It shouldn't be so hard

After more than two centuries of democracy, America is still having difficulty counting votes — in certain places, anyway. Many precincts managed the Nov. 6 election smoothly. Orange County, Calif., for instance, home to a handful of close congressional races, did the job largely without drama. But others experienced inexcusably long lines and sketchy standards of administration.

Then there's Florida. Despite the trauma it inflicted on the nation in 2000, this swing state, accustomed to narrow margins of victory, was again unprepared. Officials from Gov. Rick Scott, who was elected to the U.S. Senate, down to Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes proved themselves unready and incompetent.

The U.S. electorate seems likely to be closely divided for the foreseeable future. Elections will be hard-fought, and passions intense. Leaving voting-system defects unrepaired is a grave mistake. But exploiting them for partisan advantage, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral process, is worse. Elections need to be better run — and when problems arise, voters need to hold politicians to a higher standard of conduct.

Better election administration shouldn't be difficult. The design of the ballot in Broward ignored guidelines recommended by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. A needlessly confusing layout helps explain why thousands of voters expressed no preference on the Senate race even as they voted in other contests. Multiple Florida counties missed a recount deadline, including nearby Palm Beach, where voting machines overheated. Elsewhere, voters complained of having to fight to keep their votes from being discarded or of being denied permission to vote.

For starters, partisans shouldn't oversee elections. Republican secretaries of state in Georgia and Kansas ran for governor this year. Neither thought it necessary to recuse himself from supervising his own race. Credible charges of partisan vote suppression emerged in both states.

Nonpartisan state-redistricting commissions are starting to catch on, which is good. Michigan, for example, adopted one in a referendum this month. Nonpartisan election administrators are needed as well. That will require bipartisan efforts in the states.

Technology upgrades are also overdue. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in the 2018 election, 41 states relied on election systems that are at least a decade old; 13 are using voting machines that don't produce a paper backup. In the event of machine failure, cyberattack or other problems, there may be no way to verify the vote count.

Addressing shortcomings requires a bipartisan effort in Congress. Legislation introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and James Lankford, R-Okla., would require state election systems to provide backup paper ballots and postelection audits. It got nowhere thanks to squabbles about funding and other conflicts.