How our Election Systems Held up Under a High Turnout Election

This year election administrators, many of whom were fielding new voting equipment for the first time, faced record turnout.  After the pervasive problems with the previous two presidential elections and the fears of more election problems, both real and imagined, voters across the political spectrum faced the election with deep skepticism about its fairness and integrity.  Today we give a brief overview of whether the expectations for the election were born out, and what election day tells us about where to focus reforms.

How Big was the Wave?  The biggest question that most people have is how high was actual voter turnout this election. There is some serious inconsistency in the numbers that are being reported, but from American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, the preliminary number is 62% of eligible voters which is five points below 1960.  That was clearly below the most ambitious expectations.  But beyond turnout percentages, every four years there are more total voters than the last because of population growth.  So even without a record turnout, the actual number of voters was about 6.5 million more than 2004.  It is also clear that turnout wasn't consistent across the country, with some states experiencing turnout well above the average.  And, of course, battleground and election day registration states led the pack.

So what we saw was not a best case scenario in terms of participation.   This moderately high turnout election, however, managed to seriously tax the system and disenfranchised an unknown number of voters on election day.  The result was long lines throughout the country and hours-long waits to vote.  The system was definitely over capacity: an election with over 65 to 70 percent turnout likely would have been a complete disaster with huge numbers of precincts totally overwhelmed.  But even some states and counties with very high turnout managed to avoid major strains on their polling places.

Early and Mail-in Voting Save the Day in Many States:  For several states that have seen problems at the polls in recent elections, early voting - either in person or through the mail - appears to have made a significant difference in how smoothly things went on election day. Colorado stands out for having faced serious problems in previous elections, responding with a strong commitment to using mail-in voting to ease the pressure off the polls, and successfully implementing that strategy which resulted in a successful election.  In the end, a majority of votes in the state were cast early, as was the case in Texas where two-thirds of votes were cast before election day. The tremendous success of early voting, even for in-person early voting where there were sometimes long lines, has already prompted several states to examine adding or extending early voting, including key swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Obama Campaign Makes Early Voting a Key Component of GOTV:  Early voting efforts gained a lot of momentum due to a strong push by the Obama campaign to emphasize the importance of getting as many people to vote before election day as possible.  In past elections, early voting was often more popular among conservatives and reflected a pool of voters older and more white than the average pool of voters.  However, early voting was an essential element in Obama's get out the vote efforts and worked in concert with his efforts and independent progressive efforts to register new voters.  In the end, the campaign's work paid serious dividends.  Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by significant margins in several key battlegrounds.  In North Carolina, a traditionally red state, early and newly registered voters accounted for a Democratic victory

Chronic Election Problems Persist: Beyond preparing for very high turnout, which didn't happen adequately in areas across the country, there were several areas where election experts and observers were expecting trouble - registration errors, voting machines malfunctions, and voter suppression.  Before election day and during the early voting period in many states, significant problems did crop up.  In some instances that allowed election officials to deal with problems before election day, or in the case of voter deception, inform voters of the threat.  In others, like purging of voters from the rolls, problems in the run-up to the election could not be rectified after the fact.  While there were no crises in this election, it is also clear that voting problems are not behind us and significant reform is still needed to ensure that we have a free and fair election system.

Voter Registration Problems:
 Election post-mordems virtually all identify voter registration problems as endemic this year.  In many states voters were removed from the polls within 90 days of the election, in direct violation of federal law.  In other states election officials used overly restrictive rules such as demanding exact matches between voter registration info and government databases to keep people off the rolls.  On election day there were many reports of people who had registered showing up at the polls only to find their names missing from the poll books, leading to a substantial number of provisional ballots being cast.

Problems with purges and restrictive registration rules were the most significant voter registration problems this year.  Yet, accusations that ACORN was engaged in voter registration fraud, though not supported by facts, drowned out much of the discussion of real problems.  Ironically these real problems include the arrest of a prominent rightwing signature gatherer for voter registration fraud.  However, the uproar over ACORN may have a silver lining in convincing conservatives of something that progressives have known for decades - the voter registration process is in need of serious reform. 

The problems, both real and imagined, are leading to a consensus that either states on their own or the federal government must implement universal voter registration.  Many of the controversies  and failures surrounding the current systems would disappear if the government took responsibility for registering as many eligible citizens as possible.  Many nations reach over 90% registration (some even have turnout that high as well), and as the world's leading democracy, we should endeavor to reach similar levels.

Electronic Voting Machines Continue to be Unreliable:  While critics and proponents of electronic voting agree that there were no major meltdowns of voting systems during the election, as there have been in the past, machines once again proved themselves to be unreliable throughout the country (update here).  Perhaps the most troubling problems occurred during the early voting period where machines flipped votes from one candidate to another in at least four states.  Election integrity experts continue to call for the use of paper ballots and the implementation of robust hand count audits of election results in every state.

Voter Suppression Remains Popular and Unpunished:  Voting rights advocates have become accustomed to the host of voter suppression efforts that occur with every election, many of which we've highlighted in Dispatches leading up to Nov. 4th (here, here and here).  This year was no different, and with conservatives on the ropes in many states, may have become more widespread.  States across the country saw deceptive and intimidating flyers and phone calls circulated to minority voters and students in the days before the election.  Caging and voter challenge campaigns were also widespread.  (For those interested in the specifics, the good folks at the Voter Suppression Wiki have a rundown of suppression problems reported before and on election day.  Video the Vote has also released a compilation of voting problems experienced on election day).

What is beyond clear is that voter suppression will not go away on its own.  The Department of Justice has been asleep at the wheel for the last eight years and has shirked its responsibility to pursue vote suppressors with criminal prosecutions.  It is also clear that many states have a long way to go to improve and expand their voter protection laws.  Additionally, state need to take efforts to track down perpetrators.

Conclusion:  This election was the culmination of a dramatic shift in the political landscape of this nation that began in 2006.  Voters are recoiling from the conservative excesses and failures of the last decades and are embracing a new progressive agenda to strengthen families and the nation as a whole.  However, if we are to build a true progressive majority, much work remains in modernizing our election practices for the 21st Century.  Without significant gains in securing the franchise, the tremendous gains progressives have recently had at the ballot box might slip away as quickly as they came.  All progressives should guard against complacency born of these triumphs and use their new prominence to put election reform at the center of the broader progressive agenda.


Alternet, Tova Wang - Despite Clear Presidential Victor, No Shortage of Problems in 2008 Election
AmLaw Daily, Daphne Eviatar - Election 2008: The Voting Problems Aren't Over, Kim Zetter - Election Problems Around the Country
Voter Suppression Wiki - Voter Suppression in the 2008 Election, J. Barkin and C. Smith-Socaris - End the 'Voter Fraud' Debate