Reflections from a Stormy Election Day in Ohio

June 5, 2013

Election Day, Cleveland, Ohio 2004. I participated in an election observation trip for the newly established U.S. Election Assistance Commission, travelling around Cuyahoga County, Ohio, from dawn until dusk. The goal was to observe as many different kinds of polling places as possible—more than a dozen locations that spanned Cleveland’s diverse neighborhoods. One polling place in particular sticks out in my mind as emblematic of the difficulties that we faced, then and now, in improving election administration. It was in a location in the east side of Cleveland—one with a higher percentage of African-American voters. Rain had started to fall, and while the line was long when we arrived—just before the lunchtime rush—it grew, snaking around the block so that the entrance to the polling place was no longer visible at the end of the line. What was the problem? After observing the polling place and talking to some of the frustrated poll workers, the answer soon became clear. More than half of the voting stations—where voters were allowed to complete their ballots—were not set up and sat abandoned at the corner of the room. The chief poll worker saw that there was a greater number of voting system plugs compared to the electrical outlets in the polling place, and believed they only had power to assemble half of the machines. Sadly, no-one recognized that: (a) the voting machines could be plugged, one into the other, ‘daisy chain’ style and (b) that because the system of voting was the last of the ‘punch card’ system—the purpose of the electricity was not to ‘power’ the machine, but to operate the light on the top of a movable, privacy-enhanced portable table. These problems were not intractable. The first element of the problem could’ve been solved by clear instructions, better pollworker training, or clearly labeled election equipment. The second element of the problem could’ve been solved by ensuring that the polling booths were more closely placed near the ample windows in the polling place, using backup, battery powered lights, or asking voters to cope with the existing light inside the facility. There was no apparent effort to suppress the vote at that polling place—there was just poor education, poorly designed election equipment, and limited ‘fail-safes’ built into the system to fix the problem once it had been identified. If it could be identified. Some have asked: what’s the harm with long lines? Isn’t democracy worth waiting for? Sure, and we all should be willing to put up with some level of inconvenience in order to cast our votes. No-one should expect voting to be instantaneous, but it is also unreasonable to suggest that voters must undergo a ‘red badge of courage’ –extreme personal inconvenience while waiting in line—in order to prove their patriotism. Many working men and women do not have schedules that allow them to wait for hours to vote. Americans make sacrifices to vote every time they leave work early, skip a comfortable lunch at their desk, or pay for an extra hour of babysitting service. Those sacrifices can be financial, personal or reputational. That much was clear in the rainy polling place in Cleveland. I overheard many cell phone conversations between folks waiting in line and their bosses—pleading that ‘they knew their lunch hour was over, but they’re almost to the front of the line.’ Exasperated voters would try to get the attention of poll workers and let them know they’d been in line over two hours. Dismay was palpable on the faces of folks who were about to get in trouble at work and needed to pick up their children, and with a huff, abandoned the line. The breakdown of order at that polling place challenged the faith in democracy of many that day, and many voters (at that precinct alone) left the lines without casting a ballot. They just ran out of time. I raise this example from Ohio in 2004 because it highlights the complications that can occur from one key error in administration: the failure to deploy available voting machines. These mistakes are by no means representative of most election officials, or poll workers, who put in long hours for limited to no pay in service to our democracy. However, as we are looking to ways to improve our electoral processes, it’s important for every actor with responsibility to fully examine the fault lines in elections. Election administration seems like every other public administration challenge—except it’s different. It’s almost entirely staffed by temporary employees; it is governed by a host of local, state and federal legal requirements; ‘Election Day’ proper happens only once (without the ability to have a ‘do-over’); there is limited ability to control when voters try to access the service; and there is significant pressure for officials to ‘report’ initial results the very same day. There are few other government functions that are required to operate with that size and scope, and under as big a microscope as elections. That is why a sustained focus on efforts to innovate and improve the process is necessary. A nine year old example is still relevant today, as we continue to struggle with problems of long lines, inaccuracy in registration, and limited adoption of cutting-edge technology. In this first of regular blog posts for the Democracy Fund site, it is my goal to try to highlight problems, complexities and opportunities in the administration of elections and issues related to the undue influence of money in politics, as well as showcase the work and research of the Democracy Fund’s grantees. In all of these areas, it is clear there is no silver bullet, just a variety of options and strategies that will improve the election process over time, and allow a more engaged public to work to improve the process. The more that officials can focus on best practices and improved metrics to judge whether or not our political processes are working, the better off we’ll be. Anything that can be done to improve the structure of election administration and the campaign finance system is merely ‘setting of the stage’ for participation to occur. It is the candidates, the parties, the advocacy groups, and ultimately the citizens that must engage in the political process; to contribute (or not), to register (or not), to vote (or not) based on their views and circumstances. I would like to think that we look for ways to reduce artificial barriers, to support the local and state officers who run elections, to look for ways to ensure average Americans can engage and have a meaningful impact into the electoral process. That is what those voters in line on that rainy day in Ohio were hoping for; the ability to cast their ballots without undue delay, and then continue their daily routine.