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November 4, 2008 1:21 PM

ELECTION PROTECTION 2008: Worrisome Reports Coming From Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida

Posted by David Bario

Vote_anxious_6 The polls have only been open a few hours, but reports of malfunctioning voting machines and overwhelmed polling stations already are flooding in. Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, says he and other Election Protection partners are most concerned so far about Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where massive voter turnout is testing already vulnerable voting systems.

In Virginia, election protection monitors are describing massive machine breakdowns, which are being compounded by the absence of state provisions to provide back-up paper ballots when the machines fail. Voters in Richmond, Chesapeake, Fairfax, and Arlington are stuck in long lines, and some are being given provisional ballots to speed up the process. Those provisional ballots should be treated like regular ballots, Goldman says, but there are concerns that they will not be. There also are reports of voters being turned away from the polls and voter intimidation. Over two dozen polling places opened late, leading Election Protection officials to call for voting hours to be extended by two hours. Check back for more on the situation in Virginia later this afternoon.

Pennsylvania has similar reports of long lines and malfunctioning machines. In Pittsburgh, poll workers were so overwhelmed that local election authorities deputized Election Protection monitors on the spot to deal with the crowds.

In Florida, in addition to long lines, at least two dozen polling places centered in the Tampa and St. Petersburg areas have reported malfunctioning optical scan machines.

So far, says Goldman, the problems seem on par with previous elections, but they are exacerbated by the large numbers of voters.

"For now, we are pretty much just trying to put a cork in the dam," he says. "Most of these problems are long term and will take time to fix."

Meanwhile, here at DLA, a large auditorium is filled with rows of tables manned mostly by 20- and 30-somethings with laptops and headsets. A massive screen in front projects two maps of the United States, with each state color coded by the number of voters calling in to report problems. Cameramen with boom microphones try to capture snatches of conversations the volunteer lawyers are having, while print and online reporters in an adjacent room file their stories while lunching on tacos supplied by DLA.

A random quick survey in the volunteer room of the firms that are represented turns up one Crowell & Moring associate, a partner from Manatt Phelps, an of counsel from Hogan & Hartson, and the dean of the University of the District of Columbia Law School.

The effort is led by pro bono partner in charge Lisa Dewey. DLA says about 150 of its lawyers are actively involved with the Election Protection project nationwide.

Illustration by Serge Bloch

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