March 22, 2004
After the massive voter registration fraud that occurred in the 26th ward, the Board of Elections promised an increased presence on election day in the precincts watching the polls, supplemented by outside inspectors.
I spent election day mainly in six precincts of the 26th ward, and had friends in at least 12 others. As near as I can tell, the sum total of this heightened attention was a single media event at the Norwegian-American Hospital in the 12th precinct with Board of Elections officials, state attorneys general, and federal election observers parading in front of TV crews proclaiming their success at cleaning up the mess and restoring faith in the system.
I should say that I personally did not witness any attempt at overt voter fraud, nor was any such thing reported to me by my co-pollwatchers. But if you spent any time in the ward that day, it was clear that protecting the public from a faulty electoral process was not high on the priorities of the Board of Elections.
Granted, this was not the kind of election that produces funny business at the polls: there weren't patronage jobs at stake -- as evidenced by the lackluster Machine effort -- like there are in aldermanic and mayoral contests. But problems at the polls went beyond malicious intent to simple competence in the basic procedures, enough so that the system could easily have been manipulated for nefarious purposes.
In the 5th precinct, the team of six election judges were so confused and incompetent at their task that I witnessed five violations of the rules (judges are not allowed to handle ballots once issued to the voter, judges may not accompany the voter into the voting area (unless joined by a judge of the opposing party - which they were not), judges may not feed the ballots into the ballot counter - only the voter can do that, etc.) in the first two minutes I was in the polling place. As a credentialled pollwatcher, I was entitled to point out mistakes and raise objections, which I did, but egos and tempers soon got in the way, and I placed a call to the Board of Elections hotline. Two inspectors were dispatched rather promptly, but it was clear that in the absence of overt, malicious fraud, they were pretty much not interested. "These folks aren't really the best and brightest" I was told, and it was true: the judges in the 5th precinct were mostly either homeless or poor, in any case had little education and had attended the minimum amount of judges' training. I don't mean to come off as a scold or prejudicing these people who were working hard from early in the morning for 13, 14 hours, but as the last line of defense in our most immediate democratic process, they weren't exactly instilling a lot of confidence. Luckily, I had access to an attorney that day who was doing pollwatching pro bono on behalf of the Obama campaign; he was able to come to the polling place and bring a little order for the last few hours until polls closed. I asked him towards the end, was it really as bad as I thought it was? Maybe I was just being overeager and not cutting these people enough slack. His eyes widened and that said it all.
The most troubling thing to me was not the handling of ballots, which was in most cases a matter of helping the voter fit the ballot into the punch slot, an admittedly tight fit, but was the issuing of provisional ballots, or rather the non-issuing, I should say. Provisional balloting is an innovation designed to protect voters from being turned away at the polling place for possibly bogus or technical reasons, even when they are legally registered to vote. This means that a provisional ballot must be issued instead of a standard one in cases where the status of the voter is challenged for whatever reason. Provisional balloting should therefore also defend a little bit against aggressive voter registration fraud; however, in the precincts I watched, I saw very little issuing of provisional ballots in cases where it was called for: many times a voter would come and present an affidavit from a neighbor stating they were a resident of the area, and judges would issue a standard ballot. Isn't this precisely the kind of situation the Board of Elections claimed to be bringing more scrutiny to? Where were the lists of suspicious registrations they claimed would be provided? I never saw such lists, let alone them being checked against the names of voters who came in.
It turned out to be such a blow-out for Obama that almost no amount of vote tampering would have made a difference in the outcome (and again, I'm not at all claiming any such thing took place this time), but because of that, it may be harder to raise concerns about the process for future elections where things will likely be considerably closer. Part of the problem is finding qualified judges; there has to be a better way than the promise of a few dollars and free coffee in the morning. Unfortunately, getting people to pay attention to vote fraud takes a Floridian-style catastrophe these days.