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Who Really Won the Election? Democracy Did.

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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November 8, 2012

On Tuesday, despite the massive hurdles put in front of voters since 2010 – citizens nonetheless, fought through voter suppression tactics, misinformation, long lines, then longer lies, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to have their voices heard and votes count.

For the last two years, there was a wave of voter suppression laws passed in states. As the ACLU, has long argued many of the laws took different forms — voter ID and citizenship requirements, limitations on early voting, restrictions on third-party voter registration, purging, and criminal disfranchisement laws — but their impact and intent are the same: a cynical attempt to push certain constituencies out of the electorate in advance of an election. This is particularly true for voters of color, students, voters with disabilities and the elderly.

Through its lobbying, litigation and communications, the ACLU was a major player in highlighting and combating voter suppression laws. These efforts ultimately led to the Justice Department challenging the impact of several of these measures under the Voting Rights Act and sending a sizeable number of federal monitors to the polls in areas where ACLU affiliates had identified problems. We were there every step of the way, sounding the alarm about voter suppression.

In the end, the ACLU, our coalition partners, and DOJ were able to stop, limit, or postpone the implementation of many of the laws, in critical states such as Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and South Carolina. The people also fought back: in Minnesota, voters soundly rejected the state’s voter ID ballot initiative.

However, while we defeated many of these laws, the attempts to restrict voting rights still led to confusion at the polls. Our election administration system is in dire need of reform and more public education is needed to combat the efforts of elected officials and party operatives intent on disfranchising certain voters.

On Tuesday, I was working at the command center of the nonpartisan volunteer coalition Election Protection, and our hotline received more than 88,600 calls from voters reporting concerns involving long lines, inappropriate use of provisional ballots, broken machines, and poorly and wrongfully trained poll workers, among other concerns.

For example, extremely long lines were reported in states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, voters waited for well over four hours past the 7 p.m. closing time, even after networks began to project a win for President Obama. Just before Election Day, a judge extended early voting in Florida to accommodate the huge numbers of early voters, some of whom waited more than seven hours to cast a ballot.

In addition, huge numbers of provisional ballots were cast in lieu of regular ballots. In Ohio, election officials changed rules for voters using provisional ballots just days before the election. This extra layer of complication, and the resulting confusion, also increased the likelihood those ballots could be rejected.

And in Pennsylvania, where the voter ID law was enjoined for this election, voters and poll workers were not properly informed about the status of the law Many voters reported being incorrectly required to show ID at polling places statewide and were forced to vote provisionally or be turned away.

Capitalizing on confusion, deceptive practices also were reported. For example, thousands of Florida voters received misleading phone calls saying they had until “tomorrow” to vote.

Finally, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on Election Day, in spite of an emergency plan to ease the burden of voting on those affected. Voters, many still without power or water, scrambled to find their moved or mobile polling places amid major destruction. In New Jersey, this resulted in record low turnout, as well as election officials being overwhelmed by faxed and emailed ballots.

In New York, there was widespread poll worker confusion regarding an executive order signed by the governor that allowed displaced voters to cast “affidavit” ballots at any polling site. Numerous sites ran out of these provisional ballots or reported broken machines, leading to extremely long lines.

There are more discriminatory laws that must be addressed, and it is yet unknown how much higher voter turnout would have been absent these tactics. It also not yet known how many voters were deterred or votes did not count because of the resulting confusion on Election Day. We will continue to fight for every vote and every voter.

But, despite all this, the people persevered: they stood up for their rights. They stood, literally and figuratively, for democracy.

In his victory speech, President Obama recognized the sacrifice many people made in order to vote on Tuesday, and called for a fix to the problem of long lines.

We agree. There are steps that we can take to avoid this kind of confusion and chaos on future election days:

  • Provide better training for poll workers and election officials. Polls are often run by dedicated, civic-minded volunteers who generously donate their time to help make Election Day run smoothly. We need to ensure that everyone who works in our polling places have up-to-date and detailed information on the often rapidly changing voting laws in their jurisdictions. But there must also be enforcement of state and federal voting rights laws, where poll workers or state election officials are still not complying with the law.
  • Enact federal legislation that mandates uniform standards in federal elections for longer early voting periods, the distribution, casting and counting of provisional ballots, and mandatory poll worker training, thereby eliminating the confusing patchwork of state laws.
  • Better utilize current resources and increase future funding for election administration, so that long lines are never caused by a lack of paper ballots or a lack of or inequitable distribution of electronic voting machines.
  • Broaden and strengthen public education. Even where we have stopped suppressive state laws in court, some voters may not always have the most up-to-date information. The ACLU and other civil rights groups engage in voter empowerment, but it is also the responsibility of federal, state, and local officials to ensure that voters know what their rights are and what they need to do in order to cast a ballot.

Instead of appealing to voters with the power of their ideas to broaden the base of voter participation, some legislators have felt the path to victory was pushing groups out of the electorate through suppression tactics. This election was a referendum for rejecting that path. Ultimately, for any party to prevail in an America of changed demographics, elected officials must learn to appeal to voters on the merits to win, not engage in cynical tactics to prevent them from voting for opponents. This election, the ACLU and voters fought back. Democracy was the clear winner.

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