Voting Rights Project - 2008 Election Monitoring

November 20, 2008

For the 2008 Presidential Election year, the ACLU Voting Rights Project expanded its outreach program of assisting voters with election-related problems and questions by:

  • publishing state-specific portable voter empowerment cards for 35 states;
  • revising our www.aclu.org/voting-rights website to provide information regarding voting and resources, and allowing voters to email questions directly to our office staff;
  • establishing a voter information and assistance hotline through our toll free number, 1-877-523-2792, available during normal business hours prior to the election and 6:00am-11:00pm (ES) on Election Day;
  • becoming a coalition partner with Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 local, state, and national partners formed to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process;
  • assisting voters in the Bethel Census area of Alaska on Election Day;
  • filing lawsuits in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia.

Many ACLU affiliates also participated in election day monitoring, and although we do not have complete reports from all of them, in general they identified problems similar to those we encountered. Detailed information regarding affiliate programs and VRP lawsuits will follow.

The voting rights website became active in August and provided voters with relevant information. The voter hotline toll free number was displayed prominently throughout the website; voter empowerment cards, distributed through affiliate offices, were available to view and download in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Hmong, Arabic, Lao, Bosnian, Creole, and Tagalog, and information regarding felon enfranchisement was available for 14 states. The website also contained information for those with disabilities; the ballot initiatives in 11 states; links to other voting rights organization websites; a voting rights blog; voting rights news, press releases and lawsuits; affiliate contact numbers; and other resources.

Voters began calling the toll free number well before Election Day. The VRP received some 496 calls and email questions since September 29th - 215 calls leading up to the election, 69 questions through the website, and 212 calls on Election Day. The toll free number, however, is available year round during business hours and voters are still calling with post- election questions and problems.

The VRP received calls detailing specific problems as well as those needing general questions answered. We organized our calls in the following categories: (1) absentee ballot issues, (2) administrative problems, (3) intimidation/harassment, (4) electioneering, (5) felony issues, (6) registration issues, (7) disability concerns, (8) voting machine irregularities, (9) student voting problems, (10) general questions, and (11) miscellaneous.

A majority of our calls involved general questions, administrative problems, and felony issues. There were 195 general questions. They involved voters locating their polling place and polling place hours, verifying registration status, and inquiring about laws regarding time off to vote. The VRP was able to respond quickly by verifying registration status and polling place through many state/county and organizational websites and referring to much of the information provided by the voter empowerment cards.

There were sixty-one calls involving administrative problems. They involved problems at polling places, statewide database issues, long lines, voter purges, challengers, poll workers, and phone lines. Given the large turnout, some long lines were anticipated. However, voters turned away because of the inability to verify registration with a statewide database, and poll worker lists not matching statewide databases was an overwhelming problem that must be further investigated. Some callers indicated changes in marital status, possible misspelled names, addresses not matched, etc. Where possible, we called and/or faxed county and state election officials to inform them of problems at the polling places, called Election Protection to send trained volunteers to the sites if possible, and last suggested the voter cast a provisional ballot. There were some calls regarding voters flagged as non citizens. Those calls were referred to our attorney involved in the Georgia lawsuit.

Twenty-three calls involved absentee ballots: voters never received the ballots, states were tardy in mailing absentee ballots, and/or the county never receiving a completed ballot from the voter. Information from affiliates and several county election officials indicated counties were receiving absentee ballots later than expected, and that the counties were receiving an increased number of absentee ballot requests. Many who called waited too close to the election to inquire and safely secure and return a ballot while away from their home state. Where possible we suggested the voter cast a ballot at their polling place.

Many of the voter registration problem calls involved voters whose names did not appear on the list of registered voters. After some discussion we were able to determine that some voters never updated their registration, or had not voted in many years, thereby being legally purged from the rolls. Some registration problems stemmed from callers registering through organizations like Rock The Vote, civic groups, DMVs, etc. and counties having no record on file of the registration. There are a number of explanations for why the names did not appear on the registration lists, but we could not help the voter who never checked their status before the close of registration deadline.

We also received 69 calls regarding felon enfranchisement. Though many calls were to verify if a formerly convicted person could vote, we are currently investigating a number of calls in Georgia where persons never convicted, or released with no parole, probation or fine were indicated as felons and denied the right to vote. Further information will be provided at a later date.

Electioneering was the subject of 45 calls received. Many of these calls involved, though not verified, campaigning within the designated area of polling places. However, a majority of callers wanted to wear candidate-specific paraphernalia to the polls. In answering we followed state law regarding passive electioneering, though we were careful to acknowledge the caller’s First Amendment concerns.

Calls involving voter intimidation/harassment, robocalling, and electronic voting machine irregularities could not be easily verified. We contacted county officials where voters indicated intimidation by poll workers or voters, and where individuals experienced robocalls. There were fewer electronic voter machine-related calls although some callers indicated machines were not working properly. The bulk of these calls, however, involved voters distrust of the machines and requests for paper ballots.

The remaining calls involved disability issues, student voting, and miscellaneous. We received 10 calls involving voting and voting rights from those with disabilities. In answering the calls, we consulted information from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and The National Disability Rights Network on our website as well as James Felakos, ACLU representative involved in disability rights issues.

We received five student-related calls mainly involving an email suggesting parents would lose the right to claim their children as dependents if the children voted where they were attending school. We dispelled that rumor.

Last, our miscellaneous callers, some 35, were callers who wanted to voice their opinion about the electoral system, engage in partisan banter, or request our published material.

The VRP, consisting of a staff of nine and one intern, worked vigorously to meet the concerns and problems of voters this election year. We are continuing to take calls and follow-up on many items previously discussed. We expect a more detailed report after initial follow-up is completed, monitoring efforts by the ACLU affiliates is detailed, and further information and decisions regarding voting rights lawsuits is obtained.

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