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Archive for November 2008

Why the Long Lines to Vote?

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This strange election is hopefully coming to an end. I’m sure most of us, apart from hoping our candidates win, are hoping this doesn’t get drawn out in the courts for the next few months. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of unresolved issues with our voting systems, and the most media time has been given to a few ACORN workers who didn’t want to do their jobs and turned in false voter registration documents, which ACORN looked through and marked for further review by the state (for free, Joe Taxpayer), and turned in as required by law. Since one of the candidates has been making such a big deal out of it, hopefully you know by now that they are required to turn in all voter registration forms by law, even if they say Mickey Mouse, or the media isn’t doing its job.

lineReally, the media isn’t doing its job. There’s a very, very important news story being completely ignored, right under our noses. As Election Day goes on, every news channel will be reporting all day long that there are extremely long lines for voting, and they will offer no other explanation than “turnout is high”. High voter turnout is a good thing, but it’s not the reason there are long lines. A high voter turnout was expected, and long lines are indicative of a voting system which is not prepared for any real participation in the democratic process. This is an extremely important issue which is getting absolutely no mainstream media coverage, and I imagine the handful of people around the nation who are really taking this issue seriously and working toward a solution must feel like they’re just banging their heads against a wall.

What’s causing the long wait times for voters? The prohibitive cost of voting machines.

Four long years ago, before I moved to a different country, learned another language, got married, and started working translating in the language I learned here, I was working at a small news production company, where my job was to process news being presented by the major networks, serious news, entertainment news, and news of the weird included, for a report compiled for major news outlets to have a written record of what’s out there, every day. I was a CSPAN junkie in my free time, and I would even keep tabs on Fox News (know your enemy, right?). During the 2004 election, the focus was on Ohio, and there was a news item that showed up at some point, very briefly, that stuck with me ever since. They were talking about the correlation between voting machine costs, poorer, urban, densely-populated areas, and long lines at the voting booth. They talked about it then, and they haven’t talked about it since, and finding information on it is extremely difficult.

Here’s the basic idea: Voting machines are extremely expensive. Whereas with paper ballots, each precinct buys only one scanning machine to count the ballots, when voting machines are required, multiple machines are required in order to accommodate voters. A simple voting booth is much cheaper than the voting machine, and with a limit to how much can be spent in each precinct, fewer people can vote at the same time with a voting machine setup than with paper ballots.

As I stated before, this is a tough issue for a blogger to get a handle on, because there aren’t many resources publicly available. A 2004 article at TomPaine.com states that the shortages of voting machines and long lines were more of a problem in inner city areas, and they don’t pinpoint a reason, but they question whether it’s a coincidence or a method of voter suppression in areas favorable to the Democratic Party.

butterflyI think they’ve effectively exploited a coincidence here. After the 2000 debacle, in which butterfly ballots were specifically designed to disenfranchise voters by creating a simple counterintuitive ballot design with an unerasable punch hole, the same party which stole the election was given the task of coming up with a better solution. In many precincts, and in some entire states, electronic voting machines, built by Republican campaign financer Diebold, now their division, Premier Election Solutions, became mandatory. Setting aside the valid accountability, partisanship, and transparency concerns, these machines are incredibly expensive. And the simple fact that they are incredibly expensive makes it harder to buy them in poorer precincts or to get enough of them to serve precincts with denser populations, such as in cities.

Saveourvotes.org tracks the effects of Maryland’s statewide mandatory voting machine systems. These machines are not just expensive for the state and local precincts (which share the cost) to purchase, they also require maintenance. According to Saveourvotes.org’s research, Maryland’s election system costs nearly 10 times what it used to since the voting machines became mandatory. They break down the numbers into per capita voting costs by county, and just roughly looking at the numbers (I’m not really a numbers guy) there seems to be a general tendency toward a bellcurve in per capita election spending along an axis from counties with lower populations to counties with higher populations. I imagine this is because in precincts with smaller amounts of people spread over a larger area, buying just a few voting machines to serve them raises the per capita cost because each machine is so expensive. Really, in these areas, voting machines are not a justified expense. (My wife also questions whether the little “I Voted” stickers are a justified expense.)

In more densely populated areas, however, there is also a higher per capita cost. And in densely populated, low-income, urban areas, the amount of money available per capita to pay for the election system is lower than in other areas. Remember, the state pays a portion, but the rest has to come from local funding.

Now, you would think that, considering the high cost of these machines and the profit they would make, Premier Election Solutions would be lobbying for more voting machines per capita in these densely populated areas, but maybe they’re afraid that if they actually put them there, someone would be elected who would put this electronic voting nonsense to a stop. There are people working toward organizing elections with a high turnout and the imperative to keep wait times low in mind, including backup paper ballots during peak hours, but their efforts are largely ignored.

Waiting in line for an election shouldn’t be that much of a problem, but despite legislation allowing employees to vote without consequence if they are late for work, in practice, these laws are not taken seriously. This is a problem which may have more of an effect on urban areas as well, and which certainly has more of an effect on working poor and working-class voters, rather than professional voters or business owners.

All you’re going to see in the mainstream media is the story that turnout is high, and they will say that whenever they show long lines, to make you think that the long lines are a result of the high turnout and nothing else. Don’t worry, they’ll imply, the election system is just fine. Well, it’s not. In fact, according to some estimates, it may have been possible for John Kerry to win the 2004 election if voters hadn’t given up on voting, be it for impatience or need, because of the 7-10-hour wait times in many precincts.

With all the voter intimidation tactics happening right now, along with the clear lack of any effort on the national level to deal with the problem of voting wait times and voting machine availability or any intention on the part of the national media to report on this problem, voting is an act of patient defiance. We should be proud of those who are enduring long lines to vote, but do not forget, the reason they are in those long lines is because the system is designed to keep them from voting.

Bring a book. I recommend Naom Chomsky.