You’d have to say that the atmosphere on and immediately after November 4, 2008, was about as different as you can get from that of November 7, 2000, particularly for Democrats. The latter produced an enduring testament to the perfidious effects of malevolent and incompetent electoral administraton, while the former represented a reasonably decisive choice by an energized citizenry.
But according to a major new study by a consortium of university researchers, nearly as many people had trouble exercising their right to vote last year as in 2000:
Four million to five million voters did not cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election because they encountered registration problems or failed to receive absentee ballots, which is roughly the same number of voters who encountered such problems in the 2000 election, according to an academic study to be presented to the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.
An additional two million to four million registered voters — or 1 percent to 2 percent of the eligible electorate — were “discouraged” from voting due to administrative hassles, like long lines and voter identification requirements, the study found.
The study did indicate that voting technology problems had significantly improved since 2000, mainly due to the abandonment of punch-card ballots and lever machines. But obstacles to the registration of eligible voters and the maintenance of accurate voter registration records may have actually gotten worse:
“Registration issues were for 2008 what machine problems were for the 2000 election,” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard and the study’s lead author.
State and local election officials have had a difficult time keeping voter registration lists current as voters move, change names or become inactive. Updating voter profiles in these lists is estimated to cost about a third of local election offices’ budgets, the report said. Verifying the authenticity of voter registrations by checking the information with other databases is also a burden and has led to people being removed incorrectly.
Registration problems, of course, were a more hidden factor in past elections. Even in 2000, it’s reasonably clear that a screwed-up “purge” of supposed ex-felons by Florida election officials cost Al Gore as many votes as the vastly more famous ballot irregularities and aborted recounts.
Will the latest evidence of a broken electoral system finally motivate Congress to take effective steps to set true national standards for voter registration and other election procedures? Probably not, since memories of 2000 have faded. But the strong Democratic majorities in Congress mean that longstanding Republican efforts to restrict the franchise should no longer stand in the way of election reform, and the costs involved don’t look very daunting at a time of near-trillion-dollar legislative packages.
Let’s hope the new study lights a few fires of outrage in Washington, and that anyone who cares about fair elections works to fan the flames.