Her Own Private Florida

Earlier this week, Donna Edwards (interviewed earlier, here) conceded her primary race against Albert Wynn for the House seat in Maryland’s Fourth District. She had run a tough campaign against the seven-term incumbent, making a buzz in the blogosphere, emphasizing her opposition to the Iraq war and her claim that Wynn was not fighting for health care, the environment, and other issues that impact people’s daily lives.

The race was a true squeaker, with the final vote count showing Edwards losing by fewer than 3,000 votes. Election Day in Maryland was fraught with voting problems, ranging from disappearing voting cards to machine malfunctions, with echoes of the infamous disarray of the Florida vote back in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The race got national attention and the outcome was held up until all absentee and provisional votes could be counted.

I caught up with her and asked her about her experience-and what it might portend for voters in Colorado, where the vulnerability of electronic voting machines has been in the news. (Disclosure: I first met Donna some 15 years ago, when she worked in the office next door at the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.)

When you decided to run for Congress, did you ever expect to find yourself in your own private Florida?

(Laughs) No! It’s just so shocking to look at the numbers of different kinds of failures that happened on Election Day-especially because this is work that in my day job I’ve funded [at the  Arca Foundation, as executive director]. To be in the middle of this kind of craziness was pretty unbelievable. The entire system really does such a disservice to voters. You can see why people get fed up and say, “my vote doesn’t count.” We have a big responsibility to regain the confidence of voters to trust the system-not just the results, but also the process.Talk about the problems voters faced in Maryland.

The reality is that when the voting system becomes too complicated voters leave and may never come back. In Maryland, even when people were told to come back after the polls were closed for two or three hours to fix things-well, if they work the second shift, if they have kids to pick up and homework to do and dinner to fix, they may not be able to make it back at 8 o’clock.

Maryland had just rejected early voting. I don’t think there’s any reason on earth why we must all vote on Tuesday from 7 am to 8 pm. The rules need to be modified to accommodate our daily lives, so that it’s easier and not more complicated to vote. Our legislature rejected a paper trail for these electronic machines. We need a paper trail. Our governor is now calling for people to fill out absentee ballots. I don’t think that will work either because that will discourage people of color. We don’t have any back up for machines that will be used in the upcoming election.

When you look at the failures we had, it wasn’t just one thing. It was electronic cards not arriving. It was provisional ballots not arriving. It was the machine that were supposed to tell you whether you were eligible changing party officilation for some people. Ballots were arriving 24 hours after the election was ovre. Ballots were arriving ten days after the election was over. Electronic machines were supposed to have secure tamper tape. There were cases where the tamper tape was broken. There was transmission failure. Electronic data was suppoed to be transferred by polling places to the Board of Elections and two