2008 election summary

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Many people have the impression that the 2008 election had fewer problems than previous elections, and that efforts to rig, suppress, cheat, steal, manipulate, block or otherwise suppress the rights of people to vote were not in evidence to the extent seen in prior election years. In fact these factors did play a significant role in the 2008 election, but Barack Obama's margin of victory was much larger than the number of voters who were in one way or another disenfranchised. So even though the manipulations occurred they did not change the election results.

Future elections, however, might not yield the kind of victory margin seen in the 2008 election. The danger remains that election results may be influenced by efforts to prevent citizens from expressing their choices. In 2008, just as in previous elections, there was mass voter-roll purging in several states, voter caging schemes were used as a basis for challenging voters, there was inadequate distribution of voting machines in targeted precincts, there was felon disenfranchisement targeting voters who might support particular candidates, there was partisan election administration and there were various forms of Election-Day deception that tricked an unknown number of people into believing they could vote on another day or at another location. Unless steps are taken to reduce the ability to manipulate the election process the country could again experience unclear and contested election results.

This article summarizes the major manipulations of the 2008 election and provides links to expanded articles on each of the subjects. It also summarizes election reform suggestions, linking to a more comprehensive article. Readers are invited to participate in this effort by adding referenced reports to these articles and suggestions for reforms.

The 2008 Election Protection effort

Main article: Election protection and reform organizations

There was a broad-scale election protection effort for the 2008 elections. The Election Protection Coalition recruited over 10,000 volunteers, with over 100 partner organizations participating in the coalition. Many other organizations contributed their own efforts to protecting the 2008 election.

In addition, new technologies made it possible for citizens to report the conditions in their local polling stations, and for protection groups to track trends and respond in real time. Text messages, call hotlines, and email-based submissions provided a wealth of new data, which can be used for future planning and allocation of election-day resources and help to prevent problems before they occur.

The Election Protection Wiki provided a central clearinghouse for election protection information, and remains as an ongoing repository of documentation of the election for media, policymakers and researchers.

Election Protection in the primaries

The Election Protection coalition was active for many of the 2008 primaries and caucuses. The problems reported by voters in the primaries provided a preview of what the major issues would be in the general election; according to the 2008 Election Protection Primary Report, the problems which occurred most frequently were:

  • Under trained and not enough poll workers
  • Election machinery breakdowns
  • Registration roll problems
  • Confusion over voter identification requirements

In the news

Several 2008 election topics were widely publicized by the news media. These include:

ACORN and accusations of “voter fraud”

The organization ACORN, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, registeres poor people to vote. ACORN was the target of a coordinated campaign by conservatives to depict the organization as a criminal enterprise engaged in massive-scale voter fraud.[1]. (A January 5, 2009 Google search for the words ACORN, voter and fraud returned more than 400,000 results.) The hyperbole became so heated that during the October 15, 2008 presidential debate, candidate John McCain said of ACORN[2],

"We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy. The same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for "lighting and site selection." So all of these things need to be examined, of course."

In reality a total of two (2) actual ACORN voter registration-related criminal cases were filed during the 2008 election cycle, and those involved employees falsely filling out multiple voter forms to boost their pay.[3]

Main article: ACORN and elections

Challenging of voters using foreclosure lists

In voter caging, letters marked "Do Not Forward" are sent to selected voters. If letters are returned, it is assumed that the voter no longer lives at the address, and the voter is either removed from the voting rolls, or is challenged if the voter arrives at a polling place on election day. In 2008, voter caging took a new twist with the announcement by state or local party officials in several states that those whose names appeared on foreclosure lists may face residency challenges on election day. After the tactic received immediate and widespread criticism, most officials backed away from any plans to use the lists as a way to challenge voters.

Main article: Voter caging
Main article: Michigan foreclosure vote suppression scheme

Early voting

Early voting saw tremendous growth in 2008. An estimated 30% of voters cast ballots either early or by mail, an increase of 50% since the 2004 election.[4] Several states, including Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia saw over 50% of all votes cast early, and Oregon conducted its election entirely by mail.

The high turnout during the early voting periods provided a preview of the record-setting turnout for the election as a whole. Long lines and overloaded systems were reported nationwide[5]; several states were forced to expand the hours at polling stations, add additional days, and provide paper ballots to overwhelmed precincts in order to accommodate crowds.

Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel faced widespread criticism for her refusal to expand early voting hours[6], while Florida Governor Charlie Crist issued an executive order extending polling, stating, "I have spoken with the Secretary of State and members of the Florida Legislature and have concluded that it is always the right thing to do to give voters every opportunity to cast a ballot."[7]

In Ohio, a five-day overlap between the close of the voter registration deadline and the beginning of early voting resulted in the so-called "Golden Week", in which voters were able to register and vote on the same day. The Ohio Republican Party unsuccessfully sued to stop the voting window from occurring, on the grounds that it would lead to voter fraud. [8]

According to some election officials, the large number of votes cast during early voting was a key factor in preventing problems on election day itself, reducing the strain on already-overburdened polling stations to more manageable levels.[9]

High turnout

With a large number of new registrations and high interest in this year's campaign, many analysts predicted a record-shattering turnout. And an unprecedented number of voters did cast ballots: an estimated 131 million voters, more than any other election in history.[10]The percentage of eligible voters who did vote was approximately 61.6%, the highest number since the 1960s; that this election didn't have the highest voting percentage overall is due in part to lower turnout levels among registered Republicans, and in part to the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1970.[10]

In the states

  • Colorado: In Colorado, more than 44,000 individuals were purged from the voter list. Courts ordered the Secretary of State to stop the purges and in late October a settlement with the Advancement Project forced the state to reinstate up to 35,000 voter registrations previously removed.
  • Florida: In Florida a [no-vote law] removed tens of thousands of voters from the rolls if their names did not exactly match a federal database. If a voter was "David" on one list and "Dave" on another, he was removed. Minor spelling errors or simple typos disenfranchised others.
  • Georgia: In Georgia thousands of voters were disenfranchised with claims they could not prove they were citizens, others were purged because of typos and non-exact matches with other databases, and the Secretary of state asked citizens to challenge voters' eligibility at the polls.
  • Montana: In Montana, The State Republican Party attempted to block voters in primarily Democratic districts. The move was widely publicized, and in the subsequent protests the Party's Executive Director was forced to step down.
  • Ohio: In Ohio there was extensive voter purging attempted. As many as 200,000 new voters were threatened to be removed from the voter rolls before the election, but the courts and new Secretary of State restored these citizens to the rolls in time to vote.

For a complete list, see 2008 Voter Purges

Election day summary

On election day the Election Protection Coalition received and handled over 80,000 calls[11], and entered over 86,000 reports into their Our Vote Live database[12].

Issue summaries

Voter purges

2008 saw attempts to purge the states' voter rolls on a massive scale, with some states removing tens of thousands of voters at a time based on criteria such as too-common name[13], returned voter registration card[14], or unproven citizenship status[15].

While early and aggressive legal action by election monitoring and community watchdog groups resulted in the restoration of thousands of voters to the rolls, hundreds of thousands who were unaware of their registration status showed up at the polls to vote. Many were required to vote using provisional or challenge ballots, which are not included in the vote totals on election day.

2008 saw a new method of voter purge attempted, one which reflected the economic conditions of the year. Several local and state party groups announced their intention to challenge voters based on published lists of foreclosed homes in their area. With seven of the ten states nationwide with the highest foreclosure rates being considered "battleground" states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, and Ohio)[16], these voters were seen as particularly vulnerable and open to challenge. Some of the most prominent examples included:

  • In Michigan, a Republican party official announced their intention to challenge foreclosed voters on election day.[17] After the Obama campaign filed suit to stop the challenges, the official denied making the statement or that any such challenges were under consideration.[18] In a settlement, both sides agreed that foreclosure rolls do not provide a reasonable basis for voter challenges and would not be used on election day.[19]
  • In Indiana on election day, a judge ruled that the state Republican party was violating a previously issued court order specifically banning challenges based on home foreclosure lists.[20]

For a full list of all voter purge activity in the 2008 election, visit 2008 Voter Purges

Main article: Voter roll purges

Voter suppression and deceptive practices

The Election Protection Wiki tracked a widespread effort in which text messages were sent to Democrats in several states, advising them they should avoid the lines and vote Wednesday. This happened in Missouri, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Virginia and other states. Similarly voters in Missouri and other states reported receiving robo-calls with a similar message. Also, in Florida Democratic voters were called and told they could avoid lines by voting by phone, given a number to call, and after "voting" were told they didn't have to go to the polls.

Main article: Voter suppression

Inequality in election day resources

Many of the problems encountered on election day were due to inadequate distribution of resources to the polling places. Many urban counties reported too few voting machines for the expected turnout, broken machines, not enough poll workers, and even not enough ballots on hand. This resulted in extremely long waits, which in turn caused those voters who couldn't wait for many hours to be unable to cast ballots.

  • In Virginia, the NAACP filed suit [21] against Governor Tim Kaine and the state's top election officials, alleging that the state was failing to prepare properly, especially in high-minority districts. A judge ruled against the lawsuit, and on election day long lines were reported in Richmond,

Ongoing controversies

As of January 19, 2009, only one major race remains unsettled, with the Minnesota Senate battle between Democrat Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman now moved into the court system. A full statewide recount ended with Franken leading by 225 votes, and on January 5, 2009 the state Canvass Board certified the election results. However, Coleman has disputed the recount, and filed suit contesting the results.[22] The first hearing in the case is scheduled for January 26, 2009.[23]

Election reform proposals

Main article: Election reform proposals

There are numerous proposals for reforming the election process, including:

  • Election Day reforms

Election Day reform proposals include a national Election Day holiday, extending the voting period over several days, unlimited absentee voting - also called "vote by mail" - and expanding the role of international monitors.

  • Registration reforms including universal national voter registration, automatic voter registration and several other proposals.
Main article: Voter registration reform
  • Voting machine reforms
  • Recount reforms
    • Extending safe-harbor deadline for presidential elections
  • Election audit reforms
    • Mandatory election audits
  • Election administration and pollworker reforms
    • Election administration reforms
  • Polling place reforms
    • Mandating sufficient voting machines
  • Election law reforms including improving laws to combat deceptive practices and updating felon disenfranchisement laws.
  • Structural reforms such as replacing the Electoral College and making voting compulsory.

Looking ahead

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Example of a conservative accusation of fraud: "More ACORN Vote Fraud Attempts," Stop the ACLU blog, Sept. 15, 2008.
  2. "Complete final debate transcript: John McCain and Barack Obama," Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2008.
  3. This past problem and description are from the VotersUnite! Election Problem Log. Click through for included links to origin of report.
  4. Early Voting 2008, United States Election Project, gathered January 12, 2009.
  5. Adam Levine,Excitement, frustration as early voters brave long lines, CNN.com, November 3, 2008.
  6. Greg Bluestein, Ga. residents wait up to 8 hours to vote early, USA Today, October 28, 2008.
  7. Mary Pat Flaherty,Crist Extends Early Voting Hours in Fla.,Washington Post Trail Blog, October 28, 2008.
  8. Turnout light in Ohio early voting window, Associated Press, October 7, 2008.
  9. Desiree Evans, Voting Rights Watch: Large early-voting turnouts ease Election Day strain,Facing South, November 5, 2008.
  10. 10.0 10.1 2008 Election Turnout Hit 40-Year High,Associated Press, December 15, 2008.
  11. Call and volunteer figures from "What Comes Next," News Release, Election Protection.
  12. Figure from the Our Vote Live database
  13. Mary Lou Pickel, Most Challenge Ballots Substantiated, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 8, 2008.
  14. Steve Bousquet, "Democrats, Florida elections officials criticize GOP mailing," St. Petersberg Times, Sept. 16, 2008
  15. Mary Lou Pickel, Alan Judd, State to notify 4,770 their votes are ‘challenged’ Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 30, 2008
  16. Thaddeus Kromelis,Foreclosures could cost votes, Brennan Center Blog, July 29, 2008.
  17. Lose your house, lose your vote, Michigan Messenger, September 10, 2008.
  18. Obama campaign sues Michigan GOP over voter challenges, Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet, September 16, 2008.
  19. Kate Klonick, MI GOP and Obama Camp. Settle Lawsuit, TPM Muckraker, October 20, 2008.
  20. "Indiana Judge: GOP Poll Watchers Violated Court Order On Foreclosure Lists," Huffington Post, November 4, 2008
  21. Anita Kumar, NAACP Sues Officials Over Vote Preparations, Washington Post, October 28, 2008.
  22. Pat Doyle and Kevin Duchschere,Coleman goes to court over Senate recount,Minneapolis Star-Tribune, January 7, 2009.
  23. Kevin Duchschere, Recount: Trial on Coleman challenge set to begin Jan. 26, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, January 16, 2009.

External resources

External links