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Citizens Wrongfully Kept from Voting in 2000 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 12 June 2001 18:00
Last month in Washington, D.C., Bettendorf resident Scott Morschhauser ran into people a lot like him. “I can’t sleep at night,” somebody would say to him. “I can’t sleep at night, either!” Morschhauser would reply.

This wasn’t a national conference on insomnia. The gathering was part of a Voter Rights March to Restore Democracy on May 19. The several thousand people who gathered in the nation’s capital (as well as in San Francisco) were protesting the results of the 2000 presidential election – even though most of their fellow citizens had moved on months ago.

But Morschhauser and others like him feel November’s election should still be a hot issue.

“It’s like that line was crossed” between acceptable, business-as-usual politics and something more insidious, Morschhauser said. “I can’t get over it. … Bush didn’t win this election, and that means something in how this country should be run.”

Morschhauser is part of the grassroots Internet advocacy organization Voter March (http://www.votermarch.org), whose main goals include election reform and a full investigation of the way last fall’s presidential election was decided. The organization also supports campaign-finance reform and the abolishment of the Electoral College.

“The most important thing, the most immediate, is that the voting system be as honest, as error-free as possible,” said Louis Posner, a New York attorney who created Voter March on November 17 and now serves as its national chairperson.

Obviously, many people involved in Voter March – Morschhauser included – were supporters of Democrat Al Gore. Yet even if partisanship makes Voter March’s motives and aims somewhat suspect, it has become even more clear over time how widespread election irregularities were in Florida and around the country. What’s surprising is that so few people know about them.

Many of the Florida irregularities were detailed in a report the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approved June 8. The report, which can be viewed online at (http://www.usccr.gov/vote2000/flmain.htm), has drawn fire from Republicans who claim its analysis is partisan and flawed, but it makes the compelling case that thousands of voters were improperly denied the right to vote.

“Perhaps the most dramatic undercount in Florida’s election was the nonexistent ballots of countless unknown eligible voters, who were turned away, or wrongfully purged from the voter-registration rolls by various procedures and practices,” the report states. “Despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election. The disenfranchisement was not isolated or episodic. State officials failed to fulfill their duties in a manner that would prevent this disenfranchisement.”

While the Commission on Civil Rights report found no conspiracy among Republicans to keep citizens from casting ballots, Voter March leaders are convinced there was one. The Commission on Civil Rights “found no conclusive evidence,” Posner said. “That doesn’t mean they found evidence other than that. … At this point, they haven’t proven guilt. We know there’s guilt.”

Republican George W. Bush was affirmed president when the U.S. Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) ruled that Florida re-counts that might have given Gore the state’s electoral votes would not be allowed to continue. Bush officially won the election in Florida – and thus the country – by 537 votes.

Yet the event that probably changed the course of the election actually happened long before Election Day.

In 1998, Florida hired Database Technologies Inc. (now part of ChoicePoint Inc.) to purge its voting rolls of felons, dead people, and the like. But the state asked the company to identify people whose birthdays and names closely resembled (rather than exactly matched) those of felons; hence, according to the national office of the League of Women Voters, approximately 8,000 people were banned from voting because their names resembled those of felons, even though they had clean criminal records or had regained their suffrage. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights claims that an analysis shows a disproportionate share of those wrongfully purged from the voter rolls were African Americans, approximately 90 percent of whom voted for Gore.

What Morschhauser can’t understand is why the story – front-page news in Britain since November – is only now trickling into a few American newspapers (such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post), and why people aren’t angrier about the election irregularities that have been uncovered in Florida and other states – including a startling number of spoiled ballots in Illinois, particularly in Chicago.

Morschhauser warned that apathy can have severe consequences. “Sometimes you don’t pay attention,” he said, “and you’re in the Vietnam war. … I’m just trying to get people aware.”

While Morschhauser and people like him feel the media and much of the public is asleep on the issue of electoral reform, others think the likelihood of change has improved in recent weeks. The defection of U.S. Senator James Jeffords from the Republican party, giving control of the legislative body to the Democrats, has sparked new bipartisanship, said Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “The odds have increased” that Congress might enact some reform by the end of the year, he said.

The initial reaction of legislators to the election crisis was to call for upgrading all election equipment to the latest technology or creating a national ballot. The early thinking, Mann said, was that “we could buy our way out of this with technology.”

What has slowly emerged, though, is a consensus that the problems that happened in Florida were only partially a result of outdated equipment. Vague laws without standards for what constituted a proper vote; no clear procedure for re-counts; and the purging of eligible voters by the state were among the “human error” factors that contributed to the Sunshine State’s confusion. Mann has written “An Agenda for Election Reform” for the Brookings Institution that addresses many of those issues. It can be read online at (http://www.brook.edu/comm/policybriefs/pb082/pb82.pdf).

But the federal government so far is moving deliberately, with nothing enacted to this point.

In March, Republican and Democratic House leaders abandoned a plan to create a Select Committee on Election Reform. Yet several U.S. House and Senate committees held hearings on election reform since then, and legislators have introduced a handful of bills. Most involve conducting a study on federal election standards and creating a grant program to help states upgrade their voting equipment. “We’re beginning to see some good sense develop on this,” Mann said.

At the state level, too, things have moved slowly, even though election procedures are governed far more at the state level than at the federal.

The Florida legislature in May enacted the most sweeping reform, outlawing the punch-card ballot system in the state, providing counties with partial funding to replace outdated voting machines, and creating a uniform statewide ballot, among other things.

Georgia and Maryland have passed less-comprehensive measures. Georgia, for example, has approved replacing old technology by 2002, but the measure is contingent on funding being available.

Even though only a few states have approved the kind of reform that citizens will notice when they go to vote, Mann said he expects most states to have established procedures and standards for what happens in close elections before the 2002 balloting. “Many of the changes are just looking over [election] laws,” he said.

Mann said he also expects many states to implement systems in which spoiled ballots can be detected at the precinct level; voters who have completed ballots that would not be counted will have the opportunity to fill out new ones. This type of ballot verification is even available for punch-card systems, meaning that states would not have to spend large amounts of money on entirely new voting machines. “There are some things that can be done that are less costly,” Mann said.

In Iowa, the legislature hasn’t moved on election reform for a good reason: The state’s laws and equipment are already ahead of most states’. The Bush campaign considered asking for a recount in Iowa – which Gore won by 4,130 votes – but decided against it. “That’s saying something,” said Judie Hoffman, legislative lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Iowa. “The League feels the laws are strong” and don’t need to be revamped, she said.

The laws aren’t the only things in good shape. Even though the state has never passed a law mandating what kind of equipment can be used for elections, no counties in Iowa presently use punch-card balloting.

The only election-reform bill that the legislature passed during the most recent session was one requiring voters to show identification when they vote. Hoffman said the bill originally would have made it more difficult to vote – for instance, limiting absentee balloting and requiring that voting take place in libraries and city halls but not schools, churches, or grocery stores – but it was pared down.

Illinois, though, is hardly the model for elections that its northwestern neighbor is.

While the Democrat-controlled Illinois House approved numerous election-reform proposals, none passed the Republican-controlled Senate, and Senate President James “Pate” Philip has objected to many of the measures.

State Representative Mike Boland, a Democrat from East Moline, introduced and supported numerous bills to reform elections in Illinois. The most ambitious would have been a state-funded upgrade of election equipment to optical-scan ballots in counties that still use punch cards. Optical-scan voting, which is similar in the way it’s tallied to fill-in-the-dots standardized tests and lottery tickets, is considered less error-prone than punch-cards and allows voters to know at the polling place whether they’ve submitted valid ballots.

The bill would have cost between $25 million and $50 million, depending on whether the legislature decided to reimburse the 13 Illinois counties who’ve already implemented optical-scan technology.

But Philip has said he would not support any bill that would allow ballots to be counted at the precinct level, claiming that elections can be stolen that way. He has thus eliminated the possibility that voters could know whether they cast a spoiled ballot.

While several of these election-reform bills passed the Democrat-controlled House, all but one have died under Philip’s watch in the Senate.

While not success, Boland called it progress. “Before, we never got those through the House,” he said.

The only Boland-sponsored election bill that is still alive (it might be considered at this fall’s veto session) is one that would create voter guides. The publications would include basic election information (such as a voter-registration form and polling places) as well as statements from candidates.

Boland said that he thinks the state legislature will have no choice but to enact reforms to prevent what happened in election 2000 from happening in Illinois. “The public is way ahead of the politicians on this,” he said.

In the end, he predicted, legislators who don’t embrace serious electoral reform could pay at the ballot box for hanging on to the old system. “Their obstinacy can backfire on them,” he said.

Groups such as Voter March are trying to send a similar message.
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