When Sharonda Williams went to vote at her regular New Orleans polling place in October, she was surprised to learn that she would have to go to the precinct where her mail had been sent.
It didn't matter to election officials that she never left her home, which was unaffected by Hurricane Katrina two years earlier. Nor did it matter that her mail was going to her office only because of Postal Service problems. Home, she was told, is where the mailbox is.
So Williams voted in the wrong state Legislature districts for people who don't represent her. Her problem has since been resolved, she says, but "I'm just fearful that there are people who are still being forced to vote in the wrong precinct — or who have just given up and are not voting at all."
From Florida in 2000 to Ohio in 2004 and Louisiana in 2007, problems at the polls permeate American politics. Some are caused by technology, others by dirty tricks, others by human error. Many are caused by voter registration systems that are being computerized but remain dependent on the actions of applicants, bureaucrats, even postal workers.
The registration problems are driven home by two recent U.S. Election Assistance Commission reports. One shows vast differences in how states remove voters from their registration lists. The other shows differences in how those voters are handled at the polls and whether their votes are counted.
The move to computerize registration databases also is creating problems. Washington and Florida have been sued for requiring strict matches between voter registration forms and data from motor vehicles or Social Security offices.
Louisiana was sued by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund for purging 21,000 voters from its list whose names and birthdates matched those in eight other states without waiting for approval from the Justice Department.
The matching process, says Kristen Clarke of the legal defense fund, is "unscientific, arbitrary and leaves room for tremendous discretion."
Thor Hearne, national election counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004, says database matching stops voters from posing as someone else. "A bad voter roll, a voter roll that has dead people on it, is one that does in fact allow vote fraud to happen," he says.
Efforts to cleanse voter lists stem from the 2000 election, when about 3 million registered voters who did not vote later blamed registration problems, according to the Census Bureau. In Florida, hundreds — if not thousands — of people were incorrectly labeled as felons and purged before a presidential election decided by 537 votes.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was intended to fix things by creating statewide electronic databases. That was supposed to make it easier for election officials to find duplicate registrations and cull both felons and the dead.
But the law didn't tell states how to build their databases or make them interact with each other. As a result, there are 50 different systems. The deadline for having those systems up and running was extended from 2004 to 2006, making this year's election the first major test. Six states still are not in full compliance. Delays in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and Maine prompted federal lawsuits.
Computers not always the cure
Among the reasons for concern: