Political Animal


November 20, 2012 4:15 PM War on Voting—By Incompetence

By Ed Kilgore

In repeated posts about voting suppression, I’ve tried to constantly note that aside from all the bad laws and deliberately discriminatory policies, one of the most important weapons against voting rights is simple incompetence—deliberate or by negligence—in election administration. This point is vividly reinforced by Obama campaign legal advisor Richard Pildes at The Atlantic, who focuses on the long lines and other complications facing voters in the battleground state of Virginia:

Virginia has 134 local government units. Each has its own electoral board and essentially makes its own decisions about how many voting machines to buy and how much to invest in maintaining the machines. (A statewide board of elections exists, but it has almost no role on these machine issues.) Because local governments are primarily funded through local taxes — particularly property taxes — poorer counties and independent cities, with low tax bases, have fewer resources from the outset to devote to all public goods, including voting equipment. State law does impose minimal levels of machines per capita, but these requirements are so low as to be close to meaningless. In addition to resource-strapped local governments not being able to provide sufficient machines, lack of money leads to maintenance being put off and older machines staying in service too long. In Virginia, which holds an election every year (state and local elections alternate with ones for federal offices), this problem is exacerbated. The level of machine breakdown on Election Day is shockingly high, even if utterly predictable….
These general, longstanding resource problems were dramatically enhanced in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Local governments suffered enormous budget crunches. Not only did they lack the resources to maintain or update election equipment, they were cutting funding for the hiring of election officials….
Voting has become increasingly complex, both technologically and legally. Yet the poll workers who run the process are temporary volunteers paid $100 a day. They serve episodically and cannot develop much expertise; they tend to be older and less technologically knowledgeable; they are mostly not lawyers, but must adapt, with minimal training, to constantly changing election laws. To give you a sense of contrast, the Obama campaign had lawyers available at key polling locations to make sure poll workers were applying the law properly; these lawyers had received 2.5 hours of training and had 3-inch thick binders with the relevant election laws.
On the legal side, poll workers now have to apply state election law for regular voters, the federal Help America Vote Act for those who are going to cast provisional ballots, and absentee-ballot laws for in-person absentee voting. Each category of voting has its own distinct set of rules to be mastered. Every additional layer of complexity creates more capacity to confuse poll workers and slow down the voting process, even if the law, such as the Help America Vote Act, is well intentioned.

Pildes goes on to talk about the pressure that Virginia imposes on Election Day thanks to its failure to allow “no excuse” early voting opportunities. But his main point is very clear: we continue in this country to tolerate a crazy-quilt, state-and-local dominated election system that begs for abuse, often at the hands of state and local officials who are not exactly united in a desire to make voting easier or to count votes fairly. Thanks to the absence of any affirmative, general “right to vote” in the U.S. Constitution (though it does exist in some state constitutions), the federal government has largely limited itself to efforts to prevent constitutionally-prohibited racial discrimination against voting rights, and/or to provide, occasionally, carrot-and-stick encouragement of states to clean up their act (e.g., in HAVA, which, as Pildes noted, may have made matters worse in some places).

Whether it’s by federal constitutional amendment, state constitutional amendments, aggressive extension and enforcement of voting rights laws prohibiting discrimination, or a new HAVA with teeth and a lot more money, it’s far past time to end the anomaly of primitive election administration in what is supposedly the world’s most advanced democracy. It’s not enough to fight blatantly offensive laws. If the actual experience of trying to vote doesn’t improve, real democracy will remain a chimera.

UPDATE: Turns out Washington Monthly intern Max Ehrenfreund did a post for Slate on Election Day about how available technology can not only improve election administration, but could also prevent any theoretical fraud.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on November 20, 2012 4:34 PM:

    America, where voting is a "right!"
    The land of the free, and the home of the... patient.

    We need to atandardize voting registration standards, standardize voting machines (no more private ownership of machines - sell them to the government, and get the hell out of elections), standardize training for poll workers, and standardize the number of machines per 5-10,000 people.
    We also need to have "Same-day Registration," and extend voting days and times nationally, so that voting on Election Day should take no longer than the 15-30 minutes that it should take to come in and vote.

    This is the 21st Century, we have no excuse for the hodge-podge state and local voting systems we have for all of the above.

  • Tramey on November 20, 2012 4:47 PM:

    I wish I knew whether a right to vote was purposely left out by the Constitutional Congress... as in, at the time, it was just too complicated to make a clear-cut statement of who actually had the right to vote. Or whether it was just an oversight, as in, it's such an implicit right, given everything else we've detailed, it was not expressed explicitly.

  • T2 on November 20, 2012 4:49 PM:

    I think if The Man Who Every GOPer Hates had won the presidency and carried the Senate with him, we would have seen a concerted national and state program instituted by the Conservatives to clamp the election process so tightly that voting them out of office would be next to impossible. We've already seen how quick redistricting by GOP run states have rigged the House of Reps to keep it TeaParty for a few cycles (hopefully ending in 14) so we know it can be done. Thank god Obama will appoint one or two new Supreme Court justices.

  • Doug on November 20, 2012 5:42 PM:

    May I put a request that we start using paper ballots?
    No electricity required; well, except for lights and no computers to foul up (or be fouled). There's also a "paper trail", aka "the ballot".
    The only difference I know of is that we'd have to put up with "pundits" for another 8-10 hours until the final vote counts arrived the morning after the election.
    That last wouldn't bother, I'll just go to bed and turn the news on when I get up...

  • President Lindsay on November 20, 2012 7:27 PM:

    Why is this so hard to figure out? Washington Monthly itself had this article recently that lays out how to fix our voting system cheaply and effectively nationwide. Why is it that this virtually never gets mentioned in the discussion about our broken system? Having polling places at all is an anachronism, and opens the door to a host of problems. Get over it! Mail-in voting solves virtually every single problem that we saw this year, and then some. Read the article and see if you don't agree.

  • burro on November 20, 2012 11:02 PM:

    Since the election, it has been noted that the r's are acknowledging losses, but not shortcomings. Not in any real sense that would indicate real introspection and regret.

    I think their lack of discouragement derives from their confidence that although the voting process held up this time, it's not that stable, and if they keep chipping away at the opportunities to vote, and the gov't workers that hold the process together, and the very concept of universal suffrage, then eventually, they will get the very vague and easily manipulated process that they see as their only salvation in the face of demographic reality and the distaste of the majority for the r's crappy agenda.

    GOTV will always be critical, but it's going to become an exercise in desperation as the need to prove winning margins becomes harder to pin down. Fair, accessible and verifiable elections are as important as anything on the to do list right now.

  • boatboy_srq on November 21, 2012 7:47 AM:

    Somebody remind me why it is that the same wingnuts that denounce any election in any OTHER country where voter participation is below 90% as somehow "illegitimate" are perfectly content with +/-60% voter participation in the US.