A call for change

While stories of voter fraud, suppression and malfeasance abounded on the election days in 2004 and 2006, the biggest problems on at the polls actually had to do with something far more routine—poor administration.

That’s according to a comprehensive report from the MyVote1 National Election Hotline Project, a diverse bipartisan coalition that includes Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, Common Cause and the Service Employees International Union. Major problems included not knowing one’s poll location, being unable to find out if one was actually registered, complaining about problematic voting machines, inadequate local polling help lines and absentee ballot and poll access problems.

“The problems that we are talking about will affect the outcomes of elections,” says Christopher Patusky, principal investigator of the MyVote1 Project, who left Fels in May to take a job as director of real estate for the Maryland Department of Transportation. “The fact that these problems did not seem to throw an election in ’06 doesn’t mean they are not capable of doing that.”

The project began after the 2000 election, when it became clear there were problems with the U.S. electoral system, says Patusky. After an analysis, and with the proper technology from InfoVoter Technologies, the MyVote1 hotline emerged. Allison Brummel, the director of projects at Fels who took up where Patusky left off, says the project dovetailed nicely with the mission of the center. “I think it’s just another good example of what we do here at Fels—try to bring research in an academic institution to bear on public affairs and public policy and public administration.”

With the help of heavy advertising of the phone number on MSNBC in 2004, MyVote fielded a total of 209,000 calls. In 2006, they received nearly 20,000 calls. Patusky notes the numbers for both years surpassed those for the federal hotline, which received only 700 calls on Election Day 2004.

MyVote1 was designed to perform a few key tasks. First, the hotline automatically provided callers from across the country information on where to vote. Normally, this information is found only through a precinct number—hardly something that’s on the tip of the average voter’s toungue, says Patusky. So, for weeks prior to the election, Fels students merged precinct numbers with addresses and phone numbers to form the first-ever comprehensive nationwide database. Patusky says out of 209,000 phone calls fielded by the MyVote1 hotline in 2004, more than 100,000 were about poll location.

Second, MyVote1 workers also transferred callers to their local county election board helplines. “This enabled us to do a couple of things,” said Patusky. “We could see which help lines picked up and which counties didn’t.” Notably, in 2004, slightly more than half of the calls transferred by the hotline were picked up by local counties. South Carolina was the worst offender—only 17 percent of people reached a person on the other end. In 2006, this nationwide number improved to 80 percent, but it still left many people unable to reach their local election board.

Finally, MyVote1 allowed voters to leave a 60-second message detailing their Election Day difficulties. On the other end, 25 Fels students worked to download these messages and code the complaints—about 55,000 messages in total in 2004 and 20,000 in 2006. Registration problems topped the complaint list both years. Disturbingly, complaints about malfunctioning voting machines jumped from 3 percent of calls in 2004 to 18 percent in 2006.

Patusky says many of these problems can be solved with simple technological fixes, such as updating websites and voter hotlines, as well as better training for poll workers. “We’re not out there advocating for difficult solutions. These are non-partisan solutions.”

Brummel says despite efforts to use new machines and pass legislation “sometimes it comes down to the government, and how they provide information.”

Originally published Oct. 4, 2007.

Originally published on October 4, 2007