The Covid-19 pandemic exposed a lot of weak points in society and civic life, from healthcare to broadband access to the administration of elections. As November approaches, states are racing to figure out how to oversee elections safely and securely. Some are better prepared than others.
No Southern state regularly votes by mail – just five states in the United States have universal vote-by-mail laws. And the emergency application of existing absentee voting laws has been a patchwork of implementation and federal court orders.
This season on the Reckon Interview, R.L. Nave and I are looking at the 2020 landscape in the South. And on this episode, we’re looking at the act of voting itself. Who gets to vote? And how will they cast their ballots?
Jessica Huseman is a reporter with ProPublica’s Electionland project. We spoke with her about her coverage of how the government botched federal oversight of elections, allegations of voter fraud and suppression, and how to make sure you can safely cast your vote and ensure it counts. Below you’ll find excerpts of our conversation. You can read more of her work here.
We also spoke with Prof. Carol Anderson about the decades-long effort to undermine the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can find excerpts here.
You can listen to the whole episode here.
Jessica Huseman on how the Election Assistance Commission has failed
The Election Assistance Commission is the only federal agency that has any real authority at all over the way that local jurisdictions manage their elections. So the only thing keeping American elections from being like the Wild West is this really tiny federal agency. And they don’t have a ton of formal authority over states, although they do certify voting machines and states can really only use federal funding for machines that are certified so that kind of gives them default, quite a bit of power.
But there is inherently a lot of power in being the only clearinghouse for information and best practices amid a sort of group of election officials that are all doing their own thing. And so, this agency, especially for smaller counties, is heavily relied on for good information about elections best practices. And the agency just really hasn’t been living up to its mission since the day that it was founded.
It was founded in 2002 after the calamitous 2000 election as part of the Help America Vote Act, and its intention was to sort of help states navigate future crises. We find ourselves in one right now. And the agency is, you know, floundering a bit. I mean, they’re understaffed; they’re sort of starved for funds and attention by Congress and just really can’t perform any of the duties that that it was meant to perform under the Help America Vote Act.
Having a federal clearinghouse for information is especially important at a time like this, because we do have a few states that do vote by mail universally. And this is just how they conduct their elections. There are five states like this and taking the best practices from those states and digesting them and making them into how-to guides for other states is a really, really important task right now.
Because if you think about a state like Washington, that has been doing vote by mail for more than a decade, they have thousands and thousands and thousands of pages on best practices and workflow and the supply chain to make all this happen. States can’t digest all of those thousands of pages of information like it’s very difficult for one state that’s never done vote by mail before to completely rehaul their system. And in order to do that read thousands of pages of documents that pertain entirely to another state, like it’s just not a realistic thing to ask states to do.
But if you’re a federal agency whose job is to be a clearinghouse for this information, then it seems like you should take your research staff and have them take those thousands of pages of documents and boil them down to the nuts and bolts. And what we saw this time around is that the EAC is so understaffed and underfunded, they couldn’t even manage that so the task fell to an entirely different federal agency that’s not necessarily set up to do this sort of thing, along with several agencies that are not even really part of the administration.
And it was just sort of like an ad hoc effort to get this information out, rather than relying on the federal agency that’s supposed to do it.
Jessica Huseman allegations of voter fraud and voter suppression related to vote-by-mail
So, I think that in the five states that do vote by mail universally all the time, there is almost no fraud at all because they have perfected the system. The ballots can be tracked. You know where they are at all times. People are used to vote by mail, so they play by the rules.
What I am concerned about and what I don’t think is that off base is that if states choose to go vote by mail before they’re prepared to, then the lack of preparedness can lead to things like disenfranchisement and voter fraud. And the reason I say that is because the states that do this really well, they have a system that’s much like an Amazon package. You know when your registration has been processed. You know when they’ve mailed the ballot out to you. You know where that ballot is in the truck. And you know where it is every step of the way. You know when it’s been counted. You know if there’s a problem. Like, it’s very secure. They’ve got electronic signature verification, all of these fancy bells and whistles.
It’s almost impossible to implement all of that security and all of those safeguards in a couple of months, right? Like it took Washington a decade. It took Utah 10 years. It took Hawaii six years. We’re talking about a years-long process that states are trying to compact into a really small amount of time. And if you skip steps, then I think that voting does become less secure.
And I’ve been impressed with states who are being realistic about their abilities in this moment. You know, you haven’t really seen a state rocket forward from no vote by mail to a ton of vote by mail. It is a mixed bag in every state, depending on what they’re prepared for.
On the flip side, there’s calls of suppression and I think that these, you know, even if they originate from a really good, well intentioned place can have the same effect. You know, I’m going to use Louisville, Kentucky, as an example here.
You saw hundreds of people on Twitter screaming because in Louisville, they had one polling location. And there are 600,000 registered voters and in Louisville. And so you saw everyone from Ari Berman, who is a progressive journalist who has lots of followers on Twitter, to Ilhan Omar, to NBA players talking about how everyone in Louisville was going to be disenfranchised, because there were 600,000 people assigned to a single polling location. You know, those calls left out really important factual information. So first of all, of the 600,000 people assigned to that voting location, 150,000 of them had already voted by mail. So they weren’t showing up anyway. Second, it’s a primary, right? And so there’s not going to be 600,000 people showing up to this polling location. Like we’re talking about maybe 40% turnout. And so if you take 40% of 600,000 and then you subtract 150,000 from that? Like we’re talking about a 100,000 – 120,000 voters, we’re not talking about 600,000 voters.
Like that’s a lot of people for one polling location. But it was in a convention center. And they had it spread out. There were no lines all day. It was very quick. And now the Democratic Party is saying, the place that we should look for as an example of how to conduct an election in a pandemic is Kentucky. And so like, you know, like, but if you think about the impact of like, people calling suppression in that moment, right? Like, if you think about like, “well, LeBron James told me that I was going to wait four hours if I showed up to vote in Louisville.” Like, there were probably a lot of people who didn’t show up to vote because they were concerned about the lines and 600,000 people being assigned to one polling location.
I think that we kind of need to remove this year from the fact checks that we might do every time another polling location closes. The question that I asked myself when a polling location closes now are very different than the questions I asked myself three months ago. And I’m sure will be very different than the question I asked myself a year from now, when we were past this pandemic.
This is just a very unique moment in time. I do think that there are probably lawmakers who are trying to take advantage of the chaos around this time to close polling locations that don’t necessarily need to be closed and blaming it on resource issues. And so journalists and activists in their community should still interrogate the reasons why polling locations are closing for a factual basis that relates back to the pandemic.
Jessica Huseman on the reliability of voting machines
Some of them aren’t reliable at all. I mean, like, it is stunning to me, like we’re still using touchscreen machines that were produced before the first iPhone. And they frequently don’t have paper backups. These are more and more rare but up to a year ago, the state of Georgia was using completely paperless machines. Louisiana was using completely paperless machines as late as like this year before they replaced them.
So I think, you know, some of these machines are quite bad and small rural counties tend to use these a lot more than larger counties because there’s this thing that people don’t really take into consideration when they advocate for paper ballots which is that you have to have somewhere to put all that paper.
There are federal requirements for how long ballots must be stored after they’re cast, in case someone contests the election. And if you don’t have paper ballots, then you don’t have to worry about that problem, because the law offers a loophole for whether or not you vote on paper. If you do vote on paper, then you have to store it.
One of the reasons that small, rural especially, counties are not adopting paper ballots, or, you know, machines that produce a paper backup is because they literally don’t have any space to store these ballots. Like paper takes up a lot more space than I think people realize. And, you know, if you’re a small county that’s got one municipal office and no warehouse and you don’t have anywhere to securely store thousands and thousands and thousands of paper ballots for 21 months. Then that’s a huge expense that I don’t think people really consider.
They think, “Okay, well, we need to replace our voting machines anyway. Why don’t you replace them with these ones with paper backups?” Well, if they do that, then that’s additional expenditure for secure temperature-controlled facilities to make sure that these ballots can be stored appropriately and securely without being tampered with. And that’s a huge cost in itself.
I think that, you know, the lack of resources in small communities, especially in the rural South has led to quite a bit of bad machines. And I think that people think that paper is a panacea for all of those problems, but it comes with some real storage and staffing and supply chain concerns.