The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Georgia debacle shows we’re heading toward an election disaster in November

Voters in Atlanta waited in hours-long lines on June 9 to cast their ballots in Georgia's primary amid reports of technical glitches with the voting machines. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tuesday was primary day in Georgia, and things went about as well as you might have expected:

Lines snaked out the doors, some polling locations didn’t open on time and others struggled with new voting machines in Georgia’s primary election Tuesday, a potential preview of how new voting procedures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic could affect the presidential election in November.
Problems were concentrated in Atlanta and surrounding counties, where voters described arriving before polls opened and standing in line for hours, with election officials processing ballots painfully slowly because they couldn’t get new touch-screen machines to work or they had not been delivered in time.

Over the course of the day, state and local officials blamed each other; at least part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the state was using new technology, in which voters make their selections on a touch-screen and then the machine prints out a paper ballot with their choices on it.

In theory, that’s a big improvement over the previous system, which created no paper record and, therefore, could not be rechecked if there was a dispute or the need for a recount. But the new system has already encountered problems elsewhere, including in Los Angeles, where it was also used this year for the first time.

Here’s what’s really worrying: This is a microcosm of what we’re probably going to face on Nov. 3. Not just in one state, or two or three, but all over the country.

Some of it will be because of intentional voter suppression. Some will be because of the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic (such as a shortage of poll workers). Some will simply be by accident. If a polling place has three machines and two break down — and poll workers have no idea how to fix them — voting can slow to a crawl. The line stretches longer and longer, and some people decide to simply go home.

That can happen without someone making a specific decision to disenfranchise those voters, though you might think of it more as negligence with a predictable result. Especially when we see the same thing in election after election: Voters in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods experiencing few if any problems voting quickly and easily, while those in poorer and more heavily minority neighborhoods being forced to wait for hours.

Throw the unpredictability of coronavirus into the mix, and the possibilities for terrible outcomes are multiplying. As Mother Jones’s Ari Berman starkly put it, in an overview of everything that can go wrong:

The risk of mass voter disenfranchisement is greater in 2020 than at any time since the era before the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s.

Election officials always hope for blowout elections, because then whatever errors and complications happen don’t affect the results, which means most people (and the media) won’t get too worked up about it.

The optimistic view of our near future is that current polls are accurate and do not change much, which would mean former vice president Joe Biden beating President Trump by something like 8 points, a popular-vote landslide. Should that happen, the electoral college won’t be close, and Election Day problems might not loom large.

But it’s more likely that the race tightens nationally and is extremely close in many states. That could include not only closely divided states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, but others such as Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina that Trump won in 2016 but have been growing more diverse and more friendly to Democrats.

On top of that, millions more people will be voting by mail because of the pandemic, which will bring its own distinct problems. As law professor Edward B. Foley points out, “In 2018, nationwide 91.8 percent of all absentee ballots sent in by voters to local election offices were counted, leaving 8.2 percent not counted — a significant disqualification rate.”

That’s a huge number of disqualified ballots, most of which were thrown out because they didn’t arrive on time or the voter made some error that disqualified their ballots. Now, imagine a whole lot more disqualified ballots because of increased vote-by-mail, and many becoming the subject of separate lawsuits in a half dozen states or more.

Democratic Party strategist and lawyer Marc Elias says that flaws in ballot design are often overlooked but have huge repercussions on elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

You thought Florida 2000 was chaos? Just wait.

And here’s still another angle to worry about.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Plum Line during a recent interview that he worries about a possible Russian effort to seize on such difficulties to sow further doubts about the integrity of the outcome.

In such a scenario, both Russia and Trump might share separate interests in sowing such doubts, if, say, Trump is behind in a razor-close race during the counting (or after it’s over), or if he’s a hair ahead but thinks he might lose when all the votes are counted. A key aim of 2016 Russian interference, as U.S. intelligence services concluded, was to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”

Trump himself actively worked to undermine faith in the 2016 outcome, claiming he might not accept the legitimacy of the results if he lost. This time, he’s doing the same again, by absurdly claiming efforts to make voting safer amid a pandemic with mail-balloting will lead to all manner of fraudulence.

“The Russians can succeed by taking steps to cause Americans to question whether they can rely on the results,” Schiff said. “If it’s a close election, and the Russians decide to exploit the false claims of the president attacking mail-in ballots, they may be able to help create sufficient doubt.”

Such an effort, Schiff suggested, might be undertaken via a similar disinformation campaign about vote-by-mail, among other things, which would echo Trump’s own.

“By raising false claims about that process, he gives the Russians a great new lever to undermine our democracy,” Schiff said.

It would be nice to believe that election officials in every state are preparing well and will have all the kinks worked out before November so they can administer the election smoothly and accurately. But there’s not much reason to think that’s what will happen.

Read more:

David Ignatius: It’s up to the states to prevent an Election Day fiasco

Henry Olsen: Progressives have more power than anyone else to improve the lives of black Americans

Catherine Rampell: Trump is running on the economy without a plan to rebuild it

Eugene Robinson: Democrats, stop worrying about losing. Focus on how you’re likely to win.