The 2018 midterm election is mostly history (except in Florida) and post-election analysis is centering on America’s patchwork of electoral systems.
In past elections, criticism was leveled at inaccurate polling. This year, eyebrows have been raised by a cascade of miscues in an election with more than 100,000 polling places, administered by 10,000 local jurisdictions overseen by 50 states and handled by 900,000 mostly volunteer election workers.
That’s not to mention the significant variations in how states manage voter registration, voting identification and actual balloting.
So, it was unsurprising, but still unsettling that votes in Georgia were disqualified for “insufficient oath information,” New York City voting machines jammed and Maryland election officials seriously underestimated the number of ballots to prepare.
Even Oregon, with its automatic voter registration and mail-in ballots, experienced controversy as an interest group failed to hand in on time almost 100 ballots it collected.
The New York Times published a post-election story that reassures readers no significant evidence of voter fraud has been uncovered. However, it described the nation’s election grid as lumbering, rickety and susceptible to accusations of, if not actual, manipulation.
The single incident that captured the dilemma occurred when Georgia GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp tried to vote on the state’s 16-year-old voting machines running on Windows 2000 software and his vote was initially rejected due to a computer error. Kemp is Georgia’s secretary of state in charge of elections (and now its incoming governor).
Highly charged partisanship and closely contested races have intensified discontent with the state of electoral systems. Attempts at voter suppression and legal actions to throw out gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts have added fuel to a smoldering political fire. Even some of the “solutions” have boomeranged, such as computerized voting machines that can be targets of cyber-hacking, a threat that prompted some states to return to paper ballots.
Since the 1990s when GOP Congressman and later Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed to nationalize congressional elections, voting has taken on the quality of a plebiscite of a President or party in power. Campaigns focus on what’s right or scary about political parties, often skimming over the qualifications and views of actual candidates.
The irony of nationalized electioneering is that actual elections are cobbled together state by state, with substantially dissimilar voter qualifications, and administered by local jurisdictions that sometimes are overseen by one-person departments.
Moreover, the “national” vote isn’t always reflected in the representation it elects. Hillary Clinton outpolled Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election by more than 3 million votes, but roughly 80,000 votes in a handful of critical states swung the electoral college vote to Trump. In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats nationally received somewhere around 7.7 percent votes than Republicans. That enabled Democrats to flip enough seats to regain control of the House, but Republicans actually gained ground in the Senate.
If there was ever an issue that called for bipartisan citizen attention, the US election system is it. The system may not be entirely broken, but it is definitely wheezing and pressures are continuing to grow with sharp partisan divisions and relentless political maneuvering for advantage.
Oregon’s automatic registration and mail-in balloting system has been touted (mostly by Oregonians, but also by officials in Washington and Colorado) as part of a solution. When you provide the necessary documents to get a driver’s license, you automatically are registered to vote with an option of choosing a party affiliation or not. Your ballot is mailed to your address and voters have roughly two weeks to return ballots. To be counted, ballots must be dropped off no later than 8 pm on election day or be postmarked on election day. That eliminates the need for voting machines, cyber-defense systems and poll workers. It would invalidate voter suppression, boost voter turnout, put all Americans on the same footing and come closer to making every vote count equally.
If implemented nationally, the Oregon voting system would allow reforms to focus on gerrymandering, campaign disinformation and so-called dark money contributions. There also would be time to assess the possibilities and drawbacks of direct democracy. Hanging chads, voting machine irregularities and awkward moments and long lines at polling stations would be headed for the history books. Americans could view elections with greater trust and the reality of nationalized electioneering would be closer to the truth.