After an election night as suspenseful as an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, deadlock has set in. In light of Florida’s electoral-vote dispute, the U.S. must focus on ballot integrity. Americans may consider this republic above vote fraud and ballot irregularities, but neither Serbia nor Zimbabwe has a monopoly on this problem.
Supporters of Vice President Al Gore in Palm Beach County, Florida, are complaining that a ballot they found confusing — previously approved by Democratic county elections supervisor Theresa LePore — generated accidental votes for Pat Buchanan. The NAACP claims that blacks were barred from voting in some polling sites.
Republicans say that resident aliens in Broward County voted although they are not yet citizens. GOP voters in the conservative Panhandle, within the central time zone, may have stayed home after the networks inaccurately projected Florida for Gore once voting ended in the eastern time zone.
Miami poll watchers told MSNBC’s Jonathan Alter that some absentee-ballot recipients signed affidavits at the polls swearing that they had not mailed in their absentee ballots, then voted normal ballots. “Quite a number of people in the past in Miami, in Dade County, have voted twice,” Alter said. “They filled out the affidavit, but they also filled out their absentee ballot.” Officials now may have to compare affidavits and absentee ballots to eliminate repeat voting.
In New York, the horror stories started early. Many of the city’s 1962-vintage voting machines failed. Others appeared not to register votes for GOP Senate nominee Rick Lazio.
At her Upper West Side polling place, attorney Nicole Tell saw people line up to vote who had not even spoken with poll workers. “I could have gone into the ballot booth several times because I did not have to show a voter signature card,” Tell told me. “Once someone realized that it could be done, they could certainly try to vote again and likely be successful.”
Stephen Malone, also an attorney, watched a neighbor walk into the voting booth after flashing his registration card at a poll worker. Since officials had not checked him off their voter list, he could return and vote again. “Chicago has had a reputation for dishonest elections, but after the lax inspectors and antiquated equipment I experienced today, New York takes the cake,” said Malone, a Windy City native. “I left the polls doubting that my vote was registered by that old machine or would be counted by the inspectors.”
Several GOP activists told me that poll workers instructed Democratic voters to support the party’s entire ticket. This may have discouraged some Democrats from splitting their tickets and supporting Lazio or other Republicans. While Senate candidate Hillary Clinton beat Lazio decisively, 55 percent to 43 percent, her margin might be slimmer absent these anomalies.
New York Democratic donor Connie Milstein–who gave $402,000 to Democrats this election cycle and hosted Al Gore at a Park Avenue fundraiser–was caught just before the election giving packs of cigarettes to homeless people in Milwaukee if they would vote for Democrats. “I’m here representing the Gore-Lieberman campaign,” she told WISN-TV. “I’m down here trying to get out the vote.” Milstein, who was accompanied by two volunteers, later contradicted that statement and claimed to be operating independently. The Democratic National Committee also disavowed her actions. Wisconsin law forbids encouraging someone to vote in exchange for anything worth more than $1.00.
Meanwhile, the victorious Senate campaign of Missouri’s deceased governor Mel Carnahan took yet another odd turn when voter logs disappeared and Republicans charged that improperly registered voters cast ballots. At 21 precincts, ballot boxes reportedly were left unattended. One judge extended voting hours in St. Louis due to high turnout until another judge halted the additional balloting.
St. Louis’s Democratic Mayor Clarence Harmon told the Los Angeles Times that this chaos “brings into question the whole issue of whether we got an honest vote and an honest vote count.”
At this writing, Al Gore leads George W. Bush by about 98,000 votes nationally. Did unorthodox balloting procedures in New York, Wisconsin, and elsewhere swell Gore’s overall total, perhaps eclipsing an actual Bush popular-vote victory? Americans may never know.
These shenanigans cannot be dismissed as colorful anecdotes, no matter who benefits. Disenfranchising voters with bogus ballots is illegal and should be prosecuted vigorously.
Federal and state officials should put ballot integrity at the top of next year’s agenda. The reason is simple: As last Tuesday proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, every vote counts.