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'We get what we pay for': Experts warn of underfunded elections as 2020 looms

A line forms outside a polling site on election day in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

After a midterm election plagued in many areas by technological and logistical glitches, sometimes resulting in four-to-five-hour waits to cast a vote, voting rights advocates fear a failure to learn from past mistakes could already be endangering the integrity of the 2020 elections.

Complaints of voter suppression preceded the election in Georgia, but problems persisted on Election Day. Voters complained of long lines, broken voting machines, and insufficient resources at polling sites. In Gwinnett County, several locations reported machines running out of batteries and needing to wait for power cords to be delivered.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams conceded to Republican Brian Kemp Friday, but she also alleged voting irregularities in the election—which was overseen by Kemp as secretary of state—tainted the results. Abrams announced plans to file a federal lawsuit that will accuse Georgia officials of “gross mismanagement of this election.”

By 2:30 p.m. on Election Day, ProPublica’s Electionland project had received more than 120 reports of voting problems across New York City, including many jammed ballot scanners. An election official told The New York Times a two-page ballot required 8-year-old scanners to process twice as many pieces of paper as usual, and some ballots may have been damp because of rain.

Voters in Detroit ran into long lines and broken machines at many polling places. More than 100 people waited at one school while its only voting machine was fixed. At another, a machine shut down because the surge protector it was plugged into was off.

One Arizona polling location was foreclosed on the night before Election Day. The sheriff obtained a court order to get the building opened, but voting did not begin until hours after the polls were scheduled to open.

In Texas, some voters claimed machines were switching their votes during early voting. Officials said that was a result of users filling out their ballots faster than the 16-year-old machines could process them.

In Florida, two counties failed to submit vote totals for a statewide recount on time Thursday after wrestling for days with outdated scanners, power outages, and accusations of fraud. State election officials relied on the counties’ initial unofficial vote counts instead as they tabulated recount figures.

All this begs a fundamental question: why does a country so proud of its democracy seem to struggle so much to execute its most basic function?

Experts say the answer is complicated but the problems are often preventable.

“I would say 90 percent of it is preventable because this is a system of casting a ballot,” said Susannah Goodman, director of election security for Common Cause. “There are many such systems around the world that don’t have this associated drama. This is just poor design From a registration process to how we vote, all of that needs to be deliberately designed to make voting accessible and inexpensive for governments to run.”

According to Justin Levitt, a former official in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, much of the trouble stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what elections are.

“We misunderstand the election process in this country and don’t treat it like the customer service affair it should be,” he said. “And I say customer service because we the voters are the customers In a lot of local areas, if the election process were a product, we wouldn’t buy it.”

Election supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach have drawn intense criticism in the last week, often for good reason. In general, though, Levitt said many U.S. election officials want elections to run more efficiently, but they often lack the money to make it happen.

“We try to do elections on the cheap in this country,” he said. “Occasionally, we get what we pay for, or more specifically, we get what we don’t pay for.”

Precincts affected by delays and malfunctions on Election Day were in areas with more minorities and lower-income voters, which is consistent with historical patterns. In a 2014 study, the Brennan Center found precincts with more minority voters typically had longer lines and fewer machines, but resource allocation did not account for all the delays.

“This study does not find that any jurisdiction or person intentionally discriminated against any group of voters,” the authors wrote. “The findings do, however, call for review and reform of polling place resource allocation to ensure that all voters enjoy fair access to the ballot box.”

If a dearth of funding and insufficient resources afflict the entire system, it follows that areas with less money and resources to begin with would be the hardest hit.

“Communities where you have greater economic difficulties, replacement of election equipment is going to be further down the line when it comes to using those tax dollars,” said Edgardo Cortes, an election security adviser for the Brennan Center for Justice.

Voters in wealthier communities who have more flexible jobs and better child care options are also more likely to be able to handle waiting several hours in line on a workday.

“People with more resources often have the capacity to deal with the one, two, three, five, or ten problems in their way,” Levitt said.

Distressing as they may be, Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, said voting irregularities have been relatively limited in recent election cycles. Even in Florida, only two of 67 counties experienced enormous difficulties carrying out the mechanical recount.

“The election administration side has shown some strain and perhaps shown some cases where decisions should have been made differently,” he said, “but on the whole, one needs to acknowledge election administrators did their jobs quickly, efficiently, and when they discovered errors, they corrected them.”

He has seen significant improvements and upgrades since the recount drama of 2000. As evidenced by the relatively incident-free elections and recounts in other Florida counties, it appears some administrators did foresee problems and position resources to prevent them.

“There’s 100,000 polling places on Election Day,” Stewart said. “There must be 100,000 Wendy's in the country. How many of them had a fryolator that didn’t work on Tuesday?”

With tens of millions of people voting across the country, though, he recognized even a small percentage of locations having problems impacts a significant number of people.

After long voting lines were reported across the country in 2012, President Barack Obama said in his re-election victory speech that something should be done about it. Months later, he convened a bipartisan commission to figure out how to cut wait times and provide guidance to local officials.

The commission found 10 million voters waited for longer than a half-hour in 2012, and it recommended steps to make registering and voting before Election Day easier and to utilize tools to optimize staffing and resources.

“Lines at the polls are symptoms,” Levitt said. “They’re fevers. A lot of things cause the fever.”

Voting rights advocates have pointed to Colorado as an example of a state that has successfully overhauled and streamlined its elections. In 2013, legislators mandated ballots be mailed to every registered voter, eliminated assignments for polling places, authorized same-day registration, and shortened residency requirements for voting.

The following year, average administrative costs dropped from $16 per vote to around $9.50 per vote, and use of provisional ballots plummeted by 98 percent, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. In 2014, the state was able to cut the number of poll workers needed from 16,000 to 4,000.

“You have to go state by state and say, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve here,” Goodman said.

Many of the issues that arose in the 2018 election were technological, with voting machines and ballot scanners malfunctioning or simply not functioning at all. Some states and counties have updated their equipment in recent years, but others are still operating equipment they purchased 10 to 15 years ago.

“Just from a practical side, they’re really old, so they fail at a higher rate than new equipment,” Cortes said, and once they fail, the delays pile up rapidly.

Despite the gravity and importance of state and federal elections, experts say local officials often opt not to prioritize purchasing reliable voting equipment.

“The business end of voting systems are only visible every two years or so, while potholes and schools and fire and police are visible every day,” Stewart said. “So, communicating the need for upgrades is a challenge, especially when a lot of the public thinks it can’t be that hard to run an election.”

Cortes observed states have known for years machines would need to be replaced and could have planned ahead to pay for it. The alternative to spending the money is leaving voters unable to vote and much of the public unsure if the results of an election are valid.

“When you look at overall investments that state and local governments and the fed government are making, this is comparatively a pretty small expense for people being able to exercise a fundamental right,” he said.

None of this inspires much confidence the problems will be fixed before the 2020 election, but experts say there is still time.

“There are all kinds of different procedures that can alleviate some of the problems we see if we are willing to put attention and resources to it,” Levitt said.

If nothing else, election officials can plan to have ballots or equipment available for every registered voter in their precincts. While voter turnout in the U.S. straggles behind other democratic countries, the midterm elections demonstrated it is a mistake in the current political environment to assume voters will stay home.

“You should be planning on every single voter in your county to show up and vote, and just be ready for it because there is a level of political interest that is a different degree than even two years ago,” Stewart said.

The danger now is the public’s attention shifting to something else and the urgency felt in the days after the election fading, as it typically has in the past. Many voting problems can be solved, but they require a sustained effort and a deliberate allocation of funds.

“Hopefully, coming out of this past election will prompt a renewed discussion over resources for elections and how do we prevent this heading into 2020, because we don’t want to be in the same situation again two years from now,” Cortes said.

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