With a historic presidential race expected to drive huge numbers of people – particularly first-time voters – to the polls, states have a lot of work in store to ensure that every vote counts.
This year's presidential primaries showed that the problems that made headlines in the past – with voter registration rolls, identification requirements and voting machine glitches – have been upstaged by a new difficulty. The huge turnout that whittled the presidential race to Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain overwhelmed some states and counties, according to a July 24 report, 2008 Primary in Review, by electionline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States that tracks election reform efforts.
“Some places were unprepared. Some places just couldn't handle it,” said Dan Seligson, electionline.org's publications manager. “Even though they knew that there would be a massive number of voters, they just didn't have the capacity.”
Of the November election, he added, “People know it's going to be a historically high turnout. Whether they can do anything about it is another question.”
Poor ballot design – which some believe helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore in 2000 – is also a concern, according to a July 20 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. In every election, “tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of voters (are) disenfranchised … sometimes raising serious questions about whether the intended choice of the voters was certified as the winner,” the report stated.
In recent years, states have had their hands full replacing outdated voting equipment. Some have had to switch gears after purchasing new ATM-like electronic machines to add paper trails that allow votes to be verified. Election officials also have been developing statewide computerized voter registration lists.
But this year's election presents a new challenge. Almost 58 million people voted in the primaries, about 64 percent of them in the Democratic race, reported electionline.org, which, like Stateline.org, is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Of the 40 states that held presidential primaries along with Washington, D.C., 36 saw primary turnout reach an eight-year high. In Kentucky, the Democratic primary alone had more voters than the governor's general election contest in 2007.
Read the full report Voter Surge Will Challenge States on Stateline.org.
Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.