Russell Menyhart writes: I spent October 31 through November 2 working for Election Protection in Detroit. My experienced was a mixed one, as explained below.
1) Poll monitoring is a necessary part of our democracy, and must continue beyond this election and at election other than those at the national level. Labor unions, the NAACP, Election Protection and other groups were all very visible and helpful in aiding citizens navigate the atrocious voting process. We would present at hundreds of polling places, keeping an eye on Republican challengers who were present at every single Detroit precinct (less Democratic challengers, for obvious reasons), helping voters find their correct precincts, and instructing voters on provisional and challenged ballots.
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It is shocking to think that elections used to take place without this massive poll monitoring system. I worked from our legal assistance command center, and our phone lines were swamped with requests and problem reports from 7:00 a.m. until the polls closed.
2) Poll monitoring groups must be better organized. I am concerned about the image Election Protection put forth. I worked with many excellent, dedicated people. A number of workers operated on little or no sleep, and were wonderful legal advisors and organizers. However, we were also unorganized and many volunteers were frustrated by their experience.
We wasted many hours of volunteer time Sunday and Monday taking signs to polling places and mapping out precincts instead of putting together volunteer packs and confirming legal information. I personally spent hours driving around town delivering signs to polling places, assured that the legal work was taken care of. I was then dismayed to discover that a legal information pamphlet I was photocopying Monday night contained numerous errors, partly because it was lifted from a similar pamphlet prepared for Florida. Of course, by that point it was too late to correct it.
Election Protection was a hastily organized coalition of many different groups. While its work was exemplary, and its problems due in part to the overwhelming number of volunteers, unfortunately the Detroit site was not well-run, with significant frustration expressed by many of the volunteers. We had great logistical problems handing out assignments and materials on Election Day – this MUST be done the night before. Arranging rides to polling sites was also a logistical nightmare. Most crucially, we had phone problems in the morning that prevented many volunteers at polling sites from reaching our command center. When all the work is channeled through a central office, a solid phone system must exist. The national Election Protection number (866-OURVOTE) also was so swamped with calls that it was not accepting calls for much of the morning.
3) Our voting process is still broken. Unfortunately, my overall impression of the voting system in Detroit was not a good one. While some sites ran “as smooth as butter,” as one volunteer told me, other sites had waits of between one to three hours, broken voting machines, and unprepared election officials. When machines broke down, many officials did not know the proper process for using paper ballots. Other officials demanded ID or refused to permit provisional ballots to be cast—I was required to have our volunteers call the election board headquarters (which was very helpful) and have them speak directly to the precinct chief and order them to comply with the law.
The election monitors should not have to be educating the election officials. Why aren’t sufficient public funds available to hire non-partisan attorneys to be trained and run the polling sites?
A further problem was with a disturbing number of voters not being on the state voter roll, including voters who had been on the roll for years. This problem has not yet been resolved, but hopefully groups in Michigan are working on it.
4) Our new voting laws are still too complex and discourage people from voting. Every state should permit voters who are in the wrong precinct to still vote for every office, on the federal and state level, that are the same from both his correct precinct and the precinct he is located at. Helping voters find their right precinct was what we spent most of our time doing.
Every state should keep polls open until at least 8:00 p.m. Indiana (where I live) closed its polls at 6:00 p.m., allowing working people just one hour to get there after work. If you have a half-hour commute, then go home first, you probably didn’t make it to your precinct. Unforgivable.
Every state should allow election day registration.
Every state should allow early voting, either by mail or in person.