UPDATE: Great coverage from Western Mass Politics & Insight.
UPDATE x2: Four poll observer affidavits and reports with additional information added below.
On Tuesday November 6th, the City of Springfield botched another election. There was only so much that Springfield’s remarkably dedicated poll workers could do to overcome obstacles and ensure all voters had equal access to polls. In the end, several substantial errors at City Hall meant that already underrepresented groups in particular could not exercise their right to vote. Most egregious, at least three polling places were shut down by mid-day when they ran out of ballots, which is a conspicuous violation of Mass General Law Chapter 54 Section 45, which says:
One set of ballots, not less than one for each registered voter, shall be provided for each polling place at which an election for state, city or town officers is to be held. The state secretary or the city or town clerk, as the case may be, may provide a duplicate set of ballots for any polling place when he deems it necessary.
Additional problems included: voters being bounced around from poll to poll, poll workers unable to reach City Hall to look up registration status, flawed ballots jamming ballot machines, and language access issues. Below are the details from the following organizations doing election protection and GOTV in Springfield: The ACLU of MA, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Common Cause MA, Alliance to Develop Power, Neighbor to Neighbor, SEIU, and The Springfield Institute. Special thanks to MassVOTE as well. With only a portion of Springfield’s 64 polling places observed for only portions of the day, we couldn’t possibly have captured every incident. But here’s what we found.
The City of Springfield was sued in 2006 by the US Department of Justice for violations of the Federal Voting Rights Act. As a result, the city is bound by a settlement order, many elements of which the city is now out of compliance with or never complied with. Based on evidence provided by a coalition of community groups and experts (City Councilor Zaida Luna, Springfield NAACP, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and the MA ACLU), the US DOJ returned to Springfield to monitor the municipal election on November 8, 2011. While we know from direct conversations with DOJ attorneys that several substantial violations were observed, and significant follow up interviews with voters and discussions with City Hall took place, the DOJ has not released any findings or made any public statement regarding their investigation. Furthermore, City Hall continues to deny that the DOJ found any problems or that there was any interaction with the DOJ. The details of last year’s voting rights violations can be found here (scroll down to “Voting rights violations”).
POLLS SHUT DOWN
Eight hours before the polls were supposed to close, at least three polling places were shut down for up to an hour. City Hall and poll observers disagree on how many voters waited or left. The polls were shut down because they ran out of ballots. Explanations provided by City Hall include flawed ballots and high turnout. But even City Hall acknowledges only a small number of ballots were flawed. And according to Mass General Law Chapter 54 Section 45, every polling place must have at least one ballot per voter (anticipating 100% turnout) on site when they open at 7am.
- 6C (Forest Park Manor Community Room) ran out of ballots for 45-60 minutes at 10:45am. 50 voters were in line when the polling place shut down. City Hall and poll observers disagree on how many waited or left. UPDATE: Click here for detailed affidavit from 6C poll observer.
- 8D (JFK Middle School) ran out of ballots at about noon. Delays were increased when the wrong ballots were delivered. Again about 50 voters were in line when the polling place shut down. Video below. UPDATE: Click here for detailed affidavit from 8D poll observer.
- 4D (Highland House) ran out of ballots around mid-day. Delays were increased when the wrong ballots were delivered. About 20 voters were in line when the polling place shut down for about 30 minutes.
- 1D/1E (Baystate Place) also discovered they had the wrong ballots, though it is not known what role this played in delays and substantial confusion at this polling place.
CONFLICTING VOTER LISTS (VOTING RIGHTS DEFERRED ARE VOTING RIGHTS DENIED)
Many voters discovered they were not on the voter list at the polling place where they normally vote, and in several cases were sent to other polling places where they were also not on the list. Large groups of voters, almost entirely non-White, gathered inside many polling places as poll workers tried–often without success–to get through to City Hall to determine the registration status and correct polling place for individual voters (see videos below). At least one polling place, in addition to other glaring problems, didn’t even have a phone to call City Hall for 2.5 hours during the morning rush (UPDATE: click here for 3H poll observer report.) While redistricting explains part of the confusion, there were conflicts among lists at polling places and City Hall, and registrations and registration updates made at the RMV that disappeared. Polling places were unprepared to solve these problems (UPDATE: click here for 3A poll observer report.) Two years running, attempts to increase phone capacity have not helped. Alternatively, providing a laptop or smartphone to each polling place would allow poll workers to quickly get voter information from this site without contacting City Hall. Many voters also used the 866-OUR-VOTE election protection hotline to find out where to vote (click here to download complete Hampden County call report).
As a result of the 2006 US DOJ settlement, every polling place has a required number of bilingual poll workers, ranging from zero to all, based on the number of Latino surnames detected by an automated program that scanned a list of registered voters in a given precinct at some point prior to 2006. This is obviously a dubious methodology, and increasingly so as the city’s demographics change. Despite being technically in compliance in the instances below, several polling places were not prepared to assist Spanish speaking voters and ensure equal access for all voters as the law requires.
- 4D (Highland House) had no bilingual workers, though during our short visit, several Spanish speaking voters needed assistance. The police officer assigned to that polling place explained that he was somewhat bilingual, and that he was approaching possibly bilingual voters as the arrived to ask if they would be willing to assist a Spanish speaking voter that was struggling. Inexplicably, another polling place about a mile away, 4A (Rebecca Johnson School), had four busy bilingual workers.
- 3G (Holy Name Church/Social Center) had a single bilingual worker, but the warden said she could have used more, and in fact there were many Spanish speaking voters needing assistance during our short site visit.
PROVISIONAL BALLOTS (GOOD NEWS!)
The city appeared to have quietly reversed its policy and come into compliance with the law regarding provisional ballots. Last year, when voters specifically asked for provisional ballots, poll workers called City Hall and the elections office consistently instructed them to refuse those requests. This year, instead of being sent away without voting, many voters’ requests for provisional ballots were granted, and in some cases voters were actually offered provisional ballots without having to request them (in cases where polling places had conflicting lists, or no one could get through to City Hall).
DE FACTO INEQUALITY
Voter access is particularly urgent given the severe and chronic de facto voter participation inequality citywide (which The Springfield Institute has documented going back to 2007). Overall, low-minority wards vote at two-to-three times the rate of high-minority wards. And while Springfield experienced increased turnout throughout the city this year, turnout spikes are typical for presidential elections, and an in-depth SI analysis of voting disparities among wards and precincts will not be ready until next month.
In both high- and low-minority precincts, polling place problems reduce access for minority voters and low-income voters disproportionately. The reasons include:
- Many polling place problems are irrelevant or easier to overcome for English speakers.
- Low-income voters move more often and it is more likely that their registration (and corresponding polling place) is not current.
- Low-income voters often have less work flexibility and fewer transportation options, and it is therefore harder to get to the polls—or to two or three polls in search of one where their name is on a list.