The election debacles across the country this month made one thing clear: the measures that voting experts hoped would mitigate the pandemic-related challenges didn’t go far enough to make voting accessible in the outbreak.
After a string of elections where election officials struggled with the surge in absentee voting prompted by the pandemic, there was optimism Georgia’s approach to scaling up vote-by-mail would provide a model for November.
Instead, long lines still stretched from in-person voting places, from the moment they opened the door Tuesday. Some voters — particularly those in communities of color — waited several hours to cast ballots.
The fiasco was a major warning sign to election officials everywhere, given the proactive steps Georgia took to expand absentee voting and lessen the need for in-person voting sites.
While some of Georgia’s problems, including its rollout of new voting technology, were Georgia-specific, other lessons apply everywhere, particularly as similar trends emerged in elections in other states.
The bottom line is election officials will be doomed in November if they do not take drastic steps to expand their vote by mail operations. In D.C., election officials were so backlogged on processing absentee applications, they were hand-delivering ballots to voters the weekend before the election.
But they’re also doomed if they assume a smooth absentee voting operation alone will be enough to make up for polling places being shuttered because of the outbreak. Unlike in Georgia and D.C., there were not widespread reports of Nevada voters not receiving the absentee ballots they requested. Yet in-person voting lines were so long, some voters waited until well after midnight to cast ballots.
Election officials have before them the daunting task of planning a massive expansion of absentee voting (something vote-by-mail states had years to adjust to), while also figuring out how to keep opportunities for in-person plentiful.
Here are three specific takeaways from the last two weeks of primaries:
Plans For Fewer Polling Places Because Of COVID-19 Shouldn’t Underestimate The Demand To Vote In-Person.
The fundamental challenge this pandemic brings is that the way in-person voting normally operates is completely at odds how to best limit COVID-19’s spread.
This reality is why election officials have been encouraging absentee voting. With fewer poll workers — who are often elderly — willing to staff the sites, and fewer locations willing to host them, officials have had to shutter or consolidate polling places. Due to the need for social distancing, the number of voters who can be in a room to vote at given time has been significantly decreased, and that dynamic also fueled the long lines seen across the country this month.
If anything, the last two weeks show election officials need to figure out how to host even more in-person sites than they may have been considering for the pandemic. That means aggressive recruitment campaigns to hire workers, and particularly young ones who are more resilient to the virus. Those poll workers, since they’ll likely be new to the job, will in turn need much more training than the older volunteers who have worked election after election. Election officials will also need to spend more to secure additional locations.
Nevada’s experience this week is illuminating. The state was planning on having only one in-person location per county, as its ramped up efforts to facilitate vote by mail. Democrats sued and secured three sites in Clark County (home to Las Vegas), and still some people waited seven hours to vote.
“We are seeing an overall preference by certain types of voters to actually cast their ballot in person, due to distrust of the vote by mail [process],” Emily Zamora, executive director of the Nevada-based civic engagement group Silver State Voices, told reporters in a call on Tuesday.
Everything Takes More Time Than What You’re Expecting
It’s clear that some in places, including Ohio, Wisconsin and D.C., election officials underestimated the time it takes to turn around an absentee voter application. In Georgia, there was a roughly half-million-ballot gap between the number of ballots sent out and the mail ballots received by Monday, but it will likely never be determined how many of those ballots went unreturned because they weren’t received in time
Runbeck Election Services, the vendor that was hired by Georgia to send out its absentee ballots, took 36-60 hours to get a ballot in the mail from when it received a voter’s information, according the company’s president, Jeff Ellington. But the whole chain of events, from when a voter put her absentee application in the mail to when her ballot is on its way back to her, took “easily” a week and a half, Ellington told TPM, since the application goes through the county first. (Runbeck shipped off a final batch on June 1, but local officials continued to send out ballots after that).
This timeline creates some tension between voters advocates’ traditional resistance to limiting the time period voters have to apply to vote absentee and the need to give officials extra time to process the spike in ballots. In Ohio, such a fight has erupted over legislation that will move up by four days the deadline by which voters must have absentee ballots applications in the mail.
A Hard Look Is Needed At How Absentee Ballots Are Being Processed.
Election officials have stressed that the increase in mail-in voting means it’s possible, and maybe likely, we won’t know the winner of some major races until days after November’s election. This is particularly an issue in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that don’t allow election officials to do the bulk of the processing of absentee ballots until Election Day
But the delay also complicates the options election officials have in preventing double voting by people who show up in person to vote after already submitting absentee ballots.
In parts of Pennsylvania — according to Tammy Patrick, a vote-by-mail expert at the Democracy Fund who has advised election officials on the process — election officials decided to hold off counting absentee ballots even later, so they could check whether any of those voters also showed up in person.
In places that allow the processing of absentee ballots to start early, Election Day poll books can be preloaded to show which voters already submitted an absentee ballot, Patrick said. In other jurisdictions, anyone who even just requested to vote absentee will have to vote provisionally, regardless of whether they actually sent in the ballot, slowing down the in-person process.
“If you don’t start the [absentee ballot counting] process until election day, then you have to make a decision on how do you prevent double voting or how do you secure it in a way that limits it from occurring,” Patrick said.
This conundrum will be exacerbated as interest in absentee voting surges, but voters don’t get their ballots in time or aren’t sure they returned them by the deadline, so they show up in-person as well.
Additionally, states need to be clearer about how far along they are in counting mail-in ballots, said MIT political science professor Charles Stewart, who cited California’s model of keeping the public updated on the percentage of ballots it has counted.
He said that it was “critical” that election officials figure out practices for making clear how many ballots are left to be processed, even though that will be another burden placed upon them.
“You’re going to have two sets of partisans, loaded for bear, that are going to be looking for any evidence that they can find that the election was rigged,” Stewart said. “If you really can’t count fast enough, then we need to come up with the standards about how we communicate what’s left, rather than just generally saying, ‘We have a lot of mail ballots. Leave us alone.’ I don’t think thats going be an accepted answer in a number of quarters.”