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Iowa: How the vote was won

The view from the front line

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USA '08 It's 5am on election day. I awake late from a short, fitful nap. I decided I would need all the symbols of authority I could muster, so I put on my best suit, a heavily starched white shirt, an Armani tie and, spoiling the whole look, running shoes. Another PEO, an eccentric sculptor, gave me a decorative badge he fashioned from military ribbons and regalia. It represents our state flag with a hawk against a field of red, white and blue. I pin it to my lapel and dash to the precinct.

At my last dispatch, at dawn on November 4, an unprecedented 55 per cent of our county had voted early. The election is already more than half over. Election Day rules are now in effect and everything is done on paper, the same way it has been done for decades. Everything is in place.

I arrive at 6am - missing the 5:30am opening rituals - and there is already one man waiting for the polls to open at 7. We are in a gymnasium, on a basketball court. Our tables are lined up along one wall, the voting booths along another. My desk is in a far corner. The ballot box (an optical scanner) is at one end of the room under a basketball hoop, a table with four poll watchers is under the other hoop. They are poring over computer printouts and highlighting something with yellow markers. The big game is about to start.

I finally managed to cast my own vote: the M100 Optical Scanner beeps and my vote is recorded. But by 9am, it is obvious that for many voters it is not going to be so easy.

Keeping the wheels turning

I need to explain some background. Iowa has a history of close and contentious elections, so they permit poll-watchers to observe election officials, to prevent fraud by conducting elections in a completely open environment. Poll watchers from either party can challenge any voter that they feel has been fraudulently granted a ballot. But partisan politicians have abused that system for their own ends.

In 2004, Iowa was closely divided and the GOP mounted a massive campaign to suppress the vote in heavily Democratic counties. Voters were purged from the registration rolls en masse and turned away from the polls. This is known as "voter caging". Partisan poll-watchers challenged voters' registrations on election day, forcing them to vote on a provisional ballot, then go to the auditor's office to fight for their ballot to be counted. Dozens of frivolous challenges clogged the system and slowed voting, causing voters to give up and go home without voting.

But in 2004, Democrats took over the state legislature and changed the voting laws to thwart these tactics. Purged voters can now re-register instantly on election day, and PEOs like me were granted new power to deny frivolous challenges. If the poll watchers try their old tactics like claims that next 20 voters in line are under 18, they can be ejected from the precinct by the police. They have been neutralized, but we PEOs must now watch the watchers, and enforce the law.

But election day rules may be a double-edged sword. The system may become clogged with newly-registered voters, especially in high-turnover student housing areas (like my precinct). Anyone can register if they show a photo ID and proof of residence. If their driver's license does not bear their current address, they can present a document like a utility bill or paycheck stub with their name and address. These election day registrations (EDRs) take a lot of time to process. Nobody knows how many EDRs will show up. I have volunteered to man the special circumstances desk, the "hot seat", where all these problems will land.

Voters start arriving at 7am and most are processed with no problems. Some show voter registration cards, but they are not in the blue book. They have registered well in advance and received their proof of registration card from the auditor's office, but inexplicably they are no longer registered. I have to process dozens of them as EDRs. I am so crushed with work I cannot investigate what caused the problems, but I can re-register them on the spot if they have proper ID. I suspect that I am in the center of a massive voter purge; the Republicans have sprung their trap and I have to fight to restore the voting rights of innocent citizens who were deviously struck from the registration list. A line is forming at my desk. Oh no. I steal glances at the poll watchers sitting on the other side of the room, I see them smirking and giggling at what is happening.

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