THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET of American elections is that all kinds of human errors and shenanigans go on, all the time, every election, and always have — yet they rarely come to light because elections are rarely so close that they come into play.
This year, however, is different.
My hope is that one silver lining from this election will be that we might finally begin to seriously address these issues.
The extraordinarily close gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp was foreshadowed by several developments during the campaign, and only reinforced on election day when precincts all over the state were clearly overmatched by the record-breaking midterm turnout.
With Democratic allegations that Kemp (who as Secretary of State oversaw his own campaign) was engaged in various forms of voter suppression, and with Kemp’s eleventh-hour allegation that Democrats hacked the election system (allegations both unproven and unpursued by law enforcement), it was as if the stage was already set for a long, bitter aftermath.
Similar aftermaths are taking place around the country, such as in Florida, where both the gubernatorial and Senate races are in a recount, and in Arizona, where a seeming Republican Senate win turned quickly into a Democratic pickup.
The problems in Georgia this election were legion. While certainly many precincts most adversely affected were in low-income areas, there were more than enough unacceptable problems to cover virtually everyone in some way.
For example, there was only a single voting machine available at a majority Democratic precinct at Savannah High, which is simply unforgivable. Conversely, the majority Republican area of Pooler experienced ridiculous wait times of 4-5 hours on election day because those precincts were so unready and overwhelmed.
So who is at fault? It’s complicated and bears a closer look. The issue of very long lines isn’t quite the same issue as which ballots are accepted or rejected.
Elections in the U.S. are primarily local affairs, run at the county level.
Most precincts are run by overburdened and largely unappreciated volunteers, many of them elderly and most of them women. They are dependent on both their state and their county for adequate resources to do their jobs.
“Day to day operations are mostly determined locally,” says Joe Steffen, a local attorney and vocal Democrat who is a former Chairman of the Chatham County Board of Elections. “The issue of how many people are working at a particular precinct and how many machines they use is primarily a local decision.”
A very real — if not very glamorous — issue moving forward is the ongoing issue of recruitment of poll workers.
“Recruitment is a very real challenge,” says Steffen. “It’s difficult to find enough people, and enough qualified people, willing to work the polls.”
Steffen says it shouldn’t have been a surprise to any local poll manager that this midterm election would have enormous turnout, especially with early voting numbers available in nearly real-time.
“If there were any precincts not prepared for an extremely heavy, almost presidential level turnout this year, then only two things are possible: They were either actually negligent, or intentionally negligent,” he says.
Steffen says the primary way to solve the more locally-based problems — such as extremely long wait times — is for the county to budget enough money to have adequate equipment and adequate recruitment of poll workers.
As for Brian Kemp and his controversial decision to stay on as Secretary of State, Steffen says that office has less to do with long voting lines than it does with providing counties with guidance on the acceptance of absentee or provisional ballots.
(There is some confusion about the difference between absentee and provisional ballots. Absentee ballots are filled out and sent in ahead of time when someone knows they will be unable to vote in person. Absentee ballots are always counted, assuming they are in order. Provisional ballots, however, are last-resort votes when there is some other reason an in-person or absentee ballot cannot be cast, and are subject to confirmation before being counted. And provisional ballots aren’t counted at all if there aren’t sufficient numbers to change an election result.)
Steffen says the real negative impact Kemp has had as Secretary of State rests on two initiatives: The so-called “exact match” protocol which mostly involves absentee ballots, and Kemp’s controversial purge of inactive voters from the rolls.
The exact-match rules about names and signatures, often used to reject absentee ballots, disproportionately impact the lesser-educated and the elderly.
Kemp’s purge of a half-millon Georgia voters who didn’t vote in the two years leading up to this campaign, Steffen says, is “the most egregious example” of Kemp’s actions possibly altering the will of the people.
“There are a million reasons why someone might not vote in two consecutive elections,” Steffen says. “You might be fighting cancer, or you might be going through a divorce.”
Or you might simply not find anyone you think is worth voting for that year.
As for provisional ballots, problems can go either to the local or state level.
“On one hand, a poll manager has the discretion to allow or reject a provisional ballot request. And they might be tired or angry that day, or not very good at their job,” says Steffen.
“On the other hand, the question of how much time you give local officials to confirm and accept provisional ballots is mostly a decision made in Atlanta — and I think that’s been a real issue this election.”
An overarching concern of Steffen’s — shared by many — is Kemp’s decision not to resign as Secretary of State early on.
“He should have resigned once he got the Republican nomination,” Steffen says. “That would avoid the appearance of impropriety which could be a real cloud over the election, and over his entire time in office if he prevails.”
It’s ironic that in an environment where concerns about “hacking” elections have been so prevalent over the past two years, that this election would be concerned with much more mundane issues, such as staffing, signatures, addresses, and postmarks.
But democracy isn’t always pretty, or sexy. Sometimes it’s just about putting in the work.