WASHINGTON (AFP) — As millions of Americans gear to vote in the thrilling 2008 White House race, experts are warning that the expected huge turnout could strain the voting system, triggering an electoral meltdown.
With just over two weeks to go until election day on November 4, they don’t even have to go too far back in history to find some glaring examples.
The 2000 presidential elections swung on a few hundred votes in Florida and the winner — George W. Bush — was eventually decided in the Supreme Court.
Four years later a tight race in Ohio, where at least one overwhelmed polling station did not close until 4:00 am, plunged the battle into temporary chaos.
“Our elections are simply too important to risk another meltdown that further shakes the confidence of the American public in our democratic system,” election watchdogs warned in a joint report Friday.
A state-by-state breakdown in the report entitled “Is America Ready to Vote?” found that in at least 10 states, some of them key battlegrounds which could decide the outcome, the answer may be no.
Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia all rated inadequate or needs improvement in three out of four categories examining how prepared they are for a crisis.
Problems could arise if voting machines break down, if there are not enough machines to deal with huge queues, or if polling officials are quite simply overloaded with not enough emergency paper ballots as back-up.
So worried are non-partisan groups like the Women’s League of Voters and Rock the Vote that they are encouraging people to vote early or by absentee ballot to avoid the queues, and readying legal teams and millions of volunteers on the ground to provide advice and practical help.
“Any time you are thinking of such a large turnout the first concern that comes to your mind is, ‘oh my goodness the polls are going to be a little crowded on election day,'” said Mary Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters.
Having met officials in battleground and swing states, she told reporters that some places are projecting turnouts of around 80 to 85 percent.
If that is reflected nationally that would smash all records in a country with low voter participation of between 54 to 61 percent.
With Democrat Barack Obama bidding to be the first African-American president, and Republican rival John McCain running with the party’s first woman VP pick Sarah Palin, voters are rushing to be part of history.
“We think the potential to have problems in any state is possible, things can go wrong in any state,” said Mary Boyle, from Common Cause, one of the co-sponsors of the report.
Florida, a traditional Republican stronghold which has become a battleground this year, could emerge again as a problem, she said highlighting efforts to remove voters off the voting lists.
Confusing rules in Indiana about the need to present identity papers may see people wrongly turned away, and rural, traditionally conservative Virginia, also a battleground state for the first time in four decades, could pose a headache.
“They have registered a huge number of people and it’s another state we keeping our eyes on,” Boyle said.
She also slammed voter suppression tactics such as flyers going around in some places falsely saying “Republicans are voting Tuesday, Democrats should go to the polls on Wednesday.”
“Believe it or not that kind of stuff still happens,” she said.
Young people are also being bombarded with misleading information, agreed Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, which aims to boost youth participation and this year has registered some 2.5 million new voters.
Some students have been wrongly told that they could be arrested for unpaid parking tickets if they turn up to vote, while others in Virginia where told they could jeopardize their tax status if they register to vote at their colleges.
Rock the Vote is particularly worried about what will happen in this year’s key states Ohio, Colorado, Florida and Virginia.
“These are close states where new voters can make of break the election, and there’s a lot of young people who are very engaged and are prepared to go out and vote,” said Smith.
“And you can see a vote is critical if people are either trying to turn them out or supress them and we are seeing both in particular in these huge college towns.”