'I Hear Disenfranchised People'
Call-in line gives voice to voter frustration, provides data of problems

By Doug Chapin
Published April 8th 2005 in Electionline.org

New data from a voter hotline reveals that registration problems were the leading source of voter complaints leading up to and on Election Day 2004.

As concerns about the 2004 election mounted last fall, several organizations set up voter hotlines to enable voters to register complaints and concerns about the electoral process. The hotline, 1-866-MYVOTE1, was funded by a consortium led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government and designed by InfoVoter Technologies of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

InfoVoter President Ken Smukler presented a preliminary analysis (Powerpoint format) of the data on Tuesday at a conference of local election officials sponsored and hosted by Fels in Philadelphia. According to Smukler, the hotline received 208,524 calls from voters for two weeks between October 22 and November 3. Using a database linking voters’ phone numbers to geographic data, the hotline software was able to offer voters a variety of services.

Slightly less than half of callers (102,058, or 49 percent) opted to use the hotline’s polling place locator. The remaining callers chose either to be transferred to their local election office or to record a message describing their problem. The messages - 55,836 in all - provide striking, first-hand evidence of voter frustration on Election Day 2004.

According to Smukler’s analysis, the overwhelming complaint voters had was registration problems. In Allegheny County, Pa. (Pittsburgh), almost seven in 10 callers reported difficulties with voter registration, while half of the calls in Delaware and selected New Jersey counties reported similar problems. More often than not, the complaint was that a voter had filled out an application but had yet to receive a registration card.

Listening to some of the calls brings home the frustration many voters experienced. “I feel a little like the kid in ‘The Sixth Sense,’” Smukler said, “except I don’t see dead people - I hear disenfranchised people.”

One Allegheny County voter described an attempt to register with a military recruiter who reportedly asked the voter how he planned to vote for president. The voter refused to answer, and he wondered in his recorded call whether that was the reason he had not received his registration card. [NOTE: Although voters who left messages with 1-866-MYVOTE1 were notified that their personal information could be made public, electionline.org has edited the sound files linked here to delete certain personal information of voters.]

In another case, an Ohio State University student who registered in Franklin County with a group she thought “looked legit” complained that she had failed to receive her registration card - a fact she confirmed with a visit to the Franklin County Board of Elections Web site.

Christopher Patusky, executive director of the Fels Institute, said the calls themselves - almost as much as the data gathered as a result of the calls - were valuable.

“One of the most promising features of the system is its ability to record voter complaints en masse on Election Day, thus creating an electronic record of actual complaints, including the type, place, and time of the call,” Patusky said.

Moreover, he said, the data is valuable in identifying potentially systemic problems with the election process. “The same way that a doctor uses instruments and information to diagnose an illness in the body, [1-866-MYVOTE1] is able to use data, not conjecture, allegation or rumor, to accurately diagnose problem areas in the electoral administration system.”

An excellent example of this emerged in Broward County, Fla. About a week before Election Day, Smukler and 1-866-MYVOTE1 staff noticed a sharp spike in complaints from county voters about absentee voting problems. Based on that data, Smukler told the Philadelphia Inquirer that “I think Broward County has an absentee voting problem.” The next day, Broward County announced that it would re-send up to 58,000 missing absentee ballots.

Patusky and Smukler are both seeking additional funding to analyze the full list of voter messages. In so doing, they hope to fill out the nation’s understanding of the conduct of the 2004 election as well as to help guide the election reform process for the 2006 election and beyond.