Politics Mondays: Crazy in love with Chad by Faye M. Anderson

Well, they're back. Chad and his hanging-pregnant-dimpled posse are back to wreak havoc in the California recall election.

California election officials are apparently still crazy in love with unreliable punch-card voting machines although they have been warned about the systems' chad problems since the 1970s. The warning was echoed in the 2001 report of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

In a landmark study, the researchers found that punch-card voting systems "lose at least 50 percent more votes than optically scanned paper ballots… The immediate implications of our analysis is that the U.S. can lower the number of lost votes in 2004 by replacing punch cards and lever machines with optical scanning."

The CalTech/MIT study found that four million to six million votes were discarded nationwide in 2000. About half of those votes were lost because of voting equipment failure, flawed voting procedures or inadequate Election Day preparation by overwhelmed election officials. These are the very factors that will be in play if the recall election takes place as scheduled on Oct. 7.

The American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the California NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, has filed a lawsuit in federal court to postpone the recall election until March 2004. A hearing is set for Aug. 18.

"If the October election goes forward, we can predict with absolute certainty that every Californian's vote will not count. Democracy in California should not hang by a chad," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, in a statement.

California's crazy quilt mix of voting systems arguably violates the equal protection standard enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush vs. Gore. Indeed, the affected counties are already under federal court order to replace punch-card machines with voting systems that are more reliable by March.

Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, recently said on Hannity & Colmes, "It's about voting rights. We want to make sure every voter can vote and that their vote will be counted…. There's something wrong when you have two classes of voters."

As in Florida, minority voters will disproportionately cast their vote on voting machines that have the highest error rate. For instance, voters in majority-minority Los Angeles County, which has more voters than any jurisdiction in the nation, will vote on punch-card machines that had been ceremonially mothballed by county officials earlier this year.

By contrast, voters in some small rural counties will cast their vote on optical-scan voting machines, which are the most reliable.

Also as in Florida, there will be widespread voter confusion. Voters will confront a confusing multi-card ballot with 135 candidates listed in random order. While Palm Beach County's "butterfly" ballot was in the media spotlight in 2000, the multipage ballot design in Duval County resulted in tens of thousands more uncounted votes.

On the down low, the recall election is a cautionary tale about the perils of taking Democratic base voters for granted. Gov. Gray Davis' narrow five-point margin of victory no doubt emboldened Republicans to seek his ouster. If Davis had courted blacks and Latinos in the 2002 general election, he would be better positioned to fend off an actor who is trying to muscle him out of his leading-man role in Sacramento.

Consider this: The black share of the statewide turnout was reportedly 4 percent, down from 13 percent in 1998. The Latino share of the total vote fell from 13 percent four years ago to 10 percent last November. This double heaping of disaffected minority voters contributed to the 50.57 percent turnout--the worst in California's history. Davis ended up with 1.3 million fewer votes than he received in 1998.

So Davis has now flipped the script and is wooing minority voters. He has vowed to sign legislation allowing undocumented workers to apply for driver's licenses. "You put it on my desk and I'll sign it in a heartbeat," declared Davis at a recent labor rally. His veto of a similar bill two years ago alienated Latinos for whom this issue is a high priority.

The recall election is eerily reminiscent of the Louisiana runoff election between Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Suzanne Haik Terrell last December. There too, the incumbent took Democratic base voters for granted in the general election. But Landrieu flipped the script when she was forced into a one-month sprint for her political life. With the help of a high black voter turnout, Landrieu beat her Republican rival who was reportedly handpicked by the White House.

As national Democrats rush to the Golden State, they should pay heed to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that found that most Democrats are not happy campers. Six in ten Democrats are dissatisfied with their party's performance on issues that involve core Democratic values and principles.

Those principles include protecting the right to vote and restoring voters' confidence in the fairness of the electoral process. Democratic leaders must mount a full-court press to ensure that every eligible voter has an equal opportunity to vote and that every vote is counted before the election results are certified by the California secretary of state.

Faye M. Anderson is the writer and producer of "Counting on Democracy," a documentary film about the 2000 presidential election. She can be reached at: AndersonAtLarge@aol.com

Monday, August 18, 2003