at WAER and a contributor to Independent Native News and Free Speech Radio News.