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Executive Summary

“I am calling about a problem I had this morning for voting. I was denied my right to vote. I am a registered voter. I have proof of registration. I have my registration card along with my registration number. I had my ID with me. They said that because I am not on the list, I could not vote. I was not offered a provisional ballot. I was straight-out denied my right to vote today.”
Voter Hotline caller, Miami-Dade County, Florida, November 4, 2008

“They are not letting me vote at the voting booth and my location because I had a different name the last voting year and have gotten married since then, even though I have identification that proves that was my previous name and this is my name now, including a marriage certificate, driver’s license, social security card. They told me, ‘better luck next year.’”
- Voter Hotline caller, Platte County, Missouri, November 4, 2008

“I went to my polling location and they told me my registration was erased from the system because I had not voted in the last federal election and that is something I have never heard of before so I’m not able to vote because of that.”
- Voter Hotline caller, Summit County, Ohio, November 4, 2008

“I went over to my polling location at 7:00 because I had to drive to Delaware for work (I’m a small business owner) only to find and be told that the machine was broken. I wasn’t offered any other way to vote, no back-up plan for those of us this morning. I’m now in Delaware and won’t be able to get home in time to vote and that’s very disappointing.”
- Voter Hotline caller, Berks County, Pennsylvania, November 4, 2008

These are a few of the voices of Americans who were denied their right to vote this past November 4th and tried to do something about it. These citizens were registered to vote. They went to their correct polling place with identification. They followed the rules, yet they faced an unexpected array of barriers and challenges. Some were not on voter lists, or their ID was not accepted, and despite efforts to prove their eligibility, they were not allowed to vote in the 2008 presidential election.

In other instances, the voting machinery itself failed. Electronic poll books did not work or operate smoothly. Or electronic voting machines (DRE) had problems ranging from not operating at all to inaccurately recording voters’ choices. Emergency back-up paper ballots, which were required to be available in many states, were not used or were ineffectively used, and as a result, many citizens left without casting a ballot.

The concerns and voices of voters who seek help on Election Day often are forgotten as winners are announced and the political process continues; however, during last year’s presidential cycle 68,992 voters called two nationwide voter hotlines where their Election Day complaints, cries for help, and views of the process were recorded — both for use on Election Day to correct problems at the polls, and, more importantly, for use in the months following Election Day as the basis for instituting reforms.

InfoVoter Technologies operated the two national voter hotlines discussed in this report, in partnership with major media organizations, such as CNN and The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Civil rights advocates, including Advancement Project, NAACP National Voter Fund, and Voter Action, which are co-authors of this report, tracked these hotline calls during the 2008 presidential primary and general elections and worked to ensure the broadest voter franchise.
The hotline calls offer an unfiltered window into voters’ experiences and often reveal systemic failures and limitations in the administration of elections. The first minute of each call was recorded, coded, and forwarded to local election offices with the hope of resolving the voters’ problems. Today, these calls serve another purpose: they can help Congress and election professionals to improve the process for voters before the next federal election in 2010. The calls also point out election administration policies and practices that are ripe for federal review.

The broad perception among election administrators that 2008 was a ‘trouble-free’ year –as no state experienced a ‘Florida-like’ presidential recount – is belied by the voices of thousands of voters across several states who called the hotlines seeking help to vote. Even in a presidential election where 133 million people voted, the reported breakdowns in the process for thousands of voters, as reflected in the hotline calls, matter — because every vote matters. Moreover, as we know, 2008 was not without fierce federal races with margins of fewer than 500 votes, the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota being a prime example of one such close contest.

But there is a larger and even more fundamental point that Congress should heed and act on before the 2010 cycle begins. For far too many voters, as their hotline calls attest, voting is a frustration-filled, even confrontational process where well-meaning, eligible citizens are being denied the legal right to vote. Instead of being helped to navigate a process that is increasingly filled with new requirements and technologies – such as matching a voter’s information with government databases or new restrictive ID requirements – voters are ever more aware that election workers in many states give the benefit of the doubt to the government’s rules, information and technology instead of to eligible citizens with voting rights.

This institutional bias extends to a reluctance to provide back-up paper ballots in many jurisdictions using electronic voting systems. This trend is deeply disturbing and must be fundamentally rebalanced toward the voter, so that all eligible citizens can cast a ballot that will be properly tabulated on Election Day.

This report’s authors know election administration is complex. Still, it is crucial that Congress require states to adopt simple Election Day safeguards that will help to eliminate many of the barriers to voting identified by the hotline callers in 2008. Their voices are the vanguard of 4 million Americans who were denied the right to vote last year because of election administration problems, according to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project’s estimates. The suggested safeguards, which are used in a handful of states but not nationwide, will remove potential voting barriers before the next federal election as Congress continues its work to improve elections.

After reviewing thousands of voter hotline calls, dozens of which are cited in this report, we urge Congress to institute these Election Day safeguards well in advance of the 2010 federal elections:

  • Require states to offer eligible citizens whose names are not on polling place voter lists, including voters who have moved within a state, a ‘voter affirmation affidavit,’ by which they can legally swear, under penalty, that they previously registered to vote. Upon completion of the affidavit, the voter would be issued a regular ballot. Several states now use this approach, where it is seen as simpler than the provisional balloting process created by most states to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).
  • Require states whose election jurisdictions are using electronic voting systems to stock a supply of emergency paper ballots at polling places as a backup tool in the event that electronic systems fail or to help alleviate long lines due to unexpected voter turnout.
  • Require states to accept as valid polling place identification, at a minimum, all forms of photo and non-photo ID currently authorized by HAVA.

These proposed remedies, as well as others discussed in this report, are based on the principle that assisting eligible voters to cast regular ballots and counting those votes are cornerstones of our democracy.

Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) to expand voter registration opportunities for eligible individuals in traditionally disadvantaged or underrepresented communities by mandating voter registration in motor vehicle departments and social and disabilities service agencies, as well as registration by mail and through non-governmental parties. In 2002, Congress enacted HAVA in response to various failures of election administration brought to light by the 2000 presidential election. In pertinent part, HAVA mandated the use of provisional ballots to ensure that voters would not be turned away at the polls, required states to establish statewide voter registration databases, and provided funding to states to upgrade their voting systems. But as thousands of 2008 voter hotline calls attest, the NVRA and HAVA have not gone far enough to ensure that all eligible voters who want to vote in federal elections can do so and cast a ballot that will be counted. Ironically, many of the reforms mandated by HAVA have had unintended consequences that have restricted the franchise.

As Congress considers the ongoing improvement of our democracy infrastructure, it is crucial it does not lose sight of the voters’ experience particularly as new hurdles emerge that prevent otherwise eligible citizens from voting. We urge Congress swiftly to enact the Election Day reforms described in this report, which are intended to prevent many of the barriers identified by voters in 2008 from recurring in 2010.