County officials in Maryland miscalculated how many ballots they would need on Election Day — and quickly ran out in more than a dozen precincts.
In New York City, voters were given a two-sheet ballot that jammed machines and caused delays and long lines. And in Georgia, some voters failed to provide details such as a birth year, leading officials to reject hundreds of absentee ballots for “insufficient oath information” before federal judges intervened.
Nearly two decades after voting problems in a handful of Florida counties paralyzed the nation, the United States’ election grid this month remained a crazy patchwork of inconveniences, confusion and errors, both human-made and mechanical. The lumbering system, combined with claims of voter suppression and skewed maps from redistricting, once again tested confidence in the integrity of the vote.
As in 2000, no evidence emerged of widespread fraud or political interference. But just finding enough qualified poll workers to make Election Day happen was once again a challenge, as voters navigated more than 100,000 polling places, staffed by 900,000 mostly volunteer workers and administered by some 10,000 local jurisdictions. (After the 2016 election, nearly two-thirds of local elections officials nationwide reported difficulties in recruiting workers.)
The unevenness of the system across the country — in 22 states, elections at the local level were overseen by just one person — made it a political process open to accusations of manipulation.
In some states, including New Jersey, South Carolina and Louisiana, officials depended on electronic voting machines that have no paper backups in case of a contested outcome. In Georgia, 16-year-old machines led to the improbable scene of Brian Kemp — the secretary of state overseeing elections and the Republican candidate for governor — being briefly thwarted from casting a ballot for himself. The computer system, running on Windows 2000, returned an error.
Legal actions were initiated in Florida, where close margins forced recounts in the races for Senate and governor, and questions arose about whether eligible mail-in ballots were improperly rejected. Election officials were to conclude manual recounts by Sunday.
Elsewhere, accusations of voter suppression flared. Civil rights lawyers sued Pennsylvania, claiming its requirement that absentee ballots be received on the Friday before Election Day cost thousands of people a chance to vote. In Kansas, where a court recently struck down a law requiring proof of citizenship for new voters, many mistakenly believed they still could not register without a birth certificate, according to Democratic voting organizers.
“I think the law did what it was intended to do,” said Johnny Dunlap, the Democratic Party chairman in Kansas’ Ford County, “and that was to discourage people from voting.”
With the nation polarized along party lines and many contests fiercely fought, tight races threw a harsh light on weaknesses in the system, fueling partisan accusations and legal challenges.
In New Mexico, a Republican congressional candidate, Yvette Herrell, sought to have the police seize 8,000 absentee ballots but cited no evidence of suspected fraud. A judge in Florida rejected efforts by Republican Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott to impound voting machines, and authorities declined to investigate claims of fraud, saying they had no evidence of it.
In Arizona, as the counting of mail-in ballots delivered a victory for the Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, the state Republican Party leader lashed out at the elections official in Maricopa County, a Democrat, declaring, “Such a man cannot be trusted to administer elections.”
President Donald Trump fanned the flames of distrust with tweets questioning votes in favor of Democrats in several states. As the counting of ballots continued in Arizona, Trump tweeted: “Just out — in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption — Call for a new Election?”
Improved since 2000
Elections experts said the process, while hobbled by vulnerabilities, was actually more orderly than one might glean from the partisan posturing, and that it had certainly improved since the 2000 presidential vote. Nationwide, equipment was largely more reliable, registration lists more accurate and election administrators better trained, they said.
Still, said Marc Racicot, a former governor of Montana who once led the Republican National Committee, no election is perfect because there “is a certain margin of humanity to be expected that doesn’t amount to fraud.”
Well-intentioned election officials, he said, should be permitted to do their jobs without fear of attacks.
“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.
The 2000 presidential election recount, with its televised images of hapless county officials in Florida squinting at ballots to discern voter intent, was the debacle that launched a thousand fixes.
The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, exposed the fragility of a system that Americans had previously taken for granted.
Fallout from the recount contributed to the passage of the federal Help America Vote Act, which allocated billions of dollars for states to improve technology, ensure voter access and secure systems against fraud. In Florida, legislators rewrote state laws, switched to paper ballots and optical scanners (no more butterfly ballots or hanging chads), and mandated automatic recounts for races with margins of half a percentage point.
Charles Stewart III, a leading expert on election administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said complaints about this month’s elections in some parts of the country should not be seen as evidence of a failing system or lack of progress since 2000.
“Elections are incredibly complicated,” Stewart said, and officials are legally required to take time beyond Election Day to count votes. “Just the fact that we have a recount in Florida is leading people to say, ‘Ah, here we go again,’ ” he said. “In fact, it’s just a close election.”