How do you win an election? You could gain a majority of votes. Or you can cheat—as Republicans have been doing in force since 2010—with gerrymandering and other forms of suppression across the country so the minority party can gain and hold power even as its numbers shrink.
Now those who would discourage or disable unwanted ballots have a new potential tool: voting machines. If there aren’t enough working machines to enable people to cast their ballots, you blunt their will.
Manipulative conservative GOP politicians have a long history of actively attempting to interfere with voters they considered “unfriendly” or even “unworthy.”
Republicans are investing $20 million in a plan to challenge votes, even though evidence of widespread voter fraud is non-existent.
Photo ID requirements, slashing available polling places in minority and poor areas, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, adoption of effective poll taxes, and other tactics have resurfaced to target moderate or progressive voters.
Last December, Justin Clark, a top re-election advisor of Donald Trump was caught on a recording admitting this inconvenient truth: “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places … It’s going to be a much bigger program [in 2020], a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program,” as the Associated Press reported.
Later, Clark claimed he was referring to false allegations of attempted vote-rigging.
But that isn’t the only evidence.
In 2016, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) said: “Well I think Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate that the Democrats have ever put up and now we have photo ID. I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well.”
Republicans this year are investing $20 million in a plan to challenge votes, even though evidence of widespread voter fraud is non-existent.
The Heritage Foundation list of voter fraud cases that argues for ID laws is a thin read. For instance, it shows only 77 cases in 2010 scattered throughout the country. That would be barely enough, if gathered, to affect the outcome of an election in a small town.
There is one well-documented example, which prosecutors allege happened on behalf of a GOP candidate in North Carolina—a case Republicans have done their best to downplay and ignore.
However, the GOP will spend tens of millions because harassment might reduce turnout for Democrats.
Now there’s a new front in potential voter suppression: voting machines.
There’s a virtual industry of voting machine lobbyists, as Sue Halpern of the New Yorker reported. Often the attempt is to steer business away from a requirement for paper-ballot systems and toward fully electronic ones, even though paper is less expensive, more secure, can be audited and is otherwise reliable.
Hacking or manipulating the machines to change outcomes—long a concern of security and voting experts—isn’t the biggest problem. In practice, the Brennan Center for Justice has noted, that “vote flipping” is more likely a result of aging machines that act erratically from wear and tear.
The more realistic and immediate danger is the way technology can throw a wrench into the election process.
Voting machines, especially the so-called ballot-market devices, or BMDs, have significant weaknesses. “If a touchscreen goes down, it's out of service until it's fixed,” said Christopher Deluzio, policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law. "That machine is out of service for the voters to have a ballot printed."
The issue isn’t theoretical. “You want to vote on paper because there have been a number of instances where machine failure meant votes were lost,” Susannah Goodman, Common Cause’s director of election security, told DCReport. “That’s a known fact.”
Then, as Deluzio—who served on a commission that audited Pennsylvania’s voting system infrastructure—notes, the machines are expensive. "The BMB options were costing roughly twice as much per voter,” as paper ballots, he said.
The potential for equipment failing, combined with elevated costs that keep governments from having plenty of spares (unlike stockpiling additional pencils), means the chance that citizens will find it difficult to vote.
Georgia on Their Minds
Georgia’s primary election in early June was a disaster so vast that Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, called it “unacceptable” and vowed to investigate, according to NBC News.
The problems, which generally appeared in minority neighborhoods, caused multi-hour waits for people to exercise their franchise.
“I don’t think voter suppression was the idea behind it,” said Common Cause’s Goodman. But when there aren’t enough machines to let people vote efficiently, that doesn’t matter.
“I do think there’s a real serious problem with the number of machines deployed,” Goodman added. “If you’re only going to let voters use a machine, then you damned well better be sure there are enough.”
“Especially in Georgia, they didn’t have enough machines and when the machines broke down, they didn’t fix them fast enough, replace them,” she said. “And it was in the areas that are more minority.”
In addition, the machines use a QR bar code that is the actual vote that will run through a scanner for the count. There is readable text as well, but, significantly, no way to know whether it represents what is in the QR code.
Kentucky’s Near Nightmare
This is exactly what many worried about Kentucky. Would minority residents get a fair chance to vote?
Only one polling place and 350 ballot machines were available last month for all of of Jefferson County, home to the state’s largest city, Louisville, and many minority residents. Half of Black Kentuckians live in that county. Which at 389 square miles is the equivalent of 17 Manhattans.
There were widespread expectations of voter suppression in the primary vote on June 23.
Even though the procedure seemed largely smooth—because pandemic-driven mail-in voting and early voting took pressure off in-person—the concerns were reasonable.
Stephen Voss, professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, argued that an “alienating” process tended to disenfranchise “people with lower socioeconomic standing,” many of whom could no longer walk to their local polling place.
A higher in-person turnout, which couldn’t have been ruled out, would have made the situation far worse.
There are 616,523 registered voters in Jefferson County, which had a ratio of one voting machine to 1,762 voters, the highest in the state. That was 70% more than the next highest, a DCReport analysis of Kentucky state voting data found. The median figure was 379 voters per machine and the smallest was 150.
Even if voting took no more than five minutes per person, only a tenth of voters appeared and there were no breakdowns, each Jefferson County machine would have been busy for nearly 15 hours. Polls opened for only 12. Had every voter showed up, the polls would have needed to remain open for six days and until dawn on the seventh.
Areas with fewer financial resources might not be able to afford sufficient voting machines for people to cast ballots during the brief periods when the polls are open, constraining the process. That means that residents of less affluent areas can find themselves facing election disaster as their voices are subtly quashed.
Voters should push back on the lobbying and the assurances that technology solves all problems. Simple paper ballots, hand-marked with pencil or pen, should be standard issue at every polling place. Scan the ballots later when there is time.
Focus on ensuring the most fundamental right of citizenship—the ability to vote—is available to all.
Even if those people aren’t financially comfortable White Republicans.