Election Day? Try Election Month.
With memories of Florida 2000 still stuck in the public craw like so
many hanging chads, election officials nationwide are bracing for a long
Tuesday followed by many days -- perhaps weeks -- of ballot challenges,
re-counts and unknown outcomes.
Missouri is among a dozen states thought to be prime candidates for
severe election hangovers. Some analysts already are betting on a re-count
of a tight U.S. Senate contest that could decide the balance of power in
"Election Day is no longer a one-day process," said Ernest Hawkins,
director of voter registration and elections in Sacramento County, Calif.
"That sense of finality has given way to a greater awareness for getting
an accurate count."
Seldom before have pre-election jitters received such attention.
In Iowa, Republicans have hired a private investigator to check for
possible fraud in the ways voters cast absentee ballots.
In Arkansas, Democrats are accusing the GOP of trying to suppress the
And lawyers for both parties intend to fan out across the nation
Tuesday to monitor activity at the polls.
"With 6,800 different election jurisdictions in America, you're going
to have problems in places," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the
nonprofit Election Center, specializing in election administration. "And
campaigns on the losing side are going to use everything at their disposal
to try to capitalize on that."
Balloting snafus and even dirty tricks have always been part of
elections, but the last presidential election put the spotlight on how
mistakes could disenfranchise thousands of voters and bog down the system
Now the nation is fixated on the potential for error or abuse: Dozens
of states are testing new election procedures and equipment, inviting
confusion. Poll workers are dropping out like never before, feeling
underpaid and underappreciated after the Florida fiasco.
And Congress, like the electorate, is almost evenly split between
Republicans and Democrats.
"This year, especially, you're going to see voters coming to the polls
loaded for bear," Lewis said.
Florida's punch-card problems in 2000, which delayed the outcome of the
presidential race for 36 days, unmasked the myriad ways a ballot could be
bungled. Despite state-by-state tweaking of election procedures, America's
patchwork of voting systems remains largely unchanged: Some are
antiquated, and none is foolproof.
A culture spoiled by push-button convenience and split-second service
remains mystified by all the screwups that go with exercising a precious
As an expected 70 million voters prepare to give it another go on
Tuesday, Kansas City election director Ray James senses a new national
malady on the horizon.
"We've seen road rage," he says. "Maybe we're looking at voter
Rash of accusations
• Wisconsin authorities launched an
investigation after a TV news crew caught Democratic workers handing out
money and free food to residents of a home for the mentally ill.
• A California judge sentenced two GOP
workers to four months in jail for forging signatures on
voter-registration forms. Alleged motive: They earned $4 for each
Republican voter registered.
• In South Dakota a woman hired by the
Democratic Party to boost the vote turnout of American Indians is at the
center of a 25-county probe into allegedly forged applications for
The flurry of fraud accusations is partly related to a nationwide
movement toward early voting, now used in more than half the states to
ease the crush on Election Day.
But early voting will not mean early returns Tuesday. Mail-in votes in
Oregon and millions of absentee ballots elsewhere -- including as many as
half of those in the closely watched Senate race in Minnesota -- are
expected to be tallied after Election Day.
Last week President Bush signed legislation authorizing $3.9 billion in
federal aid over three years to localities seeking to update their
equipment, fix flaws and curb the potential for fraud in voting
That action, all 161 pages of it, came too late to help election
officials this year.
Many states took matters into their own hands out of fear of becoming
the next Florida.
For example, Missouri approved provisional voting -- one of the
features of the new federal law. It allows people to cast votes even if
their names are not on registration rolls; the validity of their ballots
will be individually judged following the election.
That review process inevitably will delay the final tallying of close
races, said Lewis of the Election Center. A typical provisional ballot
requires a half-hour of human investigation. California usually spends the
better part of a month counting its provisional ballots.
No matter how laws are changed, few officials foresee the eradication
of voter fraud. Kentucky tried four years ago by offering $1,000 rewards
to people who turned in those suspected of buying or selling a vote.
The Fraud Busters program recently was ditched because of cold
"We'd get 100 or 200 calls each election," said Kentucky Secretary of
State John Brown III. "But we were never successful in making a case,
because the people who would call in weren't willing to come forward as
"These were people accusing their neighbors, their relatives, and they
were reluctant to make enemies, especially in small communities."
`No perfect election'
From the "We're Only Human" file, more headlines:
• Last spring in Austin, Texas, a
voter's belligerence so frightened three inexperienced poll workers that
they locked the doors of a polling place for 30 minutes.
• South Carolina officials rejected the
voter applications of about 100 college students because all had listed
the same address -- 701 Oakland Ave. That is the address of Winthrop
University; the students live on campus roads without street names.
• In Montgomery County, Md., many voters in the September
primary gave up in disgust after waiting two hours in line. The county
acknowledged staff shortages and poor training of its poll workers.
Tuesday's election will be smooth, officials promised.
"There is no perfect election," Lewis said. "Our definition of a
perfect election is when our mistakes don't become public knowledge."
The greatest source of mistakes, officials agree, is man, not machine.
Some jurisdictions pay $50 or less for a poll worker to toil 16 hours on
Election Day. Many workers receive just a half-hour of training.
And they're getting harder to find, especially in urban areas. Some
experts call the struggle to fill polling places with competent workers "a
The crisis revealed itself last spring in Los Angeles County, where
more than 200 poll workers failed to show up for a primary election.
The workers who do show up are typically the older ones, who are
determined to perform their duty.
In a recent election in Kansas City, one elderly worker displaying
signs of a stroke had to lie down at a polling place. James, the election
director, was stunned to find him sweating on a couch.
"I told him: `You're ill. You've got to leave,' " James said.
Wonders of technology
File the following under "They Can Send a Man to the Moon, but...:"
• In Wake County, N.C., 300 early voters
were asked to vote again because touch-screen machines had failed at two
of nine locations.
• Dozens of households in California's
Bay Area failed to receive absentee ballots because the Postal Service had
changed their ZIP codes last summer. The computer spitting out the ballots
did not know.
• In Dallas, 18 touch-screen machines
were taken out of service during early voting after complaints that votes
had been misrecorded. The screens apparently wore out from repeated
touching. (Is this
really possible? lkt)
"This will be the first election in which the equipment itself will be
on the minds of voters," said Kim Alexander of the California Voter
The punch-card method now banned in Florida will continue to be used
Tuesday in one out of seven U.S. counties. The most common method of
voting -- optical scanning of pencil-marked ballots -- is widely preferred
by election officials, but it is not foolproof.
" `Hanging chad' is to punch cards what `stray mark' is to the
optically scanned ballot," said Hawkins of Sacramento County. "Look close
enough, and you'll find stray pencil marks all over those ballots that the
scanner can't read."
Americans will be looking close, for sure, at the first signs of
trouble on Tuesday. And some experts say that's healthy, even if it means
making way for Election Month.
"Everyone should be much more on their toes now than ever before," said
Linda Gibbs, executive director of the Honest Ballot Association.
"Here's the simple fact," she added. "Either it
takes longer and it's more accurate, or it's quick and you make