By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I know I wrote on voting and legitimacy just the other day, but Tuesday’s Georgia primary was just so egregious I can’t let it go. In that post, I looked mostly at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on voting, especially in the swing states, and hence on the perceived legitimacy of the 2020 result. In this post, I want to situate Georgia’s debacle in the context of grand old American tradition of election theft by insiders, and how electronic voting (both poll books and ballot marking devices) enables that. Now, it is true elections like Georgia’s raise legitimacy questions. From the Associated Press, “‘Chaos in Georgia’: Is messy primary a November harbinger?”:
The long-standing wrangle over voting rights and election security came to a head in Georgia, where a messy primary and partisan finger-pointing offered an unsettling preview of a November contest when battleground states could face potentially record turnout.
Many Democrats blamed the Republican secretary of state for hours-long lines, voting machine malfunctions, provisional ballot shortages and absentee ballots failing to arrive in time for Tuesday’s elections. Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign called it “completely unacceptable.” Georgia Republicans deflected responsibility to metro Atlanta’s heavily minority and Democratic-controlled counties, while President Donald Trump’s top campaign attorney decried “the chaos in Georgia.”
It raised the specter of a worst-case November scenario: a decisive state, like Florida and its “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots” in 2000, remaining in dispute long after polls close. Meanwhile, Trump, Biden and their supporters could offer competing claims of victory or question the election’s legitimacy, inflaming an already boiling electorate.
But the legitimacy questions arise exactly because the possibility of election theft exists. If we think back through all the examples of election theft in our rickety election system, from Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Democratic primaries in 2016 and 2020, and doubtless other examples that will occur to you, we can see five techniques that occur over and over again:
- Game the voting locations
- Game the voting machines
- Game the voter rolls
- Game the ballots
- Game the count
If we consider voting as a supply chain, these are links in the chain (which party operatives can weaken as needed). All have the effect of making it less likely for some slice of the electorate to vote (Black people, for example). I’m not saying that all these techniques are used in every, or even most elections, but the system certainly does put temptations in bad actors’ way.
Let us consider each in turn, with particular application to the Georgia primary just past. Not everything that can get thrown in this buckets is due to electronic voting machines, but you can find an electronic voting machine example in each one.
Changing voting locations creates confusion. This is often combined with shrinking the number of voting locations. The effect is to turn some disfavored voters away, or to face them with long lines if they actually find where they are to vote. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
County election officials have closed 214 precincts across the state since 2012, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That figure means nearly 8 percent of the state’s polling places, from fire stations to schools, have shut their doors over the past six years.
…One-third of Georgia’s counties — 53 of 159 — have fewer precincts today than they did in 2012, according to the AJC’s count.
Of the counties that have closed voting locations, 39 have poverty rates that are higher than the state average. Thirty have significant African-American populations, making up at least 25 percent of residents.
Precinct closures can have legitimate reasons but have the result of discouraging voters, [Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor] said.
(For these reasons, there’s a lawsuit in play to restore the Voting Rights Act that the Roberts Court gutted in Shelby v. Holder.)
Giving a disfavored voting location fewer machines creates long lines, turning some voters away. For example:
Why does my precinct of 1.5k voters get 4x more equipment than a precinct of 700k? It doesn't take a genius to figure out why my semi-rural, red county of 100k residents has beyond enough resources while millions in diverse areas of Metro-ATL go without. #GAVoterSuppression
— Erin Sims (@sims_erin) June 9, 2020
Took @MsLaToshaBrown 3hrs to vote today in GA. Then Brown drove over to predominantly white polling site in Atl suburbs
— Laura Barrón-López (@lbarronlopez) June 9, 2020
And of course the machines may fail:
#VoterSuppression 2020 Atlanta
4 out of the 7 largest voting precincts in city of Atlanta currently have 0 working machines.
• Ralph Bunche
• Central Park Rec Center
• St Stephen Baptist Church
• Louise Watley Southeast
— Waterbed Reg (@Im_gr8nss) June 9, 2020
Or the printers can run out of paper:
Apparently the state didn’t send Pittman Park the official receipt paper that is needed to prove votes were cast in these 2 (should be 10) machines. Someone is “on the way” with it… Still waiting. #votersuppression yet again, @GovKemp @KeishaBottoms
— Amanda Beth (@amanda__beth) June 9, 2020
(“Official receipt paper” sounds like a really good grift.)
Striking disfavored classes of voters from the rolls (say, those with Hispanic surnames) means that they cannot vote (or must vote with a provisional ballot, which are often not counted). Of course, electronic “poll books” provide new opportunities for failure:
The KEY solution that would have solved 90% of yesterday's problems—-the paper back up of the poll book. Would have allowed all eligible voters to vote on paper ballots. We fought for this in court. SOS claimed it was not necessary. @virginiasmartin is right. https://t.co/ulkQ4xqVSg
— Marilyn Marks #StayHome (@MarilynRMarks1) June 10, 2020
Ballots may be denied to voters by failing to mail them (possibly to disfavored zip codes), or by not printing enough of them, or by printer failure, again at disfavored locations. For example:
Nicholas Roth, 30, said he’d been in line at an Atlanta precinct where the woman ahead of him was told that she couldn’t vote because she’d already asked for an absentee ballot.
“She responded: ‘I never got an absentee ballot. That’s why I’m here,'” Roth said. The woman was sent to an area with other would-be voters who’d had similar issues.
“The individuals had requested absentee ballots, but they didn’t arrive in time to send in, but when they showed up to try and vote in person, they were blocked because the system had indicated they already had an absentee ballot, which, again, they said they never received,” Roth said.
Or locations can run out of ballots:
Compilation of election-day problems in Georgia: “‘This is unfair,’ said 80-year-old Anita Heard, who waited for hours to cast her ballot at Cross Keys High School, where poll workers couldn’t start voting computers & ran out of provisional ballots.” 1/ https://t.co/1ODvqS8kaA
— Jennifer Cohn ✍🏻 (@jennycohn1) June 10, 2020
Naturally, Democrats jumped all over the disaster. From The Hill, “Georgia officials launch investigation into election day chaos amid voter suppression concerns”:
“Voting machines down. Limited provisional ballots. Hours-long lines,” Harris tweeted. “#VoterSuppression is happening right now across Georgia, particularly in Black communities. We can’t let this happen in November.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also described the chaos in Georgia as voter suppression, calling on Republicans to support moving to mail-in voting.
“Voters in Georgia are facing outrageous voter suppression resulting from years of election system sabotage by Republican lawmakers,” Wyden tweeted. “If Republicans actually wanted you to vote, they would support #VoteByMail and hand-marked #PaperBallots.”
However, it’s worth noting that Los Angeles — under the control of a Democrat — had the first four of the listed techniques, concentrated in Latin (Sanders) districts. Michigan too had long lines in college (Sanders) districts. The Los Angeles VSAP e-voting system is a disaster in the making, just as much as Georgia.
Now, it is true that Republican Governor Kemp’s deal to bring in the voting machines has a very bad odor. From The New Republic, “Making Georgia’s Bad Elections Even Worse“:
But the governor’s most consequential move thus far has been to urge the state to buy super-pricey new electronic voting machines to replace its 27,000 ancient, notoriously hackable models that Kemp insisted on using last time for his own election. But lest you think Kemp is motivated by a desire for freer and fairer elections, there is, in fact, a Trumpian catch: The likely recipient of Georgia’s largesse will be a company that one of Kemp’s closest aides used to lobby for, while another served on its board of advisers. So far, Kemp’s administration has apparently been fueled by good old-fashioned crony corruption, rather than newfangled populism.
The cost of the replacement machines, known as ballot-marking devices (BMDs), is sky-high: Kemp included $150 million in his budget to buy them. That’s just an initial price, not including annual maintenance fees and licensing deals and such, but it’s at least three times what it would cost to have Georgians vote by paper ballot, as 70 percent of the country now does. Fiscal responsibility, y’all!
So, ka-ching. But even if the deal to bring in the voting machines were clean, they’d still be bad, because they enable the techniques listed above. To be fair, voting locations can be closed and ballots not mailed, but those make in-person voting more difficult by adding more voters. In addition, for disfavored districts machines can be removed, machines can fail, pollbooks can fail, and supplies can run out. And that’s before we get to hacking.
I think the whole attitude of electronic voting proponents can be summed up in this tweet. David Becker is the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research (oh, “innovation”):
The biggest factor w/ long lines in GA, DC, PA, and elsewhere has been the inability to recruit enough poll workers, including last-minute cancellations. If long lines outrage you (and they should), then please volunteer to serve as a poll worker. Our democracy needs you.
— David Becker (@beckerdavidj) June 9, 2020
Electronic voting can never fail! It can only be failed! Becker commits the classic neoliberal error of assuming labor is fungible. It is not. When I vote, the volunteers, who are mostly nice old church ladies do this: (1) Check my address against a printed voter roll, (2) cross out my name, and (3) hand me a paper ballot and, these days, (4) my own marker. Then I got to the scanner and insert my ballot, and another volunteer (5) hands me my “I Voted!” sticker. That’s because paper ballots are very, very simple and easy.
These volunteers did not sign up to clear paper jams, train voters how to use touchscreens, disinfect touchscreens by wiping them off, work the phones with technical support, or deal with irate crowds who have been waiting for hours.
The problem is not the volunteers, but the voting machines themselves, which introduce complexity without adding value (unless your value is election theft or, possibly, a steak dinner from a vendor).
 I believe there is no good faith reason to choose electronic voting technologies (with the possible exception of scanners). Their only unique selling proposition is election theft.
 Pundits differ on whether Georgia is a swing state or not. Harry Enten: “Georgia was more competitive in the 2018 midterms than it had been in any midterm election in a generation. Democrats won 49% of the vote in the governor, attorney general and secretary of state races. US House Democrats combined to win 48% of the statewide vote, which was their highest share in a midterm since 1990.” Larry Sabato: “I define swing states as those in which the margin separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 was under six percentage points. Given the high degree of consistency in the outcomes of recent presidential elections from one election to the next, this seems like a reasonable standard. It yields a set of 13 states with a total of 163 electoral votes that could potentially be competitive in 2020: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.” Politico: “[D}emographic forces are combining to turn longtime red states Arizona and Georgia—neither of which has been a core battleground state before—into two of the most competitive in 2020.” But WABE (Atlanta NPR): “The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee still labels Georgia as an emerging battleground.”
No, not Internet voting.