How ballot changes could really rock the vote

How ballot changes could really rock the vote

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The period between the conventions and Election Day was traditionally a straightforward dash to the finish line, but thanks to changes in voting and financing, things are no longer so simple.

We now have a system in 32 states (including New Jersey) and the District of Columbia where citizens can vote as early as 45 days before Election Day. This system — in addition to the traditional absentee voting — was set up to make it more convenient for people to vote. Depending where you live (since voting procedures are subject to state law), you can vote in person, by mail (in New Jersey), and by absentee ballot. In some states you can vote early only for during a prescribed time frame while in some cases the period is extended.

That’s fine in theory, but in practice it means that different voters are or are not influenced by different events. As a result, candidates — especially the presidential ones — need to campaign non-stop in the key swing states and treat each turn of the news cycle as make-or-break. Increasing voter turnout could have been accomplished much more simply by having 24-hour voting.

This year is also the first presidential campaign following the infamous January 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to outside funding for political campaigns. Spending on the presidential election alone could total in excess of $2 billion. This includes candidate money, party money, independent money, and superPAC money. Given the absence of a spending cap for the outside funds, $2 billion may be a low estimate.

Perhaps the most dramatic development this year — and the one that could well make the 2000 “hanging chad” election look like child’s play — are the new voter ID laws enacted in 31 states, with two more pending. Again, the theory of asking voters to present proof of identity is reasonable, but both the intent and consequence of these laws is to intimidate and discourage first-time voters, poor people, and immigrants. While Republicans pushing these laws say the only goal is to eliminate fraud (although there is little evidence of such fraud), the changes will have a dramatic affect on minority, poor, indigent, and elderly voters, all of whom are disproportionally Democratic.

There is a good likelihood that polling places will be overwhelmed with problems; poll watchers and designated lawyers could be rushing into makeshift courtrooms; and, most important, voters could be turned away. Contested ballots and charges of intimidation could turn the election into chaos.

Finally, there is a question of whether jurisdictions will provide bilingual ballots. Under the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions with at least 5 percent of residents who speak a foreign language must provide ballots in that language as well as English. That could affect some 19 million Americans. But getting municipalities to comply is another story. This is especially worrisome to the Democrats, who have invested significant resources in Hispanic communities.

In the Jewish community, we tend to talk about the Jewish vote in swing states and wonder how and whether the week’s news — like the recent confrontation between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama — could impact Jewish voters and swing the election. As significant as it is, the impact of the Jewish vote might pale in comparison to the fallout from the chaos surrounding untested changes to the voting system.

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