Block the Vote

On a cold, sunny Saturday in December, the Republican Party of Virginia introduced the RNC’s new-style electioneering scheme to apparatchiks from around the state. The place–a suburban Sheraton ballroom–was packed with a crowd whose aesthetics veered dangerously close to Republican kitsch: elephant-emblem ties and perfectly parted hair. The Virginia GOP officials who led the seminar explained Karl Rove’s 72-hour plan–how to win this fall’s election in the campaign’s last three days–to the operatives in the seats. In coming months, RNC field staff will lay out the plan for similar audiences across the country.

The strategy is simple. Local organizers assemble teams to contact voters and watch the polls. Some teams will go out with palm pilots so they can access data about voters on the streets they’re walking. They will go door-to-door and drive people to the polls. All of this is standard electioneering. But a new tool, crucially important, they said, is that an army of attorneys will be deployed alongside the get-out-the-vote campaigners and poll-watchers.

Ever since Florida, it’s been obvious that an election’s crucial point is not when you vote but when the vote is counted. To get to this point, lawyers are crucial. Rove’s strategy ensures that there will be a Republican lawyer assigned to each contested precinct on election day. Thus positioned, they can explain ballots to loyal voters, confront potentially ineligible voters, and challenge the legality of election conduct. It is this element of the strategy, Rove and the RNC believe, that may win them the 2004 election.

In the aftermath of Florida, Congress passed the Help America to Vote Act (HAVA), a law designed to deflate the role of post-election courtroom haggling by standardizing election equipment and procedures. But the law’s most important provisions don’t take effect until 2006, and the slow moving federal government has only made available 16 percent of the promised appropriation.

This has left state election officials with a big mess on their hands. Some counties have been able to upgrade. Others haven’t. And funds to train workers to use the new systems, to maintain old equipments, and to sort out glitches in computerized tabulating systems have been in short supply. It’s a recipe for disaster. In 2003, the first election cycle after HAVA was passed, states like Florida, California, Mississippi, Connecticut, and Virginia, which used new electronic voting systems, faced a host of problems, including machines that could not be turned on, that broke down, that misreported votes, that failed to transmit data, and not the least, that generally confused voters.

The situation for 2004 doesn’t look much better. This November, for example, Virginia’s counties will use five different kinds of ballots (optical, punch card, electronic, paper, lever machines). Twenty-two of its counties will use more than one of these systems. This jumble of old and new, electronic and paper, is apt to spark just the type of what-the-hell-is-this sentiment among both voters and poll workers that put the Florida election into the hands of the courts. And it means that Karl Rove is probably right: Lawyers who can stage an immediate and effective campaign to have ballot and vote-counting inconsistencies interpreted their way will likely do much to help their party win in November.

Soon after Florida, Democrats, like Republicans, figured they had to act. The DNC put together and funded the Voting Rights Initiative, run by former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile and dedicated to matching the Republican ferocity in contesting the election results. It was a good idea. Unfortunately, and somewhat typical of recent Democratic operations, the project has died. Eight months before the election, while the VRI has no staff, the DNC is overwhelmed with trying to close the fundraising gap and keep up the rhetorical attacks on President Bush, the top Democratic organizational talent is scattered among the various campaigns contesting the primaries, and the new liberal 527s, non-profits designed to take over many of the DNC’s traditional responsibilities, don’t see this legal electioneering as part of their job. This isn’t to say that this time around the Democrats have been totally remiss in ensuring their supporters get their votes counted; it’s just that the planning hasn’t gotten far beyond the small and, frankly, slightly disheveled office of John Hardin Young.

Young is the Democrats’ king of the recount–a post-election fixer who is called upon by the DNC when the outcome of an election is too close to call. Think of Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, the Wolf, but in the context of electoral systems rather than organized crime. Young, who’s got a rough, likable, fast-talking wit, was at the center of the Democrats’ recount efforts in Florida in 2000. He believes that election’s lesson ought to be simple: “Al Gore could have been president with one word,” he says. “Kinko’s.”

If the Democrats had built a functional operation to respond to confused voters and unhelpful election officials, Young believes, they could have responded to the butterfly ballots in Palm Beach by going to Kinko’s and photocopying a sample ballot showing how to vote for Gore. They could have handed these copies to voters, and we would have had a Democratic president. On election day, “lawyers and trained field staff need to be integrated into the campaign,” Young said, “so that they can identify problems, determine a remedy, and solve the voters’ problems in the precinct within five minutes so that the voters can go about their business.”

In other words, precisely what the Republicans are doing. “The Republicans are ahead of us today,” Young admits. His office, adorned with butterfly ballots, a punch-card machine, and photos of judges examining chads, is a monument to what can go wrong without an effective election plan. Though he talks with other operatives about how to include lawyers in a Democratic 72-hour effort, he’s still waiting for the DNC, the 527s, or one of the campaigns to call. Eight months before the election, his phone is still silent.