Where should the polls stay open?

Analysis of breaking news events.
Nov. 4 2008 8:50 PM

Where Should the Polls Stay Open?

The question of the evening.

Voters line up outside an early-voting location November 2, 2008 in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio residents wait to vote

The presidential election is coming to a close in the time-honored way—with widespread anxiety about voter fraud, voter suppression, mechanical glitches, and long lines at the polls. Here at Slate, we're keeping track of the outrages unfolding nationwide. Check this page often for the latest news.

Tuesday, Nov. 4

Problems with provisional ballots in Ohio. No surprise there. Whether or not it matters tonight, the state has work to do on this. ... 8:50 p.m.

Via the Advancement Project, four problems in Virginia—which we identified earlier as a possible problem state. 1) Long lines in Chesapeake, 2) lots of people (unclear exactly how many) who registered at the DMV didn't make it onto the rolls, 3) some students (again, unclear how many) had to use provisional ballots in the Norfolk area, and 4) wet ballots in Hampton Roads (where it rained this morning) are causing optical-scanning-machine jams. … 7 p.m.

Via 866ourvote.org, we hear that dozens of voters in St. Louis submitted change-of-address forms well before Election Day that have not been processed. A local judge is refusing to hear requests for "form approval," so it's likely these voters will be disenfranchised. Of course, "dozens of voters" is small potatoes in comparison with previous election cycles, but Missouri is a battleground state, and it's possible this snafu is indicative of larger problems statewide. … 6:56 p.m.

In Virginia, there's an early bid to keep the polls open late. (They are scheduled to close at 7 p.m. there.) If lines persist—and why wouldn't they?—this will be the first of many such efforts. Many states basically provide for keeping the polls open for everyone who gets into line before the official closing time. But advocacy groups rush to court and ask judges to stop the polls from closing anyway as an insurance policy.

The other issue to look out for as the evening wears on: wrangling over the counting of provisional ballots—especially in Ohio, but also in other states like Virginia, where the McCain campaign has sued about the tabulation of absentee ballots. (The judge in that case just wrote a note that suggests he might keep this open until Nov. 10. Good grief.) If state-by-state contests aren't close, these battles won't matter. If they are—and there are congressional and state races to consider—the lawyers will be busy.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, voters in a suburb north of St. Louis report waiting six and half hours. Ugh.

And in Indiana, the Marion County Election Board unanimously removed two Republican poll workers for improperly challenging ballots. … 5:28 p.m.

By law, Ohioans must show identification to vote, like a driver's license or a military ID. It doesn't matter if the address on the license is different from the address on the registration form—you should still be able to vote. But we're hearing scattered reports that Ohio poll workers haven't been trained properly and are giving would-be voters with mismatched information a hard time, in some cases requiring them to cast provisional ballots.

Reader Philip Sandifer alerts us to a livejournal entry by a College of Wooster student, which reads, in part: "So the law says that anyone with an Ohio driver's license can use it to vote, even if the address is different from the one they are registered at. Poll workers at St. Mary's (the largest polling location for the college) are REFUSING to do this. … A lot of college kids are being disenfranchised. The out-of-state kids had to request a utility bill from the dean as a proof of residence. They're set. The Ohio kids didn't know they needed this letter. The dean's office is closing at 5, refuses to remain open past that."

The Columbus Dispatch also quotes a reader whose registration was challenged due to a mismatch problem. He had to return home to retrieve proof of residence before casting a ballot. … 5 p.m.

Third-party supporters, I've got just the polling station for you! At Pleasant Township Hall in Knox County, Ohio, a touch-screen machine would only register votes for Ralph Nader. Somewhere out there, a computer programmer thinks Nader never got enough credit for the Ford Pinto recall. … 3:35 p.m.

Fox News reported earlier that two Black Panthers stood at the door of a Philadelphia polling place, one of them holding a nightstick, and made voters feel intimidated. One called the police, and the guy with the nightstick was escorted away. Here's the transcript; here's a clear picture of the two men. The story checks out. It's also an isolated incident. … 3:20 p.m.

Update, 4:22 p.m.: An Obama volunteer denies that the Panthers were being intimidating. She says they were "guarding the polling place, a nursing home on Fairmont Avenue in north Philadelphia" but that "one was an officially designated poll watcher" and the other was a friend of his.

It looks as if Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are the states to watch this year. But, especially compared with 2000 and 2004, the problems are slight so far—mostly long lines and minor computer glitches.

Florida: Via Ourvotelive.org, voters showed up to the polls in Tallahassee only to find … no ballots! A rehab center for elderly residents never received absentee ballots. And reports of broken optical-scanning machines are pouring in from Tallahassee, Tampa, Broward County, and Miami-Dade County.

Michigan: Wired reported yesterday that optical scanners manufactured by Election Systems & Software failed pre-election tests—producing different results for the same ballots. Today, there are major machine malfunctions all across the state. According to the Detroit Free Press, complaints from voters in 13 different cities—including Detroit, Grosse Pointe Woods, and Battle Creek—had already come in by 11 a.m.

Pennsylvania: Republican poll watchers have been tossed out of a half-dozen polling stations in Philadelphia. Also in Philadelphia, machines in multiple polling places are out of order or never arrived.

Virginia: Widespread machine malfunctions are leading to inordinately long lines—including a seven-hour wait in the 32nd precinct.

E-mail us at slate.votingtrouble@gmail.com if you have something to report. … 2:05 p.m.

Ohio Republicans are worrying about the state's infamous provisional ballots. Again. These ballots are the ones voters file if they're challenged at the polls or vote late; they aren't counted until after the election. Earlier in the month, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit by the state GOP over whether the Ohio secretary of state (Democrat Jennifer Brunner) had to turn over the names of thousands of newly registered voters that didn't appear to match other state records when Brunner said the glitches were due to errors in record keeping, not fraud or other real problems. Today, the GOP filed the suit for the second time, amending it to claim (among other things) that Brunner hasn't ensured the uniform counting of provisional ballots and has "seemed to encourage local officials to overlook non-matching signatures." As a result, the votes of legitimate voters are being impermissibly "diluted," the suit claims.

This is a placeholder lawsuit: It will allow the Republicans to contest the results of the election after the fact under the federal Constitution, because Ohio has an unusual rule that took away the right to contest results in state court, says Ned Foley of Ohio State University's election law project.

It's also worth noting, though, that there are no reports as yet of hundreds or even tens of people leaving the polls because of the long lines in Ohio or any other battleground state. Also, no suits over the waiting times in places like Pennsylvania and Missouri. So maybe the delays aren't disenfranchising people, so far. … 12:50 p.m.

Starbucks is halting its much-publicized plan to give voters free coffee today. It turns out that offering "gifts" constitutes a felony under election law in many states. In Georgia, for example, "Any person who gives or receives, or offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony" (via the Atlanta Journal Constitution). But the coffee chain has found a way to foil the election Grinches—they're extending the freebie to everyone who orders a tall brewed coffee. Alas, no caramel lattes. … 10:50 a.m.

Lines, lines, and more lines. So this is what happens when Election Day turns into the main attraction opening at a theater near you. As Nathaniel Persily of Columbia Law School points out, this is when early voting starts to look like a real blessing.

In Virginia, waits of two hours or more around Richmond and half that in other parts of the state. Reports of machines breaking and jamming, though some of them are getting fixed. Also, phony calls telling people their polling places have changed. Hang up!

In Pennsylvania, early-morning backups. Also in Michigan and Missouri. A polling place in Kansas City, Mo., had the wrong list of voters, causing more delays. So much for voting before work. The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., sensibly reminds readers that around 10 a.m., the rush should ebb for a few hours. Till lunch? … 10 a.m.

Misinformation roundup: In Indiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, robo-calls and fliers are instructing people to vote on Wednesday (via ourvote.live.org). Likewise, in North Carolina, fliers left on cars at a shopping mall instruct Democrats to vote on Wednesday and Republicans to vote on Tuesday (via the Brennan Center for Justice). Also, a reader reports that someone hacked into the provost of George Mason University's e-mail account and sent this message to the whole student body: "To the Mason Community: Please note that election day has been moved to November 5th. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you." … 9:19 a.m.

Over at Election Law@Moritz, Ned Foley says he's especially worried about Pennsylvania on Tuesday. His big concern is overcrowding. The governor and the mayor of Philadelphia warned on Monday that polling places may be overburdened by heavy turnout and urged residents to vote midday, rather than before or after work. Last week, a court ordered the Pennsylvania secretary of state to issue emergency paper ballots if 50 percent of the machines at a polling place malfunction. The ruling is framed in terms of the problem of voters waiting in long lines and as a protection of their constitutional rights. Foley asks, "If a polling place has only 50 percent of the voting machines that it arguably should have to handle the level of anticipated turnout," is that the same sort of constitutional violation that the court found in last week's ruling?

Another problem state: Virginia. The Advancement Project, on behalf of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tim Kaine for "unconstitutional allocation of polling place resources." The two groups were seeking: a reallocation of existing machines and poll workers so that these resources are equitably distributed across precincts, the option to vote by paper ballot in the event of long lines (i.e., more than a 45-minute wait), and extended voting hours. But the outcome of this lawsuit is just the opposite of the Pennsylvania case discussed above: A Federal Court in Richmond ruled against the Advancement Project.

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has launched a "poll watching" campaign. According to President and Founder Chris Simcox, the organization is urging volunteers across the country to stand 75 to 100 feet outside polling stations with video cameras and to record any "suspicious activity" like "busloads of voters." Volunteers will be documenting license plates as a "deterrence effect against people voting illegally." The Hispanic National Bar Association has sent out a press release stating that the Minuteman campaign is "nothing more and nothing less than an effort to intimidate Hispanics and other minority voters on Election Day." (Thanks to Tracey Meares for the tip.)

E-mail us at slate.votingtrouble@gmail.com if you have something to report. … 7:15 a.m.

Monday, Nov. 3

About one-third of the electorate voted early this year in a gambit to avoid procedural snafus and encountered—you guessed it—lots of procedural snafus. Here's a brief account of problems experienced by early voters.

Technological Glitches

  • In Atlanta, four of five terminals connecting a polling site to the secretary of state's voter database  malfunctioned because "the state was having an Internet connectivity issue." It took about an hour and a half to fix the problem.
  • Voters in North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia using iVotronic touch screens reported "flipping"—wherein their choices were switched from Barack Obama to John McCain or vice versa. With help from poll workers, voters were able to correct their ballots.
  • In Park City, Utah, voters had to cast provisional ballots because of a computer glitch that made it appear as though they had already voted.
  • The summary page on Knox County, Tenn., voting machines displayed only the first three letters of the candidate's first name. Votes for Barack Obama were recorded as "BAR"—leading some to believe, mistakenly, that they'd selected Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate.
  • Absentee-ballot distribution in Fairfax, Va., was frozen by an e-mail blitz from a group that was trying to express concern about the adequacy of the state's voting system.
  • Oprah Winfrey had trouble using a touch screen, which initially didn't record her presidential vote.

Long Lines

  • Wait times averaged two to four hours at the 17 early-voting sites in Broward County, Fla. Last Monday, one site closed at 10:30, three hours late, to accommodate demand.
  • Four-to-five-hour waits were reported in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday—the last day for early voting in that state.
  • In Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, voters waited outside a polling site for an hour and then inside the building for another two to three hours.
  • The line to vote at the Cleveland County Election Board in Norman, Okla., was two blocks long on Friday.
  • Last Monday, voters in the Atlanta metro area waited in line for six to eight hours. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the average wait went down to about two hours.

Intimidation and Malfeasance

  • Poll workers in Collin County, Texas, demanded photo IDs from voters even though such identification isn't necessary.
  • Common Cause of Colorado and two other groups sued Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman after he purged 20,000 voters from the state's registration list within 90 days of the general election. After the two parties reached an agreement last Wednesday, Coffman purged 146 more names from the list—a violation of federal law.
  • The Americans for Limited Government Foundation, a group committed to "rolling back government" at the national, state, and local levels, sent a threatening letter to approximately 11,000 donors to left-wing causes. (Thanks to James Horwitz for the tip.) The letter reads, in part: "Your name has been put in our database. We are monitoring reports of a wide variety of leftist organizations. … Should any of these organizations be found to be engaged in illegal or questionable activity, it is our intent to publicize your involvement."

Bad Handwriting

  • More than 3,000 absentee ballots haven't been tallied in King County, Wash., due to "signature issues"—the signature on the registration card not matching the one on the ballot, for example. Slatefounder Michael Kinsley is one of many absentee voters who had to fill out a second form.

Bad Ballots

If you encounter one of the snafus listed above, or any other problems at the polls tomorrow, contact us at slate.votingtrouble@gmail.com. ...5:54 p.m.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.

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