Voting Rights Roundup: Major problems plagued Georgia's primaries. It's a warning sign for November
● Georgia: On Tuesday, Georgia held its statewide primaries, which unfolded as nothing less than a disaster for voters. Countless reports flooded the media relaying stories of voters in disproportionately black communities standing in line for several hours before being able to vote, partly because Georgia's newly implemented electronic voting machines and poll books did not work properly. Compounding the problems, many voters who requested absentee mail ballots never received them in time to vote—if they received them at all—putting even more pressure on in-person voting sites.
One major issue on Tuesday arose when poll workers were unable to properly operate some voting machines, causing delays in voters being able to cast their ballots. GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger claimed "user error" was to blame, but he contributed to the issue by requiring local officials to use the machines as the primary voting method instead of letting voters fill out paper ballots. He even blocked officials in one county from switching to paper ballots as their default voting method earlier this year.
Voting machines weren't the only problem. While Raffensperger had mailed absentee ballot applications to roughly 7 million registered voters, voting advocates warned at the time that sending request forms instead of ballots would put unnecessary strain on election officials, a problem that did in fact come to pass. Examples abounded of voters who had requested ballots as early as April yet never received them in time and therefore had to vote in-person. (Democrats sought to partly mitigate the situation by filing an emergency motion in federal court on Friday to extend the time allowed for voters to fix alleged problems with their mail ballot signatures.)
Georgia has been ground zero for battles over voting access in recent years thanks to Republicans like Gov. Brian Kemp and Raffensperger, the latter of whom drew heaps of criticism over Tuesday's primary and even saw the Republican chairman of the Cobb County Commission call for his resignation. However, voting advocates noted that despite years of warning about the potential for problems, Raffensperger and his predecessor Kemp had actively resisted key efforts to prevent such problems and through neglect had made the risks of Election Day failures worse.
One major overhaul that Kemp pushed through after winning the tainted 2018 election that he oversaw while running for governor saw the state spend more than $100 million purchasing new electronic voting machines. Those machines were bought to replace the paperless devices that a federal court eventually blocked the state from using in a 2019 ruling. Election security advocates have been opposing this new voting system in federal court for its alleged security vulnerabilities, though they were unsuccessful in trying to persuade a court to order Georgia to use hand-filled paper ballots in the primary.
Georgia's problems with its June primary follow on the heels of the widely criticized 2018 election, when Kemp went to great lengths to make it harder for black voters and Democrats to cast their ballots. Kemp deployed a combination of voter registration purges, polling place closures, and other efforts, some of which met defeat in court. While we will never know whether Kemp would have lost to Democrat Stacey Abrams if everyone who wanted to could have voted, his conduct and the election's conditions undermined the legitimacy of his victory.
Georgia is just one of many states flirting with election catastrophe, and it's a warning sign of what could happen in November if Republican election officials across the country who are resisting measures to improve voting access continue along their present course. With Republican-run states like Georgia refusing to transition to universal vote-by-mail or ensure equal access to quick and safe in-person voting, millions of Americans could be deterred from voting in November or have to overcome significant burdens to do so.
These problems could ultimately undermine the legitimacy of American elections, especially if November sees worse failures. The coronavirus pandemic has put unprecedented strain on modern election systems, and if lawmakers and election officials don't immediately take the steps needed to ensure everyone can safely vote, countless voters could be prevented from voting, and our country could find itself in a constitutional crisis over the validity of the outcome this fall.
● District of Columbia: The Washington, D.C. Council has unanimously passed a police reform bill that contains a provision to significantly curtail felony disenfranchisement as a step toward its ultimate abolition. The bill would restore voting rights to everyone incarcerated for a felony conviction who is in a city-run facility.
However, many people convicted of felonies in D.C. end up serving their time in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons. Because councilors used certain procedures to advance this bill on an expedited timeline, citizens in BOP custody would remain unable to vote, though one member indicated that the Council intends to entirely end felony disenfranchisement "soon."
If D.C. does abolish felony disenfranchisement, it would join Maine and Vermont as the only jurisdictions in the country that don't eliminate voting rights for incarcerated people, and it would be the only one with a significant black population.
● Florida: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced that he will try to fast-track the appeal of last month's federal district court ruling that struck down the GOP's poll tax on voters who have served their felony sentences but still owe court fines or fees. Instead of the typical procedure of having a panel of three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals hear the appeal, DeSantis is asking for an "en banc" hearing with the entire Circuit's judges participating. The 11th Circuit has a majority of Republican appointees thanks to Donald Trump.
● Iowa: A committee in Iowa's Republican-majority state Senate has passed a constitutional amendment to end lifetime disenfranchisement for most felony convictions by automatically restoring voting rights upon the completion of prison sentences. The Republican-run state House passed the proposal last year. If the full Senate passes it before this year's elections, both chambers of the legislature would need to pass it again after the 2020 elections before it could go before voters for approval in a 2022 referendum.
Republican senators signaled their openness to passing this reform after lawmakers approved a de facto poll tax by requiring people who've served their felony sentences to pay any court-ordered restitution to victims before they can regain their voting rights, a law that is contingent upon this amendment itself becoming law.
● Alaska: Alaska's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that an initiative to reform how elections work in the state does not violate the state constitution and may appear on the November ballot. The measure would replace Alaska's traditional primaries with a "top-four" primary where all candidates from all parties would compete on a single ballot. The four candidates with the most support would advance to the general election, regardless of party. In the general election, voters would use instant-runoff voting to choose from the final four.
The initiative would also create campaign donor disclosure requirements for "dark money" donations that are currently exempt. Supporters of the effort have already submitted enough valid signatures to make the ballot, meaning Alaskans will get a chance to vote on the proposal in November following the court's decision.
● San Diego, CA: A committee on the City Council in San Diego, California has advanced a proposal that would have the top four finishers in each primary advance to an instant-runoff general election, setting up a vote by the full council that is expected in July. If the full council approves the proposal, it would go before voters in November as a ballot measure.
● Arizona: National and state Democratic Party organizations have filed a federal lawsuit challenging an Arizona law that doesn't permit voters who fail to sign their mail ballot envelope a chance to fix the problem, even though voters are allowed to cure other issues, such as having a signature that supposedly doesn't match the one on file. The plaintiffs want the court to require the state to allow voters with missing signatures in federal elections seven days to correct the problem, the same deadline that exists for ballots with other issues.
● Kentucky: Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes and several voters have filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that Kentucky risks suppressing voters by limiting in-person voting in the June 23 primary to only one polling place per county. Populous urban counties such as the Louisville area's Jefferson County, where Nemes' district is located, contain many times more voters than Kentucky's numerous rural counties yet will have the same number of voting sites. The plaintiffs have therefore asked the court to require more than one polling place in counties with more than 35,000 registered voters.
Shortly after the original lawsuit was filed, Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath filed to intervene and pursue additional claims. McGrath is pressing for the court to extend the deadline for requesting a ballot from June 15 to June 19; allow third-party groups to assist voters with ballot requests over the phone; and extend the closing of in-person polling places from 6 PM to 9 PM on Election Day.
● Maine: Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has issued an executive order extending the deadline to register to vote by mail from 21 days before the July 14 primary to just seven days, setting the new deadline on July 7.
● New Jersey: In a troubling new analysis, NJ Spotlight reports that New Jersey officials rejected nearly one out of every 10 ballots cast in May's local elections, a far higher proportion than is typical. That figure is a sign of problems with the state's adoption of universal mail voting for these municipal elections, a system officials will also deploy for the state's upcoming July primary. By far the most common reasons for rejections had to do with voter signatures either missing or allegedly not matching those on file, or ballots arriving after the deadline by which officials had to receive them.
In light of these widespread rejections, civil rights groups who filed a federal lawsuit last month are seeking changes that could prevent a repeat in upcoming elections. The plaintiffs want the court to require officials to notify voters of problems with their ballots and give them a chance to correct it.
● New Hampshire: The offices of New Hampshire's secretary of state and attorney general have issued rules governing how voters may begin to register to vote by mail, something that has taken on newfound importance during the pandemic because New Hampshire is one of just a handful of states that still don't allow online registration. However, the rules will require voters registering by mail to include a photocopy of their ID, a document showing their name and address, and a witness signature, which could be burdensome to obtain due to social distancing.