Monday, November 3, 2008

Worry builds over possible confusion on voting day

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Tricky ballots, malfunctioning machines, long lines already among reported issues

Genie Gratto of Oakland, Calif., says early voters have been confused by arrows printed on ballots. Gary Watts reports three-hour lineups at his polling place in Renton, Wash., which provided only two dozen machines for people to vote on. Carrie Tobey has a co-worker in Cape Cod who she said was allowed to vote early instead of by absentee ballot, even though the state of Massachusetts does not allow the practice.

Tomorrow is election day in the United States, but already, reports of voting irregularities, long lineups, malfunctioning machines and badly managed polling stations are pouring in from across the country, suggesting that any victory will not come easily or without controversy.

More than 130 million Americans are expected to vote tomorrow while others, like Ms. Gratto, Mr. Watts and Ms. Tobey, have already made their choice at early polls that were far from problem-free. The trio are among those who have reported voting issues through the Twitter Vote Report, a website created by a volunteer network of software developers so problems can be mapped in real time, helping voters avoid particularly problematic polling places and prepare for specific issues.

"This year, people are really attuned to the administration of the election," said Dan Seligson of, a project of the Pew Center on the State that studies voting issues. "It's part of the reason so many people are voting early, because they're worried about election day."

Last week, his organization released a list of 12 states where voting issues are likely to arise, including important battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Almost every county in every U.S. state has variations in the voting system that present a different set of problems, ranging from strict rules governing voter identification to the likelihood of computer glitches or incomplete voter-registration databases.

For a country still feeling the repercussions of the disputed 2000 presidential election, the prospect of another contested vote is frighteningly real.

Florida, where a controversial recount led George W. Bush to victory eight years ago, is using its third voting system in as many presidential elections.

Pennsylvania, a state many believe could propel either John McCain or Barack Obama into the White House, uses electronic voting machines that retain no paper record of results.

If a machine's memory fails, there is no opportunity for a recount.

And although some areas have statewide systems, most elections are controlled by county election officials, some of whom are elected and highly partisan.

Adding to the confusion tomorrow is the sheer number of things for which Americans will be voting. In addition to the presidential race, most voters will be confronted with an array of controversial and confusing ballot questions, as well as congressional races and some choices for Senate.

But first, they must establish their right to vote.

After the 2000 election debacle, Congress decided each state would be required to create a single voter database.

Of course, many of the databases are deeply flawed, as people's names and addresses were incorrectly entered and voters are turned away when their ID doesn't match the name in the system. It's a problem one voting expert explained to Time magazine as "disenfranchisement through typo."

Even the famous campaign figure Joe the Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, is registered under an incorrect name: Worzelbacher.

The current election has also seen accusations of fraudulent voter registration. A group called ACORN, a community organization that represents low-income and minority communities, signed up 1.3 million people in a registration drive this year.

But the group paid its volunteers using a quota system, creating an incentive for false records, including the registration of a voter named Mickey Mouse in Florida and most of the Dallas Cowboys football team in Nevada.

"I think the largest issue is the number of new registrants," Mr. Seligson said. "Any time you have a significant amount of new registrants there's an opportunity for people to show up and not be on the list. And the quantity of new voters this time is just extraordinary, historic."

He does not believe there will be a "catastrophic meltdown" tomorrow but said the likelihood of scattered problems across the country is high.

The only way voting problems will be inconsequential, he said, is if the margin of victory is larger than the margin of error.

"If McCain wins Oklahoma by 29 per cent, no one will care that there were 1,500 provisional ballots that haven't been counted," he said. "But if Obama wins Missouri by 350 votes, you better believe that everything that happened in that election is going to be under serious scrutiny.

"I would say that election officials are certainly hoping for a blow-out," he added. "Nothing would be better for our system than to have an easy day."

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