Analysis of 2006 Election Finds Problems Nationwide

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The nation's leading source for nonpartisan and non-advocacy news and information on election reform released its first comprehensive look at the 2006 election, finding widespread problems but no meltdown at the nation's polling places.

The 2006 election, the 15th in a series of policy briefings by Electionline.org, found widespread reports of voting system troubles, sporadic incidents of voter intimidation and/or poll worker confusion over voter identification requirements and some breakdowns at polling places because of problems with newly-mandated voter registration systems.

“The question most frequently asked after the election is whether it was a success,” said Doug Chapin, the organization's director. “Success can be measured in a two ways. If success is measured through picking winners, then yes, there were few races in which polling-place problems could have affected the outcome. But, on the other hand, if it is measured through whether every voter who showed up at a polling place had an opportunity to cast their vote without problems or obstacles, then the answer is no.”

With more than a third of all voters casting ballots on new voting systems compared with just two years ago, human and machine errors were widespread. In a number of states – including Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, inexperienced poll workers struggled to start, troubleshoot and close electronic voting machines. Voters in a number of states reported “vote flipping,' whereby machines indicated choices other than those made by the voter, either when the screen was touched or when the choices were revealed on a review screen.

Voting machine breakdowns throughout the day were common as well, slowing voting in parts of California, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey and other states.

Precincts in Massachusetts and New Mexico ran out of ballots, compelling police to intervene to race ballots to polling places with sirens blaring and lights flashing. “Overwhelming turnout” at some Boston polling places led some voters to get frustrated and walk away without voting rather than wait for new ballots to arrive. The state has since threatened to strip power from the city's election board for management failures.

A Congressional race in Florida's Sarasota County was plagued with high numbers of under votes, about 14 percent of all ballots cast recording no preference in a hotly contested race to replace Rep. Katherine Harris in the state's 13th District.

The post-election survey also found instances where new or recently-altered voter identification rules caused problems in some states where voters were asked to present photo ID when its use was not mandatory (Missouri and Wisconsin), were confused about whether they needed ID at all after a number of court decisions (Georgia) and poll workers had difficulty interpreting verification rules at the polling place (Ohio). Instances of voter intimidation were recorded elsewhere in the country.

The most serious election-day problems were found in Denver, Colorado, where the county's first use of vote centers and breakdowns in electronic poll books used to sign in voters when they arrived led to hours-long lines, late poll closings and irate citizens.

There were successes as well. Connecticut saw a smooth transition to optical-scan voting in a number of localities using the system for the first time. Maryland recovered from a chaotic primary to run a relatively trouble-free vote on electronic voting systems. Ohio's Cuyahoga County saw a similar improvement, though long lines persisted, Washington voters and election officials managed to cast ballots despite record rainfall and flooding while Virginia's election administration endured the scrutiny of an extremely close race for the U.S. Senate without any significant post-election controversies.

“As our only mechanism for ensuring representative government, we need to make voting work for all eligible voters by ensuring the accuracy and convenience of our elections,” added Michael Caudell-Feagan, Senior Officer, State Policy Initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts, funder of electionline.org. “Building on electionline's valuable contribution to the field, it is time to move from cataloguing problems to rigorously testing and implementing solutions. America's voters deserve nothing less than state-of-the-art elections regardless of the jurisdiction where a vote is cast.”

“This is the beginning of the next phase of election reform,” Chapin said. “The lesson of the 2006 election going forward is that it will no longer be enough to avoid past mistakes or address old problems; the key will be to prevent new ones and think creatively about how voting works in 2008 and beyond.”

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.

About Electionline.org

electionline.org is the nation's leading nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization researching, analyzing and reporting on election administration and reform. It is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with a grant administered by the University of Richmond.