News: Charlotte Exclusives

Hitting a Sour Vote

Dispute over Sunday voting a sign of the times

Mecklenburg County Commissioners got an early look at just how contentious the upcoming election is going to be with a loud spat over Sunday voting. Far from an isolated local matter, concerns over the electoral process have fast become an issue of national importance, one which goes to very core of our system of government.

Already there are signs of voting disputes in Florida, where a state-wide voter fraud task force has been set up and the courts have already been asked to determine the validity of some voter registrations. In Minnesota, concern over touch-screen voting machines has surveillance cameras trained on the contraptions. Here in Mecklenburg, Republican county commissioners explored refusing some $56,000 in federal money the state of North Carolina wanted the county to take to pay for running some polling places on Sunday.

The commissioners’ motive was fairly straight-forward, if intensely partisan. No Sunday voting would crimp plans by ACORN, MoveOn.org, and other groups which have worked overtime to register voters nationwide, including a good chunk of 37,000 new Democratic voters registered in Mecklenburg, to route African-American voters straight from church pews to voting booths. Once there, the intention is for them to vote a straight Democratic ticket.

But as soon as it was clear that there was no way for the county to refuse to do what the Democrat-controlled state Board of Elections wanted the county to do, and after howls of protest from local Democrats, Republicans on the council dropped the idea. With turnout expected to determine the winners at local, state, and even national levels, there almost had to be some conflict over Sunday voting, and conflict is not always a bad thing.

Voting is perhaps the best example of the decentralized nature of our federal system. National elections are in effect administered and conducted by local authorities more or less acting independently to meet whatever state regulations exist for certification of the election. With such a system one would expect some localized disputes over exactly how election mechanics work, but with the experience of the razor-thin 2000 presidential race behind us, the stakes have become incredibly high. Moreover, control of the U.S. senate could hinge on a half-dozen toss up races all breaking toward one party.

Multi-day, weekend voting is both an attempt to relieve Election Day crunches at polling places and an attempt to make it easier for traditional non-voters, often younger and poorer, and thus often skewing to the left of the political spectrum, to find time to vote. The Sunday voting uproar in Mecklenburg shows that no part of process can be free from partisan wrangling. Indeed, some transparent, obvious political wrangling should be expected and welcomed as a way to keep the process honest.

The key, of course, is transparency. All parties must understand and see what is going on to lend legitimacy to the system. The lack of transparency remains a major hurdle in attempts to devise a foolproof “black-box” for computerized voting. There must be some sort of irrefutable “paper trail” of votes cast, even if is an electronic one. But thus far e-voting systems have lacked security safeguards and too often hide behind claims of a proprietary process that, while perhaps appropriate to other forms of tabulation, just cannot pass the high transparency hurdle needed for vote tabulation.

The other side of security concerns not just the tabulation method, but the actual voter. There must be some reliable method to ensure that only eligible voters vote and that they only vote once, otherwise the whole one-man, one-vote bedrock of democracy kinda flies out the window. The problem is proof of identity runs right up against other core values, like privacy and equal access.

Should citizens — let’s pretend that there is no debate over restricting U.S. elections to U.S. citizens, shall we? — who wish to have basically no interaction with the state except to vote be allowed to do so? Or should concerns over vote fraud require the adoption of stringent identification measures? Or something in between?

You might reasonably draw the line several different places, just as different jurisdictions do, but the key remains transparency and consistency. Everyone must understand the rules and everyone must be held accountable if the electoral process is going to work.

Of course, much of the election-time heat will dissipate if the outcomes are not close. The general rule of thumb for lawyers looking to contest election results is a two-percent difference between vote totals. As most jurisdictions have some sort of automatic recount provision should results fall with one percent of each other, the goal for the legal-beagles is to somehow trigger those provisions.

How many races will be that close? Will they be local or state, or another presidential confusion/crisis? Only by going through the messy, contentious election process will we know. But one optimistic note: If they can hold elections in Afghanistan, it is good bet America will pull them off too.