*Tomorrow should be quite interesting…*
The American presidential election could descend into electoral chaos on Tuesday as unprecedented numbers of voters turn out to cast their ballot in a system that is largely untested.
The U.S. has an electoral system that is not organised, designed or funded to cope with ‘anywhere near a 100 per cent turnout’, a director of a leading independent electoral reform group has said.
As an estimated 130 million Americans head to the polls, Doug Chapin, director of The Pew Charitable Trust’s Electionline.org, said voter turnout will ‘dwarf’ all other problems in this year’s presidential election.
And with the nation’s voting system largely untested for what is expected to be an unprecedented turnout, the potential for chaos is high.
His warning came as John McCain today threw himself into a final frenetic dash across America to save his bid for the presidency.
He was flying to seven cities in seven states to try to close an 11-point gap in the polls before Americans vote tomorrow, defiantly telling supporters that the media and pundits had made a mistake in writing him off.
‘They may not know it, but the Mac is Back! And we’re going to win this election!’
He added defiantly: ‘I’m an American. And I choose to fight.’
After Florida, the former US Navy pilot was bound for Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.
At the same time, Barack Obama was openly confident as he swept through three battleground states won by George W Bush four years ago: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
The latest polls show Obama leading in Pennsylvania, which McCain has to win, and other key states. Nationally, several major polls indicate Obama has a 7-8 percentage-point advantage.
A USA Today/Gallup poll published this found likely voters favouring Obama by 11 points over McCain, 53-42 per cent. A survey for ABC/Washington Post showed the same margin.
With the economy in turmoil and the approval levels of President George W. Bush, Democrats look set to capture the White House and expand their majorities in both chambers of Congress.
But the process may be hampered by something other than politics if the voting system fails to cope with turnout.
Six years after the largest federal overhaul in how the U.S. elections are run, voting experts are still predicting machine and ballot shortages in several swing states and late tallies on election night, U.S. media have reported.
About half of all voters will vote in a way that is different from what they did in the last presidential election, the New York Times reported, and most will use paper ballots rather than the touch-screen machines that have caused concern among voting experts.
But paper ballots come with their own problems: the scanners reading them can break down, and up to a third of them will be counted later at a central polling station, meaning that if a voter has made a mistake filling out the ballot it will not be caught until it is too late.
Lawsuits have been filed in the key states of Pennsylvania and Virginia by voting rights groups accusing officials of not having enough paper ballots in stock, the New York Times has reported.
In states with early voting, there have been scattered reports of touch-screen machine malfunctions, ballot misprints causing scanners to jam and vote-flipping, in which the vote cast for one candidate is recorded for another.
An estimated 70 per cent of registered voters will try to cast their ballots, with that number rising even higher in some states.
‘The challenge is we will get closer to 100 per cent turnout on election day this year than ever before,’ Mr Chapin said.
He said the U.S. typically sees a turnout in the ‘high 50s to 70 per cent range’ but added: ‘You now see some states forecasting, 80 per cent, 85 per cent, even 90 per cent turnout of their registered voters on election day.
‘And this flood of new voters is going to challenge the system in a way that it really never has been before.’
He said if there was a problem at the front of the line at a polling station, this was an inconvenience if there were ten people in the queue.
But he went on: ‘If there are 100 people in line it is a problem; if there are a 1,000 people in line, it’s a crisis. Given the number of folks that we have coming out to vote this year, any problem that occurs at the point of voting has the potential to be a real challenge on election day.’
He said many states were ‘overwhelmed and in many ways overrun’ by the number of voters during the primary season, but were ‘fully prepared, or what they think is fully prepared, for record turnout across the country’ on Tuesday.
‘It is an article of faith and job mission of every election official in the U.S. that every eligible American who wishes to do so should have the right to cast a ballot and have that ballot count,’ he said.
The truth however, is that, given how decentralised our system is and the disputes over our system, we do not necessarily have a system that is organised, designed or funded to handle anywhere near a 100 per cent turnout.’
He said the voting system was ‘startlingly’ decentralised.
‘It is a myth that there is a United States’ election system. We have at least 50 separate state systems; in actuality, probably closer to thousands of state and local election systems’, he said.
‘I would be very surprised if we don’t hear more of, “We need to centralise elections more” after this election.’
He said the problems caused by voter turnout were already being seen in reports of early problems related to long queues, scattered reports of machine problems, and a ‘system characterised by overwhelming demand’.
Mr Chaplin also said he could see another problem such as the one in Florida which dogged the 2008 election and said three states would be worth watching closely for any problems.
Florida, the home of the ‘hanging chads’ and spoiled ballots of 2000, has been a ‘symbol of election reform’ since and has seen ‘as much change, if not more, than any other state in the country’.
Ohio, a ‘plumb political catch’ is usually very closely fought and ‘no dispute in this country has taken place since 2000 without taking place in some meaningful way (here),’ he added.
And Colorado, also a key battleground state this year, is ‘as unsettled in its election administration as any state in the country right now’, he said.
It was one of the last in the country to complete a required upgrade to its state-wide voter rolls, its chief state election official is a candidate for the US Congress, and its state election director recently resigned.
Mr Chapin, who also wrote a report subtitled “What if we had an election and everyone came?”, said: ‘If we have a problem… it will be because of something completely unexpected, not because of a lack of preparation.’
He said voters had shown increased interest this year, not just in the candidates but also in the mechanics of casting their votes.
‘So while we won’t know until polls close on election day whether or not we have avoided the problems of the past, there are signs for optimism.’
In the UK, the 2005 General Rlection saw a national turnout of 61.36 per cent.
Last week, MPs were told that Britain should learn from the expected high turnout in the presidential election.
Commons leader Harriet Harman said a lack of voter registration and low turnout was something that had to be tackled in Britain, particularly among people living in inner cities.
‘It looks set to be an election with very high turnout from people who previously have not necessarily voted, people who have registered to vote and then have gone out to vote,’ she said in the House of Commons.
‘One of the things that all of us should be preoccupied to tackle is lack of registration, particularly in inner city areas and among poorer people and low voting turnout.
‘If there is something we can learn from the American elections about more people voting and more young people voting then that is something we should look to.’