WASHINGTON — Evelina Reese has been a poll worker for 40 years. And for the last six decades, she says, she has never missed a chance to vote.
“We’re all dedicated citizens as far as voting goes,” Reese, a retired social services worker from the Atlanta suburb of Riverdale, said this past week.
But this year, out of concern about the coronavirus, Reese, 79, skipped her routine of visiting an early-voting site and instead requested one of the absentee ballots that the state promised to all who wanted one. Georgia’s June 9 primary came and went, the ballot never arrived, and Reese’s 60-year streak was broken.
After Tuesday’s votes in New York and Kentucky, 46 states and the District of Columbia have completed primary elections or party caucuses, facing the ferocious challenge not just of voting during a pandemic, but voting by mail in historic numbers.
The task for November is not just to avoid the errors that disenfranchised Reeves and many others, but to apply lessons learned since the Iowa caucuses ended in chaos on Feb. 3.
Despite debacles in some states, votes have been counted and winners chosen largely without incident — a feat, some say, given that many states only had weeks to scrap decades of in-person voting habits for voting by mail.
But the challenges and the stakes will be exponentially higher in November when Americans choose a president and much of Congress.
Postal and election workers overwhelmed by 55 million-plus primary election voters now face triple that turnout in November. States must recruit armies of poll workers to replace older ones deterred from working because of the virus. Election offices will have to process millions of ballots packed in millions more envelopes — that only a handful of companies are capable of printing.
And they will have to do it all with enough skill and transparency to reassure Republicans told by President Donald Trump that mailed-in votes will be rigged, and Democrats convinced that their votes are being suppressed.
“We were fortunate that the pandemic hit during the primaries rather than the general election,” said Barry C. Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It provided a sort of training ground for states to turn the corner on voting by mail.”
November, he said, could be like the pandemic itself: manageable if done right, but vulnerable to unpredictable hot spots. “And we only need it to go badly in a few places for the whole election to feel like it’s in trouble,” he said.
Kentucky would seem to be one of those places. On average, only about 1.5% of the state’s voters cast absentee ballots in past elections. Yet Kentucky’s primary last Tuesday might be a template for success in November.
Backed by Republicans and Democrats, election officials effectively held two elections at once — a massive mail vote of perhaps 760,000 mail ballots, and a smaller 270,000-ballot vote at a reduced number of polling places.
Officials eased pressure on in-person polling places by making absentee ballots easy to apply for and get. A crash effort sent counties mailing labels for ballots the day after voters requested them. In the state’s two major cities, local officials designed large-scale voting centers that handled heavy in-person voting with a minimum of delay.
One consolidated voting center experienced some lines, but Election Day voting was largely problem-free, and turnout is expected to smash the 2008 record for a Kentucky primary election. Ninety percent of the 848,000 ballots sent out are likely to be returned. And voting in Louisville’s predominantly Black West End, which some feared would drop, appears to have been robust.
Yet what worked well in Kentucky may not be easy to replicate in November. Here’s why:
November’s election money is almost spent.
In Georgia, the Macon-Bibb County elections board complained Tuesday that it already was short of cash, with an August runoff and the November general election still to come. The pandemic has pinched the board at both ends, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported: A flood of absentee ballot requests raised election expenses, but the budget has shrunk as COVID-19 has slashed county tax revenues.
In Wapakoneta, Ohio, the Auglaize County elections board faces similar problems. “We already used November’s election money for March,” said the board’s director, Michelle Wilcox, referring to the state’s all-mail primary. County officials still could cut spending 20%, she said, but “I’m not buying for November yet.”
And turnout in November, she said, could be almost four times the 22% turnout in the primary election.
Wilcox, who serves on a state task force preparing for the November vote, said the cost of postage and a staff to process ballots pushed the average cost of an absentee ballot to $5 in one small county.
Federal coronavirus stimulus legislation allotted some money for elections — Ohio received $12.9 million — and Congress set aside $400 million more in an earlier bill. But election experts say more is needed, and a $3.6 billion election package, part of a $3 trillion stimulus bill approved in May by the Democratic House, remains stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
There aren’t enough poll workers.
Although mail voting will surge this fall, many voters will still cast their votes in person, experts say. But poll workers are in critically short supply.
Nearly 6 in 10 poll workers were 61 or older in 2018, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. In Kentucky, almost 9 in 10 refused to work in this month’s pandemic-plagued primary, the major reason polling places were slashed to a handful.
The District of Columbia lost 1,700 of its 2,000-odd poll workers for its June primary, according to a postelection report, and poor planning led to hourslong lines.
The number of in-person voters in November is anyone’s guess, but it could be substantial. In Georgia, for instance, about half of primary votes were not absentees.
Accommodating tens of millions of voters with a skeletal staff of experienced poll workers could lead to long lines that discourage voters and raise charges of voter suppression. One solution, Burden said, is a push to recruit young poll workers who often have computer and language skills that modern polls need. Some states like North Carolina already are taking that tack.
On paper, there could be a paper shortage.
“If you were to walk into my office today,” said Tina Barton, the city clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, “I’d bet I have one and a half walls that are stacked 6 feet high with nothing but secrecy sleeves” — the paper covers into which absentee ballots are inserted before being sealed in envelopes. Those envelopes then are sealed in other envelopes, again for security, before being sent to election offices.
And that is just part of the forest of paper that accompanies an absentee ballot, much of which can only be prepared by specialty printers. During Michigan’s primary, she said, printers often pushed deadlines to the last minute. Before the Ohio primary, said Wilcox of Auglaize County, election officials “were actually borrowing off each other” to secure enough envelopes to mail ballots to voters.
And that was when states’ primary elections were spaced out over nearly six months. Now, one state election official said, “we’re all starting to turn to what November looks like, and we’re saying, ‘You used the same vendor I did, and they barely got it done for the primary. How are they going to get it done for the general election?’”
No one appears to have studied whether printing capacity will be a bottleneck in November, but election officials say they are deeply concerned. Burden, of the Election Research Center, said it was worth worrying about: “Printers have limited machines and employees, so they can’t scale up” to meet massive demand, he said. “There’s an ongoing concern that some jurisdictions are going to be left out.”
The Russians are coming. So are Americans.
Among election experts, the prospect that voters will be gulled by misinformation to dismiss November’s results as invalid or rigged is a top concern. Increasingly, Americans, not foreigners, are seen as the greatest threat.
Trump and some Republicans have ratcheted up baseless charges that voting by mail is riddled with fraud, and many on the left assume voter suppression is baked into every element of voting.
Experts worry that delays in counting mail ballots will encourage some people to sow charges of fraud and suppression that are amplified by foreign adversaries. Experts are especially concerned that Americans accustomed to getting election results before bedtime will embrace conspiracy theories and disinformation if the November vote takes days to sort out, as seems likely.
“There is going to be stuff that goes wrong, that isn’t perfect, and our adversaries are looking to leverage that,” said David J. Becker, the director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “Everyone expects there will be a fight against disinformation that is seeking to diminish confidence in the election results — no matter who wins.”
Steve Connolly can speak to that. Connolly, who bills himself as the longest-running Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas, arrived at his polling place at 6:45 p.m. on June 9 and cast his vote at 3:09 a.m. on June 10, the last voter in Nevada’s Clark County. He was not happy, but he thinks he may have a solution.
“It made me want to run for mayor so I can fix the system,” he said. “I’ve been Elvis for 25 years. Maybe it’s time for another career.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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