Six years after being ordered to overhaul their voting systems, states showed they were largely prepared for 2008’s historic election and near-record voter turnout.
“I was pretty proud. The story today around the country – unlike in 2000 or in some cases 2004 and 2006 – was not about the election administration, it was about the results of the election. That’s a sign of success,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State .
He attributed states’ success to increased preparation, such as a dramatic boost in the number of poll workers, and more time to adjust to the requirements of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The act, passed after the 2000 presidential outcome was in dispute for 36 days because of ballot-design and vote-counting problems in Florida, required states to modernize their voting equipment and voter registration lists.
Of course, it helped that Barack Obama won the presidency by a wide electoral vote margin. Protracted legal fights over missing votes or voter disenfranchisement are unlikely to occur unless the disputed votes can alter the results.
Not everything went perfectly. There were scattered reports of voting machine malfunctions in states such as in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. With more than 134 million Americans estimated to have voted – or about 64 percent, the highest turnout since at least 1960 – voters stood in lines for more than five hours at polling places in Detroit and Philadelphia. Precincts across the country reported shortages of paper ballots, and one polling place in Kansas City, Mo., had the wrong voter roll book when it opened.
In addition, several reports surfaced of deceptions aimed mostly at minority voters and college students, such as fliers or text messages listing incorrect polling places or claiming that, due to long lines, Republicans should vote Tuesday and Democrats should vote Wednesday, which was after the polls closed.
But worries before the election – of widespread voter fraud, large numbers turned away at the polls, long lines or broken machines causing frustrated voters to leave in droves – were largely unrealized.
“There really weren’t any major problems, there were lots of minor problems,” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org , a nonpartisan group that analyzes election processes. “But there were no big meltdowns like the ones that people had feared.”
Both Stateline.org and electionline.org are projects of the Pew Center on the States.
This election likely will spawn further changes to the election system. Up to 44 million people cast their ballots in the seven weeks before Election Day, and some of the 16 states that don’t offer no-excuse early voting will consider the issue, Chapin said. In Maryland, voters just passed a constitutional amendment that will allow lawmakers to enact early voting in time for 2010 elections.
Officials also likely will seek changes in voter registration systems, one of the most contentious issues before the election. Republicans claimed that groups such as ACORN, the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, committed voter fraud because some employees turned in voter registration forms with fake names. Meanwhile, Democrats worried that thousands of eligible voters were wrongly purged from the voter rolls of some states because of overly stringent rules for matching voters’ driver’s license numbers or Social Security numbers with information in state and federal databases.
Neither issue ended up disrupting the presidential election, but the pre-election concerns could lead state – and possibly federal lawmakers – to take up the issue.
Myrna Perez, counsel for the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice , said states were well-prepared this year but still can make easy improvements, such as more testing of voting machines and better voter education so people know basic information, such as when to turn in their absentee ballots or how to re-register when they move.
“Our democracy is our most cherished aspect of our identity, and we need to make sure that we do everything that we can to do right by voters, especially when the problems are so unnecessary and are fixable,” she said.
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