Election Law @ Moritz


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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

Weekly Comment

Better Voter Training Through Television

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September 14, 2004

This entry is the second of a two-part series.

Last week in this space, I proposed that local television stations should use some of the money they take in from political ads to produce news segments and Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to educate voters. (read last week's comment) This week, I offer my thoughts on how local television might accomplish the goal of educating voters.

The voting booth has long had the privacy of the confessional, but that doesn't mean we can't peek inside to find out how it works. Television can use its unique ability of show and tell to give voters a complete picture of the mechanics of voting, from the time they arrive at the polling place to the moment they cast their ballot. Because voting practices vary – even from county to county – local television stations are well suited to provide this training.

Television news segments and PSAs can include information geared both to all voters and to voters in particular counties. (For example, all voters must sign in at the polling place, but not all voters will use punch card ballots.) One segment could start in the parking lot, and follow a voter entering a typical polling place, illustrating how to find the correct precinct in a multi-precinct location, for example. More importantly, reporters can describe the rare occasions when voters might be asked for identification. Although a report might advise that all voters bring identification for safety's sake, explaining the few circumstances when voters must show identification, and the alternative methods of providing it, can help to educate poll workers so that they explain options correctly to voters.

Another segment might show a poll worker trying to turn away a voter who believes he or she is registered, and then give a lesson in provisional balloting. Because – unfortunately – some states are still figuring out how best to comply with the provisional balloting requirements in the Help America Vote Act, these reports could serve the dual function of forcing state officials to make a decision and then educating voters and poll workers. Still another segment could show the procedures for requesting and voting with absentee ballots. Such a segment might be particularly important, both because there has been a push to use absentee ballots this election and because voters often must figure out any confusing directions on their own.

Most importantly, a report could show a person going into the voting booth and looking at a big ballot with numerous races, or a booklet with many holes to punch, or whatever the apparatus happens to be. It is important to show what voting actually looks like: even though the reporter's demonstration is obviously a simulated rather than a "real" vote, the simulation needs to be exact, so that viewers know precisely what to expect on election day. (To avoid partisanship while still using the very same ballot the voters will see on election day, the reporter could alternate among different party candidates while moving down the ballot and, with respect to the mostly hotly contested races, could demonstrate how to vote for each of the candidates.) Using actual ballots is vital, moreover, because doing so can help to clear up wrong or misleading ballot instructions. In Florida in 2000, for example, some ballot instructions wrongly advised voters to "vote on every page," and then listed presidential candidates on two pages.

While ballot design experts are currently studying how best to create a ballot that will prevent most mistakes, elections officials are probably well aware of common mistakes on the ballots currently in use. When the punch card controversy erupted in 2000, everyone was surprised except for elections officials: they had known about hanging chad for years. Television stations could interview local elections officials to find out what kinds of mistakes voters might make on each kind of ballot, and what the voter can do to avoid or fix those mistakes.

Furthermore, many voters aren't aware of the kind of help they can get on election day – for example, that they can get a new punch card or optical scan ballot if they spoil the first one (or the second one). Having a reporter demonstrate how to ask a poll worker for a new ballot could both give concrete lessons in how to ask for help (lean out of your booth, don't leave it) and make it more socially acceptable to seek assistance.

Stations could best promote voter education by repeated airing of the segments – either as news reports or, excerpted, as Public Service Announcements. A typical election-year PSA reminds voters to vote and speaks glowingly about the Constitution, but doesn't provide much information. Why not use PSAs to remind voters of important details? Show a reporter filling out an affidavit at the polls while a voiceover says, "Unless you registered in person, you may need to complete an affidavit or provide identification," Or show a reporter leaning out of a voting booth and motioning for assistance while the announcer says, "Make sure your vote counts: if you think you have made a mistake, ask a poll worker for help." These types of PSAs could educate both voters and poll workers (who often get 2 hours or less of training).

True, both the close of voter registration and the election are fast approaching. But television news crews are accustomed to doing legwork and chasing down stories on short notice. If the 2000 election crisis was a tornado – unexpected – the problems with the 2004 election could be described as a hurricane. We know it's coming, we know there will be problems, but with enough preparation, we might be able to ride out the storm.