Experts Predict Confusion at Voting Spots

Posted November 5, 2012 at 5:51pm

Long lines in early-voting states, confusion over recently passed election laws and accommodations for voters affected by Hurricane Sandy are setting the stage for complications at voting precincts across the country Tuesday.

Blocks-long lines in Ohio and Florida greeted voters who showed up over the weekend to cast in-person absentee ballots, following legislative battles in both states over whether the early-voting window should be narrowed.

At a Cleveland precinct where more than 2,500 voters cast ballots after waiting in chilly weather on Sunday, the line began forming two hours before doors opened at 1 p.m., according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. Hamilton County’s only early voting precinct in downtown Cincinnati stayed open hours past its slated closing time of 5 p.m. to accommodate everyone in line, according to the county’s Board of Elections.

Caleb Faux, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and one of two Democrats on the county’s four-member elections board, said he expected large turnout on Monday as well.

“We had a board of elections meeting this morning and when I left, the line went down the steps, out the door, to the end of the block, around the corner and down to the next block,” Faux said Monday.

Election officials in Miami-Dade County assured Floridians on Monday they were prepared for Election Day after confusion at an election office on Sunday.

A county polling place in Doral, Fla., opened on Sunday, unbeknownst to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, to accept in-person absentee ballots even though the state’s official early-voting period had ended at 7 p.m. Saturday. After encountering technical problems and lacking the staff to deal with the influx of ballots, it closed its doors, with nearly 200 voters in line outside, only to reopen shortly after, according to the Miami Herald.

“I’d like the voters of Miami-Dade County to be confident that we are prepared,” Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley told a bank of television cameras Monday.

The Republican-controlled legislatures in Ohio and Florida both passed measures that narrowed early-voting windows, which were signed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). A federal court recently instructed Ohio to restore early voting to all eligible Ohioans after Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) interpreted conflicting statutory language as allowing only military voters to vote during the three days leading up to Election Day.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, election law experts at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice warned that confusion — both accidental and staged — surrounding new voting laws and procedures should be expected on Election Day.

Though a federal court in August blocked a new voter ID law in Texas from taking effect before Nov. 6, saying it placed “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor,” media in the Lone Star State report that some poll workers have instructed voters to use a form of identification that has a photo. Billboards in Pennsylvania referenced a voter ID measure long after the commonwealth’s highest court blocked it from taking effect, creating confusion about what voters there will have to bring to the polls.

“The laws were struck down but the confusion remains,” the Brennan Center’s Michael Waldman told reporters. “Confusion is the legacy of this fight over voting.”

Though the Department of Justice signed off on Virginia’s new voter ID law — it is one of 16 states that require federal approval to change voting statutes — election groups say that erroneous information provided during poll-worker training conducted by outside interest groups could create problems Tuesday.

A manual used by the tea-party-affiliated group True the Vote states that a poll worker “checks that the address agrees with the name and address in the poll book or voter list, marks that the voter has checked-in, and asks the voter to sign the voter book.”

Courtney Mills, a staff attorney at the Fair Elections Legal Network, said many forms of acceptable identification do not have an address, and the language in the manual given to True the Vote volunteers who could be chosen to work at or monitor the polls is misleading.

“We don’t know how many of them there are or how many of them have been selected to be inside, but we do know the information they received in training is incorrect,” Mills said.

True the Vote’s Catherine Engelbrecht says the group’s National Election Integrity Hotline has been “inundated” with reports of fraud in various states and said they were working to verify them before involving local authorities.

“It’s unfortunate to witness these last-ditch efforts to keep citizens from exercising their rights as election observers,” Engelbrecht said of the claims in Virginia.

Election officials in New York and New Jersey are also scrambling to help thousands of would-be voters who are displaced and struggling to recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

New Jersey announced that it would accept ballots by email and fax from displaced voters and first responders. There will be military trucks at polling places in hard-hit areas, and residents can also vote by provisional ballot at any precinct in the state and have their vote counted. At a press conference late Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that he would allow voters in affected areas to cast ballots by affidavit for the presidential race and other statewide races at any polling place in the state. Voters using this option cannot vote in local races.

“Obviously in both New Jersey and New York, people are facing tremendous difficulties and for some people it’s not going to be possible to vote. But many of the people who have been impacted by the storm are going to want to vote on Election Day,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.