Shifting Laws Make Create Confusion At The Polls

With lots of voting law changes and the potential for problems at the polls, voting rights groups and others are preparing for Election Day.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Back now to the other big story brewing this week: the election, which is just nine days away. When voters go to cast their ballots - either on Election Day or before - it's not clear what they'll encounter. There are scattered reports already of misprinted ballots, malfunctioning machines and voters mistakenly purged from the rolls. Such things often happen in elections, but with the presidential race so close, the impact this year could be significant. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: This past week, workers in Palm Beach County, Florida - home of the infamous butterfly ballot - were trying to fix another voting mishap. They were hand-copying the votes on 27,000 mailed-in absentee ballots because a misprint made the ballots uncountable by machine. It's one of the more bizarre voting problems to emerge so far this year. It's unlikely to be the last.

RICK HASEN: At the top of my list in terms of concerns about Election Day is not dirty tricks. It's incompetence.

FESSLER: Rick Hasen is a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and a longtime observer of elections.

HASEN: You know, there's nothing like Election Day in this country. We roll out this massive enterprise for one day only, and we hope that things are going to go smoothly. But there are places where machines will fail, where people run out of ballots, where there'll be all kinds of problems that are unanticipated.

FESSLER: He notes, for example, that Maricopa County, Arizona, just sent out Spanish language voter cards that incorrectly list Election Day as November 8th instead of November 6th. And in LaPorte County, Indiana, election officials scrambled last week to restore more than 10,000 voters mistakenly purged from the rolls.

Such glitches are unlikely to amount to much - unless they occur in a pivotal state where the results are extremely close. And this year, that's certainly possible. This has voter advocacy groups worried, not only about human error, but about what they see as efforts to discourage some voters from turning out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE AD)

WILL.I.AM: What's up? My name is will.i.am. I am somebody. And you are somebody too. You have the whole world depending on you not to vote. You have the whole world saying don't even come to the ballot. I say prove them wrong...

FESSLER: That's why the voting rights group, the Advancement Project, has produced this public service ad by rap musician will.i.am along with several others. They're trying to make sure voters - especially minorities, the elderly and the poor — aren't discouraged by a wave of new laws making it more difficult to cast a ballot. Laws such as new photo ID requirements and limits on early voting.

BARBARA ARNWINE: We have seen politicians across the country passing laws that would limit eligible voter access to the ballot.

FESSLER: Barbara Arnwine is head of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is heading a coalition of progressive voting rights groups called Election Protection. They're trying to help voters with problems they encounter at the polls. Arnwine notes that many new voting laws have been postponed or struck down this year because of legal challenges, but some remain.

ARNWINE: The proliferation of suppressive voter legislation in the last year has led to voter confusion, and that is why election protection is needed this year more than ever.

FESSLER: The group plans to have 10,000 lawyers and other volunteers on hand in 22 states on Election Day. Other, more conservative groups will also have thousands of poll watchers on hand. They plan to be on the lookout for any signs of voter fraud. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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