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Election Day Harassment Turns Away Would-Be Voters

Column by Douglas E. Heimburger
Staff Reporter

With so much at stake in Tuesday's elections, a record low number of voters turned out at the polls. Why did this happen?From what Isaw as an election worker in Weston and Boston on Election Day, the rampage of campaign workers are at fault, making it difficult for voters to vote without harassment.

Tuesday was the last presidential election for the 20th century. Besides electing officials to thousands of state and local offices, voters would elect all the members of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. In short, the election would determine the course of the country for the next four years.

But even with so much at stake, voters seemed to ignore the election completely. Only 49 percent of voting-age adults turned out to vote this year, down from 55 percent in 1992. With 49 percent of the vote going to Clinton, only one in four adults actually voted for our president. Voters aren't taking their responsibility seriously.

People from part of Weston voted peacefully at a church just outside of downtown. Turnout was heavy; over 500 of the 2,000 registered voters had already voted by 9 a.m. The precinct expected over 90 percent turnout. The reason for the high turnout was that voters here did not have to pass a steady stream of campaign personnel wielding signs and banners on their way to the polls there. Instead, they could easily cast their vote without interference. Surprisingly, there was only one supporter actively working at the polling place, and he was merely walking around with a sign supporting a candidate for county sheriff.

Turnout was high in Weston because voters could cast their ballot without harassment. Indeed, it was so high that the policeman at the precinct was not needed to keep the peace but instead was used to direct the steady stream of cars to the relatively few parking places at the church.

Unlike in Weston, polls in Boston were not so serene. Instead, they were more like riot zones. Over a hundred supporters of various candidates - including even the Unabomber - wielded signs on posts at the Boston Public Library precinct in Copley Square. Every lightpole outside the library had been taped and retaped with posters for almost every candidate on the ballot.

The trickle of voters had to fight their way through the boisterous mob thrusting a pile of brochures at them just to get to the front door. Some ducked their heads and tunneled their way through the crowd. Others just turned and went back home.

Most of the screaming went on between the supporters of opposing candidates, further increasing the tension in the air and antagonizing the voters, causing many to go home instead of voting. A fierce battle was being fought between the Kerry and Weld supporters, with each candidate's supporters making accusations against the other. As the Weld campaign unveiled a 12-foot banner, the Kerry supporters called headquarters on their cellular phones for reinforcements and more signs.

These two polling sites illustrate the extremes of elections. Turnout was markedly higher in the Weston precinct than in Boston. Clearly, the presence of so many supporters was a deterrent to voting in Boston.

So what can we do to improve turnout? Obviously, we need to make polling places like Weston. But the First Amendment only allows a limited level of regulation of Election Day activities by campaigns. Perhaps Massachusetts can institute a policy like Virginia's which prohibits the presence of supporters within 50 feet of the polling place, forcing supporters to spread out and clearing a path to the polls for voters. Massachusetts could also prohibit the posting of political advertisements on public property even on Election Day, thus keeping the election environment uncluttered and keeping the polling place from looking like a continuous election advertisement.

Finally, the staffs of the campaigns should realize that the presence of too many supporters distresses the voters. While the presence of a volunteer or two may have helped the campaigns in Weston, the presence of 20 at the library was obviously extravagant and probably counterproductive to the parties.

By decreasing voter turnout, aggressive supporters are not only hurting their candidate but also hurting the election process in general. They are helping to turn off voters from the process that has created the great democracy of the United States over the past 200 years and that keeps it strong today.

If we can reform our election process so that voters aren't harassed at the polls, we can again make voting an American tradition and not just another chore.