The case for uniform election laws

by Leonid Balaban

Despite the electoral victory by Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election and the fact that the overall turnout has increased modestly by over 4 million people comparing to 2004 election, there were still plenty of reports of people having trouble voting. Long lines at the election precincts, thousands of voters purged from voting rolls, electronic voting machines breaking down or too few of them provided to large populated districts, not enough ballots printed and etc. – all these issues have reappeared during the 2008 elections despite promises by local, state and federal government officials that these kinds of problems will be resolved by the time voting takes place this year.

Truth be told, the type of voting meltdown that many voting experts have expected did not happen, partly due to the fact that the results of the 2008 Presidential election were not as close as they were 4 and 8 years ago . Seth Borenstein, a reporter for AP, documented fairly uneventful voting process, considering a fairly substantial increase in the number of new voters. He quoted Doug Chapin, a director of electionline.org at the Pew Center on the States: “For those of us who care about the American [voting] process, this was a good day,” said Chapin. “It was a massive undertaking with staggering levels of turnout.” Furthermore, Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard and MIT said that voting troubles in 2008 were a lot like the Y2K bug in 2000 — greatly feared and anticipated, but not realized. That’s because election officials and monitors were, like companies in 2000, prepared.

However, various reports about early voting from states like Florida, Virginia and West Virginia painted a different story. CNN reported that due to the recent problems with its touch screen electronic voting machines, Florida switched to using a paper oriented system in 2008. As with any new systems, they tend to cause trouble, which was the case in several counties in Florida.

“We’re having problems with the poll machines,” a voter in Jacksonville, Florida, told the CNN Voter Hotline. “They’re not aligned correctly, so you’re not sure about which candidate you’re voting for, so they said they brought in 10 new machines as backup machines, but they’ve corrected the issue.”

Part of the trouble stems from having to train election workers for the new system, said Buddy Johnson, the elections supervisor for Florida’s Hillsborough County.

“When you’ve got brand new equipment and you’re shifting from a touch screen, a digital system, to a more paper-oriented system, as we are this year, it’s a familiarization process,” he said.

Early voters are waiting for hours to cast their ballots as a result of the transition.

In Broward County, 17 of approximately 300 polling places are open for early voting, which ends November 2.

“Total disaster,” said a voter in Florida’s Broward County. “You get up there, and you waited three hours, and then the line totally stops. It’s very frustrating.”

High turnout was causing long lines in other states, including North Carolina, Ohio and Nevada, states.

On Monday night [October 27], one Broward County polling site closed at 10:30 p.m., three hours past the scheduled time, reported CNN’s Sean Callebs.


In West Virginia, there were some reports that voting machines were inaccurately recording the wrong vote. CNN’s Brian Todd reported that at least several voters in various West Virginia counties had encountered vote flipping problem.

The state’s and local precinct officials said that these problems were isolated and that poll workers fixed the problems so the correct vote was cast.

The West Virginia secretary of state’s office said most of the problems occur because the machines are not calibrated properly. Jeff Waybright, the Jackson County clerk, disagreed and said the problems reported there were probably the result of voter error.

“There are no problems with the machines as recalibrated,” West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland said Wednesday, according to an Associated Press report. “Touch-screen voting in West Virginia is accurate and secure.”

Ireland directed the state’s county clerks to recalibrate their machines each morning during the early voting period and on Election Day.

Aside from these voting irregularities, we had a issue of nonuniform availability of early voting throughout the country. According to Early Voting information center website, only 32 states have implemented and used an early voting process during the 2008 elections. Of the 32 states, 28 do not require voters to state a reason or an excuse for voting absentee or early. However, 22 states and the District of Columbia require an excuse to vote absentee by mail. Oregon, is still the only state that conducts their elections by mail only.

Moreover, poll closing times poll-closings(not counting the time zone difference) differ from state to state. As we can see in the following graphic, various states on the East Coast have different poll closing times. So, in North Carolina, polls close at 7.30pm EST, but in Virginia at 7pm EST, even though they are in the same time zone. Iowa, on the other hand, has poll closings at 10pm EST, which corresponds to several extra hours of voting for residents of Iowa as oppose to residents of Virginia. Thus we have an inconsistency from state to state in terms of how many total hours of voting are provided to respective state residents.

To summarize, since the enactment of Help American Vote Act in 2002, which was suppose to improve voting process throughout the country by establishing election standards, computerizing voting registrations, provide poll worker training and etc, we continue to have various election day (early voting included) problems associated with various issues. Therefore, I propose that a new federal law to be written which will accomplish the following:

  • Establish uniform voting practice for all 50 States and District of Columbia
  • Each state has to provide early voting opportunities, including mail-in ballots or in person voting
  • Electronic voting machines in all states have to have verifiable paper ballot printout
  • Electronic voting machines must have Open Source software
  • Polls on the Election day have to be open for at least 14 hours long in each state
  • Require no excuse for voters requesting absentee ballots
  • Allow same day voting registration, providing that they have proper identification
  • Increase criminal and civil penalties for such practices of voter caging and intimidation by any person or an organization.
  • Establish a non-partisan Department of Elections, independent of Department of Justice, which only job would be to continuously improve voting practices throughout the country.
  • Make Election day a national holiday



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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The case for uniform election laws

  1. Tony Robinson

    Yes, yes and more of yes. What compelling interest is there in allowing 5o different states and thousands of different counties all create their own election laws, changing them from election to election, manipulating them whenever possible to help one party or the other, etc. People move on average more than once every five years, meaning they are constantly encountering new election systems, new rules for how to register, when to register, what box to check, what to bring to the voting booth, etc. And even when they don’t move county officials constantly shift the rules to require such things as thick paper election registration forms, voting at a precinct location, voting at a super-center, then back to a precinct, etc., etc. Different voting hours, the under-distribution of polling machines in certain communities, etc., are proven to cause several hour long delays in some areas of the country, while other areas are problem free.
    It’s ridiculous and it doesn’t need to be that way. Leo’s right that a uniform national election law, requiring all elections to be held in accordance wiht standard national rules, and overseen by an impartial national commission, would be a vast improvement on our national mess.

  2. Shawn_Scanlon

    Yup. Echoing Tony here.

    Love the idea of national standards.

    Oh, and I’d like to see D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood by 2012, but that’s not even close to realistic. It would be nice to see them with equal voting rights, seeing as how they’re American Citizens and all.

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