Chaotic Primaries Signal Voting Trouble Ahead

(Photo: AP/Chuck Burton)

People line up to vote in Matthews, North Carolina, on Tuesday, March 15.

If the long lines, ballot shortages, technical glitches, and poll-worker errors plaguing this year’s presidential primaries are any indication, Election Day 2016 could prove mighty chaotic.

With any luck, the nation will avoid another high-stakes recount like the one that landed the 2000 presidential election in the lap of the Supreme Court. But the polling place breakdowns in recent primaries, which have drawn just under 30 percent of voters, bode poorly for a general election that is expected to feature double that level of turnout. Consider:

  • Arizona voters waited up to five hours to cast ballots last month in Maricopa County, where the number of polling places had been slashed to 60, down from 210 in the 2012 presidential race. Thousands of voters were turned away. The Justice Department is investigating.
  • Michigan faced ballot shortages in Flint and several other cities, forcing voters to wait an hour or more for fresh supplies to be delivered. Many voters gave up and went home without casting ballots.
  • Mississippi faced chaos in multiple precincts, due to polling places that did not open on time, last-minute precinct location changes, and technical problems with electronic poll books.
  • Wisconsin voters were in many cases unable to obtain the photo ID cards required by a 2011 law that took effect this year for the first time, having been tangled in the courts. Students waited in long lines, and some voters were blocked from casting ballots.

In some sense, these (and similar polling-place problems reported in Hawaii, Illinois, and Georgia) should come as no surprise. The sorry state of voting in America has been well known since the fiasco of “hanging chads” in 2000 pulled back the curtain on a balkanized, underfunded American voting system, staffed largely by untrained, part-time volunteers.

But the nation’s persistent voting problems reflect a failure of democracy on multiple levels—administrative, legislative, judicial, and political. Federal and state officials have shortchanged budgets for running elections. The Supreme Court has rolled back key anti-discrimination provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And Republicans have enacted voting restrictions that are ostensibly aimed at curbing voter fraud, but that disproportionately block key Democratic constituencies—African Americans, Hispanics, students, the poor—from casting ballots.

In theory, the 2002 Help America Vote Act, enacted in the wake of the Florida recount, was supposed to fix the nation’s voting problems. The HAVA sent money to the states for shiny new voting machines, and established a federal agency—the Election Assistance Commission—to gather data, conduct research, and advise states on best practices.

But voting machines purchased ten years ago are now becoming obsolete and starting to malfunction. And the Election Assistance Commission—understaffed, underfunded, and at one point targeted for closure by Republicans on Capitol Hill—faces a lawsuit alleging that, far from facilitating access to the polls, the agency has erected new barriers to voting. Civil-rights groups have sued the EAC on the grounds that its executive director violated federal law and the commission’s own rules this year when he gave Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas the right to require proof of citizenship as a condition for registering to vote.

The EAC’s credibility has now sunk so low that even the Justice Department has refused to defend the agency. But beyond its immediate legal crisis, the agency faces a broader problem: The EAC has failed to come close to fulfilling its mandate of helping states and localities run election smoothly. Into that vacuum have stepped civil- and voting-rights groups that run voter hot lines, educate voters about how and where to cast ballots, and work with election administrators on developing plans to troubleshoot problems. Their reports from the field at this stage in the 2016 elections are not encouraging.

“Election officials are unprepared,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the voting-rights project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, at a recent “Democracy at Risk” forum hosted Wednesday at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Civil-rights advocates are particularly concerned about a string of state voting restrictions passed immediately in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and regions to get Justice Department clearance for voting procedure changes. Seventeen states have enacted new curbs on voting, including photo-ID requirements, that will be in place for a presidential election for the first time this year.

“In the past several years we have been making it harder for voters to vote,” said Johnson-Blanco in an interview. “And we have not given our election administration the attention that it needs to ensure that voters don’t experience these extreme burdens when they go to vote. We need to put our money where our mouth is.”

The Lawyers’ Committee, the League of Women Voters, and a group of Arizona civil-rights groups last month wrote to Michelle Reagan, the state’s secretary of state, urging that Arizona adopt an Election Administration Plan that would spell out exactly how the state plans to administer this year’s general election.

As part of a legal settlement with civil-rights groups following long lines and other voting problems in 2004, the state of Ohio adopted an Election Administration Plan that laid out its plans for recruiting and training poll workers, handling absentee ballots, precinct schedules, and other Election Day nuts and bolts. It worked so well that Ohio still rolls out an EAP for each election, even though it’s no longer legally required. States and localities need new voting machines, bigger budgets, and an EAC that facilitates voting instead of making it harder. But even a little simple planning would go a long way toward heading off more Election Day chaos.

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