Nearly two decades after voting problems in a handful of Florida counties paralyzed the nation, the United States’ election grid this month remained a crazy patchwork of inconveniences, confusion and errors, both human-made and mechanical.
County officials in Maryland miscalculated how many ballots they would need on Election Day — and quickly ran out in more than a dozen precincts.
In New York City, voters were given a two-sheet ballot that jammed machines and caused delays and long lines. And in Georgia, some voters failed to provide details like a birth year, leading officials to reject hundreds of absentee ballots for “insufficient oath information” before federal judges intervened.
Nearly two decades after voting problems in a handful of Florida counties paralyzed the nation, the United States’ election grid this month remained a crazy patchwork of inconveniences, confusion and errors, both human-made and mechanical. The lumbering system, combined with claims of voter suppression and skewed maps from redistricting, once again tested confidence in the integrity of the vote.
As in 2000, no evidence emerged of widespread fraud or political interference. But just finding enough qualified poll workers to make Election Day happen was once again a challenge, as voters navigated more than 100,000 polling places, staffed by 900,000 mostly volunteers and administered by some 10,000 local jurisdictions. (After the 2016 election, nearly two-thirds of local elections officials nationwide reported difficulties finding workers.)
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The unevenness of the system across the country — in 22 states, elections at the local level were overseen by just one person — made it a political process open to accusations of manipulation.
In some states, including New Jersey, South Carolina and Louisiana, officials depended on electronic voting machines that have no paper backups in case of a contested outcome. In Georgia, 16-year-old machines led to the improbable scene of Brian Kemp — the secretary of state overseeing elections and the Republican candidate for governor — being briefly thwarted from casting a ballot for himself. The computer system, running on Windows 2000, returned an error.
Broader worries about the handling of provisional ballots in Georgia and the security of a computer system led a federal judge to delay certification of the state’s results. On Friday, Democrat Stacey Abrams ended her bid for governor in the race against Kemp, while denouncing what she called “systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment and incompetence.”
Legal actions were initiated in Florida, where close margins forced recounts in the races for Senate and governor, and questions arose about whether eligible mail-in ballots were improperly rejected. Election officials were to conclude manual recounts in the Senate race by Sunday. In the governor’s race, Democrat Andrew Gillum conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis on Saturday evening.
Elsewhere, accusations of voter suppression flared. Civil-rights lawyers sued Pennsylvania, claiming its requirement that absentee ballots be received on the Friday before Election Day cost thousands of people a chance to vote. In Kansas, where a court recently struck down a law requiring proof of citizenship for new voters, many mistakenly believed they still could not register without a birth certificate, according to Democratic voting organizers.
“I think the law did what it was intended to do,” said Johnny Dunlap, the Democratic Party chairman in Kansas’ Ford County, “and that was to discourage people from voting.”
No election is perfect
With the nation polarized along party lines and many contests fiercely fought, tight races threw a harsh light on weaknesses in the system, fueling partisan accusations and legal challenges.
In New Mexico, a Republican congressional candidate, Yvette Herrell, sought to have the police seize 8,000 absentee ballots but cited no evidence of suspected fraud. A judge in Florida rejected efforts by Republican Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott to impound voting machines, and authorities declined to investigate claims of fraud, saying they had no evidence.
In Arizona, as the counting of mail-in ballots delivered a victory for the Democratic Senate candidate, Kyrsten Sinema, the state Republican Party leader lashed out at the elections official in Maricopa County, a Democrat, declaring, “Such a man cannot be trusted to administer elections.”
President Donald Trump fanned the flames of distrust with tweets questioning votes in favor of Democrats in several states. As the counting of ballots continued in Arizona, Trump tweeted: “Just out — in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption — Call for a new Election?”
Elections experts said that the process, while hobbled by vulnerabilities, was more orderly than one might glean from the partisan posturing, and that it had improved since the 2000 presidential vote. Nationwide, equipment was largely more reliable, registration lists more accurate and election administrators better trained, they said.
Still, said Marc Racicot, a former governor of Montana who once led the Republican National Committee, no election is perfect because there “is a certain margin of humanity to be expected that doesn’t amount to fraud.”
Well-intentioned election officials, he said, should be permitted to do their jobs without fear of attacks. “I think it’s really important for the people of individual states across the country to understand that if they’re going to maintain confidence in their government and their republic and their systems, which I think are critical to us these days, that you have to begin with a presumption of good faith,” he said.
The 2000 presidential election recount, with its televised images of hapless county officials in Florida squinting at ballots to discern voter intent, was the debacle that launched a thousand fixes.
The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, exposed the fragility of a system that Americans had previously taken for granted.
Fallout from the recount contributed to the passage of the federal Help America Vote Act, which allocated billions of dollars for states to improve technology, ensure voter access and secure systems against fraud. In Florida, legislators rewrote state laws, switched to paper ballots and optical scanners (no more butterfly ballots or hanging chads), and mandated automatic recounts for races with margins of half a percentage point.
Charles Stewart III, an expert on election administration at MIT, said complaints about this month’s elections in some areas should not be seen as evidence of a failing system, or lack of progress since 2000.
“Elections are incredibly complicated,” Stewart said, and officials are legally required to take time beyond Election Day to count votes. “Just the fact that we have a recount in Florida is leading people to say, ‘Ah, here we go again,’ ” he said. “In fact, it’s just a close election.”
Florida still does not have a standardized ballot format, and a poorly designed ballot in heavily Democratic Broward County is believed to have led to a significant undervote for Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, who is narrowly behind Scott. Some 30,000 people in Broward voted for governor but inexplicably bypassed the Senate race, which was tucked away in the lower left corner of the ballot, below the instructions and far from other contests.
Palm Beach County voters were given ballots that required them to draw a line to complete an arrow pointing to their preferred candidates, a potentially confusing alternative to the more common methods of filling in a bubble or making a check mark. Meanwhile, Nelson has brought a lawsuit in federal court over how Florida counties validate signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots, a process his campaign claims is unconstitutional because of inconsistent criteria applied by elections staff; a judge gave voters until Saturday to validate their mismatched signatures.
When James White moved from Atlanta to rural Baldwin County in Georgia, he registered to vote and was given a card certifying his eligibility. But when he went to the polls he was turned away because his driver’s license still said Atlanta.
Aided by a Democratic Party worker, White went to the county courthouse, where he was told again that he was ineligible to vote. Eventually, a judge approved him for a provisional ballot. “Whether it got counted or not, I really don’t know,” he said.
A central aim of the Help America Vote Act was to make it easier for people to cast a ballot on Election Day. But embedded in the law were requirements for voter identification and maintaining registration rolls, objectives that Democrats say Republicans have twisted for partisan ends, effectively disenfranchising certain groups that lean left.
Georgia and 16 other states, most of them in the South, demand photo identification that low-income people and minorities disproportionately lack, and conflicting information about addresses and dates of birth — even signature mismatches — can cost someone the ability to vote. An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the laws inconsistently applied, with absentee-ballot rejections in one county, Gwinnett, accounting for 37 percent of the total for the entire state in this month’s election.
Restrictive trends have accelerated since the Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act five years ago, with a number of states finding new ways to make it harder to vote. Some have aggressively purged voters’ registrations for inactivity. Still others have closed polling places.
Greg Shufeldt, an assistant professor of political science at Butler University who co-authored a recent study on electoral integrity, said groups most affected by restrictive voting laws tended to lose confidence in the system, which can limit turnout as much as the laws themselves.
“If you feel the system is set up in a way to disenfranchise people, and you feel that the wheels of government are turning in a way to make people less likely to participate, eventually you’re going to have less trust in the system,” Shufeldt said. “And ultimately, you’ll become less likely to participate.”