CHICAGO (PAI)–Remember Florida’s hanging chads in 2000? Or the long lines due to the lack of voting machines in Columbus, Ohio in 2004? The nation’s unions do. Led by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, they’re already moving to prevent a repeat of such shenanigans–and others–at the polls this year. And if the record of the presidential primaries is any indication, they’ll have their work cut out for them, protecting people’s right to vote.

Turnout in the primaries hit a record. For example, even though home-state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) coasted to easy wins in the Illinois primary early this year, turnout rose by 900,000 voters–and from 29% to 41%.
Illinois didn’t have problems at the polls, but Maryland–with a similarly uncontested primary–did. Polling places in Baltimore ran out of ballots, among other things. And election officials nationwide are bracing for similar problems, due to a flood of new registrations and continuing voter registration drives by unions, both parties and independent groups.

But millions of new voters are not the only problem that could overwhelm the election system this fall, and that has the AFL-CIO concerned. States are switching vote tabulation systems and many are untried, and the federation still is concerned about voter suppression, says Andrea Brooks, an AFGE Vice President. She serves on a committee, chaired by Baker, that is taking on the “voter suppression” issues.

The Supreme Court threw an additional problem into the mix, adds Brooks, an Indianapolis resident: Its recent ruling that lets states set stiff voter identification requirements–using government-issued IDs–before people can cast their ballots.

To combat problems that could deprive people of their right to vote, invalidate their ballots, or both, the AFL-CIO has formed teams targeting nine states where it believes “voter suppression” could change the election’s outcome: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia and Florida.

In those states, federation teams are already meeting with state and local elections officials and quizzing them: “These are what the problems are. What do you plan to do about them? We expect turnout will be in unprecedented numbers.”

AFGE alone has 700 local “fair practice coordinators” who will be monitoring the election preparations of state and local governments. Other unions will add more. The objective is eventually to cover all 50 states with observers, poll monitors, a toll-free number for complaints and other ways for voters to ensure their votes count.

But the High Court ruling may produce another complication, as states may adopt the government-issued-ID rule. That could disadvantage minority voters in particular, Brooks said.
Those voters often lack the time to take off to register, money for the IDs (such as drivers licenses), nearness to county seats or other registration sites, or–if they’re already registered–the resources and knowledge to ensure they stay on the voter rolls and are not mistakenly or deliberately “purged” by election officials.

The fed is also warning voters against accepting so-called “provisional ballots” I their rights to vote are challenged at the polls. Such ballots may not be counted, Brooks pointed out.

“They’re starting to purge voters’ names, and we want to make sure people check to see they’re registered. The excuse they will use” to deny ballots to voters “is that ‘If you don’t vote at the right polling place, in the right precinct, they won’t count.’”