Improve Poll Worker Training and Get More Machines, Voting Rights Groups Tell Congress

Jackie Jones // Published April 10, 2008 in Black America
Voting rights advocates, including radio host Tom Joyner, called on Congress Wednesday to find ways to make voting operations run more smoothly, including providing for more training for poll workers, helping states acquire enough voting and voter identification machines and establishing national voting standards.

Joyner testified Wednesday morning in the first of two sessions in a hearing that focused on lessons learned about voting patterns and problems in the 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses. Also on the first panel were Gregory T. Moore, executive director of the NAACP National Voter Fund; John Bonifaz, legal director of Voter Action; Cecilia Martinez, executive director of The Reform Institute, and Ken Smukler, president and co-founder of VoterLink Data Systems.

The afternoon session focused on specific experiences in Fulton County, Georgia, Prince George’s County, Marylan, and Maricopa County, Arizona. The hearing was held before the House Administration Committee, which oversees elections and the day-to-day operations of the House of Representatives.

The morning panel described irregularities documented through a voter alert line that “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” and monitor with help from the NAACP National Voter Fund. By dialing 1-866-MY-VOTE-1, callers can register to vote, find out where their polling places are located and report problems at the polls.

Joyner told the committee that as of Friday, nearly 21,000 people had used the phone line to register to vote and reported that there had been a total of more than 45,000 calls to the hotline. While the majority of those calls, he said, were about finding polling places or voter registration, a substantial number involved problems at the polls.

“On Tuesday, Feb. 5, we received nearly 10,000 calls throughout my radio show and throughout that day. We monitored those calls. ... At one point during the radio show, we were receiving up to three calls a minute. They were calling to tell us that they were having problems voting,” he said.

Before the testimony began, committee chairman Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) played excerpts from several calls that covered a range of problems -- from too few workers to handle a large turnout to machines breaking down to truly inexplicable situations.

“We had to write in our ballots and put them in a brown paper bag,” one caller said.

Joyner said his goal was to find ways to fix the problems so that they don’t reoccur during the general election in November.

“We want people to register to vote, but we’re making it too difficult for them to vote,” he said.

“It’s really impossible to keep the poll workers trained and on their toes all of the time” because it’s work that is done occasionally, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the committee, told the panel. “There are a number of errors made by poll workers and the voters themselves ... I think it’s important to note that.”

Ehlers seemed to minimize the size of the irregularities.

While the panelists said the hotline had not uncovered widespread fraud, the beauty of the system, they said, was that it could quantify specific problems and not rely on anecdotal evidence. Further, by exposing these concerns now, there was a window of opportunity for states to address the issues before November and allay voters’ fears.

“How do you get government to talk to election officials to get ready for the onslaught?” Joyner asked the committee. “This historic election season has produced some very emotional first-time voters. We don’t get calls about conspiracy and fraud, but we get calls about suspicion of conspiracy and fraud because of what happened in 2000 and 2004.

“The perception is everything,” he said.

“It would have been easy for this committee to wait until after the Nov. 4th election to see what voting disasters awaited us in Florida and Ohio or, as is more probably, another state that would experience major problems on Election Day -- problems that could have been avoided if we had simply stopped to analyze what we discovered during the first round,” Moore said.

The early analysis of the MY-VOTE-1 data showed that 72 percent of the callers were searching for their poll location because they were either first-time voters or voting for the first time in a new location. More than 20 percent of the U.S. population moves every year, and an even higher percentage of young people, African-Americans and low-income people move each year, making them the biggest targets of mandatory voter roll purges, Moore said.

“It’s important to note that the MY-VOTE-1 voter hotline can service tens of thousands of voters who have been moved since they last voted or whose families have been displaced from their homes by foreclosures, by hurricanes, by floods, by tornadoes, by wildfires and other natural disasters,” Moore said. “And, as people are being victimized by these personal disasters, more will be seeking this type of assistance.”

Bonifaz said the hotline results highlight a growing concern in the administration of elections.

“Jurisdictions across the country are increasingly outsourcing to private vendors key election functions," he said, "and, in the process, compromising the transparency and public control of our elections.”

As a result, Bonifaz said, problems with voting machines have kept people from voting, flawed databases have failed to list the names of thousands of voters who had been voting regularly for years, and thousands of voters had to use provisional ballots, meaning their votes weren’t counted until their registrations could be verified by other means.

Cecilia Martinez of The Reform Institute said some problems could be fixed by providing “multiple layers of information to voters” on polling locations, registration status and voters rights. By confirming one’s registration status and polling location at least a month before the election with the local secretary of state or board of elections office, voters could avoid some of the problems they encountered on primary day.

After the hearing, Joyner said he would consider a campaign to remind voters right after Labor Day to begin confirming their voting status and to encourage younger people, many of whom are technologically savvy, to become trained poll workers to assist voters with electronic voting machines.

He also said he would like to see Congress establish national standards to streamline the voting process and that he would like to see secretaries of state and election officials throughout the country come together to work on a progress, regardless of Congressional action.