How prepared are these 7 battlegrounds for the US election? A readiness report

Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 20 2020 12:50 AM

In Georgia, the state’s voting machines have malfunctioned in three consecutive elections this year alone.

In Pennsylvania, election officials are staring down possibly the biggest ballot processing backlog in the country, with no means of even touching the ballots until polls open on Election Day.

And in North Carolina, thousands of submitted absentee ballots are currently in purgatory, neither rejected nor accepted but “under review,” amid a back-and-forth court battle over so-called ballot curing.

Short on money, overworked and under enormous pressure, many battleground states are still in the process of standing up their electoral systems, a building-a-plane-midflight reality for a democratic process that is being challenged daily by court cases, new laws and surges in the coronavirus.

The New York Times assessed the readiness of seven battleground states, and will continue to do so up to Nov. 3. Each of these states was won by Donald Trump in 2016. Joe Biden is now ahead or effectively tied with Trump in most polls in all seven.

After spring and summer primary elections that were undermined by a host of issues — ballot delays in the mail, polling location consolidation resulting in long lines, voter confusion and lengthy lags in counting — officials have mounted a fall sprint to recruit poll workers, scout safe poll locations, seek more time to process ballots, and start a significant education campaign to help voters navigate the pandemic-muddled process.

Now, the readiness of states chiefly involves two distinct challenges: processing the tens of millions of absentee ballots that are already flooding election offices, and maintaining an Election Day operation that as closely as possible resembles normalcy.

Here’s where the seven states stand with just 15 days before Election Day, ranked in order of preparedness.

1. Arizona

Of all the battleground states, none is expected to have as smooth an election as is Arizona. In the midterm elections in 2018, 79% of Arizonans voted before Election Day — a figure that jumped to 88% for the primary this August.

After 2018, when it took a week for Arizona to count enough ballots for a winner to be declared in its Senate race, the state changed its laws to allow absentee ballots to be counted beginning 14 days before Election Day.

Maricopa County, which includes 60% of Arizona’s population, acquired new ballot-counting machines that officials expect will allow the vast majority of the voting results to be known on election night.

“I somewhat jokingly say that we are prepared for everything except Godzilla,” said Adrian Fontes, the Maricopa County recorder, who is responsible for running the county’s elections. “Nowadays that includes a global pandemic and possible terrorism.”

Fontes and other Arizona officials have more experience with absentee ballots than any other battleground state in the country. Arizona created a permanent absentee voter list in 2007, and by 2010, 60% of the state’s voters cast ballots before Election Day, a figure that has increased every two years since.

2. Michigan

Michigan has had a successful poll worker recruitment program, with more than 30,000 having signed up and no regional restrictions preventing them from going anywhere in the state.

That same pool of workers could also be asked to serve on the counting boards, which are the election workers assigned to sift through, verify and tally the absentee ballots. While thousands will be needed for the task, which Michigan law allows to start only 10 hours before Election Day, the secretary of state’s office is confident that staffing will not be a problem.

Because of that late start to counting, Michigan anticipates being one of the last states to report full results, with election officials estimating that the vast majority will be announced through Nov. 6. An appeals court ruled Friday that ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, though it is possible the decision is appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The secretary of state’s office has begun a voter education campaign as if it has lost the decision in court, telling voters that the last day to safely mail back their ballots is Oct. 19. After that, they should be hand-delivered to an election office or one of the state’s 1,000 drop boxes.

Also weighing on the minds of election officials is the threat of polling place intimidation. Armed right-wing protesters entered the Statehouse earlier this year to denounce the coronavirus lockdowns of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and law enforcement officials are anticipating a similar presence at the polls.

On Friday, the secretary of state in Michigan issued an order banning firearms at polling places and any areas within 100 feet of a voting center.

3. Wisconsin

In the past decade, Wisconsin Republicans enacted laws that have made voting tougher:

— It now has one of the nation’s strictest voter-identification mandates. Voters who apply for an absentee ballot online or through the mail must include a photograph for their identification, which requires both equipment and technical sophistication.

— They also must have a witness sign their ballots, a hurdle made more difficult by a pandemic that is hitting Wisconsin nearly as hard as anywhere in the country.

Some Wisconsinites have taken it upon themselves to help their neighbors navigate an absentee voting process that is new for the vast majority of voters. Lori Miller, a retired dietitian from rural Arkansaw, Wisconsin, spent $59 on eBay for a portable photocopy machine to tote to tables set up this summer by the League of Women Voters so she could make copies of people’s driver’s licenses for them to include in absentee ballot applications.

“What used to be a fairly simple process now has new steps to it,” Miller said. “With every election, and especially this year, there have been proposals made to change deadlines and then those get challenged and changed and appealed. People lose track.”

Unlike most states, Wisconsin does not have a single office responsible for voting statewide, nor do county officials oversee elections. Instead, more than 1,800 municipalities manage their own elections. In scores of rural townships, a part-time town clerk is responsible for conducting elections and counting the votes.

The municipal clerks are forbidden from feeding the ballots through counting machines until the polls open Nov. 3. But Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday that he expects the state to have its results completed by the end of Election Day or, at the latest, by the day after.

4. Florida

On Sept. 30, Peter Antonacci, the elections supervisor in Broward County, was scrambling: The vendor his office had hired to pick up and drop off voting equipment to the polls had canceled the county’s order, leaving Broward hunting for trucks 34 days before Election Day.

It was one of the myriad challenges faced daily by the 67 county supervisors in Florida, who run elections in the nation’s largest and often closest presidential battleground. Winning by “1.5% in the state of Florida is a landslide,” said Wesley Wilcox, the elections supervisor in Marion County.

The supervisors say they are ready to handle problems small and large. Of utmost concern is the crush of mail ballots already arriving. More than 2.4 million ballots had been returned as of Sunday afternoon, led by a stunning return rate from Democrats, who are typically outpaced by Republicans in mail voting. So far, 400,000 more Democrats have returned mail ballots than Republicans, though Republicans are expected to turn out en masse to vote in person.

Florida has years of experience with voting by mail — an effort led largely by Republicans — which should mean the state is better positioned to deal with this year’s surge. State law allows counties to start processing mail ballots 22 days before Election Day. An executive order signed during the pandemic by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, allowed for the processing to begin even sooner: 30 days before Election Day once counties had conducted public tests of their voting equipment.

Supervisors in the state’s largest counties say their goal is to process the ballots — remove them from the envelopes, verify signatures and tabulate the vote — on the day they arrive, to avoid a backup building up as Election Day nears. That would leave only the mail ballots that arrive on Nov. 3 to be processed that day.

“Our focus is getting it right,” said Mark Earley, the elections supervisor in Leon County, home to Tallahassee, the state capital. “Not getting it done as fast as possible.”

<strong>5. North Carolina</strong>

Election officials in North Carolina were increasingly confident in the state’s electoral apparatus earlier in the fall, with no reported poll worker shortages in any county and more than 500,000 absentee ballots already returned and being processed.

But two forthcoming court decisions threaten to disrupt the elections. In one, the state Republican Party is pushing to be allowed to send partisan citizen inspectors into the county boards of elections before absentee ballots are approved by election officials, with the ability to start challenging those ballots that they see as potentially not meeting requirements.

If the court sides with the Republicans, it could severely delay the counting of absentee ballots to well beyond Election Day. And with officials estimating that roughly 25% of the vote in North Carolina will be cast through absentee ballots, a lengthy delay would most likely mean no statewide results in the presidential election or the contested Senate race for days, if not weeks.

In the second case, the state is keeping at least 7,000 absentee ballots with potential issues in limbo while a court sorts out a legal challenge on whether the North Carolina State Board of Elections can contact voters and allow them to fix, or “cure,” any issues with their ballots.

In that case, a federal judge on Wednesday blocked officials from allowing voters to “cure,” or address a missing witness signature but said that deficient information, like a missing or incomplete address, could still be cured. Appeals from both sides are pending. So now, thousands of voters whose ballots are in limbo — roughly about 40% of which belong to Black voters statewide — are awaiting word from county election officials as to how to proceed.

While that ruling is likely to draw an appeal, any prolonged legal uncertainty for the absentee ballots could threaten a voter’s opportunity to cure the ballot in time.

“The longer a voter says, ‘Oh I turned in my ballot, it must be good,’ when they do finally hear from the county, they might be more suspicious about it, considering how much disinformation there is going around,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a voting rights group.

6. Georgia

No state had a worse voting experience in the 2020 election primaries than Georgia.

Absentee ballots either failed to arrive on time or showed up damaged. Poll workers, scared by the virus, bailed at the last minute, forcing the consolidation of thousands of voters into a single location in Midtown Atlanta. Lines stretched for hours, with some voters not able to cast ballots until nearly 1 a.m. And sometimes the state’s new voting machines malfunctioned.

When Georgia’s in-person early voting began Oct. 12, voters and elections officials braced for a repeat. Lines stretched for hours in suburban Gwinnett County, a predicament the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, initially attributed to high turnout but later admitted was because of technical difficulties related to the state’s new machines. As wait times fell, Raffensperger’s office took credit, saying it had requested the state’s elections software vendor increase bandwidth to its devices.

By Sunday, more than 1.4 million Georgians had voted, a figure that accounts for more than 34% of the state’s 2016 turnout. Lines on Friday still stretched for up to three hours at some locations in Cobb County, a rapidly diversifying suburb that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 but is still run by Republican officials.

In Fulton County, which experienced the worst delays during the June primary, wait times have largely been alleviated by opening Atlanta’s pro basketball arena as a mega early-voting site. With more than 300 voting machines, the facility has managed to move voters through without a delay.

Election Day, which will require far more poll workers given the larger number of voting locations, will present another stress test for the state’s voting system.

7. Pennsylvania

Few states are still facing more litigation-driven uncertainty than Pennsylvania.

The state has had its plans to install drop boxes hung up in the courts for months. The question of whether it will be able to accept ballots that arrive after Election Day has been similarly stalled. The state Legislature still hasn’t decided on allowing election officials to begin processing ballots early. And Kathy Boockvar, the secretary of state, is still awaiting guidance from the state Supreme Court as to whether election officials have to perform signature matching checks on absentee ballots.

“Pennsylvania is the one everyone is worried about,” said Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who runs the university’s Election Data and Science Lab.

While all of this uncertainty might seemingly depress enthusiasm for mail ballots, Pennsylvania voters are still requesting them at a record clip. More than 2.7 million ballots have been requested, and about 683,000 have been returned. Yet at the moment, election officials in the state’s 67 counties cannot touch the ballots until Election Day, raising the likelihood that full results will not be known for days.

By law, Pennsylvania does not offer any form of in-person early voting. But Boockvar has worked with county officials to set up satellite elections offices where voters can come and vote by absentee ballot in person (as in, request a ballot in person, receive it, fill it out there and then drop it off). The offices are intended to expand voting options and help decrease an expected surge on Election Day. But so far, only five of the state’s 67 counties — Philadelphia, Centre, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — have set up offices.

The existing county election offices, one per county, also offer voters the ability to vote by absentee ballot in person.

The lack of true in-person voting means Pennsylvania will most likely have a large Election Day turnout. Though the statewide poll worker recruitment effort was successful — more than 56,000 raised their hands — Pennsylvania has strict rules stating that a poll worker can serve only in the county in which they are registered to vote.

The city is also bracing for a potentially contentious Election Day, and Lawrence S. Krasner, the district attorney for Philadelphia, is expanding the regular Election Day task force.

“We have probably at this point over 60 of our 300 attorneys who are volunteering to handle these duties on top of their other duties,” Krasner said. “And it’s my expectation, in light of the conversation I’ve had with the Philadelphia Police Department, that they are going to ramp that up for Election Day.”