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With less than a week left at the polls, issues of voter suppression have moved into the spotlight. What does this mean to the average voter and what obstacles may they face at the polls ? Professor of Law Spencer Overton believes that, “We need really to open up the process so that voting is easier, and so that we truly have a government of, by, and for the people.”

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The fox guarding the henhouse Pt. 2
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ZAA NKWETA, TRNN: With less than a week left at the polls, issues surrounding voter suppression have moved into the spotlight. But what does this mean to the average voter? To shed some light on this issue, I spoke to Professor Spencer Overton about some of the problems that exist in the US electoral system.

SPENCER OVERTON, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: States purged more than 13 million voters from registration rolls in the last four years. The problem is that the purges are prone to error. Innocent voters show up to the polls and they discover that their names have been improperly removed from the voter rolls. Just to give you an example, in Florida in 2000, with the contested election we had down here, 90 percent of the voters who were purged were legal and should have been left on. This purge of 54,000 legal voters likely determined the outcome of the 2000 election. Now, federal law, in order to prevent political manipulation, federal law prohibits most purging within 90 days of the election, and, unfortunately, at least according to The New York Times, several states have illegally purged their voting roles, including Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Nevada. So we get some real problems with voter purges. Let’s move to the no match, no vote issue. The situation is that Republicans are trying to block voter registrations that don’t match with drivers license databases or security databases, and they’re doing this under what’s called the Help America Vote Act. Now, this certainly sounds reasonable at first. The problem is that the computer match process is flawed and it blocks too many innocent voters. Up to 30 percent of all new voter registrations do not match because of typos, clerical mistakes, and changes in maiden and married names. So, in other words, someone gets their driver’s license using their maiden name, and then they register to vote using their married name, and then there’s not a match, and the person is flagged, and their registration is not processed. They show up to the polls and they’re not registered to vote. In Wisconsin they did a test, and four of the six members of the state’s election board were erroneously mismatched. The problem with the no match, no vote is that these databases are inherently flawed. So since 2000 we’ve seen voting machines that won’t start, power outages, faulty memory cards, programming errors, vote flipping, lost votes, and mis-tallied votes. A recent study showed that 28 states score “inadequate” on post-election audits of voting machines. We need emergency paper ballots; we need sound, valid accounting measures; and we also need post-election audits. So if you look right now, 56 percent of voters are going to vote on an optical scan machine. And we’re going to have 33 percent of Americans voting on electronic voting machines, and those machines are where some of the problems have been. I think the most important thing is that if people go to the polls, they should try to vote a regular ballot, and if they cannot for some reason, they should know that they have a right to cast a provisional ballot, and they should go ahead and do that. They should do whatever they can to cast a regular ballot, but if they can’t, they should cast the provisional ballot. Now, here are some of the problems with regard to provisional ballots. One of every three provisional ballots are not counted. So, for example, if a legitimate voter was improperly purged from the voter registration rolls, his provisional ballot likely won’t be counted. And provisional-vote counting procedures vary from state to state. Alaska counted 97 percent of their provisional ballots, whereas Delaware counted only 6 percent. So this goes to, you know, how do you follow up to ensure that the provisional voter is a legitimate voter. Some states follow up; some states don’t. Another problem: voter challenges. Basically, here political operatives challenge voters’ eligibility and try to prevent them from voting. The problem is that they use unreliable lists. One challenge program in Georgia challenged voters with a Spanish surname. Another problem is that partisans often target communities of color or students or homeless citizens. In Montana, the Republican Party challenged the registrations of 6,000 voters in heavily Democratic areas. The problem is that many of these people were military service members and students who were legitimate voters and simply had their mail forwarded to where they were serving or where they were going to school. Now, fortunately, a federal judge threw out this lawsuit because he found that it was filed, quote, “with the express intent to disenfranchise voters,” end of quote. Another issue is student voting barriers. A Virginia county registrar issued an incorrect memo for students at Virginia Tech university. This memo told the students that registering to vote could result in a possible loss of financial aid and their parents’ ability to claim them as dependents on their taxes. The clerk was wrong. This had a chilling effect in terms of student participation. Another problem is voter deception. Based on some recent election practices, voters need to be on the lookout for push-poll phone calls that are framed as a survey, but they have negative info about a candidate. Leaflets listing the wrong date for the election, late-night robo-calls telling voters that the polling place location has changed, literature aimed at Democratic voters but misidentifying Republican candidates as Democrats, these are all deceptive practices that we might see. We may also see long lines as an issue. In 2004, county officials in Columbus, Ohio, they knew that they needed 5,000 machines; they decided to make due with only 3,000 machines. Certainly if Starbucks or McDonald’s had four-hour lines, they’d go out of business. The right to vote is at least as important as a cup of coffee or as a Quarter Pounder, and we can and we should get things together so that it’s much easier to vote.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Spencer Overton is Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, where he specializes in the law of democracy. Professor Overton's academic articles on election law have appeared in several leading law journals, and his book "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression"" was recently published and released by W.W. Norton. He was also a commissioner on the Jimmy Carter-James Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform as well as the Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling. Professor Overton currently serves on the boards of Common Cause