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Magazine / rules of the game

More Voting Headaches Ahead?

Election officials say they're ready for Tuesday, but wild cards could disrupt the voting process once again.

photo of Eliza Newlin Carney
November 1, 2010

In theory, the nation’s voting system should function better in this midterm than in many past elections. After a turbulent decade of adjusting to new rules, new machines and new voters, election officials have started to work out the kinks, experts say.

“I actually am cautiously optimistic,” said Daniel Tokaji, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. “We’re now getting to the point where local election officials and poll workers are becoming more familiar with voting requirements. And I may be foolish, but I’m expecting fewer problems this time around.”

In fact, several wild cards could cause big headaches on Election Day and beyond. Few voters share Tokaji’s faith in the system – and that’s part of the problem. If election officials and experts are upbeat, this season’s fractious electorate appears more convinced than ever that the election will be upended by fraud, vote-flipping machines or illegal intimidation.


Such suspicions have already fueled polling place scuffles, lawsuits, and calls for federal investigation during early voting, and could complicate Election Day. Add to that an unusual number of close races and record early voting, which presents fresh technical and ballot-counting challenges, and the threat of voting disputes escalates further. Little wonder that party officials are calling in the lawyers yet again.

Election experts say the system is miles ahead of 2000, when disputed punch-card ballots disrupted the presidential race. Having embraced controversial touch-screen machines in the wake of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, most states have now settled on machines with a voter-verified paper trail, boosting audits and accuracy. States have also finally implemented the HAVA’s requirements for statewide registration lists, helping clean up the rolls.

“Today’s election officials are better trained, more resourceful and more aware of the potential for error than their predecessors were,” said Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives for the Pew Center on the States. “This generation who’s grown up under the microscope is far more savvy about what might go wrong and building firewalls than folks in the past might have been.”

Still, a volatile electorate and a string of early voting controversies have some election officials worried. Should the slightest thing go wrong, lawyers, party officials, activists, and candidates will be poised to pounce. Here are the trouble spots to look out for on Election Day:

Close Races. At least half a dozen Senate races are too close to call, including contests in Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington state and West Virginia. More than 100 House races are competitive, and close to three dozen are genuine tossups. Many are statistical dead heats, with polling margins in the 1 to 4 percent range. Turnout is unpredictable, and polling in the cell phone age can be dicey, increasing the chance of upsets. Many races will be too close to call on election night, officials from both parties predict. “Close elections always put pressure on the election system,” Chapin acknowledged.

Early Voting. Based on 2008, up to 40 percent or more of the electorate will vote early this year. This could shorten lines but slow down counting. Most states don’t count early and absentee ballots until Election Day. In Washington state, ballots may even be postmarked as late as Election Day. Voters casting ballots early and by mail must often follow precise directions such as notarizing a signature or signing the back of an envelope, introducing new possibilities for error. Mail-in ballots increase the likelihood of “acrimonious, post-election recount litigation, because there’s something to recount,” noted Lawrence Norden, senior counsel for the Democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

Polling Place Challenges. Amid heightened voter fraud fears, tea party and GOP groups have trained hundreds of volunteer poll watchers to observe and potentially challenge voters. This is legal, but only if it remains race-neutral and doesn’t cross the line into intimidation. Voting rights advocates charge that poll watchers have already intimidated voters during early voting in Texas and elsewhere. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, has called on Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate “several disturbing instances of voter intimidation” in Houston. Even poll watchers who follow the rules could bog down the process and create long lines, watchdogs warn.

Budget Shortfalls. The down economy that has created budget crises in many states could lead to cuts in poll worker training, polling place staffing and voting machine maintenance, all of which could exacerbate other polling place problems. Said Chapin: “While we’re still going to talk about accuracy and security, increasingly we’re going to talk about cost.”

Voting Machines. Voting systems may have improved, but every technology has a margin for error. Glitches have marred touch-screen voting in Nevada, New York and North Carolina this year, among other places. In uncontested races, a few flipped votes go unnoticed. But when things are close or go wrong, noted Norden, “the first thing people blame is machines.” It’s only one of many possible voting flash points this year.

Given this midterm’s high stakes, Chapin, said, “you might see multiple states go under the microscope.”

E-mail Eliza Newlin Carney at

Follow her on Twitter at

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