The Nov. 2 presidential election is only weeks away. After the Sept. 18 voting machine debacle, voters certainly don't want any more screw-ups. Unfortunately, local and state election officials tell us that requirements of the new federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) may actually bring more headaches, such as long lines at the polls and delays in counting results of close elections. We therefore should consider HAVA an electoral storm warning.
Passed by Congress in response to Florida's notorious voting recount of the 2000 presidential election, HAVA aims to make sure no qualified American voter is barred from the polls on Election Day. "Under this act, we cannot turn away anybody who wants to vote," says Betsy Williams-West, executive administrator of the Orleans Parish Board of Supervisors of Elections. "It is a check on human error."
Under HAVA, registered voters will be able to vote even if their precinct is closed or voting machines have not arrived in time, according to state Rep. "Peppi" Bruneau, who co-authored state legislation for the federally mandated voting reforms. In addition, Louisiana stands to gain millions of dollars for a uniform system of computerized voting machines by 2006, including special machines for the visually impaired. "The major benefit (of HAVA) is a renewed momentum to try and get people with disabilities involved in the election process," says Lois Simpson, executive director for the Advocacy Center, one of several nonprofits teaming with the secretary of state to increase access to polling places Nov. 2.
Yet the federal act has no shortage of critics in Louisiana, who fear that HAVA will create more problems than it solves. "I think it's an invitation to chaos," says Karl "J.R." Seyler Jr., an Orleans Parish voting commissioner for 30 years. The chief source of concern among Louisiana election officials is HAVA's requirements for provisional voting. Provisional voting authorizes voting by individuals whose names do not appear on the precinct register of the parish registrar of voters. Provisional ballots are cast on paper only, and their validity is determined three days after the election by the parish board of election supervisors.
Our concern is that state and local voting officials, especially commissioners, will not be well versed in the applications of provisional voting by Election Day. We interviewed a number of officials who declared that provisional votes would be allowed only for federal elections on the Nov. 2 ballot. In fact, Mary Etta Jones, the point person on HAVA at the secretary of state's office, says that an undetermined pool of people who registered to vote by mail after Jan. 1, 2003, and who have not voted in a federal election since then, but who do not present valid identification at the polls on Nov. 2, will also be required to vote provisionally in the federal elections. Those specially "flagged" voters will be allowed to cast a non-provisional ballot in state and local races as well as any local propositions and the four statewide constitutional amendments.
In a city recently unable to deliver voting machines on time, there are many reasons to be concerned about the implementation of the new rules:
• "Anybody, anybody can walk up and say I want to vote," says Williams-West. "Those who are eligible to vote may be held up time-wise while we try to accommodate those who may or may not be eligible to vote."
• Some voters may try to use provisional voting just for convenience, which is not the purpose. With the exception of the pool of mail-in voters cited above, those who vote provisionally in federal elections must give up their right to vote in state and local elections.
• The high voter turnout expected for Nov. 2 promises to swell the number of paper ballots to be validated by parish voting officials. No one we interviewed would dare guess how long it would take to count the number of provisional ballots that will be cast on Election Day.
• In close elections, the results will not be known until the provisional ballots are opened three days after Nov. 2, says Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Louis Keller.
Former state election commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell says the biggest problem with provisional voting will stem from voter registration drive cards that were not turned over to parish registrar of voters in time, if at all. Terrell also predicts court challenges across the country in the days after the election, based on the counting of provisional votes. Election Day is a crucible of democracy that tests our system as much as it does the candidates. Voters should consider absentee balloting, or plan to show up early and possibly face longer lines. First Assistant Secretary of State Renee Free doesn't predict major problems. "September 18th kind of shook us a bit and we are trying to make sure that nothing wrong happens anywhere in the state," she says. We hope that's the case.