All Americans lose with partisan attacks on the electoral process
In close elections, the playbook for losing candidates is well worn. They blame the voting process, undermine confidence in election results, and delegitimize the opposition. Both parties do it, and all Americans lose in the end. Political actors are incentivized to attack the legitimacy of the voting process. Take the gubernatorial race in Kentucky. Republican Governor Matt Bevin trails Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, though it appears he is behind by an insurmountable margin. Bevin has every right under state law to request a recount to ensure the validity of the result. But instead of saying just that, he added an almost reflexive nod toward fraud by claiming undefined and unreported “irregularities.”
The intent is clear to make the process or other nefarious action be the reason he lost. Those who voted for Bevin will hear that message. In our era of hyperpolarization, it means that they will claim that the likely winner is illegitimate. Whatever Beshear does during his term can thus be easily written off as unfair or even illegal. Neither party is alone in undermining confidence in the legitimacy of the electoral process. Kentucky also saw a rather unusual “call” of the election for Beshear by Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes very shortly after polls closed and before the Associated Press made its traditional announcement of a winner. Calling results like this is not the job of any election official.
Election administrators at the local level are the front line for reporting results. They coordinate a logistical masterpiece whereby results from all the polling places under their control must be delivered, tallied, and reported as unofficial to the public. State officials to varying degrees aggregate these unofficial results and report them for statewide races. The state will certify the result as final in the weeks after Election Day.
Election night results are unofficial for a reason. First, it is the culmination of a long day. When votes are tallied in the precinct, tired poll workers are known to make transcription errors, which will be discovered later in the canvassing process. Second, every state permits some amount of voting by mail, and many states do not report those results right away. Finally, any provisional ballots cast on Election Day must be adjudicated.
A Democratic secretary of state who makes an election “call” during the initial and unofficial reporting of results in an extremely close race will unnecessarily poison the well when you consider her office will play a role in a recount or challenge. Why should voters, particularly those who are now primed to view the election results as illegitimate by their preferred candidate, believe that the recount can be done without bias?
Attacks on the system are now commonplace. Republicans tend to claim voter fraud, and Democrats cry voter suppression no matter the action taken. The truth is rarely so black and white. The Bipartisan Policy Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has released a report on polling place lines in 2018. The study spanned more than 3,100 precincts, 211 jurisdictions, and 11 states, accounting for 10.5 million votes cast, or about 9 percent of national turnout in the midterm elections. Jurisdiction size ranged from Metz Township in Michigan with 230 registered voters to San Diego County in California with nearly 3 million registered voters.
The good news is that in the 2018 midterm elections, the average voting wait time was just under 9 minutes, well within the acceptable 30 minute limit that is set by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2014. The bad news is that nearly 5 percent of precincts averaged more than 30 minute wait times throughout Election Day. We found that the distribution of those very lengthy wait times is uneven. Precincts with a high portion of minority voters saw significantly longer wait times. In precincts with 10 percent or less minority voters, the average wait time was 5 minutes. In precincts with 90 percent or more minority voters, the average wait climbed to more than 32 minutes.
Some might use this data as proof that local election administrators are intent on suppressing turnout in some areas. But many factors contribute to long lines, and the administrators, mostly civil servants, tend to be focused on improving voter experience at the polls. More likely, these areas have been hampered by state and local policy decisions that limit investment in modernizing polling places with better technology and make it difficult to allocate resources to meet uneven demand.
It will take a lot of internal reflection and some difficult work on behalf of political actors, administrators, and the voters themselves to understand and value the importance of election legitimacy. We are all too cynical about the process and assume the worst. Instead, we must all allow the voting process to unfold as intended by state and federal law and believe that the electoral process in this country is worthy of our trust.
Matthew Weil is director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He previously served in staff roles at the Treasury Department and at the United States Election Assistance Commission.
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