Ballot questions triggered a citywide recount in Boston, and problems plagued
the polls in minority neighborhoods. Maybe Palm Beach isn't the only place that
needs voting reform.
by Dorie Clark
Many of Boston's black legislators predicted that November's turnout would be
big. "We knew everyone was coming to the polls, because we had too much to
lose," says Roxbury's State Representative Gloria Fox. But some people who came
The issues, coupled with an unprecedented effort to get minority voters to the
polls, all but ensured high turnout. Beginning in May, Boston Vote, a community
group that encourages political participation, organized volunteers from a
variety of organizations to knock on doors in Uphams Corner, Mattapan Square,
Hyde Square, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, and Dudley Square. The Saturday
before the election, 150 volunteers knocked on 7000 doors in Mattapan and
Roxbury. The Sunday before the election, the organization hit all the churches
on Blue Hill Avenue with a get-out-the-vote message, and the following day they
called 3200 people reminding them to vote. All this occurred, of course, within
a larger national context that saw a massive effort to get out the
African-American vote for Vice-President Al Gore.
"We talked about ballot initiatives, that the election was going to be on
Tuesday, and to be ready," says program director Malia Lazu. Their efforts paid
off. Turnout increased in Roxbury's Ward 12 by 16 percent. In Mattapan's Ward
18, turnout increased by between 18 and 23 percent.
But snafus on Election Day may have soured voter confidence enough to put those
gains at risk. Nearly 30,000 ballots were improperly tabulated, prompting
Secretary of State Bill Galvin to order a citywide recount. And poll workers,
some allege, were unprepared for the onslaught of voters from minority
neighborhoods. Illegal one-minute time limits were reportedly placed on voters
in some precincts in order to hurry lines along, and large numbers of voters
were turned away from the polls because workers couldn't confirm registration
lists with City Hall. Given the Florida tumult, some observers are asking what
sort of impact these problems will have on Bostonians who voted this year for
the first time in years -- or the first time ever.
Boston election officials knew they were in trouble the day after the election.
Checking the vote counts performed the night before, they found precinct upon
precinct where not one person was reported to have voted on the ballot
questions, despite a high citywide turnout (72.3 percent of registered voters
came to the polls). Boston Election Commission chairwoman Nancy Lo says the
problem -- which affected 30,000 ballots -- was caused by human error.
The city's 60-year-old voting machines -- which flummoxed poll workers in 20
percent of the city's precincts -- were not easy to decode. "Because of recent
court rulings, the summaries of the [ballot] questions have to be printed on
the machines," Lo explains. The machines were not designed for this, and the
vote tallies ended up in numbered columns that didn't correspond with the
Lo insists the citywide recount was not a big deal. "It took a day and a half,"
she says. "We opened the back of the machines and -- voil[[daggerdbl]]! -- the
numbers were there." But it's logical to ask whether it's time to retire the
city's voting machines. After all, the company that made them is no longer in
business, and the city has been keeping the system afloat by purchasing surplus
machines from other communities -- an increasingly impractical option as the
instruments wear down.
In fact, Galvin announced Friday that he would ask the state legislature for
loans to allow local communities to upgrade their voting machines.
Optical-scanner systems, considered the most reliable, are available in nearly
three-quarters of Massachusetts communities. (Such systems would make
Florida-like second-guessing unnecessary because voters connect two arrows next
to a candidate's name or fill in a circle with a black marker. With this
technique the voter's intention is usually very clear, even if machines jam and
a hand count becomes necessary.)
Statewide, it could cost millions of dollars to replace voting machines. (It
cost $3 million to replace punch-card machines in just 36 communities, and that
was four years ago.) But Galvin says it's worth it: "As we've seen with the
Florida experience and the problems four years ago [when Philip Johnston's
apparent victory over William Delahunt in the 10th Congressional District was
overturned by a ballot recount], the most important thing is for voters to be
sure that their votes are counted."
But for many in Boston's minority communities, a more pressing concern is being
allowed to cast ballots in the first place. Activists charge that the Boston
Election Commission was not ready for November's large minority turnout --
despite a meeting days before the election with a group of black lawmakers
(including Senator Dianne Wilkerson, State Representatives Gloria Fox and Marie
St. Fleur, and a representative from City Councilor Chuck Turner's office) who
warned city officials that polls would be busy. "The city was unprepared for
the large voter turnout that came in the communities of color," says Leonard
Alkins, Boston-chapter president of the NAACP. "They made an assumption based
on previous years that we would not vote -- an assumption they had no right to
make -- and consequently it has created a number of serious problems."
Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat, won't rule out racial bias as a factor in the
voting problems. She suspects, however, that the problems (which affected an
estimated 200 people in her district) stemmed more from administrative
incompetence. "It doesn't make anyone feel any better when they were denied the
right to vote because of ineptitude rather than some insidious goal," she says.
Indeed, while many Boston voters experienced some degree of hassle on Election
Day, it seems that most of the serious allegations -- which include being
turned away from the polls -- have come from minority communities.
The disparity may be more a matter of demographics than of racism. The
traditionally low voter turnout in black and Latino neighborhoods, coupled with
what Malia Lazu of Boston Vote speculates is a resistance to filling out
government surveys, caused 21,000 voters -- an unusually high number -- to
appear on the "inactive" list. In order to vote, those on the list were
required to present two forms of identification at the polling place, a
procedure that may have confused poll workers.
This would have been less of a problem if turnout hadn't been so strong. Even
Lo admits that the crush at the polls caused difficulties: "Right now, I
speculate that a lot of the problems we're hearing about are due to a lot of
activity on Election Day, high turnout." She says the city was prepared, but
it's inherently more difficult to manage a presidential election with a 72
percent turnout than, say, the September primary, which drew only eight percent
of voters. The problems were compounded when poll workers couldn't get
through to the election commission to verify the voter list. Says Wilkerson,
"Poll workers would call City Hall, give the phone to the voter, and the line
would be busy. They'd say, `Sorry, can't help you.' "
These difficulties were the last thing the Boston Election Commission wanted.
This was the first major election since three agency workers, including the
former chairman, departed last year after charges of financial impropriety.
Nancy Lo has worked hard to change the organizational culture of the commission
in the year since her appointment. "You had whole divisions signing in in the
morning, and leaving for the day, and doing private [for-profit] business," she
says. Now I say, `You sign in, you stay here for the day, and you work.' Some
people have a hard time with that."
But critics say the agency still suffers from systemic problems. Senator
Wilkerson charges that the commission is unwilling to accept criticism and to
become more user-friendly. "The response of the election commission has been
incredibly defensive," she says. "I just have this feeling that, at least from
the election department, the response has not been one that supports the notion
that we're in this together" to make Election Day procedures work. "I'm not
talking about bending the rules," she adds. "I'm talking about letting people
know what the rules are so we're on the same page."
To meet this week's filing deadline, a slew of bills were just introduced on
Beacon Hill to correct the problems. Representative Fox says she's signed on to
half a dozen bills, most of which aim to strengthen enforcement of laws already
on the books. The bills seek to clarify procedures for designating voters
"inactive," advocate uniformity in cross-checking voters with other city lists,
and look into what Fox describes as the "breakdown" of motor-voter
registration. (Some people who thought they were registered to vote via the
Registry of Motor Vehicles were not, which appears to have been a problem
Legislators also hope to work with the election commission to modify
administrative policies. Lo says she's receptive, and notes that previous
improvements, such as the advent of mail-in registration and the motor-voter
law, have simplified the procedure. She's also planning to redraw precincts
soon, and hopes to balance out resources so that high-turnout areas aren't
crippled by long lines.
It's unclear how much money Secretary of State Galvin's proposal and the myriad
State House bills will cost, and it's uncertain how much support they
ultimately will garner. But Galvin, Wilkerson, and others agree that with the
continuing public indignation over voting irregularities in Florida, the time
is right to pursue their reforms. Indeed, some activists are talking about
making even broader changes to the system. Some suggest that same-day voter
registration would prevent the hassles caused by the inactive-voter list and
the confusion surrounding voters who have moved. Others advocate permitting
people to vote near their places of work, on days other than Tuesday, or over
Perhaps the most likely change in the short term is the introduction of
ATM-style voting machines. Lo supports them, though they have not yet been
approved by the Secretary of State's Office. She's unsure whether Boston will
take advantage of Galvin's proposed loans to purchase optical-scanner
equipment; she thinks the city may prefer instead to wait for the touch-screen
machines. Either way, a different type of machine would go a long way toward
addressing concerns about accurate counts. New machines could also make the
process less confusing: voters who don't speak English, for instance, could
simply punch up a translation on screen. And a better-administered motor-voter
law could make voters' lives easier, too.
In the meantime, the proposed election-reform measures will work their way
through the state legislature, and a special counsel appointed by Galvin will
investigate the NAACP's claims. The changes they bring about may make voting a
more pleasant experience, but activists and politicians from minority
neighborhoods are fearful. "There might be people who just don't want to come
out and vote again," says Fox. Undaunted, she and her colleagues will continue
to hammer home their message. "Money goes to the places that vote the most,"
she says. "We're telling people, `Do not be dismayed, come back again for the
municipal election.' "
Dorie Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.