DC resident Allegra Chapman is a democracy and social justice consultant and former director of voting and elections for Common Cause. We chatted with her about her take on the Covid-era primaries and her concerns for the November general election.
Many of us personally experienced how messy DC’s primary was, but we weren’t alone: Wisconsin, Maryland and Georgia had disastrous results as well. What do you see as the biggest reason for these problems?
We’ve always had problems with voting and elections in this country for a number of reasons. I tend to look at a lot of these issues through the angle of racial equity. We found an uptick in voter suppression issues after Obama’s election and again after the Supreme Court issued its decision in the Shelby County v Holder case.
Essentially, what happened is that all these states and jurisdictions that previously had been covered by the Voting Rights Act were able to make any changes they wanted to their voting laws and practices without getting clearance from the federal government. From that we saw a slew of states passing voter ID laws, which can have a discriminatory impact. We’ve had cuts to strong reforms that increased turnout; North Carolina and Georgia were ground zero for a lot of that.
More recently, with Covid, there’s a lot of fear about going out in person. I think it was smart for a lot of states to be issuing these stay at home orders, but at the same time there was a problem in shutting down a slew of polling places. In DC, we went down from 143 centers to 20 as a result of Covid.
DC and a whole bunch of other states weren’t adequately sending out absentee ballots. I had requested my absentee ballot by the deadline, I never got it, and it still hasn’t come through. So I went out to vote. Typically my precinct is no problem to vote, I can run in and out. This time, I waited three and a half hours. And I’m certain other people in line waited at least double that, because when I left the line had tripled in size.
In Maryland, they didn’t send out a million absentee ballots in time. I don’t know what those numbers are yet for Georgia, but I was working a hotline the day of their primary and we got so many calls from people saying, “I requested my absentee ballot months ago and it still isn’t here.”
As you’ve said, places like Georgia have a long history of voter disenfranchisement, so you sadly almost expect to see it there at this point. But I think a lot of people were surprised similar issues cropped up in DC. How did our primary get so botched?
You’re absolutely going to have intentional voter suppression in states where they worry about shifting demographics and young people coming out. But yeah, in a place like DC, that’s not to be expected given the government here. There’s intentional voter suppression, but then there’s the effect of suppression, just because of a lack of preparation.
In some instances, you can say, “okay, this is a pandemic, this is an unprecedented event, we didn’t know how to plan for this.” At the same time, we also saw months out that election board offices should have been more proactive. If a third of voters are saying that they submitted their absentee ballot request by deadline and never received their ballot in time to vote, that’s a problem, and that forewarns a big problem coming up in the November general election, when we know more people are going to be coming out [to vote] and are going to be requesting their ballot by mail.
So what changes need to be made in DC to make sure we don’t have a repeat of this in November?
My recommendation and the recommendation of a lot of voting rights folks is that [states and jurisdictions] should be sending out an absentee ballot to every registered voter; don’t even wait for the requests to come in. Because there just aren’t enough workers or elections administrators to field all the absentee ballot requests.
That’s the problem we saw continually: administrator after administrator saying, “I’m overwhelmed.” They were receiving 15 times the requests than they traditionally would, and it’s not as though these county offices are doubling down on their staff, let alone hiring 15 times the number of people they typically have. It’s a losing situation, unless you’re preparing months ahead.
There seems to be this national resistance to move to voting by mail, even though, as you’ve said, it seems like the most logical and effective solution to protecting voting rights. In some states, this seems like another way to ensure voter suppression, but why didn’t DC enact something like this?
The states that have the highest turnout are the ones that send universal mail-in ballots. States like Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii do this, where every registered voter will get a ballot in the mail. They don’t have the kind of fraud numbers that Trump and other Republicans are claiming result from voting by mail. In fact, I think they have lower voter fraud incidents than other states.
I don’t think it’s anything DC hasn’t thought of in the past, because we have states that do it, and do it well. I think DC just didn’t have cause or reason to take this on before. It’s sad that a pandemic is the thing that forces you to redo your system and reconsider your normal way of operating, but, at the same time, during this moment a lot of counties and states are having to think about how they change their operations, whether it be police departments or community services. There’s a reckoning in this country, right now, in a number of different ways.
It’s too bad DC hasn’t considered [expanding mail-in ballots] before, but I think now, more than ever, would be the time to do something like this, and to do more outreach and ensure that people are getting registered to vote. I feel like there should be more online commentary like, “Hey DC residents, don’t forget the primary is on this day.” I didn’t see anything like that.
If these changes aren’t made, how significantly could this affect the November general elections?
Mike McDonald is a voting rights expert and has a website called the US Election Project. He basically crunches all the numbers for all elections. He said the Georgia primaries were the worst voting experience he’s ever seen in his life, and that it does not bode well for the generals.
Trump doesn’t have the numbers right now, and he probably won’t by the general. And yet a lot of this could hinge on logistics and if people are disenfranchised. Covid wave two is expected to hit in the fall. If people request their absentee ballots by the deadline but don’t get them in time to vote, they might be afraid to show up [in person] because the pandemic is really bad, or they can’t stand in line for hours and hours. Trump doesn’t have the numbers, but if people aren’t getting their ballots in on time or aren’t able to show up in person and vote, then it’s anybody’s game.
Secretaries of State are usually the heads of election. Unless they make decisions to be more proactive, particularly when it comes to vote by mail, a lot of people might get screwed. Some states that are red or purple are trying to discourage vote by mail because Trump doesn’t have the numbers. And some counties don’t have any nefarious intent, but just don’t have the resources to respond to every one of these absentee ballot requests.
So what’s your prognosis? Do you think we’re going to have a fair election in November?
Unless states and counties do the right thing and mail out an absentee ballot to every registered voter, we are in serious trouble. There are so many unknowns. We don’t know how bad Covid is going to be in November. We don’t know how many people are going to want to vote absentee. We don’t know how many polling places are going to be shut down. We don’t know if county boards are going to be able to respond to all these absentee ballot requests and get stuff in the mail, particularly with the US Postal Service in the underfunded state that it is now.
When you have that many unknowns, but you’re pretty damn sure that the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, you have to be prepared and you have to do the right thing. Otherwise, any county or state that’s not sending an absentee ballot to a registered voter is essentially saying “your vote doesn’t matter” and is setting up a recipe for widespread disenfranchisement.