More irregularities emerge in Election 2012

A week after the international election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted serious shortcomings in Election 2012, irregularities continue coming to light. Concerns are growing, in particular, over Election Day voting procedures, partisan decisions to limit access to the ballot box and the long-term effects of the election-rigging practice known as gerrymandering.

The state of Arizona is coming under scrutiny for its practices related to issuing provisional ballots to Latino voters on Election Day and apparent attempts at voter suppression prior to the election. In the lead-up to the voting, local municipal offices in Arizona distributed voter ID cards that falsely provided information in Spanish that the election date is November 8, while the date was provided correctly as November 6 in the English version of the document. Although a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department said that no more than 50 of the documents were distributed before the mistake was caught, a local immigrant rights group said the damage had already been done.

“It’s a mistake that should not have happened,” said Petra Falcon, the executive director of Promise Arizona in Action. “To know that there’s information out there that’s wrong, it’s going to take a lot of work to make sure that people know the correct date.”

Even after that somewhat awkward mistake, Maricopa County distributed additional material in Spanish with the same false information. Bookmarks distributed by the Recorder’s Office were discovered to provide an incorrect Nov. 8 election date in Spanish, while English-language voters were correctly informed that Nov. 6 was Election Day. In this case, the Recorder’s Office said that 2,000 of the erroneous bookmarks were printed before the mistake was found.

The Campaign for Arizona’s Future, an organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and removing Sheriff Joe Arpaio from office, criticized the partisanship and conflicts of interest in the county’s election administration bodies that may be contributing to these sorts of “mistakes.”

“The whole thing is like Bizarro World,” spokesperson Daria Ovide said. “This is the county recorder, she is an elected official and as I understand it, her responsibility is to manage the elections process in the county.”

The Arizona irregularities continued through Election Day, with civil rights groups claiming that the number of uncounted early ballots was unusually high and that many Latino voters were improperly given provisional ballots rather than being allowed to cast their vote at the polling place. Further, the ACLU has sent letters of complaint to state election officials expressing concern that the state’s voter ID law is disproportionately impacting minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State, two days after the election there were more than 630,000 ballots yet to be counted, of which more than 160,000 were provisional ballots. Of those, about 115,000 provisional ballots were cast in Maricopa County (compared to 99,826 in 2008) and 26,194 provisional ballots were cast in Pima County (compared to 17,912 in 2008). As of Nov. 14, there were still more than 192,000 ballots that remained uncounted, prompting protests from the Latino community.

Advocacy groups working on registration of Latino voters have raised questions about why these provisional ballots were issued in the first place. These groups and others are seeking information on where such ballots were cast and if there has been a disproportionate impact on Latino voters, many of whom were voting for the first time.

“Arizona’s voters deserve an election system that works, and works equally for every eligible voter who comes to the polls,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. “At the very least, we have the right to know whether our ballots were verified and counted in a timely manner, and, if not counted, the reasons why. These questions must be answered.”

Arizonans of course were not alone in experiencing these sorts of irregularities. As Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pointed out in a Nov. 13 column,

From the perspective of the command center at the voting-rights coalition Election Protection, last week’s election was the story of a system badly in need of reform – of voters who did everything right but were turned away due to registration problems; of rights being deliberately misconstrued or obstructed; and of hours and hours of waiting.

Call after call came in to our hotline – more than 89,000 on Election Day alone – from confused and concerned voters. Voting machines were jamming in Ohio, and ballots were being stored in boxes marked “provisional.” Pennsylvanians were being wrongly turned away for lack of government-issued photo identification, even though the voter-ID law was not in effect. North Carolina voters were told that voting for one party would be held on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Unthinkably long lines were commonplace – in some places, scandalous. The last vote in Fairfax County, Va., was cast 3 1/2 hours after the polls officially closed. Faulty machines, ballot shortages, registration errors, poorly trained poll workers, and overwhelming demand were to blame – no doubt deterring thousands from voting.

Some of the biggest problems were seen in the state of Florida, where voters waited in lines for up to eight hours to cast a ballot. Nevertheless, Republican Governor Rick Scott has repeatedly stated since Election Day that he did “the right thing” by cutting early voting from 14 days to just eight in Florida this year, and then refusing to expand those hours on the weekend before the election, despite clear evidence of high voter turnout.

During the 2008 election, about 55 percent of black voters cast their ballots during the early voting period that Scott had ordered reduced in 2012, according to data from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

International observers from the OSCE noted in 2008 that “the increased possibility to vote early was a highly positive step for the U.S. electoral process.” That year, more than a third of American voters voted early: 18 percent of them cast their ballots at early voting sites, while 19 percent voted by mail. This was seen as especially encouraging because in past election cycles, hours-long lines effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters.

Following the midterm elections of 2010, OSCE observers again noted the beneficial development of early voting, which facilitated the participation of millions of Americans and “eased any capacity problems that might have occurred.”

Despite this positive feedback from the international community, states across the country sought to reduce early voting this year, with new restrictions adopted in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

In Florida, not only was early voting reduced by a week, but election boards were permitted to schedule as little as 48 hours of early voting.

The Florida governor came under such criticism for these decisions that he announced a review of his state’s voting processes with a particular emphasis on areas where voters waited four hours or longer to cast their ballots.

“I have asked Secretary of State Ken Detzner to review this general election and report on ways we can improve the process after all the races are certified,” Scott said in a statement. “As part of this evaluation, Secretary Detzner will meet with county election supervisors, who are elected or appointed to their position – especially those who ran elections in counties where voters experienced long lines of four hours or more.”

But as blogger Brad Friedman pointed out, the decision to appoint Detzner to review this process is fraught with conflicts of interest. “The only worse, less independent person who could possibly be chosen to head up a ‘review’ of what went wrong in this year’s disastrous election in Florida would be Scott himself,” wrote Friedman.

But since his hand-picked Sec. of State Ken Detzner carried out every single one of Scott’s horrendous, un-American orders to restrict voting and voter registration and to try and toss eligible voters off the rolls this year, resulting in even active-duty military voters getting purged, all while ignoring actual, massive voter registration fraud carried out by the Republican Party of Florida itself (until it could no longer be ignored), it may as well be Scott himself in charge of this so-called “review” in which Detzner has been assigned to tell us all why it was that, among other things, voters were still in line trying to cast their votes at 2am on Wednesday morning in Miami-Dade, even as the President of the United States was delivering his re-election victory speech in Chicago.

Another issue that has more fully come into focus since Election Day is just how big of an effect that partisan gerrymandering has had in ensuring continuing Republican dominance in the House of Representatives. As an analysis by Mother Jones magazine points out, “Americans woke up on November 7 having elected a Democratic president, expanded the Democratic majority in the Senate, and preserved the Republican majority in the House. That’s not what they voted for, though. Most Americans voted for Democratic representation in the House.”

Despite Democrats receiving more votes nationwide than Republicans (49 percent-48.2 percent), the GOP has secured a 233-195 seat majority in the House. This is the “second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression,” according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

So how did Republicans keep their House majority despite more Americans voting for the other party? Because they drew the lines. As Mother Jones explains,

After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received half of the votes in House contests, but Republicans will claim about three-quarters of the congressional seats. The same is true in North Carolina. More than half the voters in that state voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew more votes in Michigan than Republicans, but they’ll take only 5 out of the state’s 14 congressional seats.

To illustrate the point, Mother Jones created this graphic:


As the Center for Voting and Democracy explains, the entire redistricting process can be easily manipulated as a way to essentially rig the election before it takes place:

Redistricting encourages manipulation of our elections by allowing incumbent politicians to help partisan allies, hurt political enemies and choose their voters before the voters choose them. The current process is used as a means to further political goals by drawing boundaries to protect incumbents and reduce competition, rather than to ensure equal voting power and fair representation.

This problem has led to some recent attempts at reform around the country, such as in California, where an outside commission was adopted to handle the redistricting process. In Florida, a ballot measure was adopted that amended the state constitution so as to prevent lawmakers from drawing the lines in a way that would “favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”

But the reform process is slow-going. Attempts at national reform, such as the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, would require state legislatures to appoint independent commissions that would be responsible for redrawing district boundaries, which would be prohibited from drawing lines based on partisan interests. The bill, however, has not made it out of committee.

A common theme, of course, running through many of America’s electoral problems, including the irregularities found in Election 2012, is the partisanship and conflicts of interest that underlie U.S. election administration. Whether it is partisan state legislatures drawing district boundaries to prevent competition or partisan election officials making decisions about who is allowed to cast votes and how those votes will be counted, the obvious problem is that partisans are running election administration at the state and local levels — in contrast to good electoral practices.

As OSCE observers delicately stated last week, in the United States,

Administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials, resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country. While some election officials are appointed, others are elected, which raises possible conflicts of interest.

This language echoes previous OSCE statements, such as the final report on the 2010 midterms, which stated that while election administration in the United States “enjoys the overall confidence of stakeholders, the potential for possible conflict of interests of election administrators who run as party candidates remains.”

Due to this “potential,” the OSCE recommended that “if an election official wishes to be a candidate, or to campaign or actively support a candidate or a party, consideration could be given to requiring the official to resign and to be replaced, due to perceived or real conflict of interest.”

It could be said that the OSCE is being overly kind in its assessment that the system “enjoys the overall confidence of stakeholders.” The obvious lack of confidence can be seen in the epic legal battles that now coincide with every election cycle and the allegations of fraud and misconduct that come from both sides. But whether or not it is being unduly diplomatic for whatever reason, the organization is correct in saying that the system provides for the possibility of conflicts of interest – to say the least.

In fact, a system that allows election administration bodies to be run by partisan activists, candidates and elected officeholders flies in the face of electoral best practices and international standards. As long as the United States continues to allow ideologues of one party or another determine electoral rules, draw district boundaries and dictate voting practices, the U.S. will continue to suffer from perennial controversies over elections and will continue to be out of compliance with international norms.

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