TOPICS > Politics

Nationwide Polling Problems Could Affect Election

November 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: So far, there have not been reports of widespread voting irregularities, but there have been some voting problems across the country. They include long lines, voting machine failures, voters finding they are not on registration lists, and a shortage of provisional ballots.

For more, we’re joined now by two people who have been tracking potential voting problems across the country today. Doug Chapin is director of, a nonpartisan Web site that provides news and analysis on election reform issues; and by Becca O’Brien is cofounder and national director of Just Democracy, a nonpartisan network of law school chapters working on election reform issues nationwide. Welcome to you both.

Doug Chapin, there was great anticipation of voting problems across the country. Have they materialized generally?

DOUG CHAPIN: They have to a certain extent but in watching the news today, we find that election problems are really no bigs but lots of littles. We’ve had some voting machine breakdowns in New York City, one precinct in suburban Richmond that for ten minutes was voting in the wrong congressional district, some glitches here and there.

But nothing along the lines that we expected or were looking for in the wake of the Florida problem in 2000.

TERENCE SMITH: No Florida redux? At least not so far?

DOUG CHAPIN: At least not so far.

TERENCE SMITH: Becca O’Brien, you have people reporting to you from 28 states and the District of Columbia. What are you hearing?

BECCA O’BRIEN: Well, I’ve gotten to speak with a number of those law students today across the country and what I’m hearing is pretty much exactly consistent with what Doug just said.

There are some small problems as we expected that there would be.There are the type of problems that, for the most part, we expected that there would be. There are some isolated areas of… that are troubling, Little Rock, Arkansas, seems to have experienced some issues today.

It’s a little hard to get a clear report on what exactly happened, but it might have been a big deal. But the kinds of Floridas that we were looking for in Florida and Ohio don’t yet seem to have materialized.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Doug Chapin, in Ohio there were, you know, sort of dueling court case there is and tell us what happened when the three-judge panel finally ruled this morning. Spencer Michels referred to it in his piece earlier.

DOUG CHAPIN: Certainly. Literally in the wee hours of Tuesday morning a federal appeals court cleared the way for partisan challengers inside the polls in Ohio. Interestingly enough, though, when observers and others got to the polls this morning, those challenges never materialized.

To a certain extent they seemed to have decided to sit this one out — maybe because an appeals court in New Jersey had said they could not use a list of challenged voters. Now, late in the day another appeals court has overturned that ruling and that list is back in play and we’ll be watching to see if that had any effect on the vote in Ohio.

TERENCE SMITH: Becca O’Brien, there was also confusion, I believe, in Ohio and perhaps elsewhere on the whole issue of provisional ballots. How they are issued, how they are voted, and what do you know about them? Did it, in fact, cause some problems?

BECCA O’BRIEN: Well, provisional ballots seemed to have caused some problems in many places. Ohio in particular we heard some anecdotes about from law students who are on the ground in Columbus, Ohio.

It seems that when the provisional ballots– which is a new measure required to be provided by the states by a federal law that was passed a couple of years ago — provisional ballots allow a voter who shows up in a precinct and believes that he or she is registered and ought to be able to vote but whose name does not appear on the rolls to cast a ballot that will be held separately and then counted later once that voter’s eligibility has been verified.

There’s some confusion, it seems, among voters. There’s a lot of confusion — but even among poll workers as to where those provisional ballots can be cast in order to be counted. Many people in Ohio, it seems, were under the impression — which does seem intuitive when one just hears about the idea of a provisional ballot, that they would be able to cast that ballot anywhere and that it would be counted as long as they were registered somewhere in Ohio.

But it turns out the law is that you actually is to cast the ballot in your correct precinct. And this became particularly complicated in places where there were multiple precincts operating, for example, in the same space, maybe in a gymnasium or some other large space, so that the difference between casting a ballot in one… in your correct precinct versus an incorrect precinct might literally just mean that you had waited in the wrong line on the wrong side of the room.

TERENCE SMITH: And do you have any idea, Becca, how widespread that has been today – to this point?

BECCA O’BRIEN: Well, it’s very hard to say. One thing that is somewhat comforting is that ideally provisional ballots should be being used in the minority of cases. They really should only apply and therefore their problems should only be raised in the context of people who are not in the right place.

So we hope that most people have showed up in the right place and their names are on the rolls to begin with. But it’s pretty safe to say that in most precincts across the country some provisional ballots have been issued and some fraction of those, you know, have been cast in the wrong places and won’t actually end up being counted.

TERENCE SMITH: Doug Chapin, some public interest groups — one the Election Protection Coalition has said that as many as a hundred thousand voters may not have their absentee ballots counted because they didn’t receive them in time or had other problems. Have you heard that?

DOUG CHAPIN: We’ve heard similar numbers. And as most election officials around the country would tell you, that’s 100,000 ballots too many. It’s important, though, to keep in mind that in a nation where at least one party is aiming for a turnout of 115 million, while a hundred thousand is a big number by itself, it pales in comparison to the overall picture.

So while election officials want to work to make sure that everyone who’s eligible to get a ballot does so, it’s important to remember that it might not have as big an impact on the overall picture of the conduct of the 2004 election.

TERENCE SMITH: Doug Chapin, it’s important to point out, isn’t it, that many polls are still open as we’re speaking and I guess it takes you a while, does it not, to get the full picture of this sort of thing?

DOUG CHAPIN: It does, indeed — election day really is a process. We talk about it being a snapshot but it’s almost a time-release photo. It takes time to develop. We need to know how things are going in different states.

Sometimes the morning vote is very different from the afternoon vote. Circumstances can change. It’s easy to be overtaken by events. But we get a pretty good picture at least so far, that the problems we were expecting today have yet to materialize.

TERENCE SMITH: Becca O’Brien, let me ask you about the subject of voter intimidation. There have been numerous stories of flyers distributed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and South Carolina in minority areas generally telling people that if they have had any problems with the law that they mustn’t vote and that they could even lose their children, one flyer says in Milwaukee if they did so. You have examples of that and is there any idea who distributed these things?

BECCA O’BRIEN: Well, among the law students who are out in the field on the ground who I’ve spoken to today, there has been very little… very few anecdotes of intimidation of this sort that you are describing.

There were some stories from the city of Philadelphia about a van that had been… was circulating perhaps with a bullhorn making announcements that were somewhat along the lines of what you just described but certainly those are incredibly disturbing incidences.

It’s important to remember that these kinds of things have been going on for many years. They aren’t new this year. They weren’t new in 2000. And even if it occurs in a small number of places, it’s deeply disturbing and ultimately very discouraging to voters who experience… potential voters who experience that kind of intimidation.

But the good news perhaps is that the country’s attention is being focused so much more clearly on these issues now and I do hope that if they haven’t been cleared up by this election which it certainly seems that they haven’t, that they will get the attention they deserve before the next time we vote.

TERENCE SMITH: Becca O’Brien and Doug Chapin, thank you both very much.