The 2018 elections saw record turnout, with millions of Americans casting ballots to make their voices heard. Yet many faced problems in the voting process before, on and after Election Day — avoidable problems that states and Congress should fix.
I saw this firsthand during my time at the Election Protection command center in Washington, D.C., where nonpartisan attorneys and trained volunteers took tens of thousands of calls from citizens across the country. Many of the problems reported were things we could — and did — predict were going to happen. Indeed, most of the problems voters reported can be solved with simple, commonsense reforms.
The most widespread problem we saw was the most predictable one: technology and voting machine failures. These were reported all over the country, from Georgia to Arizona. The problems ranged from voting machines switching the voter’s choice to a different candidate to scanners glitching to voting machines just breaking down altogether.
Many of these machines are more than 15 years old, dating to the post-Bush v. Gore era. Just like any other piece of technology, as voting machines become older and outdated, they stop working. We’ve warned secretaries of state about the need to update machines before — some were asleep on the watch; others simply did not care to do the right thing.
Voting machine breakdowns lead to other problems, too. In the 2018 elections, some jurisdictions saw half their machines break down, creating hours-long lines due to fewer resources. Some in Georgia reported waiting more than four hours. Others called in saying that due to time constraints, they simply couldn’t continue waiting.
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Ultimately, there is a very simple solution to this problem: Retire old machines, and switch to a paper-based voting system. Paper ballots and paper-based machines are more efficient, secure and cost-effective. Paper does not break down and cannot be hacked. There is no reason why so many voters should be forced to use old and faulty machines, some of which do not produce any secure paper ballot, when there is a simple solution available.
In addition to broken machines and long lines, a staggering number of voters called in confused about their registration status. In several states, such as Ohio and Georgia, hundreds of thousands of voters had been purged from the voting rolls.
These purges, conducted against citizens for merely having missed an election or two, are a new form of voter suppression, as partisan politicians in a handful of states have used their power to purge citizens, many of whom are people of color, likely to “vote the other way.”
Let people register to vote on Election Day
That’s a partisan play, and a discriminatory one at that. Because voters didn’t realize their records had been removed ahead of time, they had no recourse. Such ploys should be deemed unacceptable in our democracy. You don’t get to cherry-pick the electorate.
There is, of course, another simple solution to solve the voter registration and voter roll purging problem: Let eligible citizens register to vote on Election Day and during the early voting period. Numerous states already have this process in place, and it boosts turnout by about 10 percentage points.
In addition to same day voter registration, we should automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they interact with a government entity, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and social service agencies. Sixteen states already have a form of automatic voter registration, and it has not only increased the number of people on the rolls but has also kept voter registration lists up to date.
Administrative issues aside, we also saw an increase in laws meant to block certain populations from voting, and inexcusable election practices. Last minute changes to voter ID requirements, in states such as North Dakota, left many Native Americans without a correct ID to vote. Cuts to both the number of polling places and early voting opportunities were widespread. And there are other examples such as Dodge City, Kansas, a majority-minority community, that had its one voting location moved well outside town limits.
Keep partisanship out of election oversight
These tactics draw attention to the desperate need to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. A new Congress is in place, and it can — and should — introduce legislation to require government oversight of certain voting practices so that no American suffers this discrimination again.
The midterm elections also point to the need to change who oversees our elections. Several partisan politicians — Brian Kemp in Georgia and Kris Kobach in Kansas — served both as their state’s top election administrator and a candidate for high office. Instead of partisan politicians, elections should be administered by nonpartisan experts who do not have a stake in the outcome.
While voters did experience many problems this election cycle, the important thing is that they still showed up and voted. In record numbers! Like anything, you don’t count if you don’t show up. It is now our job as a nation to adopt commonsense voting reforms at both the federal and state levels before the 2020 election to ensure that every eligible American can make their voice heard on Election Day.
Karen Hobert Flynn is president of Common Cause. Follow her on Twitter: @KHobertFlynn