THE BLOG
05/06/2008 08:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nuns, Students Blocked from Voting in Indiana -- Where's Congress?

As voters went to the polls today to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, there was an overlooked peril facing all voters this year: a failing election system and GOP-led vote suppression. All these obstacles undermine fair and accurate voting, leading to potential meltdowns and the disenfranchisement of voters, especially African-Americans, the elderly and students.

Indeed, the Election Protection coalition reported by mid-afternoon some disturbing accounts from the Indiana and North Carolina primaries from early callers to their 1-866-Our-Vote hotline. All told, by day's end, the coalition hotline fielded nearly 800 complaints about election barriers. As Election Protection reported earlier on Tuesday:

This morning, in South Bend, Indiana, a freshman student at St. Mary's College, excited to vote for the first time, left the polling place in tears because she only possessed a private college ID and was unable to vote. The poll workers, nuns at a local convent, were trying to help the young student through her problem. While they were helping her, they realized that some of their fellow nuns, who had just arrived at the polling place, also could not vote because of the photo ID law. Not only was this group of nuns disenfranchised, but so would be four floors of retired nuns in their convent.

"The situation this morning in South Bend is a glaring example of why Indiana's onerous photo ID law erects an unnecessary barrier to the ballot box and disenfranchises legitimate voters," said John Borkowski, Esquire, a partner at law firm Hogan & Hartson and Lawyers' Committee board member who witnessed this incident firsthand.


Why didn't the TV pundits take more notice of these incidents while describing the Indiana primary results as too close to call in Indiana as the evening wore on? Indeed, when you add in Obama-leaning minorities and students turned away from the polls because they lacked the proper photo ID, along with Rush Limbaugh's Republican dittoheads turning up to vote for Hillary as part of "Operation Chaos," the narrowness of the difference between the two candidates would doubtless have been even slimmer had there been a truly fair vote.

So when every vote counts, it's important that our election officials fairly and honestly count every voter -- a lesson progressives need to learn before the expected close election in November. That's in part because they can't count on a Democratic-led Congress, as Alternet reports this week, to take any action that can protect voting rights and our election system before the November election.

As Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Right's Voting Rights Project, concluded, "As this historic primary season has progressed, record numbers of voters have turned out to exercise their fundamental right to vote. It is unfortunate, however, that many of these eligible voters were disenfranchised and unable to cast a ballot. In state after state, including both North Carolina and Indiana, we've seen eligible voters lose their right to vote because of poorly trained poll workers, problems with voting machines and inaccurate voter registration rolls." It's equally unfortunate that Congress and most state governments won't be doing anything to stop these abuses and problems that undermine our democracy.

And remember, these sorts of complaints were based only on reports from those relatively few people who knew about the hotline, not all voters who were having problems during the massive voting turnout today. The coalition reminded voters that voters in both states could call 1-866-OUR-VOTE toll-free until 8 p.m. EST with any concerns. Other problems arose that should arouse concern in a country that supposedly values every person's right to vote:

Other incidents from Indiana include:

Multiple reports of voting machine problems, including from a school teacher who had to leave without casting a ballot because he had to get to school before classes started. Additionally, he said the mostly African-American voters were untrusting that the poll workers would ensure their votes would count.

At another polling place, voters were not offered paper ballots when machines went down, and countless voters left without casting a ballot.

A voter, previously convicted of a misdemeanor, was prevented from voting by a poll worker. Election Protection provided him with the code provision which dictates that only those convicted of a felony and those incarcerated cannot vote.

Specific incidents reported in North Carolina include:

Poll workers at a local precinct announced at 6:20 a.m. that there were no ballots and voters were sent home. Election Protection followed up and discovered that the polling place had the ballots in a box which had not been opened.

Election Protection has also received multiple reports of registered Independents who were not allowed to vote in either primary, or were given Republican ballots despite believing they were registered as Democrats at polling sites.

Trained volunteers will continue to staff the Hotline to provide voters with free assistance and volunteers will remain at election officials' offices in targeted areas across North Carolina and Indiana. Field volunteers are on the ground to assist voters in person or place telephone calls to the appropriate election official.

The toll-free number, administered by the Lawyers' Committee is available to any voters who need information, assistance or need guidance in understanding their rights. It is open to the entire voting public, but targets historically disenfranchised communities, including Hispanic, African American and low-income communities.

The result of all these problems and Congressional inaction? Progressives hoping for a victory in November because of an upsurge of newly-registered Democratic voters, particularly young people and minorities, should join with voting advocacy groups to protect these voters' rights to cast a ballot and have it counted. That's because, as Alternet reports in a new article, the Democratic-led Congress won't be doing anything to fix any major election problem this year, whether it's flawed voting machines, unconstitutional voting purges or GOP-promoted dirty tricks. (Of course, some critics charge, a few of Hillary Clinton's allies may also use deceptive practices, too.)

For today's primary, in the absence of meaningful state or federal prevention of voting foul-ups, voters experiencing problems in Indiana and North Carolina are urged to call either Election Protection's hotline, 1-866-Our-Vote or the hotline of the Watch-My-Vote Coalition, which includes Voter Action and the NAACP-National Voter Fund (NVF), 1-866-My-Vote-1. (The first emphasizes live help, while the latter monitors ongoing complaints and offers follow-up assistance calls.)

Unfortunately, these hotlines just record the symptoms, while the federal government -- and relatively few states -- have failed to cure the underlying disease of our disappearing democratic rights. After interviewing Congressional staffers and voting-rights advocates, I concluded:

As a result of Congressional inaction, look for more long lines, failed machines, questionable voter purges, election-day dirty tricks, GOP challenges to minority voters and ill-trained poll-workers who, following last week's court decision, are even more likely to mistakenly demand photo ID where it's not required, among other voting obstacles. In fact, as Jonah Goldman of the National Campaign for Fair Elections points out, "In every primary contest we found voters who were disenfranchised with identification requirements. This ruling is going to further confuse voters and poll workers." And it could likely limit the ability of elderly, poor and minority voters to cast their votes in Tuesday's Indiana primary -- and in other states where such laws could pass.

All this will be worsened by the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the vote-suppressing Indiana photo ID law that could limit the right to vote of the 20% of African-Americans in Indiana who don't have government-issued photo ID. Even more disturbing, as Michael Slater of Project Vote, points out, "The Supreme Court's decision gives a green light to legislators in the twenty-five states where strict photo ID laws are under consideration. If these states act, they will disenfranchise the new voters that this year's exciting election has stimulated to participate for the first time."

In addition, while the mainstream media has contributed to the misleading impression that all the primary elections have gone smoothly, voting advocacy groups have found a far darker picture, even before the trouble-plagued Pennsylvania primary.

(You can hear on-the-ground reports from that primary by clicking on this link to the radio show, "D'Antoni and Levine," I co-host at BlogTalk Radio that featured interviews with three voting rights leaders talking about Pennsylvania's problems.)

The Election Protection coalition found:

Under-Trained and Not Enough Poll Workers: In each primary covered by Election Protection, the dedicated cadre of poll workers misapplied many election rules - from what ballot to give which voter, to what to do when election equipment broke down - causing voters to unnecessarily cast pro-visional ballots or, worse, to leave the polling place without voting.

Election Machinery Breakdowns: Last-minute changes in voting equipment and new procedures at the polls caused confusion among voters, poll workers and election administrators often leading to dis-enfranchisement. But it was not only human error and confusion; ballot scanners jammed, electronic voting machines broke down and new electronic poll books malfunctioned.

Registration Roll Problems: From state to state, eligible voters who submitted timely registration applications failed to appear on the registration rolls. Other voters showed up on the rolls registered with a political party other than the one with which they intended to register.

Confusion Over Voter Identification Requirements: Voters across the country were improperly asked for identification. Some poll workers, apparently confused about the requirements in their state, were implementing illegal and restrictive voter identification requirements, turning away eligible voters who did not have identification.

How do we prevent these screw-ups from denying progressives ( and of course those Republicans who may care about honest elections) the right to a fair election this November? How, in short, do we avoid a repeat of Ohio in 2004 in key battleground states?

The Election Protection Coalition has some short-term reform suggestions, but they're just not likely to happen unless the rest of the progressive community organizes to make these issues a priority before November's vote:

Over the coming months, election officials across the country have the authority to prevent many of these problems from happening. Election Protection looks forward to working together with those responsible for administering elections to:

*Improve poll worker training;

*Ensure proper protocols for dealing with election machinery breakdowns;

*Implement procedures to guarantee that all eligible registrants make it on the registra-
tion rolls; and

*Widely publicize correct requirements and restrictions about voter identification and
other procedures.

Will any of this happen in such a large-scale way to prevent election disasters and the quiet disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters come November?

Don't count on it -- unless far more concerned citizens get involved in the often arcane issues of election reform.

As Robert Fitrakis, an Ohio voting rights attorney and editor of the Free Press alternative paper, told me for the Altnernet article, "The system is still broken and instead of voting being a universally guaranteed federal right, it lingers under the shadow of Jim Crow and states' rights."

You can hear more about this year's election controversies, voting rights and the latest political trends on "The D'Antoni and Levine Show," with my co-host Tom D'Antoni, a Huffington Post blogger, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., EST, at BlogTalk Radio

Read more reactions from Huffington Post bloggers to the Indiana and North Carolina primary results