If the nightmares of several political observers and local elections officials come true, this Election Day could rival the 2000 debacle in Florida.
Only this time Minnesota could be among the culprits.
That's because Minnesota is one of nine states that opted to comply with the statewide voter registration system defined by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in time for this year's general election. (The others: Alaska, Georgia, Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.)
"Minnesota was ready," says Kent Kaiser, Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer's media relations director. "Most states didn't have a central voter registration base, which we did."
But Minnesota's old system was not sophisticated enough to handle the nuances of making the cross-references that HAVA requires. A new $4 million software system has yet to be tested in a significant election--or to prove efficient in any election.
The Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action and other groups wrote letters to the secretary of state asking for an independent analysis of the system; they say these requests were effectively ignored. Kiffmeyer contends the software system has been operational since mid-June, that plans are already in the works to have the system independently verified, and that senate Democrats are to blame for slowing the process by forcing the software system through unnecessary political hurdles.
"We're delighted to have an outside entity to take a look at things," Kiffmeyer says.
The new software system is not the only concern. Further complicating matters, according to nonpartisan Hamline political science professor David Schultz, are the new rules required under HAVA--and a secretary of state who, in his words, "is absolutely not interested in making it easier for people to vote."
Under HAVA, voter registration cards must be checked against driver's license numbers, state identification cards, or the last four digits of social security numbers.
But critics say the software system isn't sophisticated enough to recognize subtle changes in the way people write their names: For example, a hypothetical voter named Carlos Lopez registers to vote under the name Carlos Lopez, Jr. But his state ID says just Carlos Lopez. His name will be flagged, a signal for local election officials to manually double-check his registration. Same goes for middle initials, alternate spellings, or transposed driver's license numbers.
Even State Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder) was flagged during a special election on August 10. He was allowed to vote--after reregistering. Following the primary, there were some indications of glitches, says Luci Botzek, legal counsel for the Minnesota Association of County Officers. "Something that seems real insignificant could have a bigger impact if it impacts a whole class of voters," she says.
In large counties, such as Hennepin and Ramsey, election officials are likely to face a huge, last-minute crush of registration forms. If the hypothetical Carlos Lopez waited until the last minute to register, he might not find out until he gets to the polls that there's a problem with his registration (although he should receive a letter advising him of the problem first). He'll be asked for ID--but, considering that an ID is not required to vote in Minnesota, he may not have it with him.
"If a person has taken the bus to go to vote, and they don't have ID [with them], and they're told they need to get ID, are they going to take a bus to go get it? Probably not, Schultz says. "They thought that by doing it by mail, they complied properly, and then there's a question mark. They could say, to heck with it, it's not worth standing around."
Such issues likely will affect certain segments of the population more than others. Only new voters and people who are reregistering in Minnesota will be cross-checked under HAVA. A large chunk of those come from voter-registration drives, in which low-income and minority voters are most often targeted.
In other words, those showing up on election day not carrying ID are those least likely to understand how to fill out an application form properly--and most likely to be intimidated, Schultz said.
Because those groups tend to vote for Democrats, the DFL is concerned--and is "carefully monitoring" the registration program, says Alan Weinblatt, a DFL election lawyer.
"I have visions of people coming to the polling place and finding out that their registration is incomplete, that they're not fully registered," Weinblatt says. "Will they know what to tell them? Will there be time to do it? If they knew in advance, or if English were their first language, [it wouldn't be an issue.]"
"[The process] is open to intimidation," says Javier Morilla-Alicea, the AFL-CIO's state coordinator for its voter rights protection program. Voters who give a wrong driver's license number, for example, could be warned that their names will be forwarded to the county attorney. "It's too nebulous."
And if such problems arise, it could lengthen lines already expected to be long.
"The possibility exists that people will get tired of waiting in line and go home," says DFL State Senator Linda Higgins of Minneapolis. "That's the worst thing I can think of."
In the next few weeks, Ramsey County election official Dorothy McClung and her colleagues will be working long hours to try to prevent such scenarios. Although she says the new software performed "beautifully" in the primary, McClung says there may not be enough time before the general election to deal with any remaining software troubles. A better test, she says, will come as the system is used more heavily in the coming weeks, as voter histories are updated from the primaries and new registrations are processed.
Yet anecdotal accounts of primary day, from both Republicans and Democrats, paint a less than encouraging picture. (For more on those voting snafus, see Robson, p. 8.)
Meanwhile, Kiffmeyer says she is not worried.
"We have been using this system since the middle of June," she says. "It is in operation and it is working."
She denounced the testimony of a software expert at a hearing in August as uninformed because he hadn't personally inspected the system.
That's not surprising, says Schultz. For the past five and a half years under Kiffmeyer, he claims, Minnesota's voting system has grown steadily less inclusive. Registration cards and ballots continue to be written only in English, despite Minnesota's influx of nonnative English speakers. There is a stringent system in place to ensure that ineligible felons don't vote, but there is no follow-up system to inform former offenders when their voting rights have been restored.
In the wake of the 2000 Florida debacle, Congress passed HAVA in 2002 with the goal of providing more uniform voting standards. The act provides $2 billion for training, voter education, and new equipment that will eliminate punch-card and lever voting. It's also supposed to make voting easier for non-English speakers and wheelchair users.
The potential for problems might seem less pressing if it weren't for one other complicating factor: With Minnesota in a virtual dead heat between Bush and Kerry, as little as a .5 percent failure rate could turn the election, Schultz predicts.
"If you throw out .5 percent of voters because of people [not voting because of problems], that's potentially enough to move the results from one candidate to another," he says. "These voting procedures could subversively affect the outcome of the race in Minnesota."
"There's the potential for huge disaster," agrees Morillo-Alicea.
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