Bravo TV has been running episodes of the West Wing over recent days, the ones from the final season where they tracked the fictitious campaign to replace the outgoing two-term president. Others have noted certain parallels between that fiction and current reality — e.g., a minority Democrat running against an aging center-leaning conservative — but that’s not what brings the West Wing reference to mind. During these episodes there’s another story arc woven throughout them referencing fraught elections in a heretofore autocratic former Soviet satellite. As diplomats wring their hands trying to make sure the fledgling sparks of democracy are able to catch hold without destabilizing the rest of the region, one of the solutions the Americans call for are US poll monitors.
As if we have any business claiming any authority on holding fair elections.
It’s been eight years since Bush v. Gore, and yet here we are, on the verge of it all happening again. Fifty individual states, each with their own rules about voter eligibility, registration procedures, ID requirements, early voting access, absentee ballot availability, vote recording and tabulation… Sure, some federal laws sit on top of these state rules, but their normalizing effect is still fairly minimal. Even if each state’s election laws and procedures were to unfold perfectly, confusion would still be rampant. And as we learned in previous elections, they certainly won’t unfold perfectly.
And already aren’t. I know because I spent two days this week volunteering for the Election Protection hotline (866-OUR-VOTE). Election Protection is a non-partisan organization of volunteer legal professionals available as a resource for voters confronting problems. In 2004 I’d gone down to Florida with them to monitor those polls in person, and just being there as a visible presence seemed to help a lot. (E.g., even though nothing major happened at any polls I watched, I heard stories of voter intimidation and other shenanigans at the polls we weren’t able to cover.) I know that now, like then, I probably helped people vote who don’t share my personal political predilections, but I’m ok with that.
What I’m not ok with is how dysfunctional the whole system is. The hotline work should have been a simple matter of helping people find their polling places so they could get out and vote, either on Election Day itself or at an early voting location. But instead it was full of panicked calls by voters wondering why they hadn’t yet gotten confirmation of their registration or their long-ago requested absentee ballots. In some states voters who hadn’t gotten their ballots could still vote at a poll with a provisional ballot, but provisional ballots might not end up counted — and for those voters nowhere near their normal polling place, they were hardly an option.
Meanwhile as calls came in from all over the country I drowned in a dizzying array of regulatory permutations. Could people register to vote at the poll on election day? Did they need to re-register if they moved? Could they register as a felon? And by the way, what would happen if it turned out they were purged from the rolls?
I’m sure that last contingency is going to present a huge problem this election cycle. From what I was hearing lots of people who haven’t voted in years will be trying to weigh in now. All elections are important, and it’s too bad that they sat those other ones out before, but this election is particularly huge. It feels like a huge and pointed referendum on what we want our America to be.
Since I do have a horse in this race I’ll spend the remaining days up to and through Election Day doing more election protection, but this time from a partisan angle. Like in 2004 I’ve already headed to another part of the country to monitor polls in a state where they are particularly contentious. I’ll post that story later, even though I hope it turns out to be an extremely boring one.
Still, when we hear so much about disenfranchisement and lost or mis-recorded votes, I fear it won’t be.