An Electoral Tragedy

I was glad to have the chance to help citizens vote on Election Day, but election protection calls showed the inadequacies of our current system.

November 9, 2012

On Election Day, I had the privilege of volunteering for an election protection hotline that took phone calls from citizens who had difficulty voting. To say that it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. The day made clear to me that our voter registration and election administration processes are in need of fundamental overhauls.

From the moment I arrived at my call station that morning, my phone rang essentially nonstop with calls from concerned voters. Seven hours ultimately elapsed from the time I initially sat down until I had the chance to take even a short break that afternoon. And I was only one of hundreds of volunteers fielding thousands of calls from voters facing difficulties.

One of the most common issues I encountered was registration problems. Roughly 75 percent of the time, I wasn’t able to find a registration record for a caller inquiring about his or her registration status, suggesting, though not guaranteeing, that that particular person wasn’t registered to vote. Sometimes the person had moved recently and hadn’t updated his or her registration information, while other times the person had failed to register at all. Depending on state law and how far the person had moved (which seems like a particularly absurd determinant of whether one can vote), many of these people were ineligible to vote merely because of a registration defect.

There is no obvious reason to require citizens to initially register to vote and continuously update their registration information in order to vote rather than having the government address these concerns automatically. Once a citizen comes of age — 18 according to the 26th Amendment — that person should have to do nothing more than show up at his or her respective polling place on Election Day in order to vote and to have the vote counted. In fact, I received a call from a person whose dual-citizen daughter wanted to vote, but had not registered ahead of time. Because the caller’s country has automatic voter registration, she was shocked when I told her that her daughter had to register in advance in order to vote. Her daughter didn’t vote.

Another call I received came from a person who had lived at the same home and voted at the same polling place for 25 years. She discovered on Election Day that not only had her polling place been relocated without her knowledge, but also that she had somehow been designated as “inactive” by the state and didn’t appear in the pollbooks. She was justifiably outraged at having to cast a provisional ballot.

The other significant issue I received calls about had to do with polling place administration. Numerous callers complained of long lines snaking down crowded hallways and onto the chilly sidewalks outside. Others expressed concern with confusing voting procedures, citing a lack of poll worker assistance and oversight. One caller’s disability caused her to struggle to stay in line, find her way around the polling place, read the small text on the ballot, and ultimately cast her vote; she was brought to the brink of tears by the end, though she was able to vote. Another person said he waited in a long line and went home twice without voting because his disability made it too difficult for him to wait so long in the cold. I told the man that he could take someone with him to the polls to help him vote, but he said he didn’t know of anybody who could assist. I doubt he was able to cast his ballot.

Voting should be accessible for all eligible voters. Rather than being greeted by lengthy lines, unknowledgeable poll workers, and confusing procedures, voters should be able to vote in a matter of minutes with no difficulties. I personally was able to vote on Election Day without many problems, but not completely without incident. A pollbook worker asked me for “something with my name on it” — which is illegal in New York — and I ended up having to hand my filled-out ballot to a different poll worker to have it put into the scanning machine, exposing my choices for everybody nearby to see and infringing upon the sanctity of the secret ballot. These were relatively minor deficiencies compared to the problems I heard about on Election Day, but they were deficiencies nonetheless. Instead of being the lumbering monstrosity we have today, the voting process should be like a well-made Rube Goldberg machine: carefully constructed, flawless in operation, easy to use, and inspiring to behold.

I was glad to have the chance to help citizens vote on Election Day, but the conglomeration of calls I received laid bare to me the inadequacy of our current election system. As President Obama said in his victory speech regarding long lines at polling places, “we have to fix that.” We, as a nation, need to fix our voting registration procedures and our voting processes. Failing to do so threatens the legitimacy of election results and, indeed, our democracy itself. The rightness of having the authority to govern stems directly from all voters’ voices being able to be heard at the ballot box. A government based upon anything other than the will of the people is truly a tragedy.