Tuesday's to be Most Closely Watched Election in Memory

By Brendan Coyne
Published November 1st 2004 in The New Standard

In response to a rash of reports pointing to voter intimidation and suppression over the past few weeks, and worries over various kinds of fraud, many people will be turning out tomorrow at polling places for purposes other than voting. As "vote challenges" and other irregularities are expected especially in Democratic-leaning communities, a range of organizations -- some fiercely partisan and some unaffiliated -- plan to be on hand to prevent a replay of the contentious 2000 election.

Meanwhile, pro-democracy organizations are suggesting longer-term reforms that could make future elections less logistically contentious.

Some international election observers have been told they will not be allowed access to polling places in the two states widely expected to be most litigious this year: Ohio and Florida. About 100 observers organized by Fair Election and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will monitor the election in various places throughout the country.

However, Matt Rose, a spokesperson for Fair Election, said election officials in two of the three Florida counties which observers are attempting to monitor initially denied the delegation access to polling places.

On Monday, Jason Mark, spokesperson for Global Exchange, an international human rights organization behind the Fair Election project, said Broward County, Florida election officials had decided to permit observers into polling places, leaving Miami-Dade as the only Florida county which has denied access to the groups. Cayuhoga and Franklin counties in Ohio have refused to cooperate with the election observers as well, Mark said.

The delegations with Fair Election and the OSCE are but part of the Election Day observation picture. Aside from plans by many state and local Republican parties to utilize "vote challengers," various partisan and non-partisan organizations have announced plans to field complaints, provide information and aid people in getting to polling places.

One such group is Election Protection, a coalition of over 100 civil rights, labor, religious, media and legal groups organized under the aegis of the People for the American Way Foundation, a left-leaning nonprofit civil rights organization. The group claims to have over 25,000 volunteers engaged in actions from staffing an informational and complaint hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, and distributing state-specific "Voter’s Bill of Rights," to providing polling site voter aid and offering legal assistance.

Voters, observers and those turned away at the polls can also register incidents at VoteProtect.org’s Election Incident Reporting System, the online counterpart to Election Protection’s hotline. The website contains up-to-date reports of reported polling problems from around the country, broken down by county.

Vote Watch is a similarly-minded organization founded in 2002 to, "promote transparency in American elections, and ensure that every vote cast is counted fairly and accurately for all Americans, irrespective of where they live, where they vote, or their background," according to their website. Vote Watch is affiliated with Aguirre International, a survey and research company created by former US Commissioner of Education Dr. Edward Aguirre, and Common Cause, a progressive open-government advocate. Vote Watch provides an election hotline of its own, 866-MY-VOTE1.

Other organizations expected to be out in force on Election Day tend to be more openly-partisan. Myriad news reports and affirmations from leaders of labor unions, political action committees and the party faithful suggest voters and poll observers will both be appearing in numbers not seen in recent decades..

Karen Rosenberg, a United Auto Workers lawyer and labor organizer from Brooklyn, New York, says she will be in Orlando as part of the Lawyer Coordinating Committee of the AFL-CIO. They intend to provide legal support services to voters, operate a call-in center and, if necessary, file election-related legal challenges.

"I just feel that this is, number one, a hugely important election," said Rosenberg of her decision to work with the legal committee. "It’s so important that people should be stepping up and contributing what they can. The past election showed that the Republican Party has this ends-justifies-the-means mentality. They play hardball and are more concerned with winning. I think it’s totally reprehensible."

While groups scramble to protect the right to vote this election, the Center for Voting and Democracy (CVD) is "tracking reports of fraud and intimidation with an eye toward what can be done," according to the group’s director, Rob Richie. And they have some recommendations from past studies.

The CVD’s biggest recommendation is to federalize portions of the electoral system. The idea, Richie says, is to reach a compromise that would cut fraud and expand registration by setting minimum standards and goals for each state while maintaining a degree of autonomy for states to experiment and innovate. Richie suggests a national voter identification system would be a good place to start, adding that it would quickly nullify questions of fraud.

Another proposal the CVD supports is a Constitutional amendment affirming the right to vote. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) proposed such an amendment, and though it is currently seen as a partisan measure, Richie says that mindset might very well change if this year’s election results are in dispute.

"It need not be a partisan activity," Richie said of the amendment. "Certainly, just because someone [is] conservative, it doesn’t mean they don’t want elections run well. It’s just too risky to keep running elections the way we do. Right now we can’t handle a close election."

Estimates of the number of people expected to be involved in voting efforts outside of casting a ballot Tuesday are hard to come by, but an aggregate of news reports and organizational claims places the number at least in the tens of thousands.

The BBC reports that over 1,000 observers will be deployed Tuesday by the Justice Department alone, three times the number utilized in 2000.