Study: Missouri among states most prepared for election

Monday, October 20, 2008 | 5:02 p.m. CDT; updated 2:17 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 4, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Fraud, long lines, a shortage of ballots, eligible voters blocked from actually voting. The list of concerns is long in Missouri with just two weeks until the Nov. 4 election.

With a high-profile governor's race and a presidential election that polls show is knotted up in Missouri, a lot is riding on the state's election system. And some are concerned about how it will perform under the strain of new voter registrations and the expected high voter turnout.

Despite fears of voting calamities, a review of national Election Day readiness by a nonpartisan research center rates Missouri as one of the six most prepared states. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law examined states' plans for ensuring ballots are properly counted, the availability of paper records for voters to verify their selections and the thoroughness of post-election audits.

That study generally praised efforts in Missouri, though it suggested that the state should establish formal procedures for verifying that all votes recorded on computerized memory cards are properly loaded to a server that tallies the selections. Currently, the procedures for doing that are up to the county clerks.

The Brennan Center review also recommended that post-election audits, which verify that votes cast by electronic machine are accurately counted, be expanded to explicitly require reviews for all types of ballots.

The review comes amid concerns about problematic voter-registration forms in Jackson County. Earlier this month, election officials there reported receiving possibly hundreds of questionable or duplicate voter-registration forms submitted by Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Missouri isn't the only place where ACORN is accused of submitting false registration forms, and the FBI has joined nearly a dozen states in investigating.

ACORN officials have repeatedly claimed that their own quality-control workers were the first to discover problematic ballots and have called questions about their voter registrations an attempt to manufacture a crisis.

Harvey Tettlebaum, a Republican attorney, said the potential for voter fraud is a particular concern because it can cause people to lose faith in the validity of the electoral process.

"It strikes at the very core of the integrity of the election," Tettlebaum said. "In order to achieve large turnouts at the election, the people have to believe that the election makes a difference. When you sully the integrity of the an election process as ACORN has so brazenly done, you lose the trust of the electorate."

ACORN has its own list of potential Election Day problems.

Dan Szyman, the group's election administration coordinator for Missouri, said ACORN fears some operatives might try to challenge the eligibility of voters whose homes have been foreclosed upon.

Democratic attorney Rob Heggie said the party is relatively optimistic.

"I think voters can expect a smooth operation on Election Day," he said.

Democrats, he said, have been working with election officials to mitigate the potential for long lines and to ensure enough ballots are available.

"We think it's definitely a manageable situation," Heggie said. "The local election authorities have been getting prepared. For the last year and a half, they have been working on this kind of issue, and by and large, they have done a very good job of handling all the newly registered voters. The systems will be in a good spot on Election Day."

Deputy Secretary of State Rich Lamb said the office has urged local election authorities to make sure they have enough ballots and has distributed $2 million in grants to supplement local election authorities budgets for poll workers.

"A high turnout is both good and bad," Lamb said.

"Those long lines, after a while, they're going to start stressing out poll workers. People get frustrated," Lamb added.

Many of the voting concerns stem from the expectation of a high turnout. The secretary of state's office said Monday that 4,127,610 people are registered to vote, although that number could rise before the election. In 2006, 4,007,174 people were registered to vote in Missouri.

In St. Louis County — the state's largest jurisdiction — election officials have hired 1,000 college students and 130 high school students to work at the polls on Nov. 4.

Washington-based Advancement Project, which focuses on civil and voting rights, also is raising concerns about a ballot that's loaded with candidates, proposed state constitutional measures, initiative petitions and local referendums.

Jim Freeman, staff attorney for the project, said Missouri's ballot is the longest in eight battleground states examined by the group.

"That could result in very long lines if there aren't enough privacy booths," he said.

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