When this year's early voting began, U.S. Assistant Attorney Helen Smith took on a few weeks' worth of additional responsibility, over and above her typical monthly roster of prosecuting gun runners and sex offenders. Luckily for Smith, her station in East Tennessee meant her extra duties didn't yield much additional grief.
Certainly not in comparison to those of some of her counterparts in election-year battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Texas. As mandated by the 2002 federal Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Act, Smith served as District Election Officer for East Tennessee. The law requires that the U.S. Attorney General choose one such officer from each of 94 judicial districts across the country to help ensure the integrity of federal elections, and Smith was selected as this year's officer.
"We're set up to receive and pass on information on suspicions of voter fraud or denial of voting rights," Smith says, noting that each election officer is complemented by an Election Crimes Coordinator appointed from the ranks of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "We'll investigate complaints, and when necessary, we'll prosecute."
With early voting ending Oct. 30, there were few calls in East Tennessee, says Smith, despite this year's record-setting pace, which saw an all-time high of 125,270 early ballots cast in Knox County alone. (There are a total of 278,380 registered voters in Knox County.) Early voting saw 12 potential voter-fraud complaints across East Tennessee this year, all of which were ultimately related to faulty or outmoded equipment rather than actual fraud, she says.
"One that recurs every year is they'll have an old type of voting machine, where they pick their choice of candidate and go to confirm it, and it bumps their vote to the other candidate," she says. "Those instances are usually either a computer problem or a mechanical problem. In some small counties, we still have mechanical voting machines.
"The bump isn't final, though, and the problem can usually be resolved by the election workers. People will assume that it's voter fraud, but it's usually machine error."
Smith says the Voting Integrity Act established timetables for each state to meet certain standards, including updating equipment, by 2012. "Even though we've still got some old mechanical voting machines in some places, Tennessee is well on schedule to comply with the Congressional standards," she says.
Knox County already has an up-to-date system in place, says Administrator of Elections Greg Mackay, with eSlate, a digital system in which voters turn a digital wheel to make selections onscreen. According to the office of the Tennessee Secretary of State, 31 of Tennessee's 97 counties use eSlate now.
"There were three choices, two of which were touch-screen systems," Mackay says of the decision to employ eSlate. "We went with eSlate because it seems to me to be more accurate and reliable than the touchscreen systems. It's the same technology used in IV drips in hospitals, so it has to be accurate and durable, too. If it's good enough for hospitals, it's probably good enough for us."
The system gave voters few problems, adds Mackay. "Ours has gone pretty well," Mackay says. "Once you teach people how to use it, you're OK. There's never been a security breach anywhere with eSlate, and there's never been a vote lost, either.
"Each electronic ballot box has votes recorded on a data card, on a chip, and on the system itself. And if you lose power, the data card does not lose the data."
All of which is good, given the county's record turnout—nearly 17,000 votes more than the roughly 108,000 early votes cast in 2004—distributed across 10 early voting stations countywide. Statistics from Mackay's office show the heaviest turnout was at the station at Farragut Town Hall, where more than 17,000 votes were cast. The lightest was at the University of Tennessee Student Center, with slightly less than 4,000.
Smith says East Tennessee was been largely free of some of the unscrupulous tactics employed by partisans in a few other states. In Virginia, for instance, voters in some districts received letters printed on what appeared to be official stationery, advising that "due to heavy turnout," registered Democrats should vote on Wednesday, Nov. 5, the day after the Nov. 4 election. In a few areas, disadvantaged neighborhoods were targeted with letters that warned that voters with outstanding warrants or tickets would be arrested by police upon showing up at the polls.
And, of course, in Ohio, voter registration drives have allegedly resulted in multiple registrations of individual voters, or in registration of unqualified voters. Smith says that during a recent visit to Ohio for a conference, "I was approached twice by registration groups, in just a short period of time. I'm 52, and that's never happened before in my life.
"I think everyone recognized that Ohio was going to be a big battleground state, because that's apparently where George Bush won the election in 2004. We don't have those problems here. I guess there are advantages to not being a swing state."