Anyone following the news during the recent midterms likely got a dim view of the quality of the nation’s elections. Media outlets catalogued story after story of people confused about where to vote because of misinformation campaigns, but because some poll locations changed late in the game. In some places, officials offered misleading or confusing info about what people needed in order to vote, or how to vote via mail-in ballot. In other places, confrontations broke out between poll workers and voters. A number of polling sites opened late or suffered backlogs and lines so long that some people just went home. These logjams were either caused by issues with the facilities, the number of voting machines or ballots available, machine glitches and failures, a lack of resources for non-English speakers, or, in some locales, gun and chemical weapons scares. A few reports even trickled in of machines changing votes or failing to tally them, and of active voter intimidation near polls. Even now, with some races yet to be called, stories continue to come in about how bad ballot design, voting machine flaws, or the mishandling of ballots could have influenced those elections.
The integrity of American elections has come under heavy scrutiny in the last few years. Accusations of fraud (mostly on the Republican side) and voter suppression (on the Democratic side) have been leveled throughout the electoral process. Many states have laws on the books seemingly meant to limit voter turnout, especially among minority and marginalized groups. US elections also remain under threat of foreign meddling. Election Day stories of chaos at polling stations can give the impression that, in addition to pre-election suppression problems, the US is incapable of holding fair and functional elections on a purely logistical level.
But though voter disenfranchisement and the need for better cybersecurity are real problems, election observers and experts largely seem to agree that, despite a few snafus, these elections were competently and fairly run. Granted, observers are not yet done picking through reports to make their final verdicts. But American elections are so complex that issues like these always occur, can often be corrected, and likely rarely (if ever) bias election outcomes. The difference this year, experts said, was that in the currently charged American political climate, some people may have fixated on stories of fuckups and flaws.
It is almost pointless to talk about America’s ability to run elections as a nation, as the country as a whole has very little to do with the way people vote. Sure, we have a few federal standards. But as Nat Perry, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, one of the international bodies that monitors American elections, pointed out in an interview, “One of the most striking characteristics of the US electoral system is its highly decentralized nature.” Each state decides how it will administer its elections, and delegates many responsibilities to around 10,500 local jurisdictions. This means each state or jurisdiction has its own standards for buying and operating voting machines or other materials and running polling sites. Conditions at each of the nation’s more than 170,000 polling stations can vary wildly as well. As R. Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Voting Technology Project, a joint initiative of the California and Massachusetts institutes of technology, pointed out, given this degree of complexity and the scale of our elections, “there are going to be problems.”
But Alvarez also noted that one thing that holds constant across many of America’s electoral systems is that they are underfunded. This means that some polling officials might be underpaid and lack adequate supervision or training. It also helps explain why the vast majority of states use voting machines that are over a decade old, which leads to bugs like vote-flipping or crashes.
Because of this, said Alvarez, “things like long lines or bad ballot design or taking a long time for votes to be tallied are all very common aspects of American election administration.” This is nothing new, he added—the country has been dealing with these problems, or similar ones, since its birth.
Charles Stewart III, another member of the Voting Technology Project who conducts surveys after most elections on the issues people encountered when they voted, said in an interview that usually only 1 or 2 percent of voters report issues at their voting sites. And most of the time, these issues are eventually resolved. Jurisdictions bring in extra ballots or voting machines, redirect people to other polling stations if one has to close, and extend voting hours in the face of long delays. Authorities respond to reports of misinformation or intimidation. But some problems aren’t resolved, and occasionally flaws do cost people their votes. The trick in any election, said Stewart, is determining how much more prevalent or unresolved standard issues were, and at what point they reached levels where they may have biased the results of an election.
It is possible that, thanks to historic voter turnout for a midterm election, which some poll sites failed to adequately predict, voting infrastructure may have been particularly overtaxed, and so we may have seen more glitches than usual. It is also possible that misinformation or intimidation could have been especially bad. Stewart noted that it’s actually hard to get a read on these issues, as no one really even keeps data on things like machine failures. It could take weeks for researchers to figure out even more easily traceable issues, like if poor ballot design in Florida’s Broward County could have led some people to skip over the Senate section, a particularly costly snafu given how close that race remains. However, the Department of Homeland Security believes, based on current reports, that polling site machine errors at least were at about normal levels this year. Stewart likewise said he hasn’t seen anything to date that would lead him to believe that polling site problems were uniquely prevalent or severe this year. Alvarez stressed that even with all the negative stories in the press, these elections were still much better run than the 2000 presidential contest, which turned many people on to monitoring polling site and ballot issues in the first place.
We may just be focusing in on stories of voting snags because, as Stewart put it, “the electorate seemed to be on a hair trigger this year with respect to problems… and had a tendency to call some of these problems ‘vote suppression.’” This seems to speak to how concerned people are with the idea that partisan politicians might warp the very process of voting. But, as Stewart noted, people do seem to be using the term “vote suppression” rather wantonly now. Social media, added Alvarez, allows stories about election issues and people’s anxious takes on them to disseminate more rapidly than ever, which may feed and magnify concerns.
When it comes to issues with how election officials handle and count ballots once voting is done, America’s system invites glitches. Not only do we have outdated machines and perhaps overworked and underpaid staffers to deal with them, but, Stewart pointed out, we do more than most nations to make sure everyone can vote. “Many countries don’t allow absentee voting” or provisional voting for people whose eligibility is uncertain on Election Day, he said. “We do a lot to make sure that special cases that are not considered in other countries are taken into account,” he added. Which is good from the standpoint of representative democracy, but does add administrative complexity to our elections that takes time to work through and, in isolated incidents, can lead to minor muck ups in the vote tabulation and certification process.
Again, none of the experts I spoke to for this piece believe there is any indication as of yet that vote handling or counting issues were more pronounced this year than any other year. Sure, Florida’s Broward County is in the news for sloppiness. But as Stewart noted, that area “has a history of little screw-ups and inattention to detail—and that is a problem.” Broward County is just in the spotlight this year because of razor-thin margins in races of national import in Florida, for which even minor glitches matter.
But as with polling site problems, most US electoral systems have methods to remedy issues with vote tabulation, like audits or recounts. (The OSCE’s Perry does note that 15 states use voting machines that do not leave a paper trail to facilitate these checks, with five states relying exclusively on such machines.) In Florida’s case, Alvarez said, there are robust recount procedures in place to catch and rectify issues like this—procedures that were not in place during the contentious 2000 presidential recount. The fact that people are anxious about the quality of vote handling in Florida, in other words, is paradoxical proof that this segment of the American electoral system is healthy enough to spot and rectify its own errors.
To be clear, the American electoral system is far from perfect. It could be better funded; certain jurisdictions could do with new leadership or tactics. International observers like the OSCE also regularly chide the US for state and local policies that functionally disenfranchise millions, especially marginalized groups. They increasingly criticize the vitriol of our political rhetoric, the politicization of our voting district drawing process, and the lack of transparency in our political ads and finance systems. This year, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who came under fire for presiding over purges of voter rolls that critics say targeted Democratic voters, among other individuals, put a spotlight on our lack of laws against political candidates running their own elections. Our democracy is hardly a beacon for the world. But when it comes to the process of operating an election, at the nuts-and-bolts level, most experts give us decent marks, noting that every electoral system has its own unique snags and shortcomings.
It should also be stressed that it is still too early to say definitively that this election was not more flawed than others. The OSCE is still weeks out from preparing its final report—which, Perry cautioned, will not, as a matter of standard practice, compare this election to past US elections, or to other nations, nor declare them good or bad, but will offer a stark assessment of practices. And any report on the midterms will be incomplete, as the data and monitoring just doesn’t exist to grab a full snapshot of an American election. The OSCE could only send teams to about 350 polling sites, and local laws actually prevent it from observing elections in a number of states, some of them hotly contested. So while they did not, as Perry said, find any instances of voter intimidation, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen—or even that it didn’t at historic levels.
But given what we know at this point, it seems like this election was likely just as good (or rather, as flawed) as the average American election. There is nothing wrong, the experts I spoke to stressed, with people being critical of the way electoral systems operate, or wanting to scrutinize them and push for improvements. That is actually vital for a healthy democratic system. Alvarez urges anyone concerned about elections to go and watch them, as many states allow citizens to do, documenting flaws and helping find possible solutions. We can’t let ourselves despair that everything is already broken.
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