Polling perils

A close election marred by mix-ups at the polls could become a civic nightmare.

August 3, 2012 

We have a little more than three months until American voters pick a president, governors, lawmakers, maybe even a few dogcatchers. What’s the prospect for smoothly conducted, accurate, inclusive elections? In the view of many experts, it could be better.

The country is now 12 years removed from the modern-day granddaddy of election foul-ups – the Florida fiasco that ended with George W. Bush en route to the White House. Given the difficulties reaching an accurate count using punch-card ballots rife with hanging chads, 2000 would have been a credibility disaster even if Al Gore had eked out a win, with or without the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention. But Bush v. Gore served to put us on notice. This could not be allowed to happen again.

Except, it might. The goal of debugging the voting process turns out to be fraught with partisan implications, or at least is perceived that way. So in too many places, the kind of steps that would both encourage people to vote and safeguard the electoral system’s integrity have fallen victim to political stalemate.

Speaking of integrity, despite Republican claims, there’s no reason to think that voter fraud involving impersonation – essentially the only kind of fraud that would be made less likely with photo IDs – occurs at any significant level. Democrats may exaggerate the number of people who would be hindered from voting because of ID requirements, but they are correct that those affected tend to be poorer, older, members of minority groups – in other words, people who generally lean Democratic.

Tougher voter ID laws can fairly be described as a solution in search of a problem, and it’s understandable why Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue drew the line in North Carolina with her veto pen.

Straightening the kinks

Then there are solutions worth encouraging: simplifying ballots so they are less confusing, making sure voting machines are reliable, keeping registration rolls up to date and accurate. The New York Times, in a story this week about lingering election flaws, cited an elections expert with the Pew Charitable Trusts as saying that registration kinks in 2008 resulted in the loss nationally of 2.2 million votes.

Certainly voters themselves should be more careful to notify elections boards when they change addresses, a common source of confusion at the polls. But more emphasis on data-sharing by government agencies would help keep the rolls “clean.”

Perhaps that sharing should extend across state lines. The Times, noting a 2005 report from an election reform panel headed by former President Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, highlighted a finding that 60,000 voters were simultaneously registered in North and South Carolina. That wouldn’t automatically mean 60,000 illegitimate ballots cast, but the potential for mischief was clear. Let’s hope the proper officials did something about it.

Uncounted votes

The Carter-Baker group’s former director told The Times that only half the nation’s eligible voters are registered – an ongoing blemish on the country’s democratic ideals. Yet when faulty registration data requires someone to cast a provisional ballot, the confusion can multiply.

A New York University law school study estimated that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections, mistakes in filling out confusing provisional and absentee ballots resulted in a total of as many as 400,000 ballots being thrown out. Perhaps that’s not many over two national election cycles, but as we’ve learned, every vote can make a difference.

Nobody at this stage believes the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney shapes up as a blowout by either of them. Expectations are that it will be close, very close. A few votes in a key swing state such as North Carolina could spell the difference.

Republicans and Democrats may delight in winning various battles over election rules, in accord with the advantage they think they’ve gained. Yet elections ending in confusion and rancor corrode people’s faith in our system of government, no matter who wins. The country, and the states and localities that supervise an estimated 13,000 different voter rolls, must step up to their duty to operate elections whose outcome the public can trust.

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