Poll Workers Are Scrambling To Save Our Democracy. How Did We Get Here?

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.
How do you vote in a historic election when showing up to cast your ballot can quite literally be a life-or-death act? Research suggests there will be a record voter turnout in November, due in large part to the massively polarizing effect of President Donald Trump, whose administration has already cut short the lives and diminished the livelihoods of many in the U.S. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic — which has the potential to spike again in colder temperatures — is an ongoing concern, and directing voters toward absentee ballots is a safer alternative. Some states are expecting 10 times the usual volume of mail-in voting. To keep us safe and enfranchised, the U.S. Post Office will be more crucial than ever. 
That’s why it was so disturbing when Trump admitted last week that he is deliberately withholding money from the already badly underfunded USPS to make it more difficult for people to vote by mail, which would disproportionately affect Democratic voters. The Postal Service has already warned 46 states and the District of Columbia that it cannot guarantee all ballots will be delivered in time to be counted, and it’s already begun to “cut costs” by removing mailboxes and decommissioning mail-sorting machines. After substantial blowback and threats from Congress, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump campaign mega-donor, promised on Tuesday to delay those operations until after the election — but he said nothing about restoring the mailboxes and sorting machines that are already gone. The mail is already being slowed down across the country, which could effectively disenfranchise those voters who need to vote by mail but can’t vote super-early. Maybe they are still undecided, or something COVID-related happens, or any number of other things comes up late in the game that changes their plan to vote in person — either way, with the current lack of plan, they are left out.
There’s no question that the Postal Service — one of our country’s first, most reliable, most popular, and least politicized institutions — is under attack. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House back into session this Saturday to vote on a stimulus bill that would give the Postal Service $25 billion; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has not called the Senate back into session and has no plans to vote on Republicans’ scaled-back version of the House bill that would give $10 billion to the flailing USPS. By refusing to fund the Post Office, Trump, with the implicit approval of elected Republicans, is trying to sow discord and undermine confidence in the voting system before the most crucial election of our lifetimes. That is voter disenfranchisement in the flavor of authoritarianism, plainly and simply. As Trump continues polling behind Joe Biden in key swing states, he is getting increasingly more desperate with his tactics.
In some ways, Trump has already succeeded in instilling panic and chaos in the electorate. But how worried do Americans really need to be about the integrity of November’s election? It’s a complicated question that many poll workers — those on the frontline of ensuring that our votes are counted — have been wrestling with. 
Some are concerned that the extra attention paid toward mail-in ballots will encourage more people to show up at the polls, which in turn will create much longer lines and a bigger safety concern for everyone. Philip Rocco, a poll worker in Milwaukee, WI, was one of the thousands who refused to go into work for the state’s April primary election due to the coronavirus. According to Rocco, poll workers’ added duties during a pandemic will slow down an already slow and tedious process. In addition to checking and processing people’s registrations, making sure people are in the right ward, and other duties, poll workers now have to keep polling locations sanitized. 
“With COVID, there’s a whole different set of tasks that are vital,” Rocco said in a phone interview. “You have to clean every surface at the registration table after every person is sitting at that table. You have to wipe the polling booths down after each person uses them. And as you increase the number of people at those sites, all of that work becomes more difficult, and then time in line grows, and so on.”
“If we want things to be safe and to work in person,” he added, “it’s absolutely essential that the absentee system works and that people have confidence in it. That is why what is happening at the White House and USPS is so dangerous. Even if we're able to deal with the things on the ground here, the fact that it might cast doubt on the legitimacy of absentee ballots or people might be more reluctant to vote that way could be a real problem, and a problem that doesn't really respect party lines.” 

A certain amount of panic and concern is warranted.

Philip Rocco, poll worker, milwaukee
The good news, several election officials and experts told me, is that this issue is blowing up in the press in August rather than October, which gives election commissions plenty of time to prepare for a situation in which the mail system isn’t reliable. And many states like Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, and New York have already learned from the mistakes of their primary elections how to better facilitate voting in a pandemic, and they are actively preparing to avoid such a disaster in November. 
Georgia, for instance, had a notoriously disastrous primary in June, where broken voting machines across the state forced people to wait in line for as long as six hours to cast their ballots. Many of them had never even received their absentee ballot applications in the mail. Robb Pitts, chairman of the Board of Commissioners for Fulton County, which stretches over Atlanta, has made it his mission to avoid repeating what happened in June. “Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong,” he said. 
Pitts has some big ideas, in addition to fixing the specific voting machine problems that occurred in June, to avoid facing more challenges with the mail system. For the state’s August runoff, he installed 20 official drop-boxes for ballots around his county, mostly at public libraries, so that people didn’t have to rely on the mail. He's also asking the state elections board to partner with big pharmacies and grocery stores like CVS, Kroger, Walgreens, and Publix to host drop-boxes for ballots across the state. “I've talked with CVS, and they're very interested in the idea,” he said. “I can't imagine the state elections board saying no — this would simply be an effort to make voting easier.” 
Many other states are now eyeing drop-boxes as a potential solution. Connecticut just used 200 of them for the first time in its primary last week; Michigan had hundreds available for theirs; a New York state lawmaker just introduced legislation to have them installed. The problem is, of course, that even drop-boxes are now being politicized, because Republicans simply don’t want to expand access to voting. Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, for instance, has banned county election boards from offering more than one each. 
Marilyn Marks, an elections integrity activist who is currently suing the state of Georgia over its flawed voting machines, said voters need to start pressuring their state lawmakers and local election officials to install well-placed drop-boxes in every county and to accept absentee ballots at polling places on Election Day, so that voters can be confident their vote was received and counted without having to wait in line for a machine and registration check. 
“The most important thing that citizens can do is to work on their local election boards,” she said, pointing out that any procedures and fixes that occur have to happen outside of the USPS, which voters will have little influence in safeguarding. “Almost all of them will have the authority to have some workarounds, so that the voters will not be stuck having to use the Postal Service.” 
Another potential solution to establish more trust with absentee voting is online tracking for mail-in ballots, which 39 states currently have in some form. It works like tracking a package, so that you can see by Election Day whether your ballot was delivered and then have the option to get yourself to a polling place if it wasn’t. 
Rocco, the Milwaukee poll worker, said he is heartened by the earnest efforts he is seeing in his ward to troubleshoot issues ahead of time and make everything go smoothly. But “a certain amount of panic and concern is warranted,” he said, because it’s better to be over-prepared than taken by surprise. 
Pitts wants voters to be clear-eyed about the challenges of the Postal System and to prepare accordingly — which may simply mean not procrastinating. “It's unrealistic for a voter to think if they wait until Friday, the last day to mail an absentee ballot in, that it’s gonna get to Fulton County by Tuesday,” he said. “100% of them will not.” 
Of course, putting the entire onus on voters and local officials to ensure that everybody’s vote gets counted amid a broken system is inherently unfair. The responsibility to preserve a system that works should not be on voters. What we really need in order to save the integrity of our elections is leadership that deeply values every citizen’s right to vote, and a Post Office that is funded and functional. But as long as one party is actively trying to sabotage the ballot system to suppress the vote, Americans for now may have no choice.

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