Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What I Saw in Indiana

In the wake of President-Elect Obama's victory--and because of the sheer magnitude of his win--we risk losing sight of the many voting problems yesterday reminiscent of those that we saw in the much closer elections in 2004 and 2000.  Because no state's election on Tuesday--and certainly not Tuesday's overall election results--turned on voting problems, there seems to be little reason to focus on them now.

But these problems persist, and we should not lose sight of them.  We've blogged on them leading up to the election here, here, and here; and I had a front seat for them yesterday in East Chicago, Indiana.

I monitored the polls yesterday in precinct E.C. 21, a blue-collar and lower-income, almost exclusively Black and Hispanic, and overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood.  (Disclosure: I volunteered for this duty with the Obama campaign.)  The Chicago ABC affiliate covered our precinct here.  (Watch the clip after the story on the gubernatorial race.  Some of the footage late in the clip is stock footage, not from our site.)

Over 80% of registered voters in E.C. 21 voted yesterday--reflecting the record turnout state wide--and, for the most part, we saw few problems.  (No long lines, no persistently failing or broken machines, although these problems plagued other precincts in Indiana.)

But there was one recurring issue: A number of registered voters failed to appear on the voter rolls, and the county election commission had no record of them. 

I discovered the problem after the precinct inspector called the county election commission to help a voter whose name did not appear on our precinct's roll.  The commission told the inspector that the voter wasn't registered to vote. 

But my internet search of the Indiana Secretary of State's public voter records at the library attached to the polling place revealed that she was, in fact, registered, but in a different precinct.  She went to her correct precinct and voted. 

Yes, that's right: My internet (internet!) search of public records produced better information than the county commission.  And if we relied on the commission's information alone, this voter--and as many as a dozen others in our precinct on Tuesday--would have been denied their vote.

A dozen voters doesn't sound like much.  But consider that Indiana has 5,364 precincts.  If each precinct refused a dozen voters, 64,368 voters would have been denied.

According to the latest numbers at the NYT, with 99.9 percent of Indiana precincts reporting, Obama received 1,367,264 votes; McCain received 1,341,101 votes.  This is a difference of 26,163.

We don't know why the county election commission would have had stale information.  But this may provide a clue: The commission hired unskilled and apparently untrained high school students to staff their (inadequate and frequently tied-up) phone lines on Tuesday.  These were undoubtedly public-spirited youth volunteering their time for a good cause, but at least some of them lacked the guidance and training necessary for this critical election day task. 

This is the kind of problem that we might easily let slip in an election (like Tuesday's) with a clear and overwhelming winner, where these numbers wouldn't have turned the national election result. 

But this is also the kind of problem that could have impacted a closer election.

The Court ignored exactly this kind of practical, real-life, on-the-ground problem in a different context in last term's Crawford v. Marion County (upholding Indiana's voter-i.d. law against a facial Equal Protection/Harper challenge).  The Court there glossed over the significant practical problems that certain voters have in complying with the law and with filing a provisional ballot (as a backup).  To be sure, part of the reason is that the plaintiffs failed to build a solid record; but part of the reason is that the Court plain ignored them.  (Dissenting justices didn't.)  So I wonder: How much should these practical, real-life issues influence the constitutional doctrine in a meaningful way?  My experience yesterday suggests: Much more than they do.


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