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House seeks early lessons from '08 voting foul-ups

April 9, 2008 |  8:10 pm

The primary election season isn't even over yet, but already a House committee is holding hearings to spot early lessons from the current protracted presidential nominating process.

In many places, record turnout overwhelmed election officials and meant long lines, especially for first-time voters who had not registered or who needed to cast provisional ballots.

Tom Joyner, a morning show radio host who introduced himself at a hearing by saying "I'm sometimes called the voice of black America," hawked a telephone help line that lets voters call in with complaints on election day. On Super Tuesday, he said, the line (866-MYVOTE1) got 10,000 calls. Members of the Committee on House Administration heard recorded excerpts of calls.

"This historic election season has produced some very....

emotional first-time voters," Joyner said. "We don't get calls about conspiracies and fraud. But we get calls of suspicions about conspiracies and fraud.... It's perceived as that. The perception is everything."

Joyner said getting underprivileged voters to turn out in November will require increased confidence in the system. How to increase that level of confidence, he said, is Congress' job.

Elections are managed by each of the 50 states and thousands of local jurisdictions, not by the federal government. But Congress stepped up its involvement by including mandates on local governments in the Help America Vote Act, passed after the controversial 2000 presidential election came down to a few hundred hanging chads in Florida.

Even with the changes, a panel of voting rights activists complained that rules and standards differ dramatically among states and are inconsistent, even county to county.

Many calls to the touted hot line came from voters in the Atlanta area of Georgia, where Joyner complained that there were so few machines to verify whether one was eligible to vote that people went home without casting ballots. He called for more voting and verification machines, better training, and national standards.

The interim director of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections, the agency that managed those elections, testifies later. In her prepared testimony, April Pye acknowledges that turnout surpassed expectations and complains that her office is contending with "cutbacks due to a very depressed economy."

She says 90% of the complaints resulted from user error, not equipment malfunctions.

Without naming Joyner, she faults syndicated radio hosts who reach a broad national audience for providing listeners with information that does not apply and is not relevant in Georgia.

"When they arrive at the polls and encounter a problem due to this conflict, they immediately take issue with the poll worker or election official who is delivering the message," she says.

-- James Hohmann