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Chaos In Primary Elections Raises Fears For November

People wait in line to vote during Georgia's primary election on June 9. Short staffing, equipment problems and difficulties distributing absentee ballots led to long lines and confusion across the state — a warning for November's general election.
Brynn Anderson
People wait in line to vote during Georgia's primary election on June 9. Short staffing, equipment problems and difficulties distributing absentee ballots led to long lines and confusion across the state — a warning for November's general election.

Wisconsin voters had to wait in long lines to cast their ballots. Absentee ballots went missing in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. And last week, voters in Georgia and Nevada were frustrated by long lines and widespread confusion.

Recent primary elections held during the pandemic have exposed an overtaxed voting system and raised questions about how much can be fixed by November.

Everything seemed to come to a head in Georgia. Voters waited for hours, as confused poll workers struggled to operate new equipment. And some polling sites ran out of backup emergency ballots.

Many voters, like Fulton County resident Latrisha Hernandez, tried to vote by mail but never got a ballot. She went to the polls in person only to encounter more dysfunction.

"The system said I already voted and I had never voted," she said. "And they were trying to get the system reset, but they didn't have the password to the system so we had to sit to the side until they finally got a password to get it reset."

Still, Hernandez's two-hour ordeal paled in comparison to others in the county who had to wait past midnight to cast their ballots.

One problem in Georgia, as elsewhere, is that election officials decided to consolidate polling sites, expecting that most people would vote by mail because of the pandemic. On top of that, hundreds of poll workers pulled out at the last minute because of health concerns, so those who did show were overwhelmed. And there was little time to train any new recruits.

"In addition to a lot of voter confusion, there was a lot of poll worker confusion," Sara Mullen, associate director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said of her state's June 2 primary. She heard complaints from voters who said poll workers turned them away when they should have been allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Mullen said some of the confusion was understandable. The state was dealing with new election procedures and voting machines.

"And then in a number of counties, there were a lot of protests on the same day, and there were curfew in some cities, as well," she said. "So it really was a perfect storm, but I think it really shows that we don't know what's going to happen in the fall, and so we should really prepare for that."

But preparing for the unexpected — especially in such a turbulent time — is a challenge unlike any others that United States election officials have encountered before. And with just five months to go until Election Day in November, there's little consensus on what needs to be done. Democrats would like to send every voter a mail-in ballot and extend deadlines for getting them in. Republicans insist that would lead to fraud and undermine the integrity of the election.

Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar favors a middle approach, sending every voter an absentee ballot application instead, while figuring out what went wrong in the primary.

"That's really our first focus is to plot out the entire mail-in process from start to finish," she said.

As in many states, this was Pennsylvania's first experience with widespread mail-in voting — over 1.4 million absentee ballots were cast in June, compared with 84,000 in the primary four years ago.

Boockvar says some counties handled the surge better than others.

"So what we're going to do over the coming weeks is really looking at every single step of the process, from the moment the application is made to the moment the ballot is received back," she said.

Boockvar hopes they can figure out what deadlines and processes would work best in November. Some county officials complained they didn't have enough time to fill all the ballot requests they received.

"An all-hands-on-deck moment for our democracy"

Boockvar said that without a doubt, local election offices could use more resources. Congress approved $400 million to help states respond to the COVID-19 crisis, but the recent primary meltdowns have reignited demand for additional funds.

"I hear that every day," said Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S Election Assistance Commission, the agency that distributes the money. Hovland said election offices have basically been asked to run two elections — one by mail, the other in person — to deal with the coronavirus threat. But they only budgeted for one.

He said there's also a desperate need for more and better-trained poll workers. He suggested that election officials could partner with companies and nonprofits to recruit the army of workers required for November.

"This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our democracy," he said. "We need election officials to do their job, but citizens that can help out will go a long way to making this as successful as possible."

Kathleen Hale, a political scientist at Auburn University who trains local election officials, said Americans are asking a lot.

"Our expectations are very high of our election administration system and they should be," she said. But this year, those expectations might have to be lowered.

"Maybe it's time for us to put our money where our mouth is," she said. "If we want multiple methods of voting, if we want access for days and days at a time, if we want folks to have the choice — not being told, but have the choice — to vote by mail or in other kinds of ways, we have to provide the resources to do those things or it will all look like a miserable failure."

The danger, she said, is that issues with voting will undermine public confidence in the election itself.

Adding to the challenge is the nation's decentralized voting system, run differently in every state. What might work in one place might not work in another, and local officials are loath to get orders from above.

Still, Hale and other election experts think many of the problems can be fixed, if there's the political will. They worry about the impact of partisan finger-pointing. Republicans are blaming the primary problems on incompetent Democratic officials. Democrats fault Republicans for making it it harder to vote. And they've made little progress so far in trying to find a solution.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.