By JUNE KRONHOLZ, The Wall Street Journal, Page B1
When Americans go to vote tomorrow, a new breed of activist will be on guard, monitoring polling stations for everything from voting-machine glitches to long lines to registration snafus.
Energized by disputed results in 2000 and 2004, they have left jobs as music conductors, real-estate agents and software engineers to form groups that expect to turn out thousands of volunteers who don't trust the country's ability to count its votes and have decided to do something about it.
"This is going to be the most heavily watched election in history," predicts Marybeth Kuznik, who founded a group called VotePA after the 2004 election to monitor voting issues in Pennsylvania. Ms. Kuznik, a former arts educator, calls herself a "progressive," but says VotePA includes members of both major parties, two minor parties and independents.
Many of the groups share liberal roots, their members smarting from the narrow Democratic losses in the last two presidential elections. But they also share in Ms. Kuznik's assurances -- and the tax and lobbying status that requires them to remain nonpartisan -- that they simply want to see a clean count.
"I don't care who wins; I just want to know it's democracy," says Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, an umbrella for 70 grass-roots groups, like VotePA, that lobby legislators and warn voters about election issues.
Two of the bigger groups -- the Election Protection Coalition and Voter Action -- will staff call centers where they will field voter complaints to their 866-OUR-VOTE and 888-SAV-VOTE numbers and dispatch lawyers to any trouble spots. Video the Vote is enlisting "citizen journalists" to film polling-place problems. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and People for the American Way are among Election Protection's members. Voter Action is a legal-rights group started by California lawyer Lowell Finley, who sued voting-machine maker Diebold Inc. over software security; Diebold recently paid $2.6 million to California as part of a settlement of the suit.
Pollworkers for Democracy -- a joint project of VoteTrustUSA, and two groups who often support progressive causes, Mainstreet Moms and Working Assets -- is asking election workers to report voting problems to the group after finishing their precinct shifts to provide evidence for potential lawsuits and recounts. And dozens of small, grass-roots groups will be watching polling stations, elections offices and tabulation centers.
"This is so important," says Bo Lipari, who retired at age 53 from his job as an Ithaca, N.Y., software engineer to start a watchdog group called New Yorkers for Verified Voting. Mr. Lipari describes his group as "strictly nonpartisan" and won't discuss his party affiliation. On Election Day, Mr. Lipari says he will be a poll watcher in Saratoga County, one of the few in New York using electronic voting equipment.
The goal of these groups is both to untangle snarls -- Election Protection's lawyers will ask state courts to keep polls open if there are glitches, for example -- and to document problems, alert the media and gather plaintiffs for possible recount demands and lawsuits.
These groups are on heightened alert because of the new voting equipment and registration databases put in place this year to satisfy the Help America Vote Act or Hava. That 2002 legislation offered voting jurisdictions $3.8 billion to replace their punch-card and lever voting machines. It also required states to put together voter databases in an effort to clear up questions about who is eligible to cast a ballot.
As a result, about 55 million voters will be casting ballots on new voting systems this election, and 22 million of them will be using touch-screen machines in a federal election for the first time. New voter databases also are heightening activists' worries. States compiled the lists by consolidating their county voter-registration lists, then cross-checking them with Social Security and driver-license databases to weed out voters who have died, moved or lost their voting rights.
Democrats fear the untested databases have mistakenly purged the poor and minorities -- generally Democratic constituencies -- while Republicans fear they will contain names of ineligible voters, particularly illegal immigrants, whose votes also could benefit Democrats. The watchdog groups, meanwhile, worry that database mix-ups will create long lines that cause voters to leave before casting a ballot.
For many activists, Election Day is only one more step in a long election-integrity campaign that started when counties began buying touch screens with their new federal money. The machines -- which about 38% of all voters will use tomorrow -- operate much like a bank ATM, leading voters through several prompts and tabulating votes on an internal memory card.
The voting-machine companies, led by Ohio's Diebold, insist the touch screens are tamper-proof and that they prevent voters from making the kinds of errors -- like voting twice for the same office -- that typically disqualify thousands of ballots. The problem, the companies say, is with poorly trained poll workers, not the machines.
Some computer experts quickly began warning that the touch screens are vulnerable to fraud and software glitches, but the issue simmered largely online, and largely unnoticed, until the 2004 elections.
VoteTrustUSA's Mr. Stewart, a San Francisco cellist, says he hadn't been politically active since he stuffed envelopes for George McGovern in 1972, but became alarmed after reading about problems in the 2004 count in Ohio. "I could accept it if my candidate lost," he says, but not that polling-place errors might have changed the outcome. Mr. Stewart won't disclose his voter registration.
He joined an ad hoc group seeking recounts in several states and was assigned to analyze the results in New Mexico where there were 21,000 "under votes" -- that is, 21,000 more ballots distributed than votes cast. After comparing the under votes by precinct, voter demographics and how they were cast, Mr. Stewart says he concluded that almost all were from two early-model electronic voting machines that still are in use in nine states. He quit the California Bach Society, where he was the conductor, and helped start VoteTrustUSA, which he describes as "three people and a Web site, making a lot of noise."
The 2004 Ohio vote also energized Mark Halvorson, who says he was mystified why there were groups focused on voter registration, but none whose mission was the integrity of the poll. "I felt compelled to do something," says Mr. Halvorson, who quit his job as a social worker to launch Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, which is affiliated with VoteTrustUSA.
Many election-activist groups have registered as lobbyists or nonprofit charities, which allow them to raise money. But most say they operate on a shoestring with donations from their members. Susan Pynchon, who abandoned her real-estate career to start the Florida Fair Elections Coalition, says she finances her group's work out of rental income from several properties she owns. Ms. Pynchon says she doesn't "allow political statements" from the group's members, and that she claims no party affiliation on her voter registration.
Partly because of activists' pressure, 17 states now require that touch-screen machines record votes on paper documents that may be used in recounts. A House bill that would require a similar paper trail in federal elections has 219 sponsors. "The energy, the motivation is not top down, it's bottom up," says Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced the bill.
Mr. Halvorson's Minnesota group helped press the state Legislature to increase the number of precincts where election officials routinely hand-count the ballots and compare them with vote totals on scanners -- electronic voting machines that read hand-marked ballots. Currently, 13 states require random audits.
Also on the activists' agenda: voting-machine certification. As it is, voting-machine makers choose the labs that test their touch screens and the software that runs them. Activists want the government involved, and want outside experts to be able to scrutinize the software for security holes. A new federal Election Assistance Commission mandated by Hava is scheduled to issue new guidelines by the 2008 vote.
Write to June Kronholz at firstname.lastname@example.org
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this nformation for non-profit research and educational purposes only. Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article, nor is Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota endorsed or sponsored by the originator.