I. In Focus this Week
News Analysis: Elections administrators deal with legal decisions
With election looming, administrators grapple with ever-changing landscape
Elections officials across the country are busy preparing for the upcoming November 4 general election.
For many, while the days and sometimes nights are busier than normal, it’s relatively business as usual in the ramp up to the 2014 midterm election.
However, officials in a handful of states are grappling with recent court rulings or waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop as they await court rulings.
Nowhere does it seem have recent court rulings been more acutely felt than in Wisconsin.
Last week the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the state’s voter photo ID law and now elections officials, state agencies and colleges and universities are scrambling to not only inform voters about the law, but make sure voters have the necessary ID.
The state’s Government Accountability Board (GAB) said at a press conference following the ruling that they are taking “extraordinary efforts” to put the ID law into place.
"Implementing the photo voter ID law close to an election will not be easy," GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy said at the press conference. "But the GAB and Wisconsin clerks are up to the challenge."
McDonell told the talk show that while he was confident elections officials and poll workers would be prepared for November 4th, his greatest concern is for the voters.
"But what I'm concerned about are voters who are going to have to scramble to try to figure out a way to have an ID in a short window," McDonell said. "You have people who are born in other states, other situations and they're really going to struggle to be able to exercise their right to vote under this current court ruling."
In Madison, it’s become a citywide scramble to get voters the necessary ID. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, city works are being encouraged to serve as poll workers and Mayor Paul Soglin’s office is working to figure out ways to get voters to the DMV to get the necessary IDs.
For his part, and on some level making a small attempt to bring some levity to a very serious situation, Dane County’s McDonell will reprise Chad Vader to help get the word out about the new law.
In Milwaukee, Clerk Jim Shelenske said they will be ready for November 4, but it is going to require some additional work and training.
"It's part of our job and we're ready, we're going to come prepared," South Milwaukee clerk Jim Shelenske told CBS 58. "For the poll workers, we're going to have a couple days or a couple sessions for training, one for the chiefs and one for the regular poll workers."
Elections officials in The Badger State did dodge one potential bullet this week when a Waukesha County Circuit judge tossed a lawsuit filed by the state’s GOP against the GAB over the design of this year’s ballot.
Things were a bit less chaotic in Maryland earlier this month when U.S. Judge Richard D. Bennett ruled the state must allow disabled and blind voters to use an online ballot-marking tool for their absentee ballots.
Because the tool had been ready to go for the spring primary before the plug was pulled when state election board members failed to certify it, Nikki Charlson, deputy state administrator with the State Board of Elections said there was relatively little her office had to do to prepare for its implementation for the November election.
“The online ballot-marking tool was ready for use in the April primary election.,” Charlson said. “To implement the court's ruling, we just needed to test the ballot-marking tool with ballots for the 2014 General Election…[W]e are ready for the ballots to go out.”
Charlson said that the SBE’s focus has been on getting the system ready for the election and that they will look to organizations that represent individuals with disabilities to educate those voters on accessible voting options.
However, earlier this week the state attorney general’s office said that it will appeal the ruling. Charlson said the SBE is ready to comply with whatever the Appeals Court decides.
With the clock ticking and an appeal looming, elections officials in Ohio counties are moving forward with plans to begin early voting and to allow for early voting and registration during the state’s so-called “Golden Week.”
Prior to the ruling early voting in Ohio was set to begin on Oct. 7 and now, until further notice, early voting will begin Sept. 30.
Although he continues to appeal the court’s ruling, Secretary of State Jon Husted ordered county officials to be ready for early voting to begin at the end of September.
Officials in Clark County told the Springfield News-Sun that they are ready for the new hours.
“It’s just one of the realities of working in the elections business because you just have to make changes and make adjustments along the way. We’re used to that. This election, we’re just getting better at it,” Matthew Tlachac, Clark County BOE director told the paper.
The changes seem to be hitting the state’s smaller counties the hardest.
In Highland County, the decision to reinstate the early voting hours is going to cost the county about $11,000.
"I'm really disappointed," elections board member Kay Ayres told The Highland County Press. "The additional hours are going to cost our county $11,000 more. Is it worth it?"
Elections officials in Alaska are scrambling to ensure that Yup’ik and Gwich’in-speaking voters have the necessary language assistance as mandated by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason just this week.
According to the Alaska Dispatch News, Gleason’s order requires state officials to provide written translations for most election materials and increase six-fold the number of hours bilingual outreach workers are paid to help Yup’ik and Gwich’in voters.
Poll workers in the affected areas must also wear buttons with “Can I help” in English, Yup’ik and Gwich’in.
“The state is committed to doing everything it can to implement the court's order and provide robust language assistance,” the attorney general’s office wrote in a prepared statement. “With the clear guidance from the court, we look forward to providing the additional assistance outlined by Judge Gleason to the best of our ability to enhance the state’s existing language assistance program.”
At press time, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments in a suit that challenges North Carolina’s new voting law which for the 2014 election ends same-day registration and limits early voting hours (the law has other provisions such as voter photo ID which will not be implemented until a later date) among other things.
The impending lawsuits have left elections in a state of flux with concerns about finding sites for expanded early voting — should the law be overturned — being the most pressing issue.
Michael Dickerson, elections director in Mecklenburg County told The State that in addition to all their regular pre-election duties, his office is working with the county’s parks and library system to secure sites that can accommodate the earlier voting dates if necessary.
How all these changes impact voters remains to be seen, but Daniel Tokaji, of The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law told NPR’s Pam Fessler things could get messy.
“In the event of a close election, this could be a real mess,” Tokaji told Fessler.
The states mentioned here is just a small snapshot of what elections officials — and by default voters — may be dealing with in the coming weeks.
There are numerous court cases pending from one end of country to another including voter ID in Texas and Arkansas as well as advisory ballot questions in New Mexico and polling place access in South Dakota, all of which could be decided before November 4 thus making a busy time for elections folks even busier.
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