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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

Signs of High Turnout Signal Need for Prepared Poll Workers

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October 12, 2004

Both historical indicators and some contemporary ones suggest that voter turnout in the Buckeye State this November will be high. Historically, major national crises (most notably military and economic ones) have tended to increase the general public's interest in voting. The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global struggle against terrorism, and the sluggish economy thus promise to boost voter turnout this year.

The Democratic Party's choice of a nominee also promises to increase voter turnout, if history is a reliable guide. Two of the highest rates of voter participation in the past hundred years occurred in the 1928 (67%) and 1960 (63%) presidential elections, which were the only other times that one of the two major parties nominated a Roman Catholic for president. Catholic candidates Al Smith and John F. Kennedy motivated higher turnout in two ways, by energizing fellow Catholics to vote for them and evangelical Protestants to vote against them. And while the importance of denominational affiliation appears to have diminished since the early 1960s, John Kerry's Catholicism seems likely to produce a similar effect this year. Group identification among American Catholics remains fairly strong, and so a Catholic presidential candidate generates more interest among Catholics in voting than Protestant ones. Phobias among evangelical Protestants about Catholics are no longer very public, but they are still very much alive, and they, too, increase interest in voting.

Two important contemporary indicators, like those historical ones, also suggest a high turnout this year. In recent national polls, roughly three quarters of the voting-age population said they were following this year's presidential election closely, which is much higher than at this point four years ago.

Even more revealing is the pattern of substantial increases in voter registration across the state of Ohio. Nowhere has that pattern been more pronounced than in Franklin County, the swing county in a swing state. The 2003 census revision indicated that there are approximately 815,000 Franklin County residents aged eighteen and over. As of the close of voter registration in Franklin County on Monday, October 4, however, over 837,000 had registered to vote – almost 103% of the voting age population! (The discrepancy appears to reflect people who have moved or died but have not yet been purged from the rolls, rather than fraud.) Voter registration percentages have reached 90% or more of the eligible population in some other Ohio counties, which suggests strongly that Franklin County is not an anomaly. And so we are likely in for a much higher turnout than the 55% recorded in November 2000.

High turnouts are not, of course, without precedent in the state of Ohio. The all-time high in Franklin County, for example, was 81% in 1960. The problem, however, is that in recent years turnout has usually been far less than that. And so poll workers across the state, and especially in major urban centers, need to prepare for the very real possibility of much higher voter participation than they have experienced in the recent past.

At least seven things need to be done to make possible an effective administration of the voting process. First, major urban centers such as Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton counties need to train a substantially greater number of poll workers, and be sure to teach them how to deal with large numbers of new voters who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of the voting process.

Second, such urban centers need to undertake a public education effort through the media encouraging voters to cast their ballots during daylight hours, rather than waiting until evening, when the polls will likely be very crowded.

Third, that education campaign must also stress the importance for first-time voters of bringing some form of identification to the polls, as a precaution. (If someone has registered to vote for the first time by mail since January 1, 2003, and did not include either a partial Social Security number or driver's license number, that person will be required to produce an ID when he or she votes.)

Fourth, major urban centers need to prepare for the likelihood that large numbers of voters will have arrived prior to the close of polls, but will have to wait a long time to cast their ballots, thanks to big, last-minute crowds. Four years ago in St. Louis, the number of people in that situation was so great that some polls stayed open for up to two hours beyond the poll-closing deadline. Judicial intervention was required to produce that result and it was highly controversial at the time. Ohio's urban centers need to train their poll workers carefully to avoid confusion and contention over this issue.

Fifth, major urban centers need to prepare for possible confusion over provisional balloting. Poll workers must be carefully trained to handle this issue in accordance with state law. (For more on this hotly debated issue, see the related discussion on the center's web site.)

Sixth, poll workers need to be trained carefully so as not to turn away released felons (if they have re-registered since leaving prison) or college students (who register using their campus address) out of a mistaken belief that such people are not allowed to vote.

Seventh, polling stations must prepare for the likelihood of Democratic and Republican Party observers, and arrange places for them to monitor the balloting process without intimidating voters. The keys here are to be sensitive to the concerns of first-time voters and to be as consistent as possible in how observers are regulated.

There is still time for those charged with administering the voting process to take all of these needed steps. One can only hope that they are taken, so that Election Day in Ohio will work to increase public confidence in our form of government rather than diminish it.