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Voters Should Expect Shorter Lines, Faster Vote Counting for November Election

Progress Update

  • Fixes to Expect for November Election

Voters Should Expect Shorter Lines, Faster Vote Counting for November Election

2020-09-10T08:41:38-05:00

But will election officials act on the lessons learned from all that went wrong during the primaries?

Reports from states across the country indicate that much went wrong with voting during primaries this year and that voters in many states have multiple reasons to be frustrated with the state election officials responsible for the debacles that occurred.

Granted, election officials were hastily adapting their voting procedures to the coronavirus pandemic, including expanded voting by mail and a shortage of poll workers who were unwilling to risk exposure. Not all that went wrong, however, can be blamed on the pandemic.

The challenges of fixing the many voting problems, pandemic-related and otherwise, ahead of November’s general election are significant but not insurmountable. State election officials have now had reasonable  time to review their errors, consult with experts on best practices for rapidly implementing expanded voting by mail in their states, and determine best options for adapting in-person voting to the reality of substantial worker shortages. And Congress has had ample time to assess the issues and provide the needed funding for the states to act.

Voters have good reason to expect all responsible parties will make sure that the same mistakes do not recur on Election Day, when voter turnout will be substantially greater.

In America, no problem is too big or too small to fix, especially when it relates to the most fundamental right of our democracy – the right to vote.

Such is the ideal that voters should expect their election officials to live up to. Democracy should trump partisan politics.

The Challenges Ahead

Many voters are expected to stay away from the polls due to fears of COVID-19 transmission, and a ten-fold increase in requests for absentee ballots is expected in some states. As of mid-August, for the first time, 76% of American voters can mail in their votes as states have expanded access to absentee balloting, but only seven are deemed fully prepared to handle the increase, according to an analysis by Brookings, which graded each state on its readiness for expanded vote-by-mail.

With expectations of high voter participation, in-person turnout might still be substantial depending on the prevalence of COVID infection in the fall, voter confidence in the US Postal Service, and ease of voting.

Georgia politician and election expert Stacey Abrams (D) has warned, “The sheer volume of people who will be voting by mail is going to preclude the ability to count those ballots and adjudicate the outcome of the election by 11 p.m. on Election Night.” She explains that less overtime for postal workers could further delays in postal service. “My admonition is that we have to approach Nov. 3 with patience.”

Citing the pandemic, Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, said at an August 4 House Homeland Security committee hearing, “Election officials have responded to difficult circumstances with little support, and will attempt to do so again this year, but this year is unprecedented.”

McReynolds further testified that “[election officials] need support from elected leaders that have the power to help.” States need more federal funding to help them with the dual challenges of providing COVID protection to in-person voters and coping with a significantly larger wave of absentee voters. In response to questions from Representative Kathleen Rice (D-NY), McReynolds identified several best practices that can be implemented for ensuring secure mail-in voting and safer in-person voting.

Below, we summarize some of the problems that occurred during the primaries in Georgia and New York to illustrate many of the issues faced around the country. We then offer a checklist of what voters should expect to happen in November, if their politicians, election officials, and local offices fix known problems and prepare sufficiently for the 2020 general election.

What Went Wrong

Machinery, training, and basic infrastructure

Major problems in Georgia were traced to issues with the installation of a new voting machine system from Dominion Voting Systems. In some polling sites, the machines had been installed just in time for the primary, and in others they weren’t installed at all. A January 2020 article in AJC about the new equipment reported that it would take 8 months to install the 30,000 machines in Georgia’s 159 counties.

As reported in the AJC article, Dwight Shellman, an election official in Colorado, expressed skepticism about Georgia’s timeframe. Colorado had adopted the Dominion system in 2016. “We had 2½ years to do it, and it was challenging” to install in all 64 Colorado counties.

Some Georgia polling locations in Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties opened late because the digital machines did not start properly. This caused polls to remain open later with long lines of voters.

Users were poorly trained or unfamiliar with the new equipment, which also resulted in longer wait times. The last polling place to close did so at midnight in Christian City, an assisted living complex in Atlanta, where some people waited five hours to vote. In many places across the state, people left long lines without voting.

In some locations, the voting machines overloaded electrical systems and caused fuses to blow.

Ballot woes

Both Georgia and New York had problems with their ballots.

Some Georgia poll workers had problems with the ballot printers and did not know how to insert cards to record ballots.  Some polling places did not have any provisional ballots on hand.

All five New York City boroughs reported some problems with the two-page ballot being provided to voters; some received only one of two required ballot pages. The Board of Elections was mute on the subject of missing ballot pages when voters asked questions during a post-election hearing held by the New York City Voter Assistance Advisory Committee.

Mail problems

In both Georgia and New York, absentee ballots were not delivered to homes in a timely fashion.

In Georgia, many voters did not receive their absentee ballots at all despite waiting for them for months, and Abrams herself received a ballot that came with a sealed return envelope, making the ballot unuseable.

When they received their ballots, Georgia voters learned that they had to provide their own return postage, which presented a hardship on poor, disabled, and elderly voters, especially during the pandemic.

However, postage-paid absentee ballots proved to be a large problem in New York, as these ballots are not postmarked when they are run through the postal system. The Postal Service may have wrongfully disqualified thousands of votes because they lacked postmarks.

Adding to postal burdens, postmaster offers obstacles, not solutions

At the same time, elections may suffer nationwide because the actions of the new Postmaster General are delaying deliveries and negatively affecting United States Postal Service (USPS) workers. Since Louis DeJoy, who was a notable donor to President Trump, took the helm, overtime is no longer allowed, employees are being terminated, mail processing equipment has been removed from some post offices, and new instructions have gone out to some states to mail ballots at a first-class postal rate this year, which might triple the cost per ballot.

Poll locations and election workers

Because poll workers in Georgia did not turn out as expected due to COVID fears, several polling locations in the state could not open. Churches typically serve as 35% of the state’s polling centers but many had already been closed to the public and were not open for the primary election, according to a statewide analysis of polling places by the Georgia News Lab, an investigative reporting partnership among Georgia universities and GPB News.

Much criticism was leveled at New York City, because voters cast ballots by mail in large numbers without enough election officials to count votes in a timely manner. Frederic Umane, the New York City Board of Elections secretary, said the count was “slow, but accurate and open.” He stated the board might need “hundreds” more workers for November.

A pattern of excuses and racial discrimination

Shortly before Election Day in 2018, former President Jimmy Carter wrote to then Secretary of State Brian Kemp regarding criticisms of the highly contested governor’s race between Kemp and Abrams: “Popular confidence is threatened not only by the undeniable racial discrimination of the past and the serious questions that the federal courts have raised about the security of Georgia’s voting machines, but also because you are now overseeing the election in which you are a candidate.” As Secretary, Kemp presided over a controversial voter purge that eliminated more than a half million registered voters from the voter rolls in 2018 because they were presumed dead or assumed to have moved. An American Public Media analysis determined that 70,000 of them have since re-registered to vote.

Kemp won the election and is the state’s current governor.

After the Georgia primary this year, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) blamed equipment failures and long lines on local election officials and user error.  Local and national officials complained about the state’s lack of preparation and questionable  practices.

In particular, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond (D) called for an investigation into election issues representing “an attack on the democratic process.” He noted that “it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to train, prepare, and equip election staff throughout the state to ensure fair and equal access to the ballot box. Those Georgians who have been disenfranchised by the statewide chaos that has affected the voting system today in numerous DeKalb precincts and throughout the state of Georgia deserve answers.” DeKalb County has the highest population density of any county in the Atlanta metropolitan area and is 54.3% Black and 9.8% Latino or Hispanic.

Likewise, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Cheri Bustos said in a statement after the primary election: “We are seeing the widespread breakdown of elections across Georgia and it is disproportionately affecting Black voters and people of color…. The Georgia Secretary of State had months to get it right, even after today’s election was delayed twice. Instead, Secretary of State Raffensperger and Georgia Republicans have failed their constituents by refusing to provide Georgia counties with the resources and training they need to conduct this election.”

Extended deadline for certifying the result

The general election is scheduled for November 3 and, by law, a winner must be declared by December 8, six days before the Electoral College is due to certify the results. That is likely not enough time for all the states to finish counting votes, given the anticipated high volume of mail-in votes.

On August 6, Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) expressed concern about “election chaos” and introduced legislation to extend the vote-counting deadline from December 13 to January 1. As of this writing, no action has yet been taken on the bill.

A Checklist of Expected Fixes

In an interview with Fox 5 DC, former Pennsylvania governor and Department of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge (R) expressed his own expectations that problems experienced during the primaries could be fixed in time for the general election. In particular, he noted that staff needs to be “trained trained trained” on the use of voting machines and that secretaries of state need to obtain the funds necessary to handle the increase in absentee ballots. Ridge is the co-chair of VoteSafe, a cross-partisan coalition committed to the principle that “every American has the right to vote safely amidst the pandemic.”

Below is a list of fixes that need to be made if the election is to run more smoothly than many of the primaries. As we have seen time and again in government and in business, where there is a will and the capacity to unite behind a clear vision, there is a way to get almost anything done. We’ve seen that with the moon landing 50 years ago, and more recently, with the success of SpaceX in just a few short years. Voting is not rocket science, though – the technologies and the know-how exist to protect voters from coronavirus exposure and to ensure safe and secure voting. All that’s needed is sufficient funding and leadership to make it happen.

☐ Congress must extend the vote-counting deadline to January 1

☐ Elected officials must do all they can to inform and assist citizens to register and vote, and to ensure that voting is safe and secure

☐ All post offices must be prepared to handle record volumes of absentee ballot requests and mailed-in ballots

☐ Election officials must provide clear, step-by-step instructions about any documents or witnesses needed in order to register, vote in person, or vote by mail

☐ Voters must experience easy website and phone navigation to learn more about poll sites, safety precautions, and any 2020 election changes or updates

☐ States must have adequate numbers of polling stations or, in states that offer them, adequate numbers of voting centers, ballot drop boxes, or ballot drop-off sites

☐ Polling locations must have proper infrastructure (e.g., adequate wiring, or wifi if needed for computers)

☐ All polling equipment must be appropriate and in working order

☐ Polling locations must open on time with adequate staffing, and with staff members who are well-trained to manage the equipment and procedures in place

☐ All poll workers must be provided with protective equipment

☐ No online voting must be available for federal elections

☐ All voting locations must have signage that references any required voter personal-safety measures (e.g., masks, social distancing) on Election Day

☐ Ballot printing, requesting, mailing, and delivery must be sufficient for expected record voter participation

☐ Adequate provisional ballots and emergency ballots must be printed and distributed to polling places – there must be no shortages

☐ Election offices must provide a transparent and easily navigated way for voters to learn if their signatures have been rejected and a way to cure (fix) their signatures by explaining to officials why they didn’t adequately match

☐ There must be a secure chain of custody in place to protect ballots

☐ States must hire adequate numbers of election officials and establish streamlined processes to count expected high numbers of absentee ballots in a timely fashion

☐ In states where it can readily be made available, there must be computerized tracking of ballots throughout the request and mail-back processes

Get Information and Express Your Expectations

Voters who have questions or who want to express their expectations about where to vote, how to get a mailed ballot, and other voting-related topics can use the tools and resources below to reach the websites or offices of their Secretary of State,  state or local Board of Elections, or Office of the Registrar/Office of Voter Registration and Elections (names vary from state to state).

Contact your state’s Secretary of State to find out what they are doing to make the November election safe, secure, and well-run. In most states, the Secretary of State is responsible for managing elections.

Find your state election office with this helpful search tool from USA.gov.

Find your local election office using this look-up page on the US Federal Voting Assistance Program website.

Find your polling place. Vote.org provides links to each state’s (and DC’s) polling center locations.

Get personalized voting information on your registration and your state’s voting deadlines, how to register and vote absentee, check your registration status, find out what’s on your ballot, and more. Enter your address and VOTE411 will connect you with your state’s tools and resources.

See what you can do on the VoteSaveAmerica website – vote by mail, be a poll worker, or volunteer.

Related Problem: Voting Rights

Written by Mary Jane Gore and George Linzer

Published on September 2, 2020

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