October 15, 2008

Will YOUR vote count? State's polls lack uniform standards

By Kathryn Boockvar and David A. Love

The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA), September 28, 2008

ON NOV. 4, will the vote of every Pennsylvanian be counted? Sadly, unless changes are made before Election Day, the answer is no. 

The main culprit is a lack of uniform standards in Pennsylvania. 

For example, there are currently no uniform standards governing when emergency backup paper ballots should be issued to voters. As a result, during the Pennsylvania primary, when voting machines broke down, some voters were provided with emergency paper ballots, others were told by poll workers to go home and come back later, and still others had to wait for hours until the machines were repaired. 

The procedures varied from polling place to polling place, and from county to county. This failure to treat each of our votes equally, and failure to ensure that each of us gets to vote and have our vote counted without undue burden, violates our state and federal constitutional rights. 

Another example is the lack of uniform and comprehensive poll worker training and support. Poll workers have been called the "champions of democracy." They are the last defense between a well-run democracy and an unstable, ineffective political system, and they deserve respect, support and appreciation for their service. Yet, instead, the biggest question mark in Pennsylvania's voting system may not be what has changed since 2004, but the one thing that has not --inadequate poll worker training and support. 

The sheer magnitude of vital Election Day responsibilities requires intensive training. Pennsylvania law requires that county boards of election "instruct election officers in their duties" and inspect the conduct of elections, "to the end that primaries and elections may be honestly, efficiently, and uniformly conducted." Poll workers are the direct links between election officials and voters, and their actions and inactions can make the difference between a vote counted and a vote rejected. 

Yet despite this, Pennsylvania counties rarely require that all election officials be trained regularly -- most commonly, only new poll workers are asked to attend training. And when they don't? Nothing. In most if not all counties, there is no penalty for skipping training, and no system to assess whether poll workers are qualified and able to perform their duties. As a result, countless untrained poll workers work every Election Day. This is contrary to Pennsylvania law, which states that "No judge or inspector shall serve at any primary or election ... unless he shall have been found qualified to perform his duties ..." 

Of course, it is the voter who suffers. According to the Fels Institute of Government, in 2006 the Keystone State had the nation's highest number of complaints about poll workers and election staff, the second highest number of complaints about coercion or intimidation, and the third highest number of complaints about requests for identification. Election Day complaints that were caused or worsened by poor poll worker training or support have included equipment operation problems, failure to distribute emergency ballots, late opening of polling places, language barriers, improper demands for voter identification, improper provisional ballot administration, intimidating polling place behavior, and ineffective polling place design and procedures. 

Of even greater concern, these problems have tended to occur disproportionately in poorer neighborhoods and in communities of color. 

All these problems cause longer lines, frustration and disenfranchisement, which not only burden voters, but also make Election Day much more difficult for the poll workers, who are already working an incredibly long day for little pay. 

Looking ahead to November, it is expected that Pennsylvania's surge in voter registrations this year and anticipated surge in turnout, combined with these problems, will mean longer lines, longer wait times, and more machine breakdowns and errors at polling places throughout the commonwealth. 

The solution to avoiding these problems is clear: the secretary of state, as chief election official of the commonwealth, must play a stronger role in mandating that all counties provide their citizens with equal access to the voting booth, and equal opportunity to vote and have their vote counted. Included in this: 

* Emergency paper ballots must be offered uniformly to voters when machines break down, and must be treated and counted as regular ballots. 

* Comprehensive poll worker training and support, with clear, uniform qualifications and assessment, must be mandated for all poll workers. Funding should be increased to allow adequate compensation for training. 

* State and local governments and other organizations should play a stronger role in recruiting poll workers, with modernized and energized recruiting messages, increased compensation, and other non-compensation incentives for becoming part of this vital process. 

If these things do not happen, then we might find ourselves with another Florida or Ohio disaster on our hands in the Keystone State. 

Voting is one of our most cherished fundamental rights as citizens. If we cannot guarantee an equal right to vote in the birthplace of American democracy, and ensure that all our votes are counted here, then where can we? 

KATHRYN BOOCKVAR is the senior attorney and DAVID A. LOVE is the voter protection advocate for Pennsylvania for the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization.

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