Making votes count

Sacramentans join the campaign to monitor elections this November

Midtown’s Boren Chertkov, who monitored poll-tax precincts back in the 1960s, is answering the call of duty once again.

Midtown’s Boren Chertkov, who monitored poll-tax precincts back in the 1960s, is answering the call of duty once again.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Boren Chertkov spent the afternoon this past September 11 in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens with 600 others training to be a 2004 Election Protection volunteer. He’ll spend October 29 through November 3 in a swing state such as Ohio, Pennsylvania or New Mexico—wherever the program most needs him—working to educate citizens about their voting rights and helping to resolve any problems that arise at the polls on November 2.

“I feel privileged to have the opportunity,” said Chertkov, a 66-year-old retired labor lawyer who lives in Midtown. “I think that participation in the political process is absolutely critical if people are going to have a meaningful impact on social policy that affects their everyday lives. The very first step is that people have got to realize the importance and significance of casting a vote.”

Faulty voting machines, poorly trained poll workers, absentee ballots, badly designed ballots, and voter intimidation and suppression caused between 4 million and 6 million votes to go uncounted in 2000, according to the CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project. That’s one out of 18 to 25 votes that went uncounted. A disproportionate number of these disenfranchised voters were minorities. In Florida, for instance, a vote by an African-American was nearly 10 times as likely to be rejected as a vote by a white person in 2000, with 14.4 percent of Florida’s black voters having their ballots rejected, compared with 1.6 percent of Florida’s non-black voters, according to findings by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Problems have continued into 2004. In South Dakota’s June 2004 primary, American Indian voters were prevented from voting because they didn’t have photo IDs, though an ID is not required under state or federal law. In Texas, a local district attorney claimed students at a black college in Waller County were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located. And this summer, Michigan state Representative John Pappageorge, a Republican, was quoted as saying, “If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we’re going to have a tough time in this election.” Eighty-three percent of Detroit’s population is African-American.

Election Protection “was born out of the fiasco in Florida in 2000—not the result of the election, but the incredible disenfranchisement of minority voters that occurred there,” said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director for the People for the American Way Foundation. The foundation is one of more than 60 partners in the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition, which also includes the AFL-CIO, Working Assets, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“The facts just indicate that minority voters have gotten the short end of the stick too many times,” said Mincberg.

The Election Protection program isn’t the only nonpartisan program using voter education, poll monitoring and legal assistance to minimize problems in 2004 and maximize the number of votes that count. Impact 2004 and Just Democracy are organizing law students to protect voters’ rights around the country. The Unity ’04 Civic Engagement and Voter Empowerment Campaign is working to register 1 million new voters, increase black voter turnout and ensure voters know their rights. And Votewatch is working to scientifically validate the election.

“Your margin of victory has to be bigger than the margin of error to pick a winner,” said Steven Hertzberg, project manager with Votewatch. But, in the 2000 presidential election, the percentage of missing votes exceeded the margin of victory in Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin by as much as 2.8 percent.

“You want to make sure that when an election is certified, you’re certifying the real winner,” said Hertzberg. “Unless somebody clearly went in and clearly came out first, you can’t tell who really won. You don’t know if the result you see is accurate or not.”

In terms of numbers of volunteers, Election Protection is the most ambitious watchdog effort. The program is signing on 25,000 volunteers, including 5,000 lawyers and law students, to monitor 3,500 precincts in 17 target states, including Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the election is likely to be close and the difference in votes being counted or not could swing the election. All of the precincts are in areas with large populations of African-Americans and Latinos.

“In the old days, I was living in Texas, and everybody knew elections could be won in one or two precincts,” said Chertkov, who fought the poll tax while he was a law student in the 1960s. “People would flock to those precincts to prevent those shenanigans. I think this is a more sophisticated effort.”

Recognizing that Florida may be a popular destination as a result of its high profile in 2000, Chertkov volunteered to go where he’s most needed. Along with other volunteers, he’ll pay for airfare and lodging out of his own pocket. “I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have that as a barrier,” he said.

Volunteers already are working to prepare a voters’ bill of rights and legal manuals, meeting with election officials to discuss procedures for resolving problems, and recruiting more volunteers to monitor the polls on Election Day.

In the five days immediately preceding this year’s election, volunteers will go door to door distributing literature about voters’ rights and publicizing the program’s toll-free hotline, (866) OUR-VOTE. On Election Day, volunteers will be stationed outside polling places to make sure voters know their rights and to help resolve issues that come up. The hotline will provide free, immediate and multilingual assistance to help voters with questions about registration and voting and to deal with any barriers they face on the way to the ballot box.

“The goal is to provide same-day help to allow voters to cast a vote that will count. Just this year, in August, in Florida alone, there were hundreds of voters who our volunteers and lawyers were able to help cast a vote, even though we just covered about 60 precincts as part of our pilot 2004 run effort,” said Mincberg.

Election officials have mostly been cooperative with the Election Protection program, according to Mincberg. And though local counties are outside the area of Election Protection coverage, local election officials appear to be working hard to ensure the integrity of this year’s election.

“Our goal is to handle any concerns or issues on the spot the day of the election,” said Jill LaVine, registrar of voters for Sacramento County. “We strongly support and value the democratic process, and we continually look for ways to improve voter registration in all communities.”

In Sacramento County, inspectors, who are in charge of each polling place, go through a mandatory three-hour training about voters’ rights. Clerks are welcome to attend the training as well. On Election Day, 80 coordinators will roam the county to troubleshoot problems and resolve issues on the spot. A new optical-scan voting system is being introduced this November, and LaVine encourages groups and organizations that want demonstrations to call the county’s outreach coordinator at (916) 875-6464. Spanish-speaking voters can find a Spanish translation of voting information on the Web at

“Any jurisdiction running good, well-managed, fairly engineered, nonpartisan elections should welcome scrutiny,” said Freddie Oakley, the county clerk recorder in Yolo County. “Any negative response [to the Election Protection program] is a red flag, in my opinion.”

Find more information about Election Protection and download voter-education materials and resources at