Some States Unprepared For Election Day?

More than 188 million potential voters have signed up to participate in the upcoming presidential election, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. The projected record turnout signals one of the country's most anticipated elections ever. But some voter rights advocates warn that inadequate state resources could stifle participation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we've been asking a variety of prominent figures about what it might mean to this country to elect an African-American president. Today, we go to the voice of so-called white power, David Duke. He went from Ku Klux Klan leader to serving in state government to fighting to what he calls European-American rights. We'll have our conversation with him in just a few minutes.

But first, our weekly political chat. This is one of the most anticipated elections in recent history. In some states, unprecedented members of people have chosen to vote early. And when polls open on Tuesday morning, officials expect that record numbers of voters will show up to cast ballots. But even as excitement grows, so do the concerns that problems at the polls could prevent many people from voting. Joining me to talk about all this is Christopher Edley. He is the dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley. He's served in the National Commission on Federal Election Reform in 2001, and he joins us from member station KUCI in Irvine, California. Also with us is Rosemary Rodriguez. She is the chair of the United States Election Assistance Commission appointed by President Bush. She is with us from Denver. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ROSEMARY RODRIGUEZ (Chairwoman, United States Election Assistance Commission): Good morning.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER EDLEY JR. (Dean, University of California-Berkeley Law School): Thank you.

MARTIN: Chris, let me speak - let me begin with you. You had a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post that warns that voters could face long lines and a shortage of ballots and too few voting machines. You know, that could be annoying, but you also say that this could actually disenfranchise tens of thousands of people next week. Now, that's kind of a dire prediction. What leads you to that?

Mr. EDLEY: Relatively simple. It's - there's substantial research showing that if people face long lines, they become discouraged and simply leave. And while there - media reports in early voting of people standing on line as long as eight hours in Georgia, the reality is that those are stories of heroic efforts to cast a ballot. And many of us, I'm sure, appreciate that we have busy lives, we may have to get to work, or we may have to - have child-care problems. And if the long as too line - if the line is too long, people will be discouraged and leave.

So, if the resources are allocated in a way, such that in some precincts, voting is a snap, because there are plenty of machines, there are plenty of poll workers. And right across town, in the same jurisdiction, lines are out the door and around the block, and you have to wait an hour or 90 minutes, two hours. It stands to reason that in the latter jurisdiction, the discouragement is just going to effectively depress votes. That's not just unfair, but I think it should be considered and would be considered by many courts unconstitutional.

MARTIN: You say that this disparity is most apparent in comparing minority neighborhoods and less affluent neighborhoods with more affluent neighborhoods. Why does this exist? I mean, you're saying that it's just - it's just a fact that in a lot of minority neighborhoods, there will be just fewer machines and fewer workers per capita than there will be in other neighborhoods. Why is that?

Mr. EDLEY: The data show that to be the case, and it's not limited to Virginia and Pennsylvania where court cases have been filed, but it's a fairly common pattern around the country. We certainly saw it in the analysis of Florida, that one of the problems there was these inequalities the in nature - in the allocation of poll-worker resources and so forth. The basic problem, the fundamental problem from a resource perspective is that in America, by and large, we finance election administration at the local level, at the county level. We entrust the infrastructure of democracy to a system of local revenue and local decision-making, even though the votes in a county - out the middle of Virginia or out the middle of Ohio - can ultimately affect who's elected president for the entire country.

But when you finance that at the local level that means that resources for voting machines, for trading poll workers and so forth, those resources have to compete with the demands for filling potholes or emergency services. It also means that you're going to allocate scarce recourses based in part on the politics of pressure and privilege at the local level. And the folks who've got clout are going to get better services. There's nothing new about that.

MARTIN: So, you're not saying that there's some intention - sorry.

Mr. EDLEY: But when it comes to democracy, it really matters.

MARTIN: So, you're not saying there's some intention to discriminate against these folks. You're saying this is a resource-allocation question that seems to have risen overtime and just for some reason doesn't get fixed. Is that about right?

Mr. EDLEY: I'm cert - I would not rule out the possibility that in some places, there's intentionality here. And it could be intentionality with respect to geography. It could be with respect to race and ethnicity or language, minority status. But apart from the legal theories, this is just about common sense and common fairness. I mean, people died, people bled to get voting rights. And to have this election, the quality of this election, the enthusiasm that so many voters feel about this election, imperiled because of maladministration would be deeply tragic, especially when it's easy to - easy to fix.

MARTIN: Let's bring Rosemary Rodriguez into the conversation. You've also looked at this question as chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Do you share Professor Edley's concern or his assessment?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, I do believe there's a gap in allocation of resources at the state and local level. I know firsthand of an example in South Dakota where not every county, but the counties that cover the Pine Ridge and - of the two Indian reservations had early voting for five weeks before the election. And those two counties had three days of early voting. They're the two poorest counties in the state of South Dakota, and Help America Vote Act funds are available to those counties, but for some reason, those counties didn't request those funds. So, what we have this not only desperate allocation. But sometimes when there's resources available, local officials don't, for some reason, access those funds, and I think that the state leaders ought to be more assertive in encouraging those situations.

MARTIN: That's why I was going to you, Ms. Rodriguez, is, what would fix this problem? I mean, it just seems interesting to me that we're talking about this a couple of days before this election when all signs have pointed to a massive turnout for months now. So, what, Rosemary Rodriguez, what do you think would help address these questions?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, we are on notice. I do believe the election-administration community is on notice since the primaries to anticipate record turnout. And what the Election Assistance Commission has done has provided online poll-worker training, ballot polling-place setup, a whole lot of tools, both written and video, so that counties with limited resources can simply log onto the EAC website and make - and have those tools readily available. We've put out a call for two million poll workers, including bilingual poll workers in jurisdictions that need them. And some counties have reported that they have hundreds of substitute poll workers so that if - so people are responding to what they believe is going to be a record turnout.

What we need to do for future planning, though, is come up with guidelines for allocation of equipment, because that is a state-by-state formula, and we ought to be able to come up with some best practices and some ideals so that legislatures that want to take a look at this after this election will have some guidelines. You know, I spoke to a group yesterday and I ask how many people had not voted early here in Denver and one hand went up. I mean, I do think there are a number of people trying to bank their votes to avoid the possibility of long lines, which I know firsthand in 2006 hundreds, if not thousands, of Denver voters were discouraged by long lines due to a polling booth failure, so...

MARTIN: Let me go to Chris Edley. Chris Edley, what do you think should happen now?

Mr. EDLEY: In the short term, and that is say between now and Tuesday, I think local officials, forced by states officials or by judges that if need be, should be stockpiling, under lock and key, paper ballots in case they're needed to deal with the problem of excessive weights. That's number one. For the longer term, well, and I should say, number two is, it's not that hard to organize a system so that if you've got a hotspot in one area, you can redeploy poll-worker resources, technical assistants, whatever is needed, in order to deal with that, and local officials can get ready. In a couple of states - I believe it's New Jersey and either Ohio or Nevada - officials have even taken trailers and rigged them with extra voting booths and standing by to deploy those trailers to precincts that are in trouble with long waiting lines. So, there're things that can be done in a short run.

And the longer run, though, I agree completely with Chairwoman Rodriguez, that the problem is the way in which the resources are distributed and thinking about what the right norms for equity for genuine equality of opportunity in participating in the election ought to be. When I was on the Carter/Ford commission that you mentioned after the Florida fiasco in 2000, and our proposals really became the core of that Help America Vote Act, including creation of the Election Assistance Commission. I and several others on that commission argued that Congress should actually not simply establish best practices authority for the commission, but give them regulatory authority to require this kind of equal treatment of all voters and this is fundamental.

MARTIN: And I am afraid we're going to have to leave it there, and I have a feeling this is a conversation where we might be returning to after the election. We'll see how it goes. Christopher Edley is the dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a former member of the Carter/Ford National Commission on Federal Election Reform. We are also joined by Rosemary Rodriguez. She is chair of the United States Election Assistance Commission. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. EDLEY: Thanks, Michel.

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