Human error and equipment failures that marred recent primaries in Georgia and other states are raising concerns that a technical meltdown risks a chaotic general election and the undermining of voter confidence in the integrity of November’s general election.
In contests since the pandemic erupted, tens of thousands of voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada failed to receive absentee ballots in the mail on time. Meanwhile, those who tried to vote in person were left confused by a reduced number of polling locations and exasperated by long lines to cast their ballots.
The problems could affect both supporters of Democrat Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, if traditionally Democratic cities face long lines to vote, which could suppress turnout, and if reliably Republican rural areas experience problems with mail-in ballots due to underfunded postal services.
A tight race between Trump and Biden, or a poorly run election in a single swing state could also lead to litigation and a delay in announcing the winner of the presidential race.
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that long lines in Georgia on Tuesday, particularly in minority areas, were a “test run” to “target and disenfranchise black voters and people of color” in November.
Read more: How Voting in U.S. Is Harder Than Just Checking a Box
Georgia voters faced a complete meltdown of their brand-new voting system, triggering a investigation into what caused machines across the state to go missing, malfunction and produce long lines that may have dampened voter turnout, particularly in minority areas.
The primary was the first major test for the state’s new voting machines, installed this year. The state appears to have failed that test, as dozens of machines were unaccounted for when polls opened. In other polling places, electronic poll-books for voter check-in failed while ballot scanners and touchscreen voting machines simply didn’t work as promised.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whose office controls the state election apparatus, blamed election administrators in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, and DeKalb County, which is majority African-American. He described the situation as “unacceptable,” while vowing to “resolve these issues before November’s election.”
Democrats put the blame back on Raffensperger, with former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abramstweeting that the secretary of state “must stop finger-pointing and fix it.”
Overall, primaries held since the U.S. went into lockdown in mid-March have been a mixed bag, with states like Nebraska, Iowa and Montana holding smooth primaries and breaking records for turnout, while voters in Georgia and Wisconsin waited in long lines, and those in the District of Columbia braved a citywide curfew imposed because of protests against police brutality.
In the meantime, campaigns are preparing for the general election.
Jesse White, a Democratic consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said he’s telling his clients to weave get-out-the-vote messaging into all of their campaigning, telling supporters to request absentee ballot applications and return ballots as early as possible to ensure they are counted.
“I anticipate massive problems at polling places in November,” he said.
Republican campaigns are facing a trickier balancing act. Trump has spoken out repeatedly against vote by mail, and conservative groups are preparing to spend tens of millions of dollars on lawsuits and ads seeking to limit it.
Meanwhile, a recent mailer from the Republican National Committee sought to encourage voters in Pennsylvania to vote by mail, saying it’s “an easy, convenient, and secure way to cast your ballot.”
Caution over the virus has led to a dramatic surge in absentee ballot requests, overwhelming elections offices in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have not traditionally had high rates of mail-in votes. Elderly poll workers are also sitting out this year’s elections rather than risk exposure.
With fewer workers available and wanting to discourage large gatherings, cities have drastically reduced the number of polling places. But that’s led to long waits on primary election days in cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Atlanta, all of which will be key in November.
Local issues have exacerbated the problems.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Tony Evers and the Republican-led legislature clashed over how to handle the April 7 primary after the pandemic began. The Republicans’ victory ensured an in-person election, leading to at least two-dozen coronavirus infections tied to voting.
In Pennsylvania, local officials were facing their first election in which any voter could request an absentee ballot. In Nevada, Democrats sued the Republican secretary of state over a plan to severely limit in-person polling places.
The problems have raised concerns among voting rights advocates who viewed the primaries as a “dress rehearsal” for the November election, when turnout is expected to be even bigger.
Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director for All Voting Is Local, said that elections officials there mounted a “heroic effort” to process the 1.9 million requests for absentee ballots for the primaries, up from 107,000 in 2016. But many weren’t processed in time, leaving thousands of voters to receive their ballots late. Governor Tom Wolf extended the deadline to mail in ballots.
In Philadelphia, polling places were cut from 831 during a 2019 municipal election to 190, due to shortages in polling workers and a lack of sites large enough to accommodate social-distancing requirements.
Changes in polling places were just the beginning. In Georgia, a state-run website that allowed voters to look up the location of their polling place wasn’t available for part of Election Day, while some polling places had the wrong equipment or faced shortages of provisional ballots and paper for ballot receipts.
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said that simply expanding vote-by-mail opportunities won’t be enough. States will have to also beef up early voting and Election Day voting options.
“There’s going to be the need for ample opportunity for people to vote in person,” he said.
But that would require money that local governments often don’t have due to the recession. The first coronavirus stimulus bill included $400 million to help with the elections, but a Democratic proposal to provide another $3.6 billion is stalled in the Republican-led Senate.
Audrey Kline, national policy director for the National Vote at Home Institute, said that states that have held primaries during the pandemic may be better off in November than those that held them earlier in the year, because they have had that dress rehearsal.
That’s already happened in Wisconsin, where the state’s election commission spent weeks putting together a comprehensive report on what happened in April and what steps can be made to improve voting in November.
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