Despite what you might have gathered from certain political leaders (why, hello, President Donald Trump!), the 2018 midterm elections proceeded without evidence of widespread voter fraud. That's good news.
But this month's elections again highlighted the pressure points where our electoral system is struggling — and remains potentially susceptible to manipulation from enemies of democracy. That's the bad news.
A weekend story in The New York Times took a look at problems experienced on Election Day at polling places coast-to-coast and showed how much work we have to tackle to ensure that fair and free elections remain the cornerstone of our democracy. (For Oregon voters accustomed to voting by mail, a "polling place" is a location where people gather on Election Day to cast their ballots; in a state that votes by mail, there's no need for those, which could solve some of these national problems.)
In Maryland, for example, county officials miscalculated the number of ballots they would need on Election Day, and ran out in more than a dozen precincts.
In New York City, voters were given a two-sheet ballot that jammed machines and resulted in long lines at polling places. Democrats in Florida will long believe that a confusing ballot design in heavily Democratic Broward County cost U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson re-election (Florida does not have a standardized statewide format for ballots). Laws designed to discourage people from voting, in some cases requiring that voters show photo identification at the polls, may be having an effect. Several counties and states, including all of Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina, still rely on systems that leave no paper trail.
And officials across the United States struggle to find election workers in sufficient numbers to adequately staff polling places on Election Day. After the 2016 election, two-thirds of local elections officials across the nation said it was a challenge to recruit those workers. It continues to be a challenge, with some 100,000 polling places staffed by 900,000 mostly volunteer workers.
Other states can do away with these nagging electoral problems by following Oregon's lead and adopting vote-by-mail systems. Obviously, a system that relies on mailed paper ballots leaves behind a paper trail for recounts and audits.
The need to recruit workers to staff polling places drops dramatically if you do away with polling places, replacing them with mailboxes and drop-off boxes for ballots.
As for laws that are meant primarily to make it harder for people to vote, Oregon has (quite properly) moved in the opposite direction, momentum that has been maintained by Democratic and Republican officials alike. It's one of the state's proudest political accomplishments.
Oregons' vote-by-mail system isn't perfect: For example, the Secretary of State's office is investigating why Defend Oregon, a political action committee, failed to turn in nearly 100 ballots until the day after the election. Defend Oregon workers gathered the ballots as part of a legal get-out-the-vote effort, going door-to-door asking residents if they needed assistance in returning the ballots. Then the workers apparently overlooked the box containing the 100 or ballots until it was too late.
But no election system will ever produce flawless results: The Times quoted Marc Racicot, a former governor of Montana who once led the Republican National Committee, as saying that each election will include "a certain margin of humanity to be expected that doesn’t amount to fraud.”
“I think it’s really important for the people of individual states across the country to understand that if they’re going to maintain confidence in their government and their republic and their systems, which I think are critical to us these days, that you have to begin with a presumption of good faith,” he said.
True enough. But the bottom line is that Oregon's vote-by-mail system makes it a lot easier to start with that presumption of good faith. (mm)