Worst Places to Cast a Ballot–Or Try (9/2/06)

Illustration by Harry Campbell  from the September-October 2006 Mother Jones article, “Just Try Voting Here: 11 of America’s worst places to cast a ballot (or try) ” by Sasha Abramsky.

Abramsky writes:

We used to think the voting system was something like the traffic laws — a set of rules clear to everyone, enforced everywhere, with penalties for transgressions; we used to think, in other words, that we had a national election system. How wrong a notion this was has become painfully apparent since 2000: As it turns out, except for a rudimentary federal framework (which determines the voting age, channels money to states and counties, and enforces protections for minorities and the disabled), U.S. elections are shaped by a dizzying mélange of inconsistently enforced laws, conflicting court rulings, local traditions, various technology choices, and partisan trickery.

Her list of the worst places with the explanation.  Read the article for lots of other areas with similar problems:

  • Atlanta, Georgia for the 2005, Georgia law requiring voters to present either a driver’s license or a state-issued photo ID that costs between $20 and $35 and is available only from Department of Motor Vehicles offices.   Abramsky notes,

 Two-thirds of the state’s counties don’t even have a DMV office; Atlanta, the state’s largest city, has just one, where waits at the ID counters often run to several hours. In late June, the secretary of state issued a report finding that more than half a million active-status, registered voters in Georgia don’t have valid photo IDs. Fully 17.3 percent of African American voters, and one-third of black voters over age 65, wouldn’t be able to cast a ballot under the law.

  • Beaufort, North Carolina; Fort Worth, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (tie) for the 2004 touch-screen voting machine failure  in Beaufort, North Carolina, that erased 4,439 ballots cast during early voting two weeks before Election Day which were never recovered; the spring primary in Fort Worth, Texas, where 150,000 votes were tabulated in a county where only about 50,000 people voted; and Philadelphia, where more than 5 percent of voting machines broke down on primary day.


  • Franklin County, Ohio, where more than 2,500 voters in the city of Columbus found themselves  in a single precinct in 2004, although as Abramsky writes,

the state’s guidelines call for no more than 1,400 — apparently because officials assumed that in a poor neighborhood, turnout would be low. The state only partially reimburses counties for buying electronic voting machines, so Franklin, like many poor counties, didn’t have enough machines on hand to start with. When record numbers of voters showed up, massive lines snaked toward the handful of machines.

  • Cuyahoga County, Ohio where in primary elections this spring where

so many poll workers failed to show up for work that numerous polling places opened more than an hour late, some because they didn’t have extension cords or three-prong adapters. Once voting began, it was promptly undermined by a shortage of voting machines, confusion over precinct voter lists, and paper jams that poll workers did not know how to fix (some asked random voters to repair the machines). Though only 20 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary, it took more than a week to count their votes.

  • New Hampshire, where the state Republican Party

iexecutive director, a veteran, working on the military principle of disrupting “enemy communications” — hired a Virginia-based company named gop Marketplace to jam the Democrats’ phone bank system during the 2002 U.S. Senate election. Republican John Sununu won the close contest; three men are serving prison terms as a result of the endeavor, and a fourth is under indictment, with evidence still surfacing that the action may have been approved by senior party officials in Washington.

  • Travis County, Texas which includes Austin, where in 2003, the Texas Legislature

snipped off various chunks  and attached them to a series of jagged-edged districts snaking north-south and east-west through strongly Republican areas outside the county. This, and a series of other creatively shaped districts in Texas, would be the ultimate legacy of Tom DeLay, who in 2002 launched a push to create a Republican majority in the Statehouse that would redraw the state’s electoral map and thus cement the GOP’s hold on Washington. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this was constitutional, even though Travis and other areas were carved up “with the sole purpose of achieving a Republican congressional majority.”

  • Mississippi 

 in the early days of Jim Crow crafted its felon codes with the specific intent of disenfranchising only those convicted of “black crimes.” In the Delta, about a quarter of African American men are for all practical purposes disenfranchised, and even more assume that they are: Though not everyone convicted of a felony is automatically barred from voting — in fact, people convicted of drug felonies retain their voting rights — corrections and election officials have made no effort to get that information out. One ex-con in Jackson told me that she knew people who were terrified of voting because they had become convinced that any interaction with authority would put them at risk of losing their welfare payments.

What’s more, to get re-enfranchised in Mississippi, a felon has to persuade his state senator or representative to author a bill personally re-enfranchising him, has to get the bill approved by both houses, and then has to get the governor to sign it. In reviewing records from January 2001 to December 2004, I could identify just 52 people — in a state with more than 25,000 prisoners, 2,100 parolees, and 21,000 men and women on probation — who had managed to get their voting rights restored.

  • Charleston, South Carolina

 Charleston still has at-large voting for school board members; in the 1990s, several black candidates nonetheless managed to get elected when the white vote split among a number of candidates. In response, a conservative state senator named Arthur Ravenel Jr., who’d made a name for himself by defending public display of the Confederate flag and mocking his opponents as the “National Association of Retarded People,” pushed through legislation that made the school board election partisan, thus introducing a primary process that ensured a one-on-one fight in the final round. The number of blacks on the nine-member school board went from five in 2000 to one today.

  • Waller County, Texas

Prairie View A&M is a black school in the heart of east Texas, where the local leadership has, over many decades, worked to deny the students’ claims to being full-time county residents and thus eligible to vote. In 2003, Waller County district attorney Oliver Kitzman wrote a letter to the elections administrator and the local newspaper warning that any students who tried to vote could face 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

  •  Florida

a new Florida law that imposes fines of $250 to $500 per form on anyone who registers voters and doesn’t immediately deliver the paperwork to election officials, with no exceptions for difficult circumstances or natural disasters. But since it was already illegal in Florida to deliberately delay handing in voter registration forms, and since the new legislation does not apply to the two main political parties, its only likely effect is to intimidate independent voter-registration organizations; the largest among them, the League of Women Voters, has stopped doing voter registration in the state altogether.

  • Ohio

Ohio’s Ken Blackwell, now a Republican candidate for governor, who seems intent on making sure as few Ohioans as possible are registered to vote. In 2004 Blackwell achieved national notoriety when he announced that his office would accept only voter-registration forms printed on paper of at least 80-pound weight. Blackwell had to back off that requirement, but a slew of other restrictions remain, including one under which door-to-door registration workers must sign in with county officials, and another requiring them to personally mail in the registration forms they collect.



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