Georgia made a spectacle out of its primary elections Tuesday, as chaos reigned across polling sites in what should be a cautionary tale for November’s general election. No doubt, the impacts of coronavirus didn’t help, but that threat isn’t going away. Governors and local elections supervisors in Florida and elsewhere need to prepare now by encouraging absentee voting and making fallback plans to keep voting safe and accessible during this pandemic.
Georgia’s elections were made-for-TV embarrassing, as voters waited in long lines for hours because poll workers failed to show while other staffers fumbled equipment. Fear of the coronavirus led officials to consolidate voting precincts, creating more crowding and confusion. Several polling places in metro Atlanta opened late because officials misjudged the size of voting machines, forcing delivery trucks to make extra trips. Elsewhere, some workers couldn’t operate the machines because they were inserting voter cards upside-down.
The performance might be comical if the stakes in this year’s elections weren’t so high, or if the many problems Georgia experienced were isolated examples of incompetence. But many poll workers were no-shows because they feared getting infected. Others had rusty skills because their training had lapsed. In the rush to recover, poll workers overloaded phone lines and computer networks, which kept voters in line even longer, some growing so frustrated with the wait that they melted away. Activists said the problems seemed to disproportionately plague areas with large numbers of minority voters. And amid a huge demand for absentee ballots, many voters said they requested a mail-in ballot but one never came.
This is a game plan for disaster unless state and local elections officials heed the lessons. The first is that the coronavirus has changed elections like everything else. Even with social distancing and heightened cleaning of polling places, many voters will not be comfortable exercising their democratic right in-person. States need to make absentee voting easy and accessible, and that starts with governors not raising conspiracy theories about the security or integrity of absentee ballots.
Local elections supervisors, who do the heavy lifting in Florida, need to continue promoting absentee balloting as safe, secure and convenient. Supervisors also need to field enough trained poll workers on election day, and have the technical capability to handle problems as they arise. That will require some redundancy in planning, but better to be over than under-prepared. Supervisors also need to design an easily-understandable ballot (we’re talking to you, South Florida), and be able to process the anticipated flood of absentee ballot requests.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and state elections leaders also have a role to play in supporting the local supervisors and fostering public confidence in Florida’s elections. What happens here in the 2020 elections will be a reflection on the governor more than anybody else. And given Florida’s history of fumbling elections, the state will be under the spotlight and easy prey for criticism should it botch a highly-watched election season.
Florida should learn from Georgia and its own experience while it still has time. Every voter has a stake in an orderly election, and the government has an obligation to provide it.
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