On Voting Worries, Sweat The Small Stuff

by Alec MacGillis | November 2, 2012

After I wrote in the latest issue of the magazine about Republican efforts to limit Democratic turnout in Ohio, by reining in early voting and other means, I got a bunch of complaints, but not from the corner I was expecting. They came from the left: readers wanting to know why I had ignored the conspiracy at play with Ohio voting machines, given, readers said, that they are “owned by Tagg Romney.” This was a bit of an exaggeration. Tagg, the eldest Romney son, does have a connection to Ohio voting machines—but it’s fairly tenuous. As Bill Turque reported for the Washington Post:

Hart InterCivic is an Austin-based voting machine company that serves local governments nationwide. Its clients include Hamilton County, Ohio, which administers elections in Cincinnati. Hart InterCivic also has in its DNA just enough traces of Bain & Co. and Mitt Romney campaign donors to trigger serious angst in the liberal blogosphere about the fate of Ohio’s must-have 18 electoral votes.
Versions of the story have appeared in the Free Press, an Ohio Web site, in addition to Salon and a liberal blog carried by Forbes. In a nutshell: Three of Hart’s five corporate board members are executives of HIG Capital, a global private-equity firm that made what it called a “significant” investment in Hart last year. Four HIG executives (Tony Tamer, John Bolduc, Douglas Berman and Brian D. Schwartz) have been identified as Romney bundlers by independent watchdog groups such as the Sunlight Foundation.
HIG employees as a whole have donated $338,000 this year to the campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, according to Open Secrets. Three of them (Tamer, Berman and Bolduc) used to work at Bain. Among the investors in HIG is Solamere Capital, a private-equity firm run by Tagg Romney, one of the candidate’s sons.

It is understandable why people worry about the rigging of voting machines, especially electronic ones —in an era of hackers and cyberwarfare, it seems awfully plausible that someone could rig a machine to evaporate, or create from thin air, votes by the tens of thousands. And as Victoria Collier reports in an exhaustive and alarming cover story in the current Harper’s (paywalled), there have been plenty of instances over the past decade that have raised eyebrows in this department. However, the sense I got in researching my piece on voting suppression is that fears of widespread machine-rigging risk becoming the closest thing that the left has to the right’s wholly unfounded fears of vast voter fraud—a cause for worries out of proportion with reality (if you haven’t yet, be sure to read Jane Mayer’s definitive new New Yorker profile of one of the men who has conjured the voter-fraud chimera). And the fears can come at a cost, if they mean distracting attention from the biggest threats to fair elections, which tend to be more mundane.

Here, for what it is worth, are just a few of the things I would be worrying about having kept people from being able to vote in the 2012 presidential election, or from having their vote counted—things that we may look back in a few days as having helped decide a very close race:

1. Restricted early voting. In 2008, Barack Obama won the two biggest swing states, Florida and Ohio, thanks in large part to capitalizing on early voting, by getting large numbers of supporters—disproportionately urban racial minorities—to the polls well before Election Day. Among other things, this reduced the odds of a repeat of what happened in 2004, when thousands of urban voters in Ohio gave up on voting after encountering very long lines at the polls. It was hardly surprising that one of the first acts of the Republicans who took control of the Ohio and Florida state governments in 2010 was to clamp down on early voting. The Democrats fought back in court and won some concessions, but early voting is nonetheless more limited this time around. In 2008 in Ohio, many cities had voting on most or all of the weekends for a full month before the election. This year, there is weekend voting only on this upcoming weekend, and the hours available will be narrower than last year. Meanwhile, Florida Republicans successfully eliminated voting on the Sunday before the election, which the Democrats had capitalized on particularly effectively with their “souls to the polls” program, having congregants bused straight from church to the voting center. Florida Democrats did their best to shift this effort to last Sunday, the one Sunday when the polls were open. One way to gauge the impact of the limits will be to see if there are major lines on Tuesday. Several big Ohio cities, including Cleveland and Dayton, have in recent years cut back sharply on the number of Election Day polling places to save money, on the assumption that early voting would siphon away a lot of voters. But with the narrowing of early voting opportunities, we may be looking at troubling lines again in the cities.

2. Confusion about Voter ID. For all the talk about new laws requiring government-issued photo IDs, many of the new laws were either struck down or put on hold for this fall—the most stringent ones to stand are in Kansas and Tennessee (Virginia’s also stood, but it is considered relatively lenient). But the whole fight has left behind confusion that could have an impact, especially in Pennsylvania, where Mitt Romney is making a big last-minute push. After taking control in Harrisburg in 2010, Pennsyvlania Republicans pushed through a strictly-worded new requirement for government-issued photo ID—a law that, as one GOP legislative leader boasted, “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Well, it didn’t quite work out that way—after a lengthy back and forth, the state courts put the law on hold for this election—poll workers will be allowed to ask for photo ID but will not be able to withhold the ballot from those who lack one. But the final decision came down so late that the state was already well underway with its publicity campaign to get out the word about the new photo ID requirement. And even after the final ruling, some of the warnings about the requirement were still out there—on billboards, in utility bills, in radio ads, and more. While the Obama campaign and community leaders are doing their best to get the word out that ID is not required, it’s not inconceivable that a sizable number of voters will stay away from the polls under the misimpression that they don't have the necessary ID.

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3. Discarded ballots. This is perhaps the least sexy but most relevant of the concerns—the disqualification of ballots that have some sort of problem. In Ohio in 2004, 30,000 ballots were rejected, many for having the “right church, wrong pew” problem—having been cast in the right polling location but the wrong precinct, which in Ohio cities can often mean simply the wrong table within a given polling location. This also became an issue in the courts this year, as the Republican Secretary of State fought to preserve the right of local election officials to disqualify such ballots, even if polling workers were at fault in directing voters to the wrong precinct. He lost in federal court, though this week a court upheld the right of election officials to reject ballots cast in the wrong polling location altogether, not just the wrong precinct. Meanwhile, a separate fight is brewing over the rejection of absentee ballots—a technical glitch by the Secretary of State’s office is apparently causing thousands of ballots to be rejected because registered voters are being disqualified as unregistered. The rate of rejections has been especially high in Democratic-leaning Cuyahoga County (Cleveland.)

4. Poll observers. The usual liberal worry about poll observers is that they will get in the way and intimidate voters - as self-proclaimed anti-fraud groups such as True the Vote are pledging to do this year in battleground states. But there's an opposite concern in Virginia this year -- that Democratic poll observers in Fairfax County, the state's largest, will not be allowed to intervene to assist voters who are, say, turned away for lack of proper ID. A new interpretation of the rules is going to make it much harder for observers to lend assistance; Democrats are making a last-minute challenge in court. They would probably be less concerned about the rules if it were not for the fact that a new member of the county Board of Elections is Hans von Spakovsky -- the famous fraud-decrier profiled by Jane Mayer.

5. Local dysfunction. This one can take many forms—the brilliantly-designed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County in 2000, the belated “discovery” of 7,500 votes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin in a hotly-contested state Supreme Court race last year. Readers of my piece in the current issue of the magazine know one place to keep a close eye on in Ohio—Lucas County (Toledo), the fifth-biggest county in the state. Its Board of Elections has been so riven by dysfunction that the Secretary of State, Jon Husted, has sent in two overseers, a Democrat and a Republican, to help get the county through the election. Among other things, a recent personnel purge led by the county’s notoriously colorful GOP chairman resulted in the departure of the person in charge of the technical management of the electronic voting machines. The county treasurer, Democrat Wade Kapszukiewicz, told me back in September that he was already having nightmare visions of an essentially tied outcome in Ohio leaving the presidency undetermined and “Wolf Blitzer standing in the parking lot across the street the day after Election Day and telling viewers, ‘I’m here in Toledo and we’re still waiting to get inside the Lucas County Board of Elections...”

A final note: For an uplifting reminder of what Election Day should be all about, check out Friday's StoryCorps segment at NPR. I often find the segments  a bit precious, but this one stood out -- it's with a truck driver who for 20 years has volunteered as a poll worker. An excerpt: "Over the years I've run into many people who are naturalized citizens. They've come from all over the world. I've had people approach me and ask me, How much do I have to pay to cast my ballot? I've had people with tears in their eyes, grown people who are voting for the first time in their life because the country where they come from they didn't have that right. And if I can help lighten the mood and set them at ease that they're doing fine, and there is no wrong way to vote, I honestly believe that what I am doing is important. I'm there as a representative of what's right in America, and I enjoy it."

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

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