Voting Rights Concerns Outlined

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series on voting access.

Aside from registration snafus like incomplete or inaccurate voter lists, new federal laws requiring proof of identification for voters registering by mail are confusing and not uniform, argues a coalition of groups that says it worries about a fair vote come November.

Representatives of the League of Women Voters (search), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search), the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (search) and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (search) recently warned about five major areas of concern facing Election Day and the time left to address them.

"We believe the 2004 election is in danger," Kay Maxwell, president of the LWV, told "What we are doing is trying to sound an alarm."

The representatives said they believe voters are wrongly and routinely purged from the rolls and a high percentage of provisional ballots, which are issued when a voter cannot be immediately verified at a polling place, are not being counted at all.

Voting systems in many places remain archaic or poorly maintained, they also say, creating the perfect storm for chaos. They point to Florida, where thousands of ballots were tossed out because of "hanging chads" left on punch cards in the 2000 presidential election.

Because of the Florida recount, the winner of that election, George W. Bush, was not declared until more than a month after Election Day.

But the National Association of Secretaries of State (search) says while it agrees on the issues, the situation is not that dire. A spokeswoman said state and county officials had been working on reforms even before the federal government stepped in with the Help America Vote Act (search) in 2002. She said progress has been positive.

"By spreading an undercurrent of fear, we are going to have negative impact on voter confidence, especially if they give the impression that [voters] will not be able to vote or funny stuff will be happening," said NASS spokeswoman Meredith Imwalle.

She added that hundreds of law students and members of civil rights organizations would be serving as poll watchers on Election Day.

"It's going to be hard to make mistakes with all of this attention being paid," Imwalle said.

Still, critics say Congress is partly to blame for the alarm, as reforms under HAVA have yet to be fully funded. In addition, an option for states to request a waiver for the more serious requirements, like putting together statewide voter databases, doesn’t help prospects for 2004.

Meanwhile, the Election Assistance Commission (search), which was created to set standards for voting systems and to approve state reform plans, has been tied up in bureaucratic red tape until recently, and also hasn’t been fully funded, said Jim Dickson, executive director of the American Association of People with Disabilities (search).

"It’s frustrating, very frustrating," he said.

Larry Gonzalez, director of NALEO’s Washington offices, agreed that confidence in election  reform is growing, but voters, especially those from minority groups, need to be assured that the system is fair and accessible.

He said an estimated 7.9 million Latinos are expected to vote for president in November. Many look at the closeness of the 2000 race and are excited that their vote is so important. But, like everyone else, they need to know their vote won’t be tossed away.

"I think, at least from a Hispanic perspective, that the voters are energized," he said. "[But] if things go wrong, it could have an impact."

While there seems to be general agreement about the flaws in the system, observers disagree about the reliability of the new electronic voting machines.

According to a recent survey by Electronic Data Services (search), nearly 31 percent of eligible voters will be using computerized voting systems this November. This compares with 33 percent that will still be using paper ballots that are optically scanned, 12 percent using punch cards and 13 percent using lever machines.

A movement of watchdogs and public officials say they are worried because the electronic machines cannot produce a paper trail for a recount. They say the software can be manipulated, and poll workers are largely incapable of troubleshooting, as revealed in some local and statewide elections already.

But Dickson, who is concerned that as much as 20 percent of polling places will not be wheelchair accessible for the election, said the electronic voting machines are the freedom that many of the 37 million disabled eligible voters have been waiting for. While he claims access to these machines is not as high as the survey suggests, he resents that their rollout is hindered because of the argument over the paper trail.

"They need to look at the impracticalities of the paper trail," he said, adding that the idea of affixing a printer to each machines is not only impractical, it's "lunacy."

David Dill, a computer scientist with Stanford University in California, and organizer behind, disagreed, and said the aggressive push in support of the machines without some kind of backup is unwise.

"Dickson is wrong and he's misleading people to think it's some sort of moon shot to make a printer work," he said. "But it's entirely doable."