Friday, January 25, 2008

Voter advocates get ready for November

Now that Michigan's confusing primary election has passed, voter advocates are taking stock and working to assure a smooth and fair election in November.

Advocates say that low voter turnout actually helped keep primary election problems to a minimum. But, they caution that if the Democratic ticket in November includes Sen. Barack Obama, it could mean huge turnout in Detroit and a logistical challenge to clerks and poll workers conducting the election.

Michigan's quirky Democratic primary did confuse voters. Due to the incomplete Democratic primary ballot, some voters felt disenfranchised. Others who voted didn't know the Democratic ballot was incomplete until getting to the polls. Most who came to the polls seemed to understand the voter ID law. Although November's general election ballot will certainly be more straightforward, much higher turnout and Michigan's voter ID law could increase the possibility of problems at the polls.

"People were upset they couldn't vote for Obama or anyone else they wanted to support who wasn't on the ballot. They thought there was a widespread attempt to disenfranchise the African-American vote," said Brian White, who spent much of the day at polls in Detroit. White is Michigan local advocate for the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C., voter advocacy group.

"I got some calls on primary day from random voters asking, `Were we disenfranchised? Do we have a lawsuit here?' " said Jocelyn Benson, professor of law at Wayne State University. A specialist in election law, Benson says that disenfranchisement didn't happen in the Michigan primary, because it involves "government stopping people from voting."

"It's hard to argue when you can cast a vote, that you were disenfranchised because you can't vote for the candidate of your preference," Benson said.

Looking ahead to November, Benson has concerns about Michigan's voter ID law suppressing minority votes. "I think there is some evidence, that when you are talking about who doesn't have ID's, you are talking about poor voters, voters who don't drive and elderly voters. You are talking about poor individuals who are predominantly voters of color," Benson said.

She believes that an outreach campaign on the part of the Secretary of State's Office could limit problems in November. She suggests that a simple plan could involve "contacting individuals who are registered to vote, but are not on the drivers license list, and encouraging them to get identification."

While voter advocates make voter education a priority, a lack of political interest on the part of the general public challenges such efforts. "Information about the Democratic National Committee stripping the delegates from Michigan is relatively obscure," said Vincent Hutchings, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Illustrating the general public's limited political knowledge, Hutchings said, "Something on the order of 10 to 15 percent of Americans have never heard of Dick Cheney. And the majority of Americans have not heard of Robert Gates."

Although he sees political apathy among the general public, Hutchings, an expert on race in politics and American elections, describes Obama's candidacy as taking on a "movement quality." "He actually started off wanting to be a symbol for change in politics -- a symbol for post-identity politics and post-racial politics," Hutchings said. "Instead he is becoming a symbol for identity politics even though he strives not to be that."

Enthusiasm for an Obama candidacy could lead to big turnout in Detroit and big demands on poll workers. White's concerns for such a scenario include: ensuring that voters know their rights and the voting process, making sure polls are adequately staffed and have enough equipment, making sure polling places open on time, and ensuring an adequate supply of ballots.

"We have to recognize that depending on who is on the ballot, we can expect high turnout and take precautions now to ensure that when voters show up at the polls that we don't have the situations we saw in Ohio in 2004 and Florida in 2000," White said. The outcome of the 2000 presidential election turned on the Florida vote, which was extremely close. Inconsistent ballots, disputes over butterfly ballots, hanging chads and hand recounts eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Bush v. Gore, which effectively halted the recount and resulted in Bush's win. In Ohio in 2004, there were reported discrepancies including unequal access to voting machines -- traditionally Democratic areas needed more machines; Republican areas had enough.

Benson recommends that voters check their registration status ahead of time at or on the secretary of state's website. "I'm of the opinion that it is the government's role to make sure everyone can vote," Benson said. "But checking their registration is one thing voters can do ahead of time."