Earlier this year, I started reading Chuck Klosterman. He generally writes essays or articles about post-modern pop culture (for a better sense of what this means, read Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs). Typically Klosterman pens essays that are laugh out loud funny and that do not explicitly address politics. The closest that Klosterman comes to politics might be his argument that you could figure out your position on an issue based upon which team you prefer in the old school Lakers-Celtics rivalry, or his description of his experience watching live a taping of the McLaughlin Group.
By way of the Hidden Track blog, I recently discovered that Klosterman regularly contributes to Esquire and an archive of his writings for that publication could be found at Esquire.com. Earlier this week, while taking a much needed mental break at work, I read an essy that Klosterman wrote in 2006, entitled "Invention's New Mother," available at http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0306KLOSTERMAN_124_2. The general premise is that everything necessary has already been invented, therefore making modern invention an exercise in creating things that people never thought that they wanted or needed until they started using the item. By way of example, Klosterman provides a discussion of his experience with text messaging, something with which we could all identify.
So what does any of this have to do with voting or the 2008 election? Klosterman addressed invention, but he got me thinking about re-invention. Perhaps everything necessary has been invented. But it is quite clear that much of what has been created has yet to be perfected. One such creation is the system of democracy employed in the United States. And the system for voter registration and the methods employed that affect whether a registered voter is permitted to actually vote on election day. This year, voters in the remaining primary states should use the opportunity to determine what imperfections could be corrected before November.
Without attempting to list even a fraction of the deficiencies, I'll tell you what I've learned from personal experiences just this year. I was in South Carolina for the Democratic Primary, and in New York on Super Tuesday, in both instances manning voter protection hotlines. On each day, the overarching lesson was that registered voters are not always on the voter registration list at their polling place. Life-long voters get purged from the voter registration list without being told in advance and first time voters not infrequently don't make it onto the voter registration list even though they have received a card in the mail telling them that they had successfully registered to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in places like Brooklyn, New York, life-long voters arrived at the polling place at which they have always voted, only to learn that their name was purged from the registration list. If you take a few minutes to peruse the Brennan Center's website (brennancenter.org), you will notice that since the Help America Vote Act ("HAVA") was enacted in 2002, numerous would-be voters get removed from voter registration lists in various states for various reasons, including simple human error.
The worst part about voters being purged from the rolls is how poll workers handle such situations. If your name is not on the list, it does not necessarily mean that you cannot vote. But the volunteers at polling locations on election day are very often ignorant or misinformed of their state's rules. If you are not on the list, but are registered, some states allow you to vote using a paper ballot that has a presumption of validity. Other states allow you to vote using a provisional ballot or affidavit ballot that has a presumption of invalidity. Despite what the pollworker may tell you or the presumption associated with the type of ballot, neither case means that the paper ballot automatically does not count. It also does not mean that casting that ballot is a waste of time. Even if the vote does not get counted, there are steps to take that will help non-partisan organizations determine whether there is a greater problem in your county or polling place that bears addressing.
If this happens to you, there are a few things that you should do to help improve the system in your county or state:
(1) You should demand to vote, regardless of what the pollworker tells you.
(2) You should re-register to vote, so that you know that you will not experience the same problem in November.
(3) You should report the problem to a non-partisan organization, such as the National Campaign for Fair Elections, an initiative of the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights (1-866-OUR VOTE). The great thing about this organization, and others like it, is that they are available to assist you if you call while you are at your polling place and the poll worker is attempting to turn you away.
The National Campaign for Fair Elections recruits volunteer attorneys and law students and trains them to participate in a voter protection hotline for many of the primaries, as well as for the general election in November. The organization's press release regarding its plan for the Pennsylvania primary is available here: http://www.lawyerscommittee.org/2005website/publications/press/press041108.html. My understanding is that the organization has already started recruiting volunteers for similar voter protection programs for the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina taking place in early May.
Whether you are registered as a member of the Democratic or Republic Party, or unaffiliated in a state that allows unaffiliateds to vote in a party primary -- and even if you think that your vote in the primary will not impact your party's choice of nominee for the general election -- you need to take your county for a test run because not all counties or polling places are created equal. By voting and testing the process in April or May, you could make it easier for yourself and others to vote in November.
Numerous aspects of our voting system are far from perfect, but you could help improve some of the problems by helping to identify them early.