UPDATED 11/21/2012 For Clarity
From seven hour lines in Miami-Dade County to false or misleading information on billboards in Pennsylvania to endless counting in Arizona, Election Day 2012 was nothing to be proud of. Voters across the country faced myriad challenges, a reality that runs counter to the United States’ reputation as a beacon of democracy.
In some of the country, the chaos appeared as politicians scaled back early voting windows, enacted voter screening laws (most of which were struck down in court) or reduced polling places. In other words, much of the confusion was entirely deliberate and avoidable. Elsewhere, the resulting situation may have been avoidable, but it was due more to a lack of preparedness than malevolent intent.
Massachusetts was hardly immune to the problem, and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin is looking for input to correct problems. However, in individual communities, problems were more persistent, and according to a new report, Springfield had multiple issues.
The Springfield Institute, a think-tank based in the city, in concern with groups like the NAACP and the ACLU fanned out across the city on Election Day and found numerous violations detailed a in brief report published on the Institute’s website. Many of these were uncovered on Election Day and were publicized then, either through Twitter, Facebook or through other means. Some were quickly rectified by the city, but others were not, or should have been avoided altogether. WMassP&I rebroadcast some of these and other complaints under Twitter hashtag “#spfldmavote.”
Part of the problem, which was apparent on Election Day and was laid bare in the Institute’s report, appears to be an underestimation of turnout in the city. Galvin had said prior to the election that the state would exceed its past records for the raw number of voters turning out.
Depending on the metric, Springfield either did or did not exceed turnout. The turnout rate among registered voters in Springfield was about 54% or three percent lower than in 2008. However, a more important number, one that could sync with the broader problems the city faced on Election Day, is the raw turnout number. As many as 4000 more voters voted this year than four years ago. The drop in the turnout rate was driven by the city having 10,000 more voters in 2012 than in 2008.
Whatever the reason, the city was not apparently ready for it. The report says that the city failed to ensure that each polling place had enough ballots for each registered voter in each precinct, which is required under state law. Instead, polling places had to call into City Hall, whose phone lines were often jammed, to get replacement ballots. In some polling places, the wrong ballots were delivered delaying voters further.
In four extreme circumstances, polling places, all in minority-heavy areas, essentially shut down to allow ballots to come in. The report and on-the-ground assessments on Election Day say several voters walked away in frustration.
Conflicting voter lists were also a problem. This was partly a result of reshuffling wards and precincts, which the City Council passed last year. However, the jammed phone lines again became a problem, preventing poll workers, whom the report credits for doing well under tough conditions, from getting correct information for voters. Language access, was also a problem, despite the city being cited for this problem in the past by the Department of Justice.
Aron Goldman the Executive Director of the Springfield Institute said in an email that he was told that the Massachusetts Democratic Party threatened to sue the city due to these problems. The party was likely concerned the issues could be a drag on urban turnout, which, in cities like Springfield, was expected to overwhelming favor now Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (Warren won Springfield by nearly 50 points). Ultimately, the city used an alert system to call landlines in the city, reminding voters of the time polls closed. This appeared to placate the party’s concerns, Goldman said. An email to the Democratic Party was not returned by posting time.
Springfield Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola was also emailed and asked if she had seen the Institute’s report, but has also yet to respond. On Election Day, when these concerns were presented to her by WMassP&I, City Solicitor Ed Pikula replied saying that there were ballot issues, but that no voters were turned away.
Pikula may be technically correct on that front. The words used by WMassP&I when it first contacted Oyola on Election Day, it said, repeating reports from the ground, that some polling places “had to turn away voters.” Pikula’s dispute may be right in that voters were probably not sent away from any polling place, but the lack of ballots meant waiting while more ballots arrived. This may have constructively turned voters away, but was probably not a formal denial of a vote.
The language of the Institutes report also avoids a direct claim that voters were turned away for lack of ballots, instead saying polling places were shut down, a more ambiguous description as to the fate of voters. Indeed, the report also does praise the city for its widespread usage of provisional ballots, which Springfield resisted, the report says, in years past in apparent contravention of state law.
Either way the report remains an indictment of the city, made all the more damning by the likelihood that it will come across Galvin’s desk as he reviews the election. When it does, his office could very well includes some of the report’s findings in his autopsy of the election. Complicating matters further is the apparent disproportionate impact the quirks had on minority voters. While minority turnout lagged white turnout in 2012 as in other years, it exceed minority turnout in the three non-presidential elections since 2008.
The Department of Justice has not formally released any findings from when it monitored the 2011 elections, although the Institute says Justice officials anecdotally identified violations in that election. Should more substantive complaints from this year be paired with a formal finding from last year, Springfield could find itself the subject of another voting rights lawsuit.