Elec­tion could starve for funds

Vot­ing sys­tems risk melt­down due to strain of pan­demic and lack of money from Congress.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Halper

Of­fi­cials in some states fear a melt­down this fall with­out the money needed to get ready for Novem­ber.

WASH­ING­TON — The elec­tions chief in the Detroit sub­urb of Rochester Hills, Mich., a com­pet­i­tive soft­ball player in her younger days, feels like she’s been pushed back into the bat­ting cage. This time, no­body is giv­ing Tina Bar­ton a bat.

“It is like I am just stand­ing there with­out any­thing to hit the balls back,” Bar­ton said. “Ev­ery day I step in, and some­thing new is com­ing at me at high speed.”

Poll work­ers quit­ting. A churn of court de­ci­sions throw­ing elec­tion rules into tu­mult. A COVID-19 out­break at City Hall that could side­line her de­part­ment at a cru­cial mo­ment.

The vi­ral pan­demic has put the na­tion’s elec­tion sys­tem un­der a level of stress with lit­tle prece­dent.

And, al­though fig­ures in both par­ties re­jected Pres­i­dent Trump’s sug­ges­tion of post­pon­ing the Novem­ber elec­tion when he flirted with the idea Thurs­day, they haven’t pro­vided the money that of­fi­cials like Bar­ton need to get ready for it.

The House months ago ap­proved $3.6 bil­lion to aid lo­cal and state elec­tions of­fi­cials in deal­ing with an ex­pected flood of mail-in bal­lots this fall, some­thing that threat­ens to over­whelm elec­tions of­fi­cials in states where vot­ing by mail is a rel­a­tive novelty.

The money has stalled in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Se­nate — part of the larger stale­mate over a new round of help for peo­ple and busi­nesses dev­as­tated by the eco­nomic im­pact of the pan­demic.

“Elec­tions of­fi­cials need that money yes­ter­day,” said Justin Levitt, an as­so­ciate dean at Loy­ola Law School who worked on vot­ing rights en­force­ment at the Jus­tice De­part­ment dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Con­sid­er­ing the tril­lions Congress is spend­ing to shore up the econ­omy and pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, it is be­wil­der­ing that law­mak­ers are balk­ing at the few bil­lion needed to keep elec­tions func­tional, he said.

Vot­ing by mail works smoothly in states, mostly in the West, that have had years to hone their pro­ce­dures.

But in places that are now hur­riedly try­ing to im­pro­vise, prob­lems be­came clear dur­ing pri­mary elec­tions this spring and sum­mer.

Ad­min­is­tra­tive dys­func­tion and fights over vot­ing rules left tens of thou­sands — pre­dom­i­nantly vot­ers of color — dis­en­fran­chised as vot­ing sys­tems buck­led un­der the strain.

“I fear we are brac­ing for dis­as­ter un­less there is in­ter­ven­tion by Congress and states are given the re­sources they need to get this right,” said Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent of the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law.

“We saw long lines in cities across the coun­try in pri­maries. Those lines could be 10 times longer in some com­mu­ni­ties.”

In states where vot­ing went awry dur­ing the pri­maries, Black com­mu­ni­ties tended to suf­fer the most.

In Wis­con­sin, for ex­am­ple, the over­whelm­ingly white city of Madi­son man­aged to open 66 polling sites. Mil­wau­kee, more than twice the size and 40% Black, had just five sites open.

Al­though voter turnout was up over­all in Wis­con­sin com­pared with pre­vi­ous pri­maries, the state failed to get mail-in bal­lots to many vot­ers in time, and of­fi­cials con­cede that the de­lays dis­en­fran­chised thou­sands.

The pan­demic may be am­pli­fy­ing bar­ri­ers to vot­ing that law­mak­ers had put in place ear­lier. These bar­ri­ers — which in­clude re­quire­ments in some states that ab­sen­tee bal­lots have wit­ness sig­na­tures, that vot­ers in­clude a copy of their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with their mail-in bal­lot, and that no­body but the voter may de­liver their bal­lot to a polling place — tend to have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact on sup­press­ing the Black vote.

“The pri­mary demon­strated the tremen­dous dam­age to com­mu­ni­ties of color,” said Michael Zubren­sky, chief coun­sel for gov­ern­ment af­fairs at the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights.

Ge­or­gia, which has fre­quently had prob­lems with its elec­tions, once again had some of the na­tion’s worst fail­ures dur­ing the pri­mary sea­son. Mal­func­tion­ing vot­ing ma­chines, lack of prepa­ra­tion for the surge of ab­sen­tee bal­lots and clo­sure of polling places all con­trib­uted to chaos in the state’s June 9 pri­mary.

Some vot­ers waited in line for seven hours. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of ab­sen­tee bal­lots were not de­liv­ered on time.

In Ge­or­gia as in other states, the fact that Black and Latino com­mu­ni­ties have been es­pe­cially hard hit by the coro­n­avirus made staffing polling sta­tions in cities a much big­ger chal­lenge.

In other states that are not used to vot­ing by mail, the prob­lems haven’t been pri­mar­ily with cast­ing bal­lots, but with count­ing them.

In New York, for ex­am­ple, re­sults in sev­eral close con­gres­sional pri­maries have been de­layed for weeks as elec­tions of­fi­cials strug­gle to han­dle an un­prece­dented flood of mail bal­lots.

Many elec­tion ex­perts fear that if the Novem­ber elec­tion ends up be­ing close, a slow count will pro­vide fuel to con­spir­acy the­o­ries and ef­forts by Trump to dele­git­imize the re­sult if he loses.

More­over, lack of voter ed­u­ca­tion about how to fill in and mail ab­sen­tee bal­lots — rules that vary by state — put many in­ex­pe­ri­enced vot­ers at risk of not hav­ing their bal­lots count. In some states, the rate of bal­lots that are re­jected has soared.

As elec­tions of­fi­cials ab­sorb the harsh les­sons of the pri­maries, le­gal bat­tles over vot­ing rules break­ing out all over the coun­try have fur­ther com­pli­cated the pic­ture.

Al­ready, 166 cases have been filed na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to a tally Levitt is keep­ing.

Many of them are dis­putes be­tween Democrats who be­lieve it is to their ad­van­tage to make cast­ing a bal­lot as easy as pos­si­ble and Repub­li­cans who ar­gue the pan­demic is not suit­able cause to re­lax what they see as anti-fraud mea­sures.

The re­sult­ing court rul­ings are whip­saw­ing be­lea­guered elec­tions of­fices.

In Vir­ginia, for ex­am­ple, a con­sent de­cree for the pri­mary waived the re­quire­ment that ab­sen­tee vot­ers get a wit­ness to sign their bal­lots.

But the re­quire­ment is back in place for the gen­eral elec­tion — for now. The court fight goes on.

“We don’t know how that will turn out,” said Brenda Cabr­era, di­rec­tor of elec­tions in the city of Fair­fax. “If we start print­ing out bal­lots and the rule changes, we have a prob­lem.”

Dur­ing lo­cal elec­tions in May, when wit­nesses were re­quired, some vot­ers who lived alone drove to her of­fice in their des­per­a­tion to vote.

“They had no­body else who would be their wit­ness,” Cabr­era said. “We would go out with masks and gloves and do it.”

The flood of dol­lars that sup­port­ers of both par­ties are pour­ing into fights over elec­tion rules is of­ten driven by be­lief that the out­come could help one party over an­other. Amid the pan­demic, how­ever, those cal­cu­la­tions of­ten aren’t pan­ning out.

Trump’s cru­sade against mail-in vot­ing, for ex­am­ple, seems to be back­fir­ing in some key places.

In Florida, Repub­li­cans long held an edge in ab­sen­tee vot­ing that has now van­ished as the party’s vot­ers heed the pres­i­dent’s ad­vice not to trust vot­ing by mail.

En­thu­si­asm for vot­ing by mail is fast fad­ing among Repub­li­cans in other states, as well, ac­cord­ing to Charles Ste­wart III, an elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pert at MIT.

“I find Trump’s state­ments baf­fling,” said Richard L. Hasen, an elec­tion law scholar at UC Irvine. “They may make it harder for his sup­port­ers to vote.”

All the tur­moil alarms Levitt. He likens elec­tions to a wa­ter bal­loon, with law­mak­ers and at­tor­neys push­ing the wa­ter in one di­rec­tion or an­other as they con­stantly change the rules. But the strain of the pan­demic, he warned, has left the bal­loon ex­tremely frag­ile.

“If you keep press­ing too hard on that bal­loon, it breaks,” he said. “And it breaks for every­one.”

‘Elec­tions of­fi­cials need that money yes­ter­day.’ — Justin Levitt, for­mer fed­eral vot­ing rights of­fi­cial, on lack of con­gres­sional fund­ing

John Min­chillo As­so­ci­ated Press

ELEC­TION work­ers check bal­lots last month in New York, where re­sults in close pri­maries have been de­layed for weeks be­cause of a surge of peo­ple vot­ing by mail.

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