131 Million

131 Million

Voters put the ballot to the test in a record-setting election.

March 2009

By Tom Intorcio

In the months leading up to the Nov. 4 election, news stories raised the specter of a “perfect storm” to describe the upcoming meltdown. Pundits predicted the election would put states and local election officials to a “Survivor”-like test as they dealt with record turnout.

Could election officials recruit enough workers? Could voters operate new machines? Would record numbers of early and absentee voters lead to unforeseen problems? Would the entire election come down to one state, as it had in 2000 and 2004? Would the outcome of the election be decided in court?

With the election in the rear view mirror, most observers are astonished by just how smoothly it went.

“There were only minor problems,” says Doug Chapin, director of, a nonpartisan group that analyzes the elections process as part of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Make Voting Work initiative. “There were no big meltdowns like the ones that people had feared.”

President Obama’s large margin of victory helped election officials avoid problems that might have cropped up in a tighter race. Election experts, however, say there were some problems with the 2008 vote and plenty of work is needed to avoid wide-ranging problems in the next national election. Key issues include voter registration, access to early voting locations in some states, post-election audits, and military/overseas voting.

“We did quite well with few complaints, though our turnout did not increase to double-digit levels as in some other states. A close presidential election would have triggered a number of federal lawsuits and recounts,” Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth says. “ I’m grateful for the nation that it was a decisive victory and we didn’t have to go through that again. At the same time, there are aspects that need reform.”

A post-election survey sponsored by the  Make Voting Work project and AARP confirmed what most political observers thought: The election ran better than expected, though not without trouble spots. The survey of 10,000 Americans conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology just after the election found 75 percent of respondents very confident that their vote was counted as cast.

The survey, however, did raise some concerns. Only 61 percent of absentee voters said they were confident their vote was counted as cast. In both early voting and on Election Day, African-American voters waited longer than any other group. Among those who did not vote, 8 percent said they had requested an absentee ballot but it never arrived, and 16 percent had registration problems.

“Overall, voters give the election system very good grades. But the data point to issues with voter wait times, absentee voting and inconsistent application of election laws,” says Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work. 

A Crush of Voters
The biggest concern heading into the election was how the system would handle a dramatic increase in turnout driven by a record number of new voters. A total of 131.26 million voters, or 63 percent of those eligible, cast a ballot, based on an analysis by American University. It was the highest general election turnout since 1960, when 64.8 percent of eligible voters turned out to choose between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Nine million more Americans voted in 2008 than in 2004.

Expanded use of absentee and early voting, however, diminished Election Day turnout to manageable levels.  

The large turnout did, however, cause problems in Detroit, St. Louis and Chesapeake, Va., where voters had to wait for several hours. Machine and electronic poll book malfunctions, too few machines, ballot supply errors, and poorly trained poll workers also caused delays.

A flood of voters cast ballots early, and some found long lines, notably in parts of  Florida, Georgia and Ohio.

Twenty-nine million voters in 31 states used early voting, a term that applies to pre-election, in-person voting and no-excuse, absentee voting. Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington do not allow early or absentee voting. Oregon uses mail-in voting exclusively and, in Washington, all but two counties conduct elections exclusively through the mail.

“In the 2000 general election, 14 percent of those voting took advantage of early voting,” says Reed College Professor Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center. “In 2008, the final percentages will be at least 30 percent.” 

In the battleground state of Colorado, nearly 65 percent of the electorate voted early. Likewise, in North Carolina, more than 40 percent did. 

Given its growing popularity, early voting is certain to be a key issue for election reform legislation in 2009. Seventy-two percent of Maryland voters passed a constitutional amendment that will allow the General Assembly to enact early voting in time for the 2010 elections.

“Early in-person voting has been shown to be more reliable, resulting in far fewer defective ballots compared to absentee voting,” says Maryland Delegate Jon Cardin, chairman of the House Election Law Subcommittee. “It’s good for turnout, creates a lot of excitement, is transparent and gives people more opportunities to vote.”

At the same time, he acknowledges, there are cost factors that could make enactment impractical.

“Removing the excuse requirement to vote absentee could make it difficult to justify the cost of hiring more poll workers to staff early voting sites,” Cardin says.

In addition to Maryland, legislatures in Mississippi, Missouri and Virginia will consider early voting in 2009, while lawmakers in Florida and North Carolina are looking at expanding hours, the type and number of early voting locations.  

In Florida, Pat Hollarn, Okaloosa County’s supervisor of elections, is hoping to see legislation to expand early voting beyond the two sites currently allowed. Florida law authorizes only government buildings and libraries and there are too few in her county big enough to make early voting convenient. She hopes legislators will give “county supervisors discretion to select early voting locations and to set appropriate hours.”  

In Colorado, several county election clerks say it has gotten difficult to manage early voting given limited resources. Some local officials want to look at reducing voting options, which currently include mail-in voting, early voting at polling places, and Election Day voting.

Registration Issues
Voter registration problems cropped up during the 2008 elections as well. Some would-be voters arrived at the polls only to find that their names were not on the voter rolls.

A federal law requires states to check voters’ names and birthdates against a list of driver’s license and Social Security records. In Colorado and Florida, unforeseen delays and other list problems resulted in many failed matches and allegations that minority voters and immigrants were disenfranchised. In Colorado, voting rights activists filed a federal lawsuit to block the secretary of state from purging voter rolls too close to the election, alleging a violation of federal law.

In Wisconsin, a similar controversy ensued over whether matching was required to be retroactive. Wisconsin was supposed to begin running those checks on Jan. 1, 2006, but technical problems delayed it until Aug. 6, 2008. Information for about 12 percent of voters did not match. The Wisconsin attorney general sued the state Government Accountability Board to require that matching be implemented back to the original deadline in 2006. The suit was dismissed, but the attorney general filed a post-election appeal, leading to a compromise by which the board agreed to match retroactively to Jan. 1, 2006.

Florida’s law required new voters to show a driver’s license or Social Security number that corresponded to those in a government database. After considerable litigation, the law went into effect Sept. 8 and did not apply to people registering before that date. The state reported that more than 5,000 voter applicants were affected, often because of typographical and other clerical mistakes.   

Possible fraud by outside groups registering voters also was an issue. In Fairfax County, Va., and Lake County, Ind., some voters complained that registration groups did not submit official forms. One of those groups, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was investigated and prosecuted in at least 11 states for allegedly submitting fabricated registrations.

ID At The Polls
Indiana, along with Florida and Georgia, requires voters to present photo IDs at the polls. This was the first time, however, that the 2005 Indiana law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, was enforced in a presidential election. Indiana Senator Sue Landske, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, says the law was not an issue in this election.

“People are more and more accustomed to having to show identification to rent a video or when they go to the bank,” she says.

She credited election officials “who worked hard to ensure that people knew they were entitled to receive a free photo ID and that everyone was familiar with the new law.”

The federally mandated 2002 Help America Vote Act requires states to standardize registration, equipment use and voter list maintenance.

States have, for the most part, complied and enacted legislation to implement these new standards. The states also have succeeded in making voting more accessible through early and absentee voting legislation while alleviating Election Day overload. Reform is still needed in areas such as military and overseas voting to ensure that all citizens overseas are given sufficient time to receive and return their ballots. As the recent U.S. Senate election in Minnesota highlights, states also need to have nimble recount, post-election audit and run-off provisions in place to handle razor-thin margins. 

Although many notable improvements have been made, state legislatures will have an opportunity in 2009 to make reforms using 2008 voter survey and performance data. One thing is certain: Financially strapped states will search for solutions that balance voter convenience with keeping costs down.

“Budget constraints may hamper our reform efforts,” says Maryland’s Cardin. “Often our free and open democracy suffers because some fail to see the value of an investment in making voting work.”

CHECK OUT a story on issues surrounding overseas and military voting and a new Pew report on the topic at

Jury Out on Early Voting
Seventeen states that allow early voting saw an increase in overall turnout on Nov. 4, according to data from and Professor Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University. On the other hand, 15 states saw a decrease in turnout.

Paul Gronke, a voting expert and professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., advises caution in drawing any conclusions. 

“Voting turnout is largely a function of the demographic makeup of a state or jurisdiction,” he says. “Areas with higher levels of income and education have higher turnout rates. In addition, places where citizens feel more closely incorporated into the political system—feel that politics matters to them—turn out at higher rates. In contrast, most administrative changes, such as early voting, just don’t make much of a difference in turnout, particularly at a national level in a federal election.”

Gronke says that while early voting involves some added expense, “most states find value in the investment.”

“By contrast, no-excuse mail-in or absentee voting can often involve unintended consequences—as the quality of regular mail delivery can vary widely,” he says. “States considering this option need to take a hard look at the condition of U.S. postal delivery and particularly at rural delivery issues.”

Doug Chapin, director of, echoed the caution. “No-excuse absentee voting ballots are typically counted with central count optical scanners, which means a higher error rate and more rejected ballots than when the voter personally casts his ballot directly into a precinct-based scanner.”
Tom Intorcio follows election issues for NCSL.

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