Groups Step Up Efforts to Avert Voting Mishaps

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

On her way to vote in Georgia's Feb. 5 Democratic primary, the usual music and celebrity gossip on Carcola Tippit's favorite radio show was set aside in favor of host Tom Joyner's repeated calls for listeners to report voting problems.

"Report any trickery! Call 1-866-MYVOTE1," implored Joyner, whose show is heard by 8 million listeners nationwide. "Let us know what's happening out there."

After waiting more than an hour in line, Tippit, 46, tapped the number into her cellphone. "This is crazy," she recalled telling the hotline's answering service. "Everybody was complaining. . . . People had to get out of line to go to work. It was a disaster."

Joyner's call-in line is at the center of an expansive effort -- run largely by African Americans independent of political parties and election officials -- to make sure every vote is counted in this year's elections. The NAACP National Voter Fund and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation are also tracking voter complaints, and more than 1,000 lawyers have volunteered to staff polling places and call centers to guard against voter suppression.

So far, nearly 70,000 voters have reported problems, including extraordinarily long waits, a shortage of ballots, difficulties finding polling locations and being dropped from registration rolls.

The participants said they are hoping to use information assembled during the primaries to force local election officials to make changes to avert the problems that drew complaints after the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus then accused some Republican elections officials of voter suppression in parts of Florida and Ohio.

Joyner and others will lay out their findings today at a hearing of the House Administration Committee. He is to play audio from Tippit and others, and submit a report that names precincts receiving the most complaints.

"Ever since the infamous Florida election, our audience has been super sensitive about being the victims of voting irregularities," said Joyner, who dropped his regular soap opera and celebrity gossip features on Feb. 5 and March 4 to air problems his callers confronted. "We want to see the problems fixed before November."

The poll watchers said they are particularly concerned about irregularities this year because of the chance to elect Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), who would be the nation's first African American president, and because his candidacy has led to huge turnouts in largely black precincts.

Charles J. Ogletree, who taught Obama and his wife, Michelle, at Harvard Law School, organized more than 300 lawyers to monitor polls for the senator's campaign in South Carolina for the primary there Jan. 26.

"I was particularly concerned about what was going to happen in South Carolina, given the risk of all forms of voter intimidation and just a lack of voter information," said Ogletree, who has monitored minority voter disenfranchisement for more than 20 years.

Entertainment lawyer June Baldwin answered an e-mail from Ogletree and flew from Los Angeles to South Carolina to monitor polls at a precinct in North Charleston. All day, she said, people in the predominantly black community were flustered by changes in poll locations they said they did not know about, although the changes had been published in a local newspaper ad. There were no signs at old polling stations or ads on radio stations popular with African Americans.

"So many people do not read the newspaper [so] it was very frustrating," Baldwin said. "Some were going to three and four locations, and one woman was close to tears. I came away believing there was a deliberate failure" to communicate the information by local election officials.

She and other lawyers who found irregularities blamed poor organization by election officials and poor training of poll workers.

Problems at the polls are partly attributable to the large numbers of first-time voters, said Jonah H. Goldman, who oversees a collection of groups called the Election Protection Coalition.

High voter turnout "is putting the stress of two general elections on election officials," he said. "Voters should know that the overwhelming majority are going to get through the process. In some places, a lot of this is not necessarily malicious."

The coalition's 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, which is staffed by volunteer lawyers, has received 5,000 calls. An affiliated Spanish-language line, monitored by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, has received 6,000 calls, primarily from first-time registrants who wanted to know where to vote.

At today's hearing, Joyner said, he plans to play calls from voters waiting in long, slow lines in two predominantly black jurisdictions -- Prince George's County and Fulton County, Ga. Election officials from those jurisdictions will also testify.

Alisha Alexander, the elections administrator in Prince George's, said the feeling among some voters that they were victims of "trickery" is due in part to a lack of information. Many voters were unaware that they had registered as independents and thus were ineligible to vote in the Maryland primary on Feb. 12, she said.

"We . . . have a transparent process, and if we can educate the voters so that they understand the process, I think they would be more confident," Alexander said.

April L. Pye, interim director of registration and elections in Fulton County, said the county has asked the state for money to buy more voting machines before the general election in November and is encouraging voters to cast their ballots in early voting so that the lines are not as long. Turnout this year was up more than 10 percent, compared with past presidential primaries, causing long waits.

"Although no one was turned away, people were just getting discouraged because they had to wait so long that they said, 'Well, I'm not going to stay,' " Pye said. "We try to do all that we can to make sure that they vote."

Joyner said he will continue his campaign through the general election and will hold election officials accountable on his radio program. "Too many people have worked too hard and have sacrificed too much just to get the right to vote," he said. "We've got to get this right."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company