Amid protests and coronavirus lockdowns, it is urgent that the nation not lose focus on another urgent priority: ensuring that everyone can vote safely in the fall. Last Tuesday was the busiest Election Day since the coronavirus lockdown began, and it drove home the reality that the nation’s compounding crises could prevent many from exercising their right to vote. Every state and county elections director must prepare now to avoid that unacceptable outcome. .
Tuesday’s voting went smoothly in some areas. Iowa notched turnout that set a record for a June primary, handling a massive uptick in absentee voting, in part because the state’s Republican secretary of state ignored President Donald Trump’s groundless warnings against expanding mail-in balloting. Pennsylvania elections officials, too, reported no major problems statewide.
Yet things were far from perfect in and around Philadelphia, where long lines, confusion about ballot drop-off locations and missing absentee ballots marred voting. Judges had to extend deadlines for returning mail-in ballots in places where elections officials failed to deliver absentee ballots in time. And, though thousands of mail-in ballots are yet to be tallied, Pennsylvania’s turnout seems to have been low. What were manageable problems on Tuesday could turn into disasters in a high-turnout general election.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, tension between the community and the police compounded the vote-deterring effects of the coronavirus, as black residents in one neighborhood felt threatened about voting at a polling place in a building that also contains a police station. Every seemingly small decision election officials make about November, such as which polling places to keep open, can have magnified effects in a time of overlapping crises.
Worst of all was the District of Columbia’s shambolic election night. The city’s Board of Elections’ electronic app for requesting absentee ballots failed on many phones. Many voters never received their requested ballots. Many who did receive them could not ascertain from the city’s electronic ballot tracker whether their votes had been counted. Then, the board closed all but 20 in-person polling locations across the city. The results were massive lines and waits of up to five hours. Also disturbing: Some D.C. residents may have been allowed to vote by email in an opaque and possibly insecure process.
We salute the voters who stayed in line to vote, but no one should have to wait so long; Board of Election officials owe an explanation. Though they do not direct the independent board, so do Mayor Muriel Bowser and Councilmember Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, both of whom should have rung more alarm bells publicly before the debacle. Allen has promised an investigation.
In the age of the coronavirus, even places such as the District, where local leaders have tried to make voting as easy as possible, may face confusion on Election Day, absent competent planning. Election Day should inspire civic pride, not recriminations and questions about the vote’s legitimacy. Things could be even worse in places where Republican officials are intentionally suppressing the vote for partisan advantage. The nation must wake up to the threat, now.