When we talk about the 2016 election, we talk about the Russians. We talk about hacks. We talk about walls, emails, videos, the FBI investigating candidates, the FBI not investigating them. Here’s what we don’t talk about: we don’t talk about hundreds of thousands of voters unlawfully purged from the voter rolls. We don’t talk about voting equipment breaking down. We don’t talk about African-American voters being asked to show a photo ID more often than white voters — in states that don’t even require photo ID to vote. And we certainly don’t talk about how in an election decided by fewer than 80,000 people across 3 states, roughly 16 million voters encountered a problem voting.
That’s why, together with a longtime friend and colleague, Alexis Prieur L’Heureux, I’m launching Access Democracy, an organization that increases voter participation by improving how elections are run at the local level. Access Democracy will leverage our combined 20 years of campaign work to fix the significant, but solvable, problems that block millions of people from casting their vote. It’s time to talk about these issues. More than that, it’s time to do something about them.
Alexis and I met almost a decade ago, during the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Since then, we’ve served at all levels of voter protection operations, from observing voting at the polls to running national programs for presidential campaigns. After every cycle, we’ve asked ourselves, “How much more effective could we have been if we did this work year-round?” We’re launching Access Democracy because we don’t want to ask ourselves that question ever again.
A study of the November 2012 election by Charles Stewart III of MIT gives us a window into the kinds of problems we should be tackling if we want to remove the barriers that stand between Americans and the ballot box. Here’s what he found.
I was in Florida for the 2012 election, running a voter protection operation that placed volunteer attorneys and law students at polling places to observe voting and assist voters. Memories of the 2000 election and recount are still raw in Florida, but the chaos of butterfly ballots was not the end of the Election Day dysfunction that plagues that state. In the lead-up to the 2012 election, state politicians cut nearly in half opportunities to vote early — a common method of voting for African-American Floridians, and one that increases access to the ballot for voters with work and childcare responsibilities. The problems of the 2012 election were so stark that President Obama was moved to invite a 102-year-old woman from Miami named Desiline Victor to his 2013 State of the Union, after she waited in line for hours to vote.
And that wasn’t the only challenge voters faced in Florida in 2012. Some local officials in charge of running the election didn’t send out enough voting machines, ballot printers, privacy booths, or staff to the polling places that would need them. My team worked with local election officials across Florida to maximize opportunities to cast an early ballot and to cut wait times to vote. We had some successes: working with election officials to redirect polling place resources, like voting machines, to sites that needed them more, and leveraging a little-used provision in Florida law that required county election offices to make voting available as soon as ballots were printed weeks before Election Day. Nevertheless, an estimated 200,000 voters walked away from their polling places because of long lines. By the time we got on the ground, it was too late to do much more than triage.
The problems voters encountered in 2012, in Florida and across the country, previewed what I saw again in 2016. The post-election reports about what went wrong for voters in the 2016 election are just coming out — look forward to a report on this from Access Democracy, later this summer — but the data suggests that approximately one-third of registered voters who didn’t cast a ballot this past cycle wanted to vote, but couldn’t because of election administration problems. We also know that in about 25 states, more than 10% of voters waited longer than 30 minutes to vote. We know that about 26,000 Pennsylvanians may have been disenfranchised because of delays in processing their voter registration forms. We know that officials in Wisconsin refused to follow a court order that would have helped voters get a photo ID — and that a federal court found approximately 300,000 voters lacked the ID necessary to vote. Voting machines are only getting older; the county budgets that keep polling places open and pay for poll workers, are only getting tighter. If we don’t figure out what’s broken, the same problems will play out in 2018 and 2020, and beyond that.
But here’s the thing: with a new approach, we can fix it. In Miami-Dade County, Florida in 2016, Supervisor of Elections Christina White offered 30 early vote sites, a 50% increase from the 2012 presidential election; doubled the number of ballot printers and voter check-in stations; and increased the number of privacy booths where voters fill out their ballot. In a county where voters waited up to six hours to vote four years prior, Miami-Dade broke early vote turnout records and experienced its shortest wait times since the introduction of early vote in 2004.
We can learn a lot from the events in Miami-Dade.
- Election administration problems are solvable. None of us should accept 6-hour waits to vote. Common-sense measures like having enough voting equipment to serve your voters, unsurprisingly, cut down on voters’ wait times.
- Local election officials have the power to make changes that can radically impact a voter’s ability to cast a ballot. In response to the 2012 debacle, the Florida legislature expanded early vote opportunities, which no doubt contributed to the decreased wait times we saw in 2016. But the law left county Supervisors of Elections full authority to set the number and location of early voting sites, the days and hours they’d be open, and how to resource those sites. Ultimately, the decision about how to run the election in Miami rests with Supervisor Christina White — and that’s true in states across the country.
- When it comes to running a fair and efficient election, most election officials welcome the help. You hear a lot about state politicians, but you don’t often hear about the local officials who actually run elections. That’s because most of them just want to make sure elections run right. But they don’t always have access to the data or resources to drive the results we all want. Help is out there. Non-partisan academic research and data collected in past election cycles by poll observers points to the causes of election administration problems. Resources like the Election Management Toolkit, produced by the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, predict line length based on factors like projected turnout, time to vote a ballot, and the number of voting machines. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued a 2014 report with best practices for polling place management and for maintaining accurate and up-to-date voter lists. It’s no longer acceptable to say that we just don’t know what works — because we do.
And that’s where Access Democracy comes in. We’re joining the effort to protect voting rights by bringing the energy and evidence-based advocacy that we’ve learned on campaigns to the hyper-local level. Access Democracy uses data to pinpoint a county or city’s specific voting problems, and identifies solutions that fit that community’s needs and its budget. We’ll work with local officials who want to improve how they’re running elections — and shine a spotlight on those who won’t. And in addition to our main program of improving the voting process through direct advocacy, in states where the local officials who run elections are voted into office, we’ll support pro-voter candidates who want to expand access to voting.
We know from our experiences on voter protection operations from Kentucky to Wisconsin to Virginia that this work can’t be successful without strong partnerships with community leaders and allied organizations. So from day 1, we’ve got state-based partners who are helping us better understand, and work within, the situation on the ground in our three pilot states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
June 25th marked the fourth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, the Court gutted core protections of the Voting Rights Act, landmark legislation enacted in response to centuries of discrimination, on the ground that they were outdated. You don’t have to look hard to find data that shows otherwise. People of color are 6x as likely as white voters to wait over an 1 hour to vote, even within the same town or county. As many as 25% of voting age African-Americans don’t have the government-issued photo ID that in many states is required to vote — compared to 8% of whites. Between 2012 and 2014, county boards of elections in North Carolina replaced more than 110 early voting locations, which one study has shown increased the average distance a white voter would have to travel to early vote by just 26 feet, compared to an extra quarter-mile for an African-American voter.
In her Shelby County dissent, Justice Ginsburg called out the Court’s “utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” Part of the law’s impact was because the gutted provisions were totally responsive to the particular facts on the ground — in some cases, addressing a history of discrimination as granular as at the township-level. But if the courts don’t get it, we do. And we’ve got tools that don’t need court approval to start the most important repairs: the nuts and bolts of how the election process actually works. We’re not just talking about elections, we’re doing. Hard at work on the next, and the next, and the next. It’s the only way to make sure we no longer have reason to talk about any election problems. And we need your help. Visit AccessDemocracy.us to learn more and join our efforts.