“Ohio is the next Florida,” I heard someone sigh on election night at the League of Conservation Voters headquarters in Orlando this week. As vote counts streamed in all night, young pro-Kerry campaigners gritted their teeth, tried to drink away their nervousness, compulsively surfed the Internet for real information, and hugged each other and cried. It seemed, from Florida, that we were watching another election slip away, and that indeed Ohio might become the “next Florida” — a national battleground over vote-counting, voter intimidation and ultimately uncertain election results.
But we should not let this year’s voting debacle in Ohio obscure the fact that Florida is still Florida — and other states may not be that different. I and five other students from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies were among thousands of out-of-state volunteers who descended on the Sunshine State this fall to try to prevent a repeat of George W. Bush’s highly questionable victory there four years ago. We were out to get out the vote, and on the watch for violations of election laws and voting rights on Nov. 2. But what I learned as a polling place observer on Election Day was that even when nothing technically illegal happens, our American election system is still systematically disenfranchising large numbers of people in multiple legal and mundane ways. I came to realize, as an organizer for the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition told an auditorium of volunteers at a training session, that this election was not just a battle of Red vs. Blue: “Democracy is on the ballot.”
On Election Day, I sat outside from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in central Florida’s 90 degree humidity as a poll monitor in a racially mixed precinct. I watched dozens of people have trouble voting or ultimately not vote as a result of archaic, highly bureaucratic election procedures.
To be sure, there were beautiful moments which made me want to hold an American flag in pride for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001. I watched 18-year-olds of all colors stride proudly into the polling place, firmly clutching voter registration cards and IDs, and come out grinning. I watched Spanish speakers vote for their chosen country without being required to read a single word of English. I met a paralyzed man in a wheelchair who could only write using his forehead and a computer screen, but was beaming because he had the right to get assistance to vote in public at his polling place.
But I also found myself standing outside looking in the eyes of Michael Crummell, a young black man, telling him that despite his determination to vote for the first time in his life, there was no legal way for him to cast a ballot. He had just moved to Orlando from Miami, a four-hour drive away, and since he had changed residences after the voter registration deadline, he could not re-register in his new home. (The deadline to register is 29 days before the election in Florida, but it varies from state to state.) Trying to do everything right, Michael had sent away for an absentee ballot from his old county, but it never arrived, so he showed up to try to vote at his new local polling place. The poll workers turned him away.
Versions of Michael’s story played out all day, and I noticed a pattern: The people who had the most trouble voting, due to perfectly legal restrictions, tended to be under age 30, and they tended to be Hispanics and African-Americans. They were renters, people who move around from place to place. In Florida, you are only allowed to vote in the county where you are registered. And many people who had relocated within the state did not know until Election Day that they needed to re-register in their new county if they wanted to vote there. When these people showed up to vote, they were told to drive hours to their polling place of record, or go home without voting.
A few voters I met, with prodding from Election Protection volunteers, used an option unknown to most Americans before this year’s election — the “provisional ballot.” When a voter’s name does not show up on official lists on Election Day, she can vote using a “provisional ballot” which may be counted later if and only if it is eventually verified that she had been registered properly before the election. One voter told us a poll worker offered her a provisional ballot but actually warned her it “wouldn’t count.” Another, a young Hispanic woman, had filled out a registration form offered to her by some unknown organization at an outdoor table months ago, but the organization had apparently never submitted her registration to the government, whether out of malice or out of oversight. She was allowed to cast a provisional ballot, but our volunteer lawyer doubted it would be counted.
How many of these stories happened across the country this Tuesday? There is no way to know. But there is no reason for a country with so much technological sophistication, and such a highly mobile population, to continue to rely on archaic voter registration systems that lock voters into a single county and make it difficult or impossible for large numbers of people to vote when Election Day rolls around. There is also no good reason that all states should not permit same-day voter registration on Election Day, as six states already do. Our country’s voting system is designed to prevent voter fraud, but not designed to make sure everybody gets to vote.
I was heartened this week to see the number of Americans willing to work as unpaid human rights observers to ensure fair elections in our own country, but am saddened that this is necessary. As citizens, we need to fight to reform our voting system so that it encourages people to vote instead of discouraging them — particularly when certain groups of people are systematically being discouraged from voting. A presidential race has been won and lost this week, and it is hard to say whether the outcome would have been different if our voting system was different. But we must remember that another contest still will go on, in every precinct, every time Americans vote: Democracy is on the ballot.
Rebecca Reider is a second-year Masters student in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.